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Private Fantasies, Public Policies: Watching Latin American Telenovelas in Bulgaria*

Abstract: This paper presents a social psychological analysis of soap viewing practices in a context of post-communist Bulgarian culture. My aim in trying to position the social life of soaps in people’s everyday routines is to deconstruct media mythologies and ambiguous messages that soaps send to their outrageously increasing audience. My focus is on the gendering of the genre, which I do from the position that soaps produce and validate codes of femininity. My general conclusion is that the viewing of soaps corresponds to producing a consumer discourse, which can be regarded as a sign of women’s emancipation and self-assertiveness. On the other hand, the romanticized stories fill a significant gap in people’s psychological resources by appropriating the discontent of post-communist modernization.

Soaps’ invasion started in the early ’90s along with the rapid social change and transformation of post-communist Bulgarian society. As one of the media critics has ironically noticed, the delayed broadcasting of soaps on Bulgarian TV started when detergents disappeared from the Bulgarian market (the early ’90s had marked the beginning of the economic crisis in the country). Devoid of their commercial messages to the Bulgarian viewers, soap operas, especially the Latin American telenovelas1, attacked the TV audience on nation-wide channels as well as on the progressively proliferating private TV channels and cable TVs. The Widow in White, Kassandra, Pure Blood, Rich People also Weep, The Black Pearl, With Love, Just Maria, Lus Maria, Rossalinda, etc. — it is impossible to list all these Venezuelan, Brazilian, Mexican, and Colombian serials with which the leisure time and domestic routine of Bulgarians have been pervaded during the last ten years.

I have to confess. Ten years ago I was quite critical of this TV genre, being absolutely aware of its low-value as a cultural product, actors’ casting and aesthetic implications. I remember the deserted evening streets in the ’80s when people tuned in to watch the Latin American serial The Slave Izaura and to empathize with the endless sufferings of their beloved Izaura. I mocked fascinated viewers’ sentimentality and wondered about the absence of a critical view toward soaps’ theatricality and silliness. But as time went on, I changed my attitude toward soaps. What compels me to think of soaps is their on-going popularity, which is close to a mesmerized fascination on the part of their fans.2 Moreover, soaps’ viewers in today’s Bulgaria are not being shrunk to ‘isolated housewives’ or members of the working class as researchers in the ’60s or even later had labeled faithful soap viewers.3

Soaps’ outrageous popularity in the years after the collapse of communism could be situated in the context of mass media broadcasting and the liberation of popular culture on one hand, and the shrinking of high elitist art on the other. That so many people from different educational and social groups get hooked on programs “where pregnancies can last for more than nine months” could be interpreted as the viewers’ emancipation after years of sterile, socialist propaganda. During that time people were able to see only ‘social-realist’, i.e. politically indoctrinated and ‘ideologically correct’, films. (One can understand the enormous success that the above mentioned Brazilian telenovela had with Bulgarian viewers, which happened to be the first and only soap which Bulgarian TV showed in the ’80s in order to liven up its programming.) The socialist visual rhetoric, including that of Soviet-type film productions, has actively exploited the figures of heroic people who display extraordinary courage and even risk their lives in order to achieve great goals signified by a ‘shining future’. Western films were largely forbidden because they were conceived as an indulgence in an alien world of a capitalist consumerist society, and because they featured a world of ordinary people with their everyday concerns and pursuits of love, success, money, and recognition, which contrasted the heroic life in the socialist films.4

Bearing in mind an ideology5 inherent in media, what provokes my interest toward soaps as part of the mundane everyday activities and experiences of people in a post-communist country are two aspects. First, media texts of soaps as an interface between the audience and the social, political and cultural context contain their ambiguous messages which can be used by viewers as strategies to integrate into the new social surrounding. What are viewers’ discursive potential to approach and deconstruct the “mythologies”6 of soaps in order to maintain people’s needs for entertainment and self-identifications?

