A study of how young Kenyan women engage with Cuando Seas Mia suggests that the Mexican telenovela is not a cultural imperialist product but one that helps them redefine their identities as modern African women
Telenovelas, the Latin American version of soap operas, are distinct for their strong ties to the culture and society of their country of production. To their local audiences, they function as a means of cultural expression. But their popularity among global audiences - telenovelas have been exported to over a hundred countries spanning five continents - with whom they do not share cultural similarities, remains unexplained.
Kenya shares neither a social nor a cultural history with Latin America and yet it has been importing and airing telenovelas since the early 1990s.
The global media product has also permeated many aspects of Kenyan daily life. Local radio stations run on-air call-in competitions structured around the telenovela narrative; street lights on main highways carry advertisements of the latest telenovelas to air; and matatus are painted with the names of telenovela characters. Their popularity continues to grow rapidly; unprecedented when compared to the other foreign globally distributed media products that are aired on local television.
As a global media product, telenovelas are open to the criticisms posed by the media imperialism thesis which argues that globalisation has facilitated first-world media companies to use media products to ‘promote the values and structures of the dominating centre’ (Schiller, 1976) at the expense of local communities and institutions. According to this perspective, the popularity of telenovelas in Kenya is a form of cultural imperialism and has the potential to suppress the expression and development of local Kenyan cultures and initiatives, contributing to global cultural homogenization. This school of thought argues that telenovelas carry an imperialist ideology, which has a direct, unmediated impact on audience behaviour in the receiving countries.
Some Kenyan media critics have sided with this argument and asserted how telenovelas invade and manipulate local audiences and cultures (Wandago, 2003). They have criticised the frequency with which telenovelas are aired as compared to local programming, claiming that this has an adverse effect upon viewers’ routines, values and perceptions of reality.
Others, however, celebrate their presence in the local media. According to articles in local Kenyan dailies, telenovelas offer Kenyan audiences voyeuristic entertainment, more dramatic story lines and ‘better and more believable characters’ (Mutunga, 2007:22), or as Wahome (2007:14) puts it, Kenyan women need ‘wooie programs once in a while’ alluding to the melodramatic appeal that they hold. These articles quote a number of young women who watch the Latin American telenovelas, and offer a critique of the media imperialism thesis from the perspective of a single viewer’s consumption of a particular telenovela and their appropriation of elements of it into their lives.
The media imperialism thesis has been challenged by ethnographic audience studies, which look at local reception of global media products. These studies argue that audiences are situated within social and cultural contexts that influence the interpretations they construct from global media products. They assert that audience understanding of such products is not dictated by the product and so consumption does not necessarily result in cultural homogenisation. Instead, audience interactions with media products are characterised by active involvement and negotiation.
Such studies encourage an examination of audiences that is located within the specific social and cultural contexts that mediate their understandings and interpretations. Writers within this tradition say that audiences localise global media products to their particular social environments, hence the same media product may be very differently received in different parts of the world. ‘Local cultures do not simply kneel down in abject supplication before the onslaughts of global cultures’ (Das (1995:149).
Early findings on the negotiated reception of global media products by first world audiences (such as the reception of Dallas by Israeli viewers - Katz and Liebes, 1993) have been reinforced by recent studies conducted in Africa (in Trinidad, Morocco, South Africa, Ethiopia and Zambia) on African audiences, which show how the particular social and cultural contexts of an audience inflect the ways in which they appropriate global media products.
These studies conclude that the local cultures and identities of African audiences are selectively shaped – not dictated – by their interaction with global media products, and therefore the importance of situating audiences within their varying local contexts before studying their reception of media products.
Previous studies of the reception of telenovelas, however, have been limited to Latin American countries and their reception among global audiences or African audiences has not been conducted.
NEGOTIATION OF IDENTITIES
This study focused on the reception of Cuando Seas Mia, a Mexican telenovela, by a group of Kenyan women aged between 18 to 29 years who live in Nairobi. A gendered audience was chosen because of the emphasis placed on women as viewers of the soap opera and telenovela genre; women in an urban African environment were focused on because the rural-urban dynamic is a central theme explored by telenovelas; and an age group of 18 to 29 was chosen because it is the age bracket that experiences the highest amount of rural-urban migration among women in Kenya (Central Bureau of Statistics, 2004).
