Thomas Tufte, Living with the Rubbish Queen: telenovelas, culture and
modernity in Brazil, Luton: University of Luton Press (2000), ISBN
1 86020 541 0, £16.50.
In traditional accounts of debates on the topic of cultural imperialism,
the flow of consumerist messages through international television has
been a key concern. It is argued that one reason these messages have become
global is because of the extensive reach of the United States-based media,
advertising and telecommunications networks, helping the US to use 'soft
power' to promote its commercial culture.
Two key studies undertaken for UNESCO by Karl Nordenstreng and Topo Varis,
published in 1974 and 1985, found a clear pattern in the flow of international
television programmes mainly, though not exclusively, from the
United States to other parts of the world. Both studies argued that there
was generally 'one-way traffic,' in entertainment-oriented programming.
This flow has arguably become much more pronounced in the era of globalisation
and multi-channel television, though some non-Western countries such as
India, Egypt and Brazil have also emerged as exporters of television programmes
Despite technological advances, especially in satellite communications,
the US continues to lead the field in the export of audio-visual products.
The British Film Institutes new Atlas of Global Media shows that
in all major genres of television entertainment the United States dominates
global exports, accounting for 85 per cent of all light entertainment
programmes and 72 per cent of television dramas sold worldwide.
However, international cultural traffic is not just one way. Evidence
shows that new transborder television networks are appearing as a result
of the deregulation and privatisation of television industries, coupled
with the extension of satellite footprints and the growth of direct to
home (DTH) broadcasting in an increasingly global communication environment.
One key example of cultural export from the global South to the North
is the Latin American soap opera, the telenovela. The Brazilian media
giant TV Globo is the primary exporter of this genre of television across
the globe its programmes, mainly entertainment-orientated, are
exported to 130 countries across the globe. With a total revenue of $4.4
billion, TV Globo is a multimedia giant operating across different
parts of the media: print, publishing, on-line, TV and video as
well as communications hardware, notably satellites. Its international
partners include Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, the Mexican media
conglomerate Televisa the world's largest producer of Spanish-language
television programmes and the US-based TCI. Globo has also been
involved in a consortium of DTH broadcasters with the aim to provide a
range of programming on a pan-American basis.
Telenovelas occupy a pre-eminent position on television schedules across
Latin America. In countries such as Brazil, they have had unprecedented
success, receiving very high ratings, reaching a peak in the 1970s of
70 per cent of prime time, since declining to between 40 and 50 per cent
in the 1990s. This popularity has been maintained despite the availability
of a wide range of programming including dedicated sports and leisure
channels, also remarkable given that the telenovelas are screened six
days a week, occupying up to five hours of mainly prime time.
Thomas Tufte maps out the growth of this genre of television in Brazil,
detailing its evolution in both its cultural and commercial contexts.
Tufte's book aims to analyse how telenovelas 'take part in everyday life,
as cultural expressions reflecting and interpreting issues of common concern,
and taking account of the fact that they are cultural products guided
by commercial incentives' (3).
Tufte, an Associate Research Professor in the Department of Film and Media
Studies at the University of Copenhagen, has spent many years researching
the topic (which formed part of his PhD thesis). They started as what
he calls 'visualised radionovelas,' with the first Brazilian telenovela
Sua Vida Me Pertence (Your Life Belongs to Me) broadcast in 1951.
As in many other developing countries, early television broadcasting in
Brazil was elitist in nature, with a bias towards programmes for 'cultured
When the first daily telenovelas were produced in the 1960s they were
sponsored by such multinational companies as Procter and Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive
and Uniliver. Gradually production was taken over by domestic TV networks,
on the model of Hollywood majors. Though borrowing technology and the
commercial approach from Brazil's mighty North American neighbour, Tufte
sees telenovela as a 'very national genre', arguing that 'it has natural
links to international and historical genres, but was already by the early
1970s established as a genre on its own' (79).
According to Tufte the narrative is not concluded when the telenovela
goes on air, but unfolds in a process dependent on audience response.
Typically, when a telenovela starts 24 chapters (Tufte prefers this term
to episode, which he believes indicates a closed narrative) are filmed.
The author may have written another 15-20 chapters. A telenovela normally
develops into 150-200 chapters.
As a case study, Tufte discusses The Rubbish Queen (Rainha da Sucata)
screened in 177 chapters on TV Globo from 2 April to 26 October 1990,
in the year celebrating the 25th anniversary of the founding of Globo.
Set in Sao Paulo, Brazil's second largest city, The Rubbish Queen
centres round two women one upper class who represents the élitist
European view of contemporary Brazil, and another a nouveau riche, both
of whom struggle for the love and attention of the main male lead. Tufte
discusses this as a narrative which encompasses a love story as well as
the class conflict in a modernising society.
Tufte attempts to go beyond the traditional Eurocentric media ethnography
to analyse what he calls 'the hybrid sphere of signification,' which 'constitutes
a special organisation of time, space and social relations, possessing
a special code of conduct which is central in the configuration of Latin
American modernity and central in the articulation of Latin American identity
carried largely by emotion, and with the telenovelas as central
Like many of his North American and European colleagues, Tufte seems to
have been touched by what has been called the Latin American 'magic realism.'
One senses a certain degree of tension between the obvious limitations
of European ethnography and the complexity of adapting these theoretical
frameworks to analyse mediation in distant and complex socio-economic
and cultural situations. Tufte wisely says: 'be cautious in generalising.
Universalism is difficult to handle. Focus on the reality at stake, carry
out the relevant historical analyses, be loyal to the richness of detailed
descriptions in them is hidden the cultural diversity, the nuances'
(232). In fairness to Tufte, the wealth of detailed observation and description
is in evidence in ample measure in this book. However, any such work has
to be careful to avoid the Western fascination for the alleged or imaginary
exotica of the so-called Third World.
Daya Kishan Thussu