Second, in trying to position the social life of soaps in the day-to-day routine of post-communist people, gender is, of course, one of the crucial features of their mundane ordinary experiences. The twentieth century expansion of popular culture has been associated with a feminization of culture and an idea to admit and legitimize women’s preferences for romances and melodramatic stories. At the same time, it is the gendering of this genre that causes mainstream art and media critics to devaluate and denigrate it as entertainment with low prestige. Soap opera as a ‘woman’s genre’, comparable to that of Harlequin romances and women’s magazines, has been defined in terms of it primarily addressing the concerns and interests of a female audience, whose further associations are with domesticity, household cleaning and routine habitual everyday presence. Under Bulgarian conditions, where feminism as a political and academic activity is widely unknown, and even when known, having been accepted with skepticism, a critical feminist discourse toward stereotyped and domesticized presentations of women in popular media texts does not exist.

Speaking about soap viewing as a predominantly female activity does not mean that it is a feature of ‘women’ as a biological group. Although because of soaps’ outrageous popularity with a female audience that cuts across social and educational strata, it is not easy to leave behind the essential stereotype of women as soap opera viewers. What is being argued in current scholarship about this TV genre7 is that its feminization presents socially-prescribed codes of femininity associated with prosaic, repetitive, irrational and playful life. Annette Kuhn precisely remarks:

Recent work on soap opera and melodrama has drawn on existing theories, methods, and perspectives in the study of film and television, including the structural analysis of narratives, textual semiotics and psychoanalytic audience research, and the political economy of cultural institutions (145).

In my analysis I will follow this positive strand in feminist media studies, making efforts to approach soaps from the point that they produce feminine codes, thus revealing “technologies of gender” in terms of Teresa de Lauretis. I will try to tackle the following questions: ‘Why are soaps such an appealing TV genre, especially to its female audience?’; ‘What kind of satisfaction and pleasures do they give to women and men, affording to everyone cheap and accessible forms of entertainment?’; ‘Can we view the TV genre of soaps as corresponding to the social and psychological needs and habits of the viewers, regarding them as active participators in the media exposure?’;8 and ‘How can we read the social construction of gender through popular narratives in the post-communist Bulgaria?’ Additionally, beyond the explicit demarcation denigration/appraisal of soaps, feminist critical analysis could not be politically neutral toward “women’s” pleasure and identification through soap narratives. In this vein, a set of political questions could range from: ‘Does soap opera viewing reinforce women’s affiliations with home and family, thus reproducing traditional forms of femininity?’; to ‘Do soaps modernize women by offering a window to a modern marketplace, thus making them fit for consumer society, empowering them with their own space?’

In my efforts to answer these questions, I state several arguments, which I have supported with excerpts from the questionnaire I distributed in 1999 and 2000 to two of my classes. Because this is a small sample of student TV viewers, the excerpts have provided only an illustration of my general arguments, restricting me from generalizations about soap viewing practices across different social, age and educational groups. Thirty-two students answered questions about their TV viewing preferences and habits concerning Latin-American telenovelas of forty students asked. What is worth mentioning is that all students who answered the questionnaire are women, and that half said they watch soaps “regularly”, and half “from time to time.” Three of them openly confessed that they are hooked on soaps. Only one disputed the topic saying, “I don’t watch them at all because it is a waste of time”; and she answered some of the questions putting her name on the answer sheet. The eight male students in both classes refused to participate in the survey simply saying “it’s not our topic”, thus trying to outline not only their disinterest in this TV genre, but also men’s detachment in general. In fact, as the data from the national TV viewers’ samples have shown, men also watch soaps although the genre clearly produces a demarcation line between men’s and women’s ways of leisure. For the sample, studied gender demarcation has been proven — almost all respondents claimed that their female friends and acquaintances watch serials unlike their male friends.

True-to-life films and ” furniture art”

Soap operas are an appealing TV genre because they present everyday life and the concerns of everyday people. The topics being discussed, the situations in which the characters find themselves, the problems which need to be solved, are very much like the viewers’ own. The social realism of soaps is one reason for their popularity, especially when people’s personal problems and choices have been neglected in TV programs. This was the situation during past decades where most of the films broadcast on TV were indoctrinated by socialist realism which put priority on societal problems and touched upon domestic topics only marginally. Soaps are satisfying a need of the audience, especially the female one — the need to see true-to-life films, in which heroes and heroines are happy or sad, anxious or content, about their personal and family matters, unlike film fiction where their duties to the party, nation, and work community were the topic of discussion. Almost all of my students say that on soaps the topics of discussion are real and they point to “love” and “love matters” as the most frequent theme. One of the students says: “The topics, which are discussed in soaps are really human and emotional, i.e. related to love, its strength as well as marginal situations like hate, envy, death, fear but expressed to their culmination.” Perhaps it is not surprising that in soaps, love appears to be a staple for 18-20 aged female students who put aside other topics such as family relations, sacrificing motherhood, adultery, villainy, friendship, etc.

