The Unbearable Whiteness of Telenovelas
Unrealistic storylines do not justify the unrealistic representation of Latinx communities.
By Ruby Mora
Telenovelas, or Latin American soap operas, are and have been incredibly popular within the Latinx community for decades, with millions of viewers watching hundreds of different ones that normally center around subjects like forbidden love, a la Romeo and Juliet, complete with betrayal, lust, deceit, acceptance, and family values.
Unlike their U.S. counterparts like General Hospital and One Life to Live, new episodes of telenovelas aired every weekday and end after only a few seasons – compared to the ever-long U.S. soaps – giving Latinx families a daily tradition, as well as conversation fodder.
Growing up I watched them with my grandma, and even when we got to the end of one, there’s always at least one other one that we ended up watching right after. However, around my early 20s, I began to notice how white-passing the majority of the actors are, outside of the very few actors cast in minuscule roles that actually represent the diversity of the community.
This is a huge problem because there are millions of Latinx families, watching telenovelas on a regular basis and potentially believing that the way these actors look is what is considered to be the esthetic ideal.
Consider the number of viewers tuning in: Univision had 13 million viewers during their Spring 2016 season, while Telemundo, the network’s competitor, had 11.4 million in that same season. The majority of these numbers reflect the time at which telenovelas are on air.
You can ask any Hispanic abuela – telenovelas fans watch them for the overly dramatic plots and and twists, I become immersed in them too. They can be so intense to the point where you sit down to watch one episode for the first time, and suddenly you’re agonizing for the next episode to premiere the following day. But as intense and engaging as they are, the fact that most of the lead characters are white or white-passing, gives a false representation of the actual demographics of Latinx populations.
It saddens me that at the time I didn’t see the issue of casting white-passing Latinx actors because I was so engaged with the plot. I will never know if it was because I didn’t mind it or if it was all I knew. I did grow up with North American, white supremacist standards surrounding me outside of telenovelas and I was definitely influenced by them, but I didn’t know any better then. I thought that telenovelas were meant for actors who fit this particular look, but I was severely misled to believe this.
Unrealistic storylines do not justify the unrealistic representation of Latinx communities. The consistent casting of white-passing actors in lead or small roles isn’t new. When black, brown and indigenous characters are featured, it is so infrequent that it almost seems miraculous.
Because of how white-washed telenovelas are, non-white Latinx viewers are essentially discouraged from pursuing a career in acting. This idea alone should inspire producers, casting agents and directors to get with the damn times and cast Latinx actors who represent the beautifully diverse community that we are. But most of the producers are white or white-passing, so why would they care?
The issues of anti-blackness and colorism seem to be taboo for Latinx communities to address because it is hard to delve into how systemic and systematic oppression functions and seeps into our forms of entertainment – but it is shameful and needs to be resolved.
It is despicable that media moguls, producers, casting agents and directors choose to remain comforted by a white supremacist imbued entertainment platform. What does that say of our communities? What does that say of Latinidad in general? Well it says that we approve of anti-indigenous, anti-black, colorist forms of media and culture. I am not implying that this is a uniquely Latinx problem – it isn’t – but we should be better.
To be at least somewhat fair, there have been changes to telenovelas within recent years, but not in all the aspects that one might hope for. Telemundo has been gaining viewers within the last year because of new telenovelas which stray from the traditional fairytale-like plots. There has been the inclusion of some femme-empowering plots and more relatable ideals and morals. But it’s 2017, this should be a given.
Even though this is somewhat of a start, it still doesn’t change the fact that recent telenovelas still star actors that can pass as white. As much as I, along with millions of other Latinx individuals within Generation Y, embrace our beauty and our diversity, producers of these telenovelas should do the same.
Today’s Latinx generation are more self-aware and understand that the casting pattern of the telenovela industry does not represent the true Latinx population. We are more vigilant and less tolerant towards the malarkey that is the fair-skinned formula of casting within telenovelas. There will come a point where this industry will have to reckon with that and realize that the false portrayal will not be tolerated, and if a change in this industry doesn’t occur, their viewers, and the control that they have over them, will end up forcing them to.
About the Author: Ruby Mora is a freelance writer and music photographer whose writing focuses on pop culture, identity, and feminism through a Latinx perspective. She’s written and photographed for the Philadelphia-based music site Rock On Philly.
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