Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Treatment of Alcoholism in La Usurpadora

When our usurpadora, Paulina-as-Paola, arrives at the Bracho household in one of my telenovela's first episodes, she realizes that the actual Paola has left her a lot of messes to clean up. Extramarital affairs, maligned family and friends, and disrespected household workers all lie in her wake. But one of the most pressing issues -- and one of the few real, serious issues the show has tackled -- is Grandma Piedad's alcoholism.

During her time as la Señora Bracho, Paola has indulged her husband's grandmother with bottle upon bottle of cognac (on Carlos Daniel's dime). For Grandma Piedad, the liquor serves as an escape from the pain of losing her husband and her son, from which she never really recovered. And for Paola, it serves as an escape from Grandma Piedad's tears and cries of grief -- in other words, nothing but a matter of convenience.

According to the World Health Organization, Mexicans consume alcohol at the highest rate in North America. Alcoholism is a growing problem that thousands upon thousands of people encounter every year, whether personally or by way of a family member or friend. Paola's rash treatment of the issue isn't in itself a problem; on the contrary, it fits the character of someone who only cares for herself. On the other hand, the way the show itself handles the issue has me a little more conflicted.

One of Paulina's first orders of business as Paola Bracho is to wean Grandma Piedad off the alcohol, not by banning it completely (as Estefania and the rest of the household has attempted to do) but by giving her gradually less until she is no longer reliant upon it. In no time, it seems, Grandma Piedad is completely transformed back to her old self: strong, self-reliant, even a little bit bossy. She dresses herself and sees her great-grandchildren again. She hassles the family cook about using canned sauce to prepare their lunch, swearing that she has a better recipe. And she reclaims her position as head of the household and of the Brachos' factory. Gone is the woman who would lie in bed and yell all day long for Paola and "mi medicina," and in her place is the real Piedad Bracho.

After discussing in class the positive social effect that telenovelas can have -- for instance, after a character on La Mujer Perfecta was diagnosed with breast cancer, more women went to get mammograms -- I began to really consider whether La Usurpadora's treatment of alcoholism might have inspired any similar positive change in Mexico. Even more critically, was the issue treated as respectfully as its seriousness merits?

I've given the matter a good bit of thought, and still I'm ambivalent. On one hand, I really like the fact that Grandma Piedad's cognac has the power on the show to turn her into a completely different person because that really can and does happen to even the strongest of people. And on a similar note, it was really great to see a woman introduced to the audience as old and frail take charge of her situation and recover and become her old self again. I think in this way her character really challenges some of the gender roles otherwise established in the show through Paola's rather one-sided treatment as the evil vixen or Estefania's role as the bitter, slighted housewife.

At the same time, Grandma Piedad recovers so quickly -- within two episodes or so of Paulina's magic treatment, she's out of bed and moving around, and these days hardly a mention, if any, is made of her cognac -- that I can't help but wonder if the whole thing was over too quickly for any message to get across. Alcoholism can haunt families for years, and while Paulina spent some time taking care of her sick mother, she hardly qualifies as a doctor. In fact, she appears to have a better cure for the disease than the doctor the family had been using. And thus far in Grandma Piedad's recovery process, I can think of only a few instances in which the issues that initially drove her to drink have been brought up. I feel like this storyline had the potential for so much more depth than the writers gave it, and when these writers have such a huge audience to send a message to, that's a little disappointing.


  1. I really enjoyed this post Erin! I agree with you that the recovery process could have been more detailed and involved the steps that anyone with a loved one fighting addiction knows. I think this is an instance of the telenovela appeasing society and accepting the fact that people don't want to see the painful process of recovery. They actually want to see the hope that they themselves, or a family member can beat the disease of addiction.

  2. Hi Erin,
    Thank you for this very interesting post. I completely agree. On the one hand, I think it is great to touch on topics like Alcoholism, especially if it is so present in Mexico. At the same time, does it really fit the purpose if the problem is „belittled“ and shown as something that can be taken care of a lot easier than it actually would be in real life? I am still very impacted by the scenes of „O Clone“ about Mel’s addiction. Obviously it is difficult to incorporate the very „Brazilian“ style in such a classical Mexican telenovela, but I also agree that they could have tried to solve it in a more socially meaningful way and still keeping up the „telenovela rosa spirit“.

  3. Great, insightful post. The quick-fix issue is prevalent in movies, in telenovelas and is all too common in culture. Society today thrives on instant gratification and often goes to extreme measures to fix problems fast. It is interesting that your telenovela covered the alcoholism issue so quickly when we have been learning that the many telenovelas draw out their conflicts to get the most revenue out of a successful program.