24 Oct, Sunday
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TV as a Reflection of Society

WHAT appears on television in most countries is a useful reflection of what topics are on the mind of the people and what is considered socially acceptable. Both Philippine and Brazilian television have current shows that reflect similarities in outlook that come from being developing and Catholic nations.

In Brazil this month I watched the country’s most popular telenovela “Paraiso Tropical” which airs on the country’s largest TV network Globo. One of its main characters is a social-climber prostitute called Bebel played by Camila Pitanga. She was originally supposed to be an evil “contravida”, but her struggle to lift herself out of prostitution by snagging a rich husband is being viewed positively by a majority of the show’s viewers, making Pitanga one of the show’s and country’s hottest new stars.

In a newspaper interview the head writer of “Paraiso Tropical” said that he and the other writers of the telenovela were surprised that Bebel turned out to be such a favorite of the viewers. But in a country like Brazil where there are so many poor people, and the gap between the rich and poor is still so large, is it no wonder that viewers identify and root for a character such as Bebel?

In the Philippines, ABS-CBN television is embarking on a similar telenovela with the launch of “Margarita”. So far only teaser ads are being shown, but it seems to be the story of a female dancer torn between loving two men a la “Burlesk Queen”. Starring Wendy Valdez of Pinoy Big Brother fame, I’m sure Margarita will undoubtedly pull herself out of the sleaze of nightclubs and into a better life, only to be eternally haunted by her fleshy origins. But the new telenovela is not getting very good previews, even though no one has seen any episode of it yet. One Filipino blogger said: “Brace yourself for crappy acting from the lead stars Wendy, Bruce, and Diether on July 30.”

ABS-CBN is launching “Margarita” as a replacement for their martial arts, science-fiction telenovela “Rounin” which has been a dismal failure with viewers. Obviously, television executives believe that viewers will be able to identify more with the struggles of a showgirl than with the flying fights of the characters on “Rounin”.

Some commentators made a big deal when “Paraiso Tropical” launched in Brazil because it includes a gay, male couple. But they are depicted as young, professionally successful men who live together in a nice apartment. Globo said it was never going to show the couple kissing each other as it had polled its viewers and found out that the majority of Brazilians were not ready to see that just yet on their TV screens.

But Globo television has been hyper-successful in making and exporting telenovelas to countries around the world. One such weekly series, “Malu Mulher”, was a huge hit when it aired in 1979. Starring Regina Duarte, one of Brazil’s best actresses, as a recently divorced sociologist living in Sao Paulo with her 11 year old daughter, the show was innovative and progressive for dealing with such sensitive topics such as abortion, divorce and the rights of working women.

I was delighted to find the whole series on DVD when I was in Brasilia. I immediately bought it and watched a few episodes at home, finding that it still was excellent even 28 years after it first aired. What was amazing to me was the bold dialogue of the characters, especially given the fact that Brazil then was still under a military dictatorship and all television shows were closely scrutinized by government censors who strictly monitored programs for anything they could consider immoral or subversive.

If only Philippine television could produce something similar, instead of the dopey programs that networks currently churn out.
What Happened to Freedom of Speech?

THE news that foreign activists who participate in demonstrations next week at the ASEAN summit in Manila will be arrested by police and deported from the Philippines is alarming and ridiculous.

What harm can an admittedly small number of foreign activists do while protesting in Manila? As long as they are non-violent, what is the big deal? The Philippines is supposed to be one of Asia’s most democratic and freewheeling when it comes to public demonstrations and freedom of speech.

Arresting foreign activists will not only be a waste of time and public resources, it will also give the Philippines a black eye and cause unfavorable comparisons to police states such as Singapore and Malaysia, where public dissent is tightly regulated if not completely strangled.
Will the administration of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo justify this new policy under the new Human Security Act? Perhaps. But it is a shame that foreign activists will no longer be able to come to the Philippines and join their Filipino allies in protesting governmental actions that they consider unjust.