Chapter 1: Soap Operas and Class Dynamics -Diane Gromelski

Reading the first chapter of Bel Canto, I found it diverged widely from my expectations of how the novel would be based on a brief summary I had read. The novel is far less plot-driven than a synopsis would suggest, focusing more on the emotions and memories of characters as they relate to the events of the story. The occurrences of the first chapter are communicated largely from the perspective of Mr. Hosokawa, the founder of a Japanese electronics company, who is attending the party only so he can hear his favorite opera singer perform. While his character would likely have come off as cold or disengaged from a third person perspective, I feel like I understand much of his personality after just one chapter, particularly his passion for opera. My major question regarding Hosokawa is: Why doesn’t he feel a need to help the people in the country in which the story is set by establishing an electronics factory there? Having grown up in a family where attending the opera or a movie was a major luxury, Hosokawa is surprisingly unsympathetic to those who live in poverty.

The core emerging theme I picked up on reading the first chapter is that of class differences. I project that as these characters, who come from a wide variety of countries with different socioeconomic atmospheres, get to know one another they will be faced with questions about the morality of the large wealth gap that exists in our world. Is it right that the Japanese and the Western nations thrive and have no true interest in aiding in the advancement of the developing country? Within the unnamed country, is it just that the leaders throw a fancy, expensive dinner party while their constituents go hungry? As of now, we identify with and pity the hostages, but I have a feeling that by the end of the story we will find the actions of the terrorists less morally reprehensible as we learn more about their motives. This complicates Patchett’s statement that “in fact it was the terrorists who would not survive the ordeal” because while it appears to signify a happy ending to the novel, it will be unsettling to me if capitalist greed triumphs over the efforts of the oppressed.

One aspect of the plot that relates to this issue of class is the treatment of soap operas. The president of the unnamed county in which the story takes place has an obsession with soap operas so powerful that he schedules his meetings around the time of its airing, and he fortunately evades the hostage situation because the party falls on the same night as his show. Members of the government view their leader’s preoccupation with soap operas as extremely embarrassing, prompting them to gasp when the vice president reveals the secret to the entire party at the end of the chapter. In fact, the discomfiture over the president’s fascination is so great that his cabinet “would have gladly traded it in for an indiscreet mistress.”

This quotation prompted me to question why soap operas are considered so embarrassing if the great majority of people in the country love them. Latin American soap operas, known as telenovelas, are one of the most popular genres of programming in those countries, topped only by televised football matches (Meade). According to Dr. Santos Guiterrez, telenovelas are viewed as a “guilty pleasure” in Latin American culture and are strongly identified with the lower and middle classes: “(T)he telenovela’s populatity and huge audiences imply that each day a great number of people throughout the Spanish-speaking world live with and recognize themselves through telenovela melodramas” (Guiterrez 82-83). Telenovelas are attractive to those from lower socioeconomic classes because they often portray the rise of a young hero or heroine from poverty to a life of luxury (Tufte 214). However, not all people see the popularity of soap operas as positive; the shows have been criticized for the “narcotic” effect they have on audiences (drawing people in and causing them to ignore everyday realities, which certainly seems true for the president) as well as their controversial themes and plot elements (Gonzalez 86). Since their beginnings in the early 1950s, telenovelas have both reflected and influenced the social situation and stereotypes of Latin American culture, often pushing against societal norms. For example, tyrannical, light-skinned matriarchs control many of the dark-skinned female characters in telenovelas, enforcing the stereotype of the white ruling class while also rejecting the idea of males as the sole source of power within a family (Gonzalez 89). In fact, many of the protagonists in telenovelas are female, and the genre has traditionally been marketed to an audience of lower-class women (Gonzalez 86).

Through my research, I discovered that viewers of Latin American soap operas have generally been classified as female and lower class, largely due to the central themes and plot elements that are designed to appeal to those viewers. This classification explains why the members of the president’s cabinet would not want him to be identified with the telenovelas, as they want him to appear masculine, powerful, and wealthy, which could be particularly important in an “oppressive” developing country. I am excited to see how the class dynamic plays out in the following chapters as characters are forced to occupy a confined space for what will likely be an extended period of time.

Works Cited

Gonzalez, Layla. “Mirada de Mujer: Negotiating Latina Identities and the Telenovela.” JSTOR. Web. 2 Sept. 2015.

Guiterrez, Santos. Guilty Pleasures: Class, Gender, Culture and Life as They Are Connected to Telenovelas. ProQuest, 2008. Print.

Meade, Teresa A. A History of Modern Latin America: 1800 to the Present. John Wiley & Sons, 2011. Print.

Tufte, Thomas. Living with The Rubbish Queen: Telenovelas, Culture and Modernity in Brazil. Indiana University Press, 2000. Print.

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2 thoughts on “Chapter 1: Soap Operas and Class Dynamics -Diane Gromelski

  1. sariegel says:

    I, too, got the feeling that Ann Patchett will later shape our experience of the two groupings we see in the first chapter. She has separated the two socioeconomic classes quite distinctly, giving more individual insight into some of the wealthy characters while labeling the entirety of the less wealthy characters “terrorists”. While this label makes sense, I agree with your statement in class that she does this to define the terrorists as “other.” However, by describing the majority of the terrorist group as younger in age and detailing some of their innocent actions and thoughts, such as being enchanted by the opera or requesting gum, Patchett does foreshadow a possible perspective reversal for the reader.
    I’m really glad you considered soap operas in your research, as they were a topic I wanted to look into but didn’t have time. Latin American soap operas are such a staple of the culture, so it is interesting to see that they are predominantly marketed toward lower class females. You could definitely branch off into research topics about women’s roles in Latin American culture. I once read a novel called How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. In this novel, it detailed how there is often a matriarch who holds a fair amount of power over the other women in the family, which is something you alluded to as a characteristic of many soap operas. I wonder if this is accurate in actual Latin American social settings. However, the girls in the novel who were more acquainted with American culture felt that the male presence in the Dominican Republic was oppressive. Latin American women’s perceptions of their rights, roles, and class could be a really interesting path of research.
    – Sarah Riegel

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  2. courtfesette says:

    While I was reading the book I also noticed the class differences and posed the same questions as you did: Why does Mr. Hosokawa not show sympathy towards a country whom he could help build up? Another point I would have liked to see you expand more on was the fact that the country who was hosting the party was poor, yet made sure to appear rich to those of higher status. If a country is suffering, wouldn’t they want those they are asking help for to know the extent of their problems?
    I completely agree with your prediction that the terrorists will end up being more relatable than the hostages throughout the novel. Having realized that the terrorists may actually just be a misunderstood lower class who wanted to be heard by their selfish government, I too became saddened by Patchett’s foreshadowing that they will be the ones to die after the ordeal has been settled.
    I found your research piece on sopa opras and Latin America and how it ties in with social class to be very interesting. I was intrigued when you showed that telenovelas are more popular around the lower and middle class society because the president of a country is scheduling his meetings and events around each and every episode. I like how you linked the two together by connecting the “narcotic” effects of soap operas to the president’s secret obsession with them. I also like how you dug deeper into telenovelas and was able to find a connection between telenovelas and social class, showing the stereotypes they promote and societal norms they hold to be true.

    -Courtney Fesette

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