Humboldtians in Focus

A Life Like in a Telenovela

By Carolina Agoff

Violence against women is still an everyday occurrence in many Mexican families. The persistence of traditions is not the only cause. Even a modern medium like television prefers to show women as victims.

When the man lets fly: typical scene from one of Mexico’s extremely popular TV soaps, the telenovelas
When the man lets fly: ...
Photo: private

Much has changed for women in Mexico in recent years. More and more Mexican women work, and the traditional family is changing. Nonetheless, traditional values still dominate among a large part of the population. One facet of this is that domestic violence remains a widespread phenomenon in Mexico. According to a survey carried out by the National Institute for Statistics in 2006, it is estimated that more than a quarter of women are subjected to domestic violence in the course of their partnership or marriage. Only about one fifth of them subsequently sought advice from a legal aid organisation; all the others refrained from filing charges and dispensed with an external adviser.

In addition to traditional values and role models, the mass media play an important part in this, for example in the form of the telenovelas that are so popular in Latin America. Many people underestimate the influence of these television dramas. But they find their way into every home and are viewed by all age groups in the family throughout the entire day.

Women’s roles: victim or threat

When the man lets fly: typical scene from one of Mexico’s extremely popular TV soaps, the telenovelas
... typical scene ...
Photo: private

This TV genre portrays two female stereotypes: on the one hand the woman who represents morality in the story line, who is good and submissive and falls victim to the discrimination and violence of the other characters; on the other hand the threatening woman who competes with the other women and the male protagonist. As if it were a matter of course, the women in telenovela scripts are victims of aggression, insults, jealous rages and threats from their partners. These stereotypical views of women are extremely problematic because they counteract attempts to establish equality, both within the private sphere and in politics.

The woman is the driving force of an indivisible group, the family. This is what determines her self-image – as opposed to perceiving herself and being perceived by others as a legal person. The family is the symbol of a woman’s fulfilment, and it defines her individual position. In this the woman feels a particular sense of dignity that does not permit her to think in emancipatory categories or demand equality of the sexes – even before the law. This is the only way to understand why a woman tolerates domestic violence: she is thereby protecting her family, which gives her identity and social status.

When the man lets fly: typical scene from one of Mexico’s extremely popular TV soaps, the telenovelas
... from one of Mexico’s extremely
popular TV soaps, the
telenovelas.

Photo: private

As a result, women do not see domestic violence as unfairness or an infringement of their rights as women. It has been shown in many cases that women accept male violence as a punishment for not playing their role as expected. Some women feel that they have done something wrong and are plagued by guilt when their partner questions the morality of their behaviour or justifies his use of violence by claiming that the woman has not fulfilled her domestic duties. Violence is thus perceived as a deserved punishment or at best an undeserved punishment – but never a crime. Abuse therefore becomes an accepted part of every woman’s natural fate.

Nor does the family network of these women necessarily offer them support, but instead creates an environment that makes the women vulnerable. In some cases, it is actually the factor that allows violence against women or makes it more difficult for them to defend themselves. The roles of the mother-in-law and sister-in-law, who often live with the partners, are portrayed in an especially negative manner. Often both contribute to exacerbating the problem by promoting and policing traditional gender roles.

“Many women accept male violence as a punishment for not playing their role as expected.”

All this demonstrates that women are not yet able to interpret domestic violence in legal categories, but instead tend to measure it by their own virtue, that is, the moral behaviour that is expected of them.

How can women be made to know and demand their rights? We know that merely introducing a right does not mean it is actually exercised. This requires the right to be propagated and promoted. For laws to be effective, they must be recognised as such by society and put into practice. Society must fully integrate these rights into its idea of social reality. The mass media must stop constantly reproducing the traditional female role and instead help create an awareness that violence against women is not normal. To do so they must take responsibility in the fight against gender-based violence, for example by showing women who are outraged by violence, who demand their rights and defend their dignity.

This, along with increasing public debate, conducting awareness campaigns and passing laws would be a first step towards transforming the self-image of women into one of mature female citizens who exercise and defend their rights. Violence should not be understood as a deserved or undeserved punishment, but as a moral degradation and as a crime.


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Carolina Agoff Carolina Agoff
Photo: private

Dr. Maria Carolina Agoff teaches sociology at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. In 2009 she was a Thyssen-Humboldt Short-Term Fellow at the Latin America Institute of the Freie Universität Berlin.

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