Monday, 15 April 2019

Soap Operas in Africa

Posted by Thomas Scarborough

Posters for Kenyan and South African Soap Operas

Who are the influencers in Africa? The politicians? Preachers? Educators? Revolutionaries?

There are some we may seldom think of: the producers of Africa’s soap operas. According to Discovery Networks, the average TV viewer in South Africa watches a massive 4.5 hours a day – a large part of which is taken up with soap operas. Statistics show that South Africa’s top five soap operas have about five billion views a year.  It is, according to journalist Tiema Muindi, ‘habitual viewing’.

Now before any person or group can influence another, there need to be certain conditions in place. It is generally agreed that people are motivated – not only motivated, but induced to act – when they hold up a picture of the world to the world itself, and there find a difference or disjoint. Psychologist Richard Gregory describes it as finding the ‘unexpected’, and the philosopher Willard Quine adds: the expected which fails to happen.

I look from my kitchen window, to see my little girl with her face down in the grass. This is not what I expected to see – and I spring into action. Or I did not expect to see a woman assaulted on the street, or a child malnourished. Again, I spring into action. To put it simply, psychologists say that our behaviour is controlled by mental models – and this, said the philosopher Plato, spells danger. Show people things which change their expectations, and you distract and destabilise all of society. Or so he thought.

It would be important to know, therefore, whether Africa’s soap operas give Africa a picture of the world which is different to the world itself. We are all aware of the shock-factor of soap operas in general: conflicts, intrigue, and the breaking of cultural taboos. Yet in Africa, there is something that would seem to loom larger than any of this. We see it in virtually all of the soap opera posters – which are the 'door', so to speak, to the soap operas themselves. It is affluence. Designer dresses, tailored suits, expensive smartphones, sumptuous settings, and more.

We may open this door and enter in. Here we find, again, affluence. Meals in fine restaurants, fitted kitchens, fast cars, expensive whisky, and so on – not to speak of the expensive pursuits of the characters themselves.

Yet in the real world which is Africa, a vast number of people live in poverty.  By some statistics, 33% in Nigeria, 42% in Kenya, and 55% in South Africa. In reality, one sees shacks made with wood and iron and empty agricultural sacks – overcrowded trains, dusty streets, and children playing with wire toys. Given this context, how might the soap operas influence Africa? There are various possibilities:
They do not significantly shape a continent’s views and expectations – they are merely soap operas, after all. This seems unlikely.
They may lead people to believe that Africa really looks the way that it is presented in the soap operas. May we then blame the wealthier classes, for failing to recognise or understand the desperate struggles of the poor?

The soap operas may dull the senses and desires of the masses – leading them to feel that they are absorbed by the fantasy world they see, to become one with it, as it were.
They may lead viewers to expect the life that they see on TV. And what happens then? Do viewers make these values their own highest good – old colonial values, one might add? Or do they grieve within, to see that they fall so far short of the dream? Or are they motivated to strive for more?
One may ask, too: what would it do to people’s expectations, if they were to view more realistic soap operas? Would these conscientise societies more effectively as to their real plight? Would they lead people to be more realistic in their plans and strategies – with their feet now firmly planted on the ground? Or would they lower their expectations, or degrade them?

Few seem to have given it much thought. Both academic research and popular articles are very thin on the ground. A rare paper on How Do Soap Operas Affect the Poor? Experiences of Turkish Women, by Turkish academics Aras Ozgun et al, concludes that ‘we need to understand the issue from the perspectives of the vulnerable’. There are troubling signs. In particular, in most cases in their study, soap operas led to ‘self-imposed alienation’ amongst the poor, including feelings of shame, anger, dissatisfaction, and powerlessness.


Tessa den Uyl said...

To dull the senses is surely an aspect the creators of soap operas and series have to keep in mind while thinking of their audience. It has to function like an addiction, and those who become enslaved to the screen, well, you keep their minds away from more important issues. Politically, series and soaps are to stay into power, and let others dream of it.

Recently a friend told me that Netflix is constructed to evoke similar addictions to series, the dependency to be entertained is probably worldwide.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

This is a subject of very great importance, if only for the reason that these soap operas have billions of views a year. What information is available suggests that they could but do not help the poor. On the contrary tend to alienate and isolate them.

Keith said...

I found what seemed to me to be a curious bifurcation of results — measured influences of soap operas on women in poverty — which pops up in various places throughout the formal study that readers are helpfully referred to at the end of this illuminating essay.

On the one hand, the formal study report says, “Our findings show that identifying themselves with the fictional soap opera characters, [women in poverty] derive emotional fulfillment, at times finding what they lack in their everyday lives, such as love, friendship, and power.”

Providing a seemingly negative spin, the report goes on to say, “On the other hand, being exposed to the affluent ‘other life’ has consequences on [the women’s] wellbeing, deepening the contradiction between their current situation and what they perceive as the dominant way of living, eventually leading to dissatisfaction and hopelessness.”

I’m not sure how to reconcile what appear to be two ostensibly contrasting observations, which show up elsewhere in the study report.

Perhaps the bifurcation stems from the study’s small cohort of women interviewed (forty), the single town where these women of poverty live, and the heavy emphasis on qualitative rather than quantitative factors. How the interview questions were crafted might have added insight, too. I don’t know.

I suggest it’s a consequential enough topic, nicely explored by this essay, for social scientists to follow up.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you, Keith. It is a consequential topic, and the Turkish research suggests what might be found in Africa, too.

I myself could find only how soap operas influence, for example, marriage traditions in Africa, or gender stereotypes, and so on. The obvious issue of affluence, which seems so much bigger, would seem largely to slip under the radar.

As I understood the Turkish paper, soap operas could do a lot for poor women, but by and large they do not. They also have, in most cases, a detrimental affect on poor women. This is not so in every case, so perhaps one can accept both conclusions together?

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