RESEARCH INTO TV SERIALS PAST AND PRESENT. Lorena Gómez Puertas. SUMMARY - PDF

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RESEARCH INTO TV SERIALS PAST AND PRESENT Lorena Gómez Puertas SUMMARY The theoretical framework for television serials in the nineties can be traced back to the two principal preceding

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RESEARCH INTO TV SERIALS PAST AND PRESENT Lorena Gómez Puertas SUMMARY The theoretical framework for television serials in the nineties can be traced back to the two principal preceding research approaches: the analysis of the representation of gender, race or other social issues based on the narrative structures of the text; and the analysis of the consumption and reception of these serials, in which ethnographic studies play a crucial role. However, a considerable set of diversified research works by author, areas of origin and interests can be added to the above, aimed at a type of serialised fiction production that has stretched beyond the limits of the traditional models assigned to the Anglo-Saxon and Latin American areas. A historical and critical review of the most recent research into TV serials enables us to understand the present state of the art of research into which the study of Catalan serials can be inserted. KEY WORDS Television, Fiction, Serials (soap operas), Research, Communication ARTICLE The theoretical framework for television serials in the nineties can be traced back the two principal preceding research approaches: the analysis of the representation of gender, race or other social issues based on the narrative structures of the text; and the analysis of the consumption and reception of these serials, in which ethnographic studies play a crucial role. However, this area of communicative research has experienced an increase in research undertakings, which over the last few years have diversified the perspectives of analysis of TV serials to such an extent that today we can draw on a considerable set of diversified research works by author, areas of origin interrelated disciplines and interests, aimed at a type of serialised fiction production that has stretched beyond the limits of the traditional models assigned to the Anglo-Saxon and Latin American areas. The purpose of this article is to present a historical and critical overview of the most recent research into TV serials that will enable us to understand the present state of the art of research, into which the study of Catalan serials can be inserted as an indigenous legacy of this TV fiction tradition. It is structured around three main thematic areas: I) Studies of representation, II) Research into consumption and reception; III) Other research approaches to TV serials in the nineties: interdisciplinary studies, proposals for comprehensive and comparative analysis, and new perspectives. I) Studies of representation: gender, race, sex and other social issues The study of soap opera representation of the female sex, social class, race or other issues of a social character has been continuous since research first began, and this has evolved within the framework of communicative theories applicable over the years, and varying on the basis of the contextual interests imprinted upon them As regards the female sex, the relationship between soap operas and the life lived by women as their main consumers is what has directed the thrust of research work into the soaps representation of women and the identification that the female viewer may set up with them. Representation and identification are two key concepts in feminist research into cinema and television consumption, which can be extended into the wider framework of Cultural Studies. Geraghty figures as a direct inheritor of this evolution. Having defined the fragmented narrative structure of these fictions, the aesthetic experience that they propose as a genre and the antecedents of cinematic melodrama, she presented in the nineties a type of textual analysis that was distinct from Modleski s linguistic and psychoanalytic type (1982) and Screen Theory, which led to a reappraisal of the conception of the female figure as the ideal mother. Geraghty (1991, 1995) analyses narrative structures of a formal nature, focusing on the role defined by the characters in the framework of the family structure that makes sense of their actions. She distinguishes between the public sphere, which can be assimilated to the world of work, and the private sphere, identified as the familiar, affective one. Based on this schema she studies the formal conventions and gender limits that are gradually blurred, thus jeopardising female pleasure when new issues are tackled. She concludes, however, that contrary to feminist presuppositions that claimed for a realist representation of women in this type of serial narration, it is the more idealised and fantastic female characters that give female viewers a chance to judge family values and the patriarchal model (Geraghty, 1991: ). She coincides, therefore, with Feuer (1990) about the possibility of a critical reading of open serials, and with a study focusing on the character of Sue Ellen (Dallas) in which Ien Ang (1990) deals with the notion of identification. (1) The concept of identification between viewers and soaps may refer to identification with the particular characters, which extends to the situation in which they find themselves, or else the viewing process, following the premises of Brundson (1981) concerning the active process of reading the soap opera through its serial structure and traditional female capacities for managing the personal sphere. Regarding the latter meaning, Geraghty (1981) had already pointed to speculations made by the audience on the basis of the text, which the Tubingen project (Seiter, 1989) would later confirm by describing soap operas as a collective construct. Yet gender has not proved to be the only central strand in the fabric of representation studies. Geraghty herself (1991) also addresses questions of class, race and sexuality, based on the fact that not only realism but also the melodramatic component and the family as a structural nucleus are specific features of these serials that condition the treatment of certain issues in contemporary social problem areas particularly in the new British soaps of the eighties Eastenders and Brookside with their realist intentions both as regards style, close to that of British cinema, and content. In these soaps social problems take on a public and personal dimension, linked to such an extent with today s context that some of them have proved controversial due to the immediacy of their impact and the fact that they are so close to people in the street. The characters, on the other