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Saturday, March 14, 2009,2:48 PM
Soaps, Sex and Sociology
From The Economist print edition

Do women who watch telenovelas have fewer babies (but more men)?

THE glamorised world portrayed on the nightly telenovelas (soap operas) on Brazilian television is, superficially at least, about as representative of the country as a whole as Marie Antoinette and her shepherdesses were of 1780s’ France. But they are all about aspiration. About 40m people watch the mid-evening novela from Globo, the leading network. The action often takes place in Rio de Janeiro, where Globo is based, among families which are smaller, whiter and richer than average. New research suggests that by selling this version of the country to itself, Globo has boosted two important social trends.

The soaps blossomed under Brazil’s military regime of 1964-85. The generals subsidised sales of television sets to build a sense of nationhood in a large and then largely illiterate country. National news was meant to do the job, but the soaps got the audience. Their scriptwriters and directors, many of whom were on the left, saw them as a tool with which to reach the masses. Their plots often tilt in a progressive direction: AIDS is discussed, condoms are promoted and social mobility exemplified.

How much impact do the soaps have on real life? As recounted in papers from the Inter-American Development Bank, researchers tracked Globo’s expansion across the country and compared this to data on fertility and divorce.*

The results are most striking for the total fertility rate, which dropped from 6.3 children per woman in 1960 to 2.3 in 2000, despite contraception being officially discouraged for some of that time. This was because women moved to cities and opted to have fewer babies. The papers argue that the small, happy families portrayed on television contributed to this trend. Controlling for other factors, the arrival of Globo was associated with a decline of 0.6 percentage points in the probability of a woman giving birth in a given year. That is equivalent to the drop in the birth rate associated with a woman having two extra years of schooling

The effect on divorce was smaller, but noticeable. The researchers found that between 1975, when divorce was first mooted, and 1984 about one in five of the main characters in Globo soaps were divorced or separated, a higher percentage than in the real Brazil. These break-ups were not just a result of machismo: from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s about 30% of female lead characters in novelas were unfaithful to their partners. The researchers find that the arrival of Globo in an area was associated with a rise of 0.1-0.2 percentage points in the share of women aged 15-49 who were divorced or separated. The authors reckon that watching “empowered” women having fun in Rio made other women (a few of them anyway) more independent.

Other research shows that divorce and lower fertility are linked to less domestic violence. So the influence of soaps may be far more positive than critics of their vapidity claim. If Globo could now come up with a seductive novela about tax reform its transformation of Brazil would be complete.

* “Television and Divorce: Evidence from Brazilian Novelas,” by Alberto Chong and Eliana La Ferrara (January 2009) and “Soap Operas and Fertility: Evidence from Brazil,” by Eliana La Ferrara, Alberto Chong and Suzanne Duryea (October 2008).


posted by R J Noriega
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