As a genre of entertainment, soap operas are often dismissed as the stuff of the masses, and disregarded as amusement for women and the working class. New research, however, suggests that soap operas possess a unique ability to mediate how people absorb new content. New developments in the way whole nations watch soap operas also suggest that the entertainment medium could even highlight a new direction for globalization, in general.
For years, Latin America has been the world's quintessential producer and exporter of soap operas, enjoying commercial success both inside and outside the region. Things are changing, however, and Latin America also now imports several popular foreign soap operas, such as the Turkish melodrama One Thousand and One Nights.
The series stars a widowed architect with an ill child, Sherezade Eviyaoglu, who agrees to spend one night with her multimillionaire boss, Onour Aksal, to earn the money to pay for her child's medical treatment. The two ultimately fall in love, but not before getting involved in countless amorous intrigues and misunderstandings that keep a happy resolution at bay.
The particularity of this classic culebrón (a name given to soaps in Latin America that comes from the word culebra, or “snake“) is that it could have very well been set Latin America, but it is not. The show's familiar enough story takes place in Turkey, which provides scenery that is exotic for many watching in Latin America.
It is precisely this exotic quality that seems to have won over the Latin American public. In Argentina, the show has helped propelled its local distributor, Canal 13, to some enormously high ratings:
— RealTimeRating (@RealTimeRating) March 27, 2015
One Thousand and One Nights sweeps through, and goes over the 30.0 [rating points] and becomes the most popular [TV show] in El Doce.
Twitter users in Chile are fond of joking about the show:
— Gema_bayraktar (@Acuario81) January 20, 2015
I miss the nights with Onur Akasal in Chile.
The soap opera has also been highly successful in Colombia, where it was broadcast by Caracol TV.
— ColombiaTVNews (@ColombiaTVNews) February 10, 2015
FINAL One Hundred and One Nights runs into the last final [episodes] on Caracol TV in Colombia’s afternoons. RT if you see this story!
In Peru and Ecuador, One Thousand and One Nights is also making a lot of noise:
— Alexandra Herrera (@alelhe) April 2, 2015
The whole of Peru has stopped to watch this soap opera. It's great!
— Sofía (@sofitafloval) April 9, 2015
One Thousand and One Nigts gets better by the day! I love it!
In Uruguay, Canal 10 also promotes the melodrama with excitement:
— Las mil y una noches (@MilyUnaNoches10) April 1, 2015
Today's episode is coming! What will happen between Kerem and Onur?
Recently, Unitel released the soap opera in Bolivia:
— Unitel Bolivia (@unitelbolivia) March 3, 2015
Right now on UNITEL‘S screens the BIG PREMIERE of ‘ONE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS’ [is on].
The show has enjoyed similar success in Chile and Argentina, where parents are naming their children after the characters “Onur” and “Sherezade”:
#LasMilyUnaNoches una curiosidad desde que se estreno la novela en Chile se empezó a aceptar los nombres ONUR y Sherezade para los niños
— Mosquita Muerta (@MoskitaMuertaOk) January 17, 2015
It's curious, since the soap opera was released in Chile, “Onur” and “Sherezade” names have been accepted as children's names:
Not everyone online, however, welcomes this new enthusiasm for naming people after the show's characters:
Como le va a explicar esta madre a su hijo el día de mañana, que le puso de nombre “Onur” por una novela que estuvo de moda en el 2015…
— Sir Thomas William (@TomiKlimo) April 1, 2015
How is this woman going to explain to her child that he/she was named “Onur” because of a popular soap opera in 2015…
Cómo le vas a poner Onur a tu hijo? esa novela está creando monstruos.
— Malvina (@Malvina_F) April 1, 2015
Why in the world would you name your child Onur? This soap is creating monsters.
Others have criticized the gender inequalities that One Hundred and One Nights seems to encourage:
Éxitos indiscutibles de “Las mil y una noches”, y “50 sombras de Grey”. Siglo XXI y el machismo parece estar muy lejos de erradicarse.-
— Melisa sp. (@MelisaAlberti) April 1, 2015
Undoubted success for “One thousand and one nights” and “50 Shades of Grey”. [It is the] 21st century, and sexism still seems far from eradicated.
Some of the criticism of the show has been political, as well. For example, the Armenian community in Argentina condemns the soap opera, calling it Turkish propaganda. The community seems to object to any cultural imports from Turkey, in light of Ankara's refusal to recognize the genocide committed against the Armenian people 100 years ago.
Despite show's many detractors, it remains a triumph among Latin American audiences. In May 2015, Concept Media, an Argentinian consulting group, published a qualitative survey about One Thousand and One Nights, concluding that part of the show's appeal is its “close exoticism” that allows the Argentinian public to approach a remote culture that is seemingly not so different from their own. At the same time, the focus group underlined that the TV show is familiar to viewers with all the classic melodramatic elements of a soap opera, highlighting the use of love stories without sex scenes as an element that has attracted audiences accustomed to the use of sex scenes in local productions as ratings boosters.
But the success of these soap operas has not been exclusive to Latin America. In fact, in the Arab world, a similar phenomenon has taken place, with both fans and critics. This could be seen as a response to the supposed “Westernization” of the so-called “Third World”, where societies of the Global South are said to prefer media and entertainment from the West above any other region.
These cultural exchanges also raise questions about the possibility of intersections between “peripheral” societies, such as Turkey and Latin America—two regions that, despite their differences, are comparable in many ways. Cultural exchanges like the export and import of soap operas could open up what was once a privileged space, creating new possibilities for a more horizontal kind of globalization through the flow of cultural products, even when the products in question are mass-produced, conservative, highly commercial, and from countries involved in widespread censorship.