hand, gradually cease to be people in the street, subject to realist intentions, in response to a greater demand, that of melodrama, which obliges them to be morally exemplary (Geraghty, 1997), and herein lies their formative value. In this framework, the author proposes an analysis of the issue of race and ethnicity based on the representation of black characters, and the issue of sexuality through the representation of gays and lesbians, and illnesses such as AIDS (Geraghty, 1991: ). The presence of black characters gives rise to two forms of treatment, depending on whether one or more characters are included, since the lower the number, the greater the representation of the black community. The consequent reduction of the scope for action and participation in the plot, in which they are never the protagonists, shapes them as victims of racial prejudice. There is evidence, however, that multiplying the number of characters does not lead to equivalent role significance or full interaction. This is attributed to the fact that by not wishing to note the difference, there is a tendency to talk of common problems without analysing the possibility that there may be different reasons for similar problems (among them, race). Some time ago, in his analysis of paradigmatic narrative structure and the three types of possible relationships among characters (family relations, love interest or social links), Robert C. Allen (1985: 75) showed evidence that they are limited for those characters that are non-white and heterosexual. By analysing the position of black characters and homosexuals in the narrative structure, Fuqua (1995) also corroborates the fact that the latter are consigned to controversial social issues located outside the community consensus, where they are defined by their sexual or racial option. As regards the issue of homosexuality, the analysis is often linked with the issue of AIDS, following the presentation of the soaps themselves. The aim is then precisely to distance the HIV virus from gay characters by following a consistent strategy that tends to focus on the reaction of the characters surrounding the possible HIV-positive character, as the ones with whom the viewers had to identify. Despite the adverse results, Geraghty (1997: ) values the role of British soaps positively as a popular discordant voice by distancing themselves from the racism and homophobic radicalism of the popular press and their difference from American soap operas, in which gay persons are defined in terms of patriarchal power as female roles and thus deviant from the norm. However, there are many different studies of the representation of race, gender and social issues in the soap operas and telenovelas of the nineties. The internationalisation of serial formats, together with that of the research approaches employed in each of their ambits of origin, has contributed to their diversification. Thus, in the U.S.A., Clark (1995) studied the representation of gays and lesbians in televised fiction, and in soap operas in particular. From a feminist standpoint she traces the issue of sexuality, using as an ideal reference the lesbian melodrama Two in twenty (1985) and she brings out the asexual and de-eroticised representation of lesbian relationships as a consequence of homophobic pressure, in line with the analysis of relations of friendship between women in Geraghty (1991: 158). Among the countries to which soap operas have been exported, thus stimulating the production of local serials, we find the study by Frey-Vor (1995) from the structuralist/semiotic perspective of the German television drama Lindenstrafe (ARD 1985), which, in addition to its content, deals with the production context and analyses reception in comparative terms with the British Eastenders. Other significant studies are those by Stempel into the representation of paternity and those by Griffiths and Rofel into national identity and culture, all of which have been collected in the volume par excellence of the nineties, that by Allen (1995). As regards the representation of race and ethnicity, Bramlett-Solomon and Farwell (1996), subscribing to the analysis by Geraghty (1991) study the multi-ethnic community in Eastenders, while the generic work by Daniels and Gerson (1989) endorses the thesis of displacement or the incomplete integration of black and Asiatic characters and criticises the use of stereotypes that reduce racism to factors of individual character and non-socio-structural ones. In the other leading research ambit, Latin America, studies of national identity and the treatment of social issues (public health, schooling, etc.) are especially significant. In this latter ambit two interrelated tendencies can be observed: on the one hand, the interdisciplinary nature of studies into the representation of social aspects of a public nature in soap operas with a realist format and the educational interest that motivates a large part of the research into these soap operas and, on the other, those studies that follow the pro-development movement in Mexico and Venezuela in the late seventies. With regard to the interdisciplinary nature, it is worth underlining the great importance of demographic studies, particularly Brazilian ones, in the analysis of soap operas as elements that intervene in the complex process of promotion of public policy, as reflected in the thesis by Ortega (2002: ). What is established, in one word, is a correlation of demographic studies between texts and contexts before and after the broadcast. This is a type of study of the spreading of educational messages through the media that also extends to other underdeveloped nations in Africa. Ortega s methodological design (2002: ) differs from the above research work in its renouncing the application of quantitative methods in the analysis of the text from demographic categories and constructing an ad hoc qualitative model focusing on two main thrusts: socio-demographic change and gender relationships, with which she studies Catalan serials for the first time. Yet studies linked with the educational context extend beyond demographic applications. A significant number of research endeavours into the educational function of soap operas, which work on the gap between representation and the effective function of promotion and social education (Rogers; Antola, 1989; Singhal, 1993; Fuenzalida, 1992, 1996) can be found within the framework of communicative research in Latin America. Fuenzalida s work in Chile is a fine example of this, as this is a context that is closer to the pro-development model in Mexico than to the more modernised Brazilian one. It studies not only contents but also the way in which gender can educate in issues like public health or legislation, by