Being realistic, soaps induce viewers’ identification with characters. Regular viewers, especially, get pleasure from being deeply involved with a character’s emotions and experiences thus forming an active parasocial relationship with a TV character. Viewers enjoy watching the behaviors, experiences, and opinions of the characters in order to imagine or recognize their own behavior in similar situations. Such an intimacy between the viewer and the character locates the viewer in her own life situation and enables her to vent her emotions. In cases of the most fanatic spectators such intimacy turns into psychological fusion of reality and fantasy, when fans dress and behave like a character, they want to see, to touch, and to speak to their favorite actors/characters. Such a situation of mesmerizing of fans happened when the two soap opera stars — Venezuelan actress Koraima Tores (Kassandra) and Puerto Rician actor Osvaldo Rios (The Widow in White) — came to Bulgaria and met with their fans in huge, overcrowded halls. Even some politicians greeted them and high-art critics were flattered to interview them. Putting aside pathological cases of over-identification, Tania Modleski points to the “nearness” of the relationship, when “the viewer does not become the characters…but rather relates to them as intimates, as extensions of her world” (1983: 105). Such viewers’ catharsis functions as real therapy which is highly relaxing and tension releasing. Especially in the highly stressful living conditions in Bulgaria an opportunity to be absorbed by watching a soap opera episode is a kind of escapism from the pressures of the day. Such escape or replacement of real stress with ground-breaking TV fiction is more magnetic when it happens every day at the regular time thus affording viewers ‘ritual pleasure’ of security and longevity. As Griffiths says, “the indulgence of tuning in regularly is therapeutic.”

I did not suggest that therapy would mainly motivate my young respondents to tune into soap operas. But it was a surprise that almost all of the young women, answering the question “Why do you watch TV soaps?”, mention such ‘releasing’ motifs like “relaxing”, “escaping from my own problems”, “when I feel bored”, “when I want to kill the time”, “to distract myself.” Only three of them who are soap fans say that they watch soaps because they can learn a lot and because of some actors, namely men, who are their favorites. “From these serials I receive information mostly about how to relate to men and in most cases I watch them because of Osvaldo Rios, Piedro Lander, that is because of the heroes”, confesses one of the students.

Soap operas are habitual as our daily life, they are interruptible as our daily rhythm, ina phrase , they are a ‘parallel life’. In her pioneering essay on soaps “The Search for Tomorrow in Today’s Soap Operas” Modleski explains that soaps’ narrative composition is analogous to women’s daily rhythm, especially to their domestic work. The repetition of dialogues, scenes and motivations and very slow pace at which soap narrative proceeds, urge the viewers’ sense of suspense and expectancy. I find eloquent the answer of one of my students to the question “Why are TV serials labeled ‘soaps’?” She assumes: “Maybe, because like a soap which is a long-lasting commodity and is hard to wash out, TV serials are for long consumption.” Almost all of the students are censorious of soaps’ slow plot development using such words as “torn apart in a turkish-delight fashion”, “slow action”, “laggard”, “wasteful.” But as one of the students summarizes: “I don’t like that action develops very slowly but on the other hand, soaps shouldn’t be what they are.” Soaps’ redundant information produces a more comfortable and pleasurable spot for the newcomers or interrupted viewers who can catch up on the plot lines and restore missed frisson. Soaps’ repetitive narratives serve as an insurance against a distracted viewers’ attention being interrupted by habitual household activities. As the routine home cares are going on regularly, episodes unfold on the TV screen day by day. Almost all students say they are doing other activities such as cooking, cleaning and talking while watching the serials. So, viewers’ distraction has been regarded as an argument for soaps’ comfortable reception9 as “furniture art” in terms of Modleski (1983: 110) instead of critical blaming of viewers as passive containers of information.

