Last week, the topic of telenovelas arose in a class that I never expected would discuss any type of media, especially not telenovelas. Throughout the semester in my Economics of Environmental Quality course, we have discussed matters such as the relationship between pollution and water quality, air quality, and economic development. Recently, we shifted our focus to population and the effect of population growth on environmental quality, pollution levels, and economic development. To introduce the population issue, my professor, Dr. Zhang, played a documentary titled Mother: Caring for 7 Billion. Through the topics featured in this documentary, I found surprising connections between my Economics of Environmental Quality course and my Telenovelas, Culture, and Society course. Particularly, these two distinct courses are linked because the overpopulation problem discussed in environmental economics has used telenovelas as a vehicle to reach people in overpopulated areas and combat the excessive pollution growth by conveying critical social messages.
This documentary exemplifies the excess population growth problem in the Ethiopia that drives and contributes to the poverty and environmental damage of the country. Causes of overpopulation include cultural issues, such as patriarchy, female submissiveness, arranged marriages at early ages, and the lack of sufficient access to and knowledge about contraceptives. The documentary explores an organization called the Population Media Center. This organization works to promote “entertainment-education strategies” by developing television and radio serial dramas that focus on solving overpopulation issues. The Population Media Center fights the overpopulation issue inherent in countries like Ethiopia by addressing the cultural causes of overpopulation through its plot and characters. The dramas are broadcasted to raise awareness about the population problem through their characters who serve as role models for the audience to admire and learn from. The characters in these serial dramas challenge and overcome cultural situations that people in Ethiopia normally face by introducing topics such as the benefits of contraceptives and the right to reject arranged marriages.
The documentary compares these serial dramas to the telenovelas broadcasted in Latin American countries that are used to address and create awareness about social issues through entertainment. In fact, the documentary states that these serial dramas are based on telenovelas, since telenovelas have had the success and the power to convey social messages while keeping audiences hooked and entertained through their plots. When this was mentioned in the documentary, I immediately thought of the overlap between telenovelas and society that have been discussed in Dr. A’s class, such as the telenovela La Mujer Perfecta that creates awareness for Asperger’s syndrome and the telenovela Cosita Rica which addressed the political climate of Venezuela in 2003 and 2004. These telenovelas were successful in developing a melodramatic plot that kept the audience engaged, while at the same time addressing social issues. Likewise, the serial dramas broadcasted in Ethiopia consist of interesting plots that captivate the audience through the entertainment they provide. Beyond their entertainment, in an effort to remedy to the overpopulation of the country, their plots also reflect cultural issues that are causing the overpopulation of the country. The main goal of the Population Media Center is to educate their audience through their serial dramas on how to stop the excess population growth that is causing tremendous poverty and environmental damage in Ethiopia. As aforementioned, these serial dramas feature non-traditional issues such as women rejecting arranged marriages and accepting the use of contraceptives to challenge the cultural beliefs that have caused the overpopulation. These serial dramas have successfully achieved their objectives my influencing the fertility decisions of women. According to the documentary, since these dramas have been broadcasted, the demand for contraceptives in Ethiopia has increased by 157%. The documentary also features a young lady who testifies that she made her decision to decline an arranged marriage due to the serial drama she had been listening to on the radio.
In addition, the Population Media Center discussed in my Economics of Environmental Quality course also has another close connection to telenovelas, particularly those produced in Brazil. According to the Population Media Center’s Annual Report, in Brazil, the Population Media Center is represented by Comunicarte. Comunicarte encourages and tracks the inclusion of social issues in telenovelas produced by Globo. Telenovelas in Brazil have incorporated many social issues, including family planning, contraception, HIV/Aids, gender-based violence, human trafficking, and exploitation of natural resources.
The use of telenovelas as a way of addressing social issues does not contain itself to the traditional telenovela producing countries like Brazil. Along with Ethiopia, telenovelas have been used in South Africa to address some of the country’s social issues. The telenovela Intsika features a South African man who moves away from his town and into the city. After many years, he returns to his village as a successful businessman. Though he still appreciates his culture, he is faced with the challenge of deciding what is right and wrong in the deep-rooted traditions of his community. In an interview question regarding Intsika format, the Executive Producer of Intsika commented, “It is a story about change and about journeys on an individual level and also about community. We chose specifically the telenovela format as a way of getting these messages across because telenovelas [can be] behavioral change dramas, and [they are] used successfully across the world.” This quote reflects the power of telenovelas to convey social messages in many different countries.
By happenstance, this week in Dr. A’s class we watched a video clip of an economist discussing her research on the effects of telenovelas on fertility rates in Brazil. Her studies found that characters and plots of telenovelas have influenced the fertility rates in Brazil, since telenovelas are a vehicle to reach audiences and convey social messages. I have found this link between environmental economics, particularly in regards to overpopulation, and telenovelas to be very intriguing. Not only does the entertainment and melodramatic aspect of telenovelas seem appealing globally, but their success in addressing social issues has also extended far beyond the countries of Latin America. Telenovelas are produced to meet the entertainment taste of each country's audience as well as to address the particular social issues each country faces.