insisting on the melodramatic component as the key factor in the educational appropriation of texts via mechanisms of identification and projection; in other words, in a manner that is more emotional than rational. Research from an educational standpoint that shares with the general tendency of soap opera and telenovela studies in the nineties in re-directing research from analysis of the text to the study of the context for reception and consumption. II) Research into consumption and reception. The importance of ethnographic analysis The analysis of reception and consumption of media products in the nineties finds theoretical support in the notion of productive consumption, the distinction between use and interpretation, and the Theory of Resistance (Fiske, 1987). Semiotic/structural analysis (Greimas, 1971) is consolidated, as it enables us to analyse the deep structures of texts, which are polysemic by definition; or, alternatively, the analysis of the different readings or uses of texts. Presuppositions in the process of the production of meaning ascribed to the viewer were confirmed by the research work into trans-cultural reception in the eighties (Katz; Liebes; Ang, 1985), in which it was shown that viewers do not necessarily adopt the representations that the media have put into circulation with regard to models of reality (Grandi, 1995: 247). In this theoretical context research into soap operas and telenovelas is undertaken on the basis of analysis of the conversations between viewers, from which the serial s meaning is constructed. Brown s analysis (1994) from the feminist standpoint, in the framework of British and American Cultural Studies from which it takes its theoretical and methodological referents, is one of the foremost ones in this respect. Her proposal of a theory of female discourse, according to which women establish their emancipating readings in the shelter of the dialogic process from which the soap opera or telenovela are jointly interpreted, is worth emphasising. The reassessment of the role of women in the process of resistance to hegemony in the framework of the private, domestic sphere makes an important contribution to televised melodramas through the dialogue set up by women s knowledge in female discourse networks, where it is shown that female viewers in no instance are compelled to renounce their pleasure, nor their textual or gender capacities, but rather that they assume their cultural inheritance and the strategic knowledge of their activity and their position as women. The results cannot be generalised but they are conclusive as regards the four important features for the generating of emancipating readings in conversations on soap operas: the motivating of communication, the establishing of spaces exclusive of commentary, strategic awareness (of gender and text) and the derogation of normative control mechanisms (through laughter, and criticism in the private context). Hobson s more comprehensive research (1990) can be situated in this same input from ethnographic work. It deals with television s integrating capacity in the daily conversations of women carried on in the workplace. The study confirms the audience s active participation, its textual and gender competence, and the ease with which viewers appropriate television texts, without even the need to see them directly. Above all, however, they confirm that the processes of identification do not occur so much with the character as with the situation in which viewers encounter a point of comparison with their own experiences. This conceptualisation of active social consumption has also led to an exploration of new spaces for the construction of femininity. Spence (1995) is another exponent of the Anglo-Saxon experience, whereas in the Latin American sphere we meet with research into reception that is interested in the representation of women and their social promotion: Quiroz and Márquez (1997), or the study of ways of seeing (media/popular culture, urban/rural surroundings) by Sonia Muñoz (1995). Going beyond the perspective of gender, we have the analysis of youth, family and trans-cultural reception. Worth mentioning among the ethnographic studies of reception by youth networks is the work by Fouassier (1997) on French television serials and the work by the Spanish researcher Peñamarín (1999) on Spanish young people s serials, based on the review of Ricouer s (1985) concept of narrative thought that Bruner (1996) and Schaeffer (1999) undertake from the standpoint of narrative and cognitive psychology. Research into the family context of the reception of telenovelas has representative work like that of Barrios (1998) in Venezuela and that of Covarrubias and others (1994) in Mexico, with a theoretical approach close to social constructionism, the sociology of daily life and ethno-methodology. The latter proves especially significant for its attempt to integrate the ethnographic micro-study of the family as a unit of reception but also as a micro-reality, in a broader approach to reality as a macrostructure. The theoretical presuppositions are those of the qualitative sociology of Schwartz and Jacobs (1984) and the method for the reconstruction of social reality: the ethnographic approach to the family as reduced representation. (2) The notion of everyday life that Covarrubias and others (1994) adopt from the work by Heller (1977) enables them to contemplate what is present in it of mediation between micro-levels of social organisation like the family and macro-levels like the state. It is this dimension of social mediator that links the research by Covarrubias and others (1994) with the research approach of Morley (1986), Silverstone (1991) or Llull (1988) and social customs. The results of their research can be synthesised into a typology of uses of television in the family, divided into the conscious and the unconscious, which follows the approach by Llull (1988), although what is more relevant is their categorisation of what they term social uses explicit during consumption of the telenovela (Covarrubias, 1994: ), which we may summarise as: educational function, preventive medium, cultural representation, cognitive social orientation and cathartic use. This taxonomy enables us to read telenovelas in their role as constructors of social reality, as they offer representations of everyday life that are assumed as forms of education, knowledge and social legitimisation. Thus, they complement the research into the educational function of the telenovela by Fuenzalida (1996), with whom they share the approach based on the notion of everyday life and the emotional component. Lastly, we must consider the research approach to the trans
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