Fairy tales, melodrama and the carnivalesque

The mass obsession with soaps could be explained with the closeness of their plot structure to that of fairy tales. Good and bad characters, magic transformations and metamorphoses of protagonists, reversals of events and fortunes are the key motives of telenovelas. As in a fairy tale, where a frog becomes a prince, in soaps a young woman who is poor and unfairly treated in the first episodes becomes a happy and rich bride/wife at the end of the film. Soaps’ melodramatic stories nurture women’s fantasies, thus inducing gratification from the activity of fantasising positive transformations, which could hardly happen in real life. One of the students says, “What I like in serials is that always great and true love has been placed on a pedestal.” And the other sighs, “It is hardly that glamorous in life as it is in serials.”

Thus, soaps make possible the switch in women’s consciousness from an outside world full of violence, frustrations and helplessness to an imagined world where characters could be easy recognized and predicted, and good/evil confrontation always has its happy end. Soaps do not only advertise cleansers but, as Robert Allen (1985) has noted, they clear up in a rather metaphorical sense ‘life’ dirt (villain women, unfaithful spouses, egoistic children, authoritarian parents). These are miracles not people which have inhabited soaps’ world, and to be-in-soaps means to feel cozy, because the miracle has replaced the logic of the present day, irrationality has substituted the everyday pressure to take responsibility, thus producing a transfer of the burden of reality and desperation into a superficial world of hopes and happy closure. As Christine Gledhill mentions: “Melodrama functions both referentially and metaphorically, bearing witness to the underlying desires and impulses, which fuel social process. In this respect melodrama feeds off the ideological conflicts that accompany social change” (118). Because soaps’ melodramatic characters are unrealistic and their theatricality is laden with parody, the genre of soaps reminds us of a carnivalesque play where unbelievable and puzzling inversions take place. John Docker explains in what sense popular culture accounts for the releasing of parody and the grotesque : “…with the rise of the “bourgeois public sphere” the bourgeois and professional classes broke their link with the carnivalesque. The carnivalesque became submerged in the unconscious, as a repressed desire for the low and the other.” Soap opera narratives focus on the everyday present-ness, on banal domestic events, thus bringing into light the marginalized and repressed desire for celebration of ordinary people’s lives.

The indulgence in a feminine aesthetic

How have women and men been represented in soaps’ narratives? On the one hand, we have those who take the position that “soap operas do not offer a great deal of escapism from the drudgery of daily life and seem rather patronizing to their female audience” (Griffiths). To substantiate this thesis, they speak about the domestic setting in which women are usually placed and the stereotypical images of women as good or bad mothers, the first being family-oriented and sexually-unattractive and the latter being seductive, using sex as a weapon. In addition, it is said that soaps’ female characters are passive and submissive to man’s power and desires, and even when women are portrayed as having jobs they rarely pursue careers, or if they do, they are always supported or hindered by a man. Therefore, while soaps present women in a more positive style than TV ads or romances, their focus on domesticity and emotional states as a mirror of women’s interests and concerns enables the reinforcement of women’s subordinate role in society.

A strong defiance against these statements comes from the feminist critics. The main thesis is that soaps as a TV genre construct a feminine aesthetic. A large part of this aesthetic stems from the validation of the emotional states and nurturing relationships. Thus, soaps emphasize internal emotional states and characters’ emotions: soaps’ heroines and heroes cry, suffer, smile, love, hate, vilify or revenge. Women’s omnipotence is based on their enormous capacities to produce and control their emotions, thus having entrapped men in their web of emotions. Moreover, male characters on soaps are presented in a more feminized and domestic style – men speak, rather than act, they discuss, suffer and even cry; men’s presentations in soaps are mainly as fathers, husbands, sons, brothers instead of their featuring as professionals, public figures, etc. So, what makes soaps remarkable and attractive to women’s audience is the domestication of men, the non-masculinist visibility of male characters, that can be interpreted as a challenge to the stereotyped image of the Balkan macho. One of the interviewed student answered the question “Why do you think men do not like to watch soaps?” saying, “Men are afraid that they could be viewed as powerless and emotional. It is evident that in our culture men usually do not speak of their emotions and concerns…” In other words, a highlighting of the domesticity on soaps serves as a validation of a new gender balance within which an overlap of men’s and women’s space is implicated.