The women in this study co-exist between their traditional identities in a patriarchal Kenyan society and their modern and sophisticated lifestyles in a capital city. Their identities are entrenched within a post-colonial transition within which they negotiate their Kenyan nature, femininity, relationships and values in response to their experiences and understandings of tradition and modernity. They each engage with the rural-urban, traditional-modern elements of their identities on a daily basis and these negotiations fundamentally influence the identities that they inhabit, the roles they engage in, their social behaviour and future aspirations. And their membership within a transitional society, in turn, shapes the ways in which they engage with Cuando Seas Mia.
This study showed that these young women were engaged in a continual process of self-definition and identity construction. They question what it means to be a woman. What is acceptable behaviour for them as urban African women? Should they embrace the familiarity of the traditional role of African women or should they adopt westernised characteristics and attitudes?
The tensions they experience in defining themselves as women feed into their behaviours and attitudes towards men and relationships. What kind of men should they prefer? The typical African man who is dominant and overbearing or the sensitive, romantic modern man popularised by global media?
Their consumption of Cuando Seas Mia then is structured around their need to answer such questions in a way, which incorporates elements of their urban environment into their lives without sacrificing their traditional upbringing. And so they engage and interact with the narrative and characters of Cuando Seas Mia on an intensely personal level. Watching it changes and moulds them, their identities as women, the kinds of men that they are attracted to and the nature of the romantic relationships that they want to engage in.
KENYA'S TRANSITIONAL SOCIETY
It is here that the transitional tensions that these women experience can be detected. They feel alienated from both traditional and western cultures, have a desire to uphold family and traditional values in spite of their feeling of dissociation from them, and simultaneously want to embrace and connect with the values of their urban lifestyles. And so they turn to programs like Cuando Seas Mia to fabricate new identities for themselves.
They incorporate attitudes which, without embracing or rejecting westernisation or African cultures, look to ‘being modern the African way’ (Spronk, 2007:13). For example, they are accomplished and financially independent women living in an urban centre, but they are also defined by their submissive roles within African patriarchal culture as daughters, wives and mothers. Their ideal man is a strong and powerful masculine figure who is also sensitive and in touch with his emotions. Their choice of whom to marry will be decided by love, and also by the suitability of tribe, class and other traditional, social dictates.
Their city life (and the social roles that it offers) becomes a site of anxiety, and they are drawn to Cuando Seas Mia because it provides resources, which they can use to question and challenge the established norms in their own lives. In this moment when they are experiencing tension and crisis about their own identities, gender roles and heterosexual relationships, they re-imagine aspects of their lives and shape their identities of what it means to be a young woman living in an African urban environment. In so doing, they create an amalgam of the traditional and the modern, the rural and the urban, the young and the mature, the student and the professional. And at the core of these negotiations is their need to understand their femininity as modern African women.
As explorers of a contemporary African youth identity, these women question and destabilise the Western and the African definitions of female and male gender roles and heterosexual relationships, and reconstruct what it means to be a woman or a man or to be in a relationship. They redefine what African urban society means in relation to their evolving identities as African women, and give rise to an exploration of the changing fabric of Kenyan society.
*This article is a summary of the research paper entitled ‘Negotiating the global: How young women in Nairobi shape their local identities in response to aspects of the Mexican telenovela Cuando Seas Mia’, available on Academia.edu.
Das, V. 1995. “The Effects of Television Viewing”. Television: Critical Concepts in Media and
Cultural Studies. III: 147-167. London: Routledge.
Liebes, T. and Katz, E. 1993. The Export of Meaning: Cross Cultural Readings of Dallas. Cambridge: Polity.
Schiller, H. 1976. Communication and Cultural Domination. New York: International Arts and Science.
Mutunga, K. 2007. “Mexican Soaps glue Kenyans to screens”. The Daily Nation. February 17 2007.
Spronk, R. 2007. “The young and the ambitious in Nairobi: Sexuality and emerging middle class self-definitions”. http://www.ascleiden.nl/Pdf/paperspronk.pdf Accessed: 7 November 2008.
Wahome, W. 2007. “Soap operas”. The Daily Nation. October 9 2007.
Wandago, A. 2003. “We need more local content”. Friday magazine in The Standard. September 5
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