Brazil's Novelas May Affect Lifestyle Choices

This trailer introduces Brazil's hit novela, or soap opera, about two young lovers torn between Brazil and India. Novelas like 'Caminho das Indias' have shaped the culture and lifestyle choices for many in Brazil. Video by courtesy Globo TV International
By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 8, 2009

RIO DE JANEIRO -- The first patrons of the afternoon had not yet taken their seats at Malik Jamil's Indian restaurant in Rio when one of them started in with the questions.

"Why do Indians always shake their heads like this?" Sandra Maria Carvalho asked, wagging her head from side to side.

Jamil groaned. The queries about India are endless these days: Does India still have a caste system? Do elephants roam the streets? But he knew why people were asking.

"We've seen 'Passage to India,' " said Carvalho's husband, Paulo, referring to a wildly popular Brazilian soap opera. "Everyone is curious."

Soap operas, known here as novelas, have long triggered fads in Brazil. After "The Clone," a soap set in Brazil and Morocco, aired in 2001, belly dancing became the rage. Brazilian girls started wearing yellow flowers in their hair after a character was so adorned on the 1994 soap "Four by Four." And this year's prime-time hit "Caminho das Indias," or "Passage to India," has made all things Indian -- from saris to vacations to the subcontinent -- hugely popular.

But in Brazil, a country that watches more television on average than any other besides Britain, novelas have a more lasting effect by influencing lifestyle choices, researchers say.

"Novelas have become very much a part of the fabric of Brazilian society," said Antonio La Pastina, a professor at Texas A&M University who has studied the influence of the programs on Brazilian society. "It's hard to think of contemporary Brazil without thinking of novelas."

New Lifestyles

The Inter-American Development Bank released two studies this past year that found a link between the consumption of novelas produced by Rede Globo, the network that dominates the industry here, to declining fertility rates and rising divorce rates in Brazil. The fertility rate in Brazil fell sharply over the past half-century, from more than six children per family in 1960 to about two by 2000, the study noted. This drop is comparable to that of China, but without any government family-planning measures.

By looking at census data from about 3,500 jurisdictions in Brazil, the authors found that the areas reached by the Globo signal had lower fertility rates and that parents were more likely to name children after popular novela characters in the years the program aired. They say that novelas celebrate a specific conception of family: An analysis of 115 Globo novelas between 1965 and 1999 showed that 72 percent of main female characters had no children, and 21 percent had only one child.

The novelas portrayed the "small, beautiful, white, healthy, urban, middle and upper middle class consumerist family," the study noted. "Novelas have been a powerful medium through which the small family has been idealized."

The study of the influence of novelas on society has a long academic history in Brazil. In 1989, sociologist Vilmar Evangelista Faria first drew the connection that television might play a role in declining fertility in Brazil. But this factor was just one interesting aspect of the country's development into a more urban and industrialized society, Faria and others wrote. Women played a greater role in the workforce, and improvements in medical care and social security made having many children relatively less necessary in terms of helping parents survive. Television reflected those changes.

"Pregnancy, birth, children were always associated with drama and headaches," La Pastina said. "You had this representation coming in every day: If you want to be urban, modern, middle class, children were not a good thing."

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