Nochimpson (1998) speaks of “a respect for emotion” on soaps and that viewers’ regale in watching emotions getting out of control and expecting their exaltation and climax. I could suggest that visualization of the power of emotions on soaps is quite relevant to the everyday lifestyles of Bulgarians, where most people feel unable to rationally plan and control things and are seduced by the flow and excesses of their and others’ emotions. Modleski stresses women’s villainess and transgression as a source of strength and a way to manipulate men, and at the same time she states that the viewers take delight in despising the villains. I observed that in my sample the greatest part of viewers report emotional involvement with the soaps’ characters, however remaining aware of the distance between the actor and their character. Most of them report that they feel angry at the negative characters, although eight women say that they like some of the bad guys. Most students say that they usually sympathize with the good characters, because they are victimized and humiliated and a few of them feel annoyed with the characters’ pretended innocence. Only three students say that they are emotionally detached from the characters.

Besides the above-mentioned soaps’ visualization of women’s emotional power, feminine discourse has been featured as the other crucial aspect of a feminine aesthetic, which can be viewed as means of legitimization of women’s oral culture. Mary-Ellen Brown and Linda Barwick define feminine discourse as an endless talking: “…soap opera characters talk in cliches, they talk to themselves, they talk on the telephone, they lie, they dissemble, they encourage others to get it off their chests, to confess, to tell it like it is.” In a word, this is talk just for pleasure, without being goal-oriented, “talk for talk’s sake.” Discussing events and predicting future actions or their effects is more important than the occurrence of events and actions themselves. Soaps’ narratives look like gossip – different characters possess different pieces of knowledge, there is no one moral truth, there are multiple truths, which result in the openness of the plot and development of various plot lines. Media critics are certain that complex and long plot lines together with suspense and cliffhangers produce delayed gratification, which is part of viewers’ addiction. As in gossip, one character knows more than the other one, or the other one is oblivious to some crucial information, and what is important in this play of knowledge is the participatory role of the viewer. It happens that the spectator knows the secrets, which only a few of characters possess. Such an active position, which makes the viewer more knowledgeable and in more control of events in comparison with the characters, empowers her to predict the plot, mind read characters’ plans and dreams, etc., thus creating “the pleasure of hermeneutic speculation” (Brunsdon 1984: 56) This occurs when viewers talk among themselves, share opinions about recent developments on a soap or speculate what might happen next, comment on their favorites’ deeds, clothes, make-up, hair-style, and so on. Thus, the soap opera does not end when the television program goes off; it continues in the viewing community. And the viewing community grows into a fanhood community, which grows into a friends’ community, which is the place where individuals get pleasure in being and talking together. As Brown & Barwick put it .”..gossip and networking are a source of solidarity and group unity for women around which a political feminine can be constructed and further developed.” Thus, soaps as visual texts produce active pleasures both of watching and discussing among a community. The latter results in the process of generating meanings at the intersection of fiction and reality, i.e. soaps’ characters and watchers’ lived experiences. Thus, the gossip network validates women’s oral culture, producing a postmodern space of virtual reality and fusion of reality and fiction.

Is the communal aspect relevant to the studied sample of Bulgarian soap viewers? I should answer positively, because almost all of them say that their friends and acquaintances watch soaps and are convinced that soaps are a topic of conversation in company. “This is my first task when an episode is over”, answers one soap fan to the question “Do you discuss things in serials with your friends and acquaintances?” Others confess that they recap and retell missed episodes to each other or try to predict plot development when “things are perplexing.”

The pleasure of resistance

Besides the pleasure of being involved in such aimless play, watching of soap operas’ also produces resistive pleasure. The pleasure of resistance means to delineate the viewers’ own space of consumerism, thus rejecting other highly prestigious spheres of leisure. As with teenagers, whose worship of a rock band molds their identity both against parents and other peers, soap operas’ fans construct their own world of pleasures and meanings as a refusal of the dominant one. As Brown states, through watching and enjoying soaps, women create their own cultural space and set the boundaries of their specific enjoyment: “Through this enjoyment, they create the opening that for them serves as a wedge into dominant culture” (20). Brown’s position is cogent that the “right to solitude” in leisure choices is a step to women’s self-awareness and empowerment.

