Thursday, September 3, 2015

La Usurpadora and the Telenovela Rosa

Like a lot of my non-native Spanish speaking peers previously unfamiliar with telenovelas, I really thought nothing of them beyond "Spanish-language soap operas" -- and while I knew they were popular all over the world, I honestly wasn't even aware they came in Portuguese, let alone a wide variety of languages. I always assumed the same shows from Mexico or Venezuela were dubbed or subtitled. And, yes, the telenovelas of my imagination were all of the rosa variety and had 1990s-quality video. (Maybe it's because my soap opera education is primarily limited to Beverly Hills 90210 reruns on SOAPnet, but I was jarred by the vivid cinematic quality in the first big-budget telenovela preview we saw.)

So as we began to delve into the intricacies of telenovela structure, I found myself fascinated with the concept of the telenovela de ruptura -- the empowered women, the "Betty, la Fea"s, the Cinderellas who never were. They were feminist. They subverted societal and gender norms. They were everything I would have imagined went against the entire telenovela genre. And I was all set to choose one, until La Usurpadora chose me.


In a lot of ways, this is the quintessential telenovela rosa. It's the show a man would never want his wife to catch him watching, because he's probably made fun of her for watching it. La Usurpadora gives us an innocent Cinderella figure in Paulina, a poor girl from outside the city who works at an urban bar. Then one evening, Paulina stumbles across her doppelganger, the wealthy and seductive Paola, while serving as her restroom attendant. And Paola is the perfect villain. The second wife of a widower, she has her wealthy husband completely fooled as she cheats on him with her brother-in-law -- among others -- and plies his sickly grandmother with alcohol to keep her docile. Meanwhile, Paulina, so sweet and trusting that she cannot see that her beloved Osvaldo has a mistress, refuses Paola's offer to pay her to live her life of luxury for a year (in exchange for a year of freedom from her husband), even though Paulina needs the money to help her dying mother. At least one love triangle is imminent as Paulina prepares to encounter Paola's goodhearted husband, Carlos Daniel. 

So we have a virginal, naive Cinderella. We have a classic promiscuous female villain. We have a Prince and the Pauper storyline -- long-lost twins and the evil twin all in one. It's a little predictable. It's extremely melodramatic, to the extent that it employs what Joey from Friends -- who, for the unfamiliar, in the show periodically stars on the notorious soap Days of Our Lives -- calls "smell the fart acting" (a line reveals a shocking plot twist; the camera switches to a tight shot of the other character's face; the recipient of the news makes a dramatic face that looks a little like he has just smelled a fart), in conjunction with dramatic music. Paulina is indisputably good; Paola is indisputably callous and selfish. And it has the cinematic trappings of a 1990s soap opera.

And I love it. After a few episodes, I'm hooked. I can't wait to see how Paulina adjusts to Paola's life: how will she handle the discovery of Paola's numerous conquests? Will she try to make amends or will the life of a wealthy trophy wife suck her in? What will Paola get up to as she's totally freed from the constraints of the dull family life she complains of? And when will they discover the truth about their mother?

Feminism colors the way I look at the world around me, including (maybe especially) the media I consume. And part of that is challenging conventional gender roles the way more subversive telenovelas might -- questioning the importance of the virginal, innocent protagonist and the way sexually active women are more often than not portrayed as promiscuous and even evil. But I firmly believe that an important part of valuing women is also letting them love what they love and recognizing that reaching a wide audience of women is just as impactful as reaching a wide audience of men. And a lot of women love La Usurpadora.

Of course, that doesn't mean it can't or shouldn't be questioned. This show displays a lot of the trappings of conventional culture and gender roles; for instance, although Osvaldo is clearly a coward, I couldn't help comparing his grief and guilt over abandoning Paulina for another women to Paola's totally unapologetic way of manipulating men and using her sexuality as a weapon. Which character is more potentially sympathetic to the audience?

But when it comes down to it, I'm a bit of a romantic, and I won't be ashamed of admitting that I'm hooked on this tropey, dramatic, imperfect show. It's a portrait of (almost) contemporary society that has reached millions of viewers, and for that it's just as worthy of study as the most feminist telenovela out there, even if it's for different reasons.

1 comment:

  1. La Usupadora is definitely one of my favorite telenovelas—what I love about this telenovela is the balance it strikes between a telenovela rosa and a telenovela de rupture. As you noted, Paulina starts of as the Cinderella, but she begins to break from this mold as the show develops. On the other hand, Paola is the manipulative and scheming antagonist, and even she begins to struggle to maintain this identity as the sisters continue to interact.
    What I find most interesting is the presentation of feminism throughout the show. It starts off as a quality of the antagonist, the manipulative Paola, and develops into an empowering quality of Paulina. It really is a clever way to introduce the concept to the audience and break the bra-burning stereotype that has become the norm in the Americas. The writers twist the negative stereotype into a powerful tool and positive quality for women, which is obviously an important impact to make on a largely female audience.
    I hope you keep enjoying this telenovela! :)

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