New discourses and traditional genres: the adaptation of a feminist novel into an Ecuadorian telenovela.

Author:Avila-Saavedra, Guillermo
Position:Yo Vendo unos Ojos Negros

This study explores the adaptation of the feminist Ecuadorian novel Yo Vendo unos Ojos Negros into a telenovela, a Latin American form of serialized television drama that always comes to a narrative conclusion, which aired in Ecuador in 2004. Notions of genre theory, intertextuality, hegemony, and feminist criticism inform the analysis. Discourse analysis of the television text identifies recurring narratives and compares them to those found in the original literary work. The focus of the study is to reveal the degree to which the radical discourse of the novel was maintained, transformed, or eliminated in the process of adaptation.


Through a textual analysis of the recent adaptation of Alicia Yanez Cossio's (1979) novel Yo Vendo unos Ojos Negros, this study explores the paradoxical process of adapting a feminist novel into the genre of the telenovela, "a form of melodramatic serialized fiction produced and aired in most Latin American countries" (La Pastina, 1997, p. 1634). This study explores the ability of the telenovela genre to incorporate nonnormative discourses regarding gender roles and economic structures, and its potential to promote or prevent social change. It is an important project because Spanish and Portuguese-language telenovelas are immensely popular among millions of viewers in Latin America. It also contributes to the development of a body of knowledge on a genre that deserves scholarly attention due to its potential influence on the formation of cultural and social ideas.

Since the late 1970s, Latin America has witnessed the birth of a new generation of women writers, who examine social, economic, and political relations from a feminist perspective and produce new challenges to traditional structures. At the same time in the realm of mass media, telenovelas, often criticized for reinforcing traditional gender roles and patriarchal models of social relations, have remained an important social institution in Latin America.

Through textual analysis of the telenovela, this study identifies recurring narratives and compares them with those found in the original literary work to demonstrate the degree to which various aspects of the radical discourse of the novel were maintained, eliminated, or accommodated in the process of adaptation. The study relies on feminist approaches to media studies and the notion of hegemony as the process of cultural accommodation. To identify the elements of the telenovela as a genre and its potentially homogenizing discourse, notions of genre theory and intertextuality inform the analysis as well. The study provides insight into the textual range and limitations of an immensely popular genre.

Genres and Intertextual Readings

The notion of genre analysis has its roots in literary criticism. Feuer (1992) explained that originally genre did not concern itself with cultural or historical characteristics but solely with the structural elements that serve to classify a literary work into a category of related works. Rosmarin (1985) discussed genre as those elements of a particular text that remind one of something else while remaining unique, therefore serving a purpose of classification but not of evaluation. In film, the notion of genre focused on the formulas devised by the studio industry to facilitate production and guarantee popularity of films (Altman, 1999).

It was not until the 1950s that a critical perspective, one that considers the text's relation with its intended audience, was brought into genre analysis. According to Feuer (1992), a new conceptualization of genre where "we can retain the method of literary definition of genres without necessarily retaining their content" (p. 141) is necessary for television. For example, the broad television definition of the soap opera does not account for stylistic and thematic differences between daytime and prime-time serials, nor for the cultural and social characteristics of Latin American telenovelas. In the relation between genre and television, particular attention must be paid to the social context in which the text is produced and received. Chandler (1997) noted that the advantage of television genre analysis is that "it confirms textuality as a function, and situates texts within textual and social contexts, underlining the social nature of the production and reading of texts" (p. 20). To the degree that television relies on standard interpretations of genres by assumed audiences, television genres can be defined as ideological products. Television genres can be understood as systems of shared cultural conventions, which are the product of social negotiation with the media. An ideological approach to television genre criticism envisions genres as ideological structures (Feuer, 1992).

The meaning that audiences make of a television text is not based on the interpretation of that particular text in isolation. According to Fiske (1987), horizontal intertextuality is based on relations between primary texts linked by genre, character, or content. Chandler (1997) emphasized the idea of genre as an intertextual concept, because each text is defined by the conventions of the genre where it is situated, and at the same time each new text serves to reinforce those conventions. Gray (2003) discussed the impossibility of examining a television text as stable and independent, arguing that television textual analysis always requires locating the texts among other texts and in a social context.

Genre criticism of television is useful for understanding the triangular relation among producer, text, and audience (Fiske, 1987). Genres are valuable for television producers because they become standardized products that can be offered to advertisers. Genres also provide audiences with familiar products that fit their expectations. However, genres can also become instruments of power through their regulation of meaning and interpretation: "Genres are intertextual for they form the network of industrial, ideological, and institutional conventions that are common to both producers and audiences out of which arise both the program and the audiences' readings" (Fiske, 1987, p. 111). Television programs often can be understood only in relation to other television programs. Ideological approaches to genre criticism provide insight into the intertextual relations that encourage particular interpretations of television texts.

Genres and Hegemonic Television Discourses

The notion of hegemony incorporates culture in the process of class struggle. Gramsci (1973) argued there is a tacit consensus between the ruling and working classes based on ideology. Strinati (1995) defined hegemony as a dynamic process where "dominant groups in society maintain their dominance by securing the 'spontaneous consent' of subordinated groups through the negotiated construction of a political and ideological consensus" (p. 165). Such consensual control occurs when individuals assimilate the views of the dominant groups as part of their common sense. Hegemony, therefore, can be understood as a set of values that comes to be accepted as the normal way through which culture and society appear naturally organized.

Hall (1999) invoked hegemony when he argued that ideologies are most effective when "we are not aware how we formulate and construct statements about the world, when our formations seem to be simply descriptive statements about how things are, or what we can take for granted" (p. 272). Discussing the cultural and ideological role of media in the process of hegemony, Hall (1993) described encoding as the moment when dominant normative messages are constructed and ascribed to media products. Decoding occurs when media messages are confronted and interpreted by audiences. The encoding-decoding model assumes that media texts are polysemic, or open to different interpretations. However, even through a resistant lens of interpretation, there is an awareness of a preferred reading consistent with dominant ideologies. The stylistic conventions of television genres may serve to reinforce hegemonic interpretations.

According to Casey (1993), "feminist theorists, among others, have focused on the way in which generically defined structures may operate to construct particular ideologies and values, and to encourage reassuring and conservative interpretations of a given text" (p. 312). Media scholars with a poststructuralist feminist perspective "analyze the symbolic systems of film and television through which we communicate and organize our lives in an attempt to understand how is it that we learn to be what our culture calls 'women' as opposed to what are called 'man'" (Kaplan, 1992, p. 261). Media messages constitute pervasive discourses of power where the values and ideologies of a dominant class function as the hegemonic consensus. Kaplan argued that feminist media critics need to analyze media texts in the broader context of power discourses with special attention to female images and representations in the social, economic, and cultural context of television production and reception.

Foucault (1978) argued that the deployment of sexuality and the enforcement of rigid gender roles and family structures responded to the need to ensure a labor force that could sustain the system of capitalist production. Analyzing female representations in National Geographic, Parameswaran (2002) noted:

The pervasiveness of a certain brand of "empowered" modern femininity in consumer culture represents a subtle repackaging of patriarchy for capitalism. Far from promoting liberation, such imagery continues the "ancient" tradition of devaluing women through the sexiest glorification of a certain brand of physical attractiveness. (p. 294) Clearly, the relations between political economy and feminist discourses as well as the insight they bring to the analysis of gendered texts are important.

Defining Telenovela

The roots of Latin American telenovelas are in 19th-century...

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