I was quite surprised by a firmly demonstrated ‘resistance’ in my sample of soap viewers. The last question in the list was “Would you be ashamed to tell someone that you watch soaps? Why and whom?” All of them strongly intend to stand up for their soap preferences saying “this is my right to choose.” One soap fan defies stereotypes about soaps in such a way: “No, I’m not ashamed because if I am I would feel guilty, but it’s not true, even it’s silly to be so, so I don’t care if someone doesn’t approve of my watching.” Only one student hesitates in answering and replies that she is not ashamed, but perhaps she would be when a man is highly respected by her. The latter makes me think of this. When I asked the students to fill in the questionnaire, there were several voices: “Will it be anonymous?” I responded ‘yes’ and only one of them signed her sheet. Two of the girls (I later identified as soap fans) asked me during the break: “Do you watch soaps? What do you think of them?” For me it was obvious that the students were reluctant to speak explicitly about their TV preferences to their professor. Perhaps this topic seemed quite intimate to them. On the other hand, they are very firmly convinced about the rightness of their choice to entertain watching and discussing soaps. Whom do they resist in their leisure preferences? I could suggest that they oppose their male peers, friends and colleagues, whose TV choices and habits are quite different. All female students are sure that their male acquaintances do not watch soaps because men think “they are dull”, “irksome”, “maudlin”, “stodgy.” Men like actions “films that take your breath away”or sports programs. “They would be mocked and they would feel less masculine, if they watched soaps”, says one of the female students. Thus, having known men’s different TV choices and even having acknowledged men’s mocking and denigration, young women draw up the contours of their own space of entertainment thus forming a strategy of silent (subversive) resistance to “aesthetic hierarchies” dominated by men.

Concluding notes

Telenovelas have functioned as a new medium through which the nation has appropriated the popular mass culture. Bringing domestic space, family and blood relations into soaps’ representations have served as a validation or even exhilaration of people’s personal and intimate life. The personal has been emancipated from the political and state control, and moreover, it has been redefined as everyday women’s and men’s experience. My general point is that in the visual culture of the modernizing Bulgarian society soaps create islands of enjoyments, thus being very closely related to female mentality and concerns. From the politics of ‘women’s’ pleasures I can support the thesis that soaps liberate women through empowering them with new identifications. It can be argued that romantic love has been a significant emancipatory drive from conventions of marriages and the pressures of everyday life, thus granting women a control over intimacy and personal life. At the same time romantic love has nurtured the imagined world of fascinations with expectations, desires and lucky reversals of fate which could be viewed as an achievement over the playfulness of the everyday life. As Anthony Giddens says: “…it (i.e. romance) became a potential avenue for controlling the future, as well as a form of psychological security (in principle) for those whose lives were touched by it” (41).

A post-communist reading of gender through construction of melodramatic identifications of female viewers could be further linked to the opening up of the nation to a consumerist global TV world. Soaps’ narratives correspond to producing a commodification of the consciousness, which can be regarded both as a sign of nations’ modernization and individual self-assertiveness, thus providing an adequate answer to the contradictions of modernity. This answer serves as a compromise between the demands of the rationalized world and an individual lack of power to control it. In other words, contemporary soap fiction fills a significant gap in people’s psychological resources by appropriating the discontents or even shocks of the post-communist world.

Notes

* An earlier version of this essay was presented at the conference Power and Pleasure in a Gendered Perspective, Central European University, Budapest, Hungary, May 1999. I would like to thank all who attended the conference and helped me with their critical comments, as well as the two anonymous reviewers of JMB. I am also grateful to Timothy Ashplant, and my special thanks to Irina Todorova for correcting my English.

