My unread New Yorkers piled up during the last few weeks of the semester, and I am finally getting around to plowing through them. I almost skipped the article "Life Lessons: How Soap Operas Can Change the World" (content unavailable on line, but this is the link to the TOC) thinking, foolishly, that I couldn't care less about soap operas. Well, it seems I should. Hanna Rosin, the author of the article, writes about how Mexican soap operas -- exported across the world -- are vehicles for social change. Unlike soap operas in the U.S., "telenovelas" are shown in the evening and their audience is diverse by age and gender. One popular telenovela "Accompaname" (translated as "Come Along") "portrays three sisters in a lower-class Mexico City family. One sister has a healthy marriage. Another has an unwanted pregnancy. The transitional character, Martha, has three children and is fearful of another pregnancy. In one scene, a baby is crying, a pot is boiling over, the phone is rining, and her six-year-old walks in. Martha is about to slap the child, then recoils, saying "I don't want to be like my mother." During the following weeks, she and her husband visit family-planning clinics. Martha tapes up a calendar markign teh days that they can have sex, which she refers to as 'the days we can go to the dance.'" Rosin's moral to her story about the story of Mexican soap operas? "The year that 'Accompaname' aired, sales of over-the-counter contraceptives in Mexico increased twenty-three per cent."
In 1996, Arvind Singhal, a professor of communication studies at Ohio University, conducted a study of an Indian radio drama called "Happiness Lies in Small Pleasures" produced by PCI (the Population Communication International, a New York-based group that promotes the use of soap operas as a weapon against poverty). One of the stories in that show concerned a young girl named Lali, a daughter of a widow who must fight to go to school. She succeeds, and, after she does, she eventually goes on to become a doctor. Rosin reports that on Singhal's "first research visit [to India], Singhal met a seven-year old girl who, by coincidence, was also named Lali. Her two older brothers went to school, but Lali had to stay home to take care of her younger brothers. Six months later, Singhal returned to find Lali sitting in a classroom. The villagers had petitionerd the government for funds for a child-crae center so that girls would not have to babysit their siblings at the expense of attending school. The percentage of girls at the school had risen from ten to forty."
None of this is terribly surprising to me. I know -- at least I can feel -- that popular cultural representations of reality changes how that reality is lived and perceived. Rodin is providing just a few examples of concrete relations of change. Assuming similar affects of popular cultural representations of law and justice (say, the courtroom drama), what are the behaviors and attitudes those representations engender? Did the film "A Few Good Men" reduce the amount of hazing incidents in the marines? Did it inspire young prosecutors to ask questions of hostile witnesses to which they don't know the answer ("Did you order the code red?")? In whose service is the courtroom drama (with its predictable self-righteous, underdog attorney and its glorification of the courtroom as a sacred space in which justice is done)?