1 Soap opera has been considered a unique popular art genre subordinated to melodramatic narratives. Some argue that despite their diversity (South American telenovelas, US daytime serials, US prime-time shows, etc), these serials could be defined universally as ‘soaps’ because of their low aesthetic valuation (Brunsdon 1995). Others state that besides their closeness, telenovelas differ significantly from soaps because the former have clear plot endings unlike soaps,and telenovela stars are first-rateactors with high national prestige unlike the second- and third-rate actors and directors on the US soaps (Lopez 1995). In my analysis I focus mainly on the Latin American telenovelas because they have been predominantly featured in the ‘90s by Bulgarian TV stations. Because of their low price, telenovelas have been widely broadcast and compet against US serials such as “Dallas”, “The Bold and the Beautiful”, etc. In this text I use ‘telenovelas’ and ‘soaps’ interchangeably.

2 According to national data on TV audience monitoring produced by the Bulgarian sociological agency MARKET TEST, in June 2000 soap serials were ranked on the 8 position among 28 programs aired on the most popular TV channel ‘Kanal 1’. Data on the distribution of the TV audience by time intervals during the week days on the third most popular TV channel ‘Nova TV’ show the peak of the audience’s interest in the time interval 6-7 p.m. This is the time when this channel broadcasts telenovelas.

3 According to national data from MARKET TEST in December 2000, the audience profile of the Latin-American serial ‘Rossalinda’ aired on the ‘Nova TV’ is the following: 77.48 % women, 22.45% men; 55.64% with primary education, 34.91% with secondary, 9.43 with university; 19.71% resent in village, 50.85 in city, 29.41% in Sofia; 6-11 years – 5.43%, 12-19 years – 11.39%, 20-39 years – 23.09%, 40-59 years – 32.65%, 60+ – 27.41%.

4 See the detailed discussion on the contrast between “heroic life” and “everyday life” in Featherstone (1992).

5 An ideological meaning of mass culture has been broadly criticized from the left. In this vein, media critics and intellectuals devalue various forms of popular culture blaming it for its ‘undemanding nature’ and simplicity of comprehension. As a reminder, pop culture devaluation has its origins in the critical theory on mass culture, which has been defended in the early 50s by Adorno and Horkheimer (1979). Jazz, hit songs, stars, magazines, Hollywood films, radio soap operas have been thrown away to the rubbish bin of cultural history. These cultural products are considered to be commodities of mass industry produced for a mass uniformed consumer. The critique is that standardized and easy-to-view forms of entertainment, especially TV programs, produce self-satisfied, intellectually passive, naive and trustful viewers, whose cultural preferences reflect “an infantile need for protection” and fit in with the totalitarian creed. In the ’70s and the early ’80s, British screen theory took much the same stand as the Frankfurt school did. It has been stated that the popular culture texts make viewers identify with visual narratives, thus having inscribed in them the dominant values of capitalist society. What is under critique in this theory is that the mass audience receives pleasure by being exposed unconsciously to society’s power. As Laura Mulvey states, the audience’s look should be liberated into “passionate detachment”, or “a distancing awareness” which will initiate a new kind of pleasure, i.e. the intellectual’s pleasure, rational contemplation (pp.25-26).

6 I use Barthes’s concept of “mythologies” conceived as discourses and told stories (Barthes 1992).

7 As Robert Allen (1995) traces the stages of the critical studies on soap operas, their elaboration has moved from a functionalist model of viewer/text interpretation (Modleski 1982, Allen 1985) to their ethnographic reading of producing culturally-based meaning and pleasures (Hobson 1982; Kuhn 1984; Brunsdon 1984; 1993; Ang 1990; Geraghty 1991; Brown 1987; 1994; Seiter et al.1989; Nochimpson 1993).

8 As mentioned above, it might appear reasonable to argue against the monolithic concept of women as a homogeneous group, but within the framework of mass culture exposure, I think it is possible to define TV viewers as “an imaginary community”, where they have been united on two premises: every viewer is a consumer and every viewer is a family member. Keeping in mind this fact, the position of intellectual women and men could hardly be defined as ambivalent when they ridicule the simplicity and patriarchal femininities featured on soaps, being at the same time soaps fans.

9 For this reason all the serials have no captions and are dubbed to Bulgarian.

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Author: Tatyana Kotzeva is Associate Professor of Sociology at Southwestern University, Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria where she teaches Gender Sociology. After having been involved in research and social projects on women’s professional promotion, women’s unemployment and women’s reproductive rights in Bulgaria, she has come to believe that women’s lives could not be understood without indulgence in their mundane activities and pleasures.

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