Myths and stigmas: gay characters in soap operas
Growing up in a Cuban household in Miami, Herb Sosa, 55, was familiar with only one type of Spanish-language soap opera.
“Every single telenovela back then was identical. You had the poor girl working in the house who was mistreated and she ends up marrying the rich son of the owner,” he said. “Almost all of those shows had that same basic plot line. But I can tell you this: none of them had gay characters.”
For Sosa, a self-identifying “proud gay man” — and for the 5.7 million U.S. viewers who tune in to a telenovela every single week — this past month was different.
Starting on Aug. 13, “El Corazón Nunca Se Equivoca” (or “The Heart is Never Wrong”) made American TV history by becoming the first Spanish-language soap opera featuring a same-sex couple as main protagonists. The gay couple portrayed, two teenage boys with names the length of a summer day, Aristóteles and Cuauhtémoc (Aris and Temo, for short), were given a primetime berth: weekdays at 9 p.m. on Univision, the nation’s biggest Spanish-language network.
“It’s about time,” Sosa said. “That was my reaction when I heard about this show. [...] The LGBTQ community has been around forever. The fact that telenovelas and Spanish media have chosen to ignore us for so long doesn’t mean we haven’t existed.”
During its run, which ended earlier this week, “El Corazón Nunca Se Equivoca” followed Aris and Temo as they moved to Mexico City to attend college. Their professional aspirations are poles apart. Aris wants to be a musician. Temo hopes to go into politics. According to Univision’s show description, the crux of the telenovela was to see the young couple “create new friendships and overcome the challenges of being gay in Mexican society.”
That premise had the makings of a show bound to attract the attention of LGBTQ activists.
“Our community has always had diversity, but LGBTQ characters in the media have often been either stereotyped or irrelevant,” Monica Trasandes, a spokesperson for GLAAD, a leading LGBTQ media monitoring organization, wrote in an email to el Nuevo Herald. “To see two characters like Aris and Temo, with such a central storyline and sharing a full and interesting relationship that’s supported by family members, that’s something that’s very, very important.”
The show has also become a commercial hit.
In Mexico, where the Televisa-produced series first aired earlier this summer, “El Corazón Nunca Se Equivoca” amassed more than three million daily viewers, making it one of the most successful shows in Mexican TV, according to Nielsen data.
On Univision, the telenovela drew a large audience from the get go, with more than two million people tuning in to all or part of the Aug. 13 premiere. Since then, “El Corazón Nunca Se Equivoca” has continued to deliver “steady growth” for the network, according to a Univision spokesman.
“We are very pleased with how the story has resonated with our audience,” added Jessica Rodríguez, Univision’s president of entertainment and chief marketing officer.
“We’re proud of the conversations that our characters have helped to generate in Latino households across the country, and we believe that the show is an important milestone in Spanish-language television.”
For some insight into how the soap opera has resonated with its audience, check out the often trending “Aristemo” hashtag on social media, which fans continue to tack on to tweets and post comments expressing how much Aris and Temo means to them.
LGBTQ REPRESENTATION IN TELENOVELAS
LGBTQ representation in Spanish-language media is anemic.
In 2017, GLAAD released a report (titled Still Invisible) that found that just 3% of all characters in primetime, Spanish-language scripted TV in the United States were LGBTQ — meaning just 19 out of 698 roles. Of those 19 queer characters, six died. Another six were mostly irrelevant.
But while central, show-anchoring same-sex romances like Aris and Temo’s have been sparse, they’ve existed in some form since the 90s.
Here’s the thing, though: the majority of relationships that have managed to make it onscreen in the past have been fraught with tension and were mostly portrayed as a secret, shameful burden for closeted folks to carry. That is troublesome, activists say, because it underscores the trope that LGBTQ relationships are, by nature, traumatic.
And for all the flashy steaminess that TV viewers might associate with telenovelas, romantic LGBTQ scenes in the past have been tame. The modus operandi has been to hint at intimacy, but hardly ever give it airtime. Kisses routinely fall prey to censure.
Take, for instance, “¿Dónde está Elisa?” (“Where is Elisa?”), a successful Miami-produced telenovela that aired on Telemundo in 2010. On that show, José Ángel Rincón falls in love with Ricardo de la Fuente on a European trip. But the romance must be kept secret lest José Ángel’s wife, Viviana, finds out.
While the actor who played José Ángel, Omar Germenos, confirmed there had been an on-camera kiss with his same-sex love interest, viewers did not get to see it because producers chose to cut out the scene.
For many telenovela viewers, the first same-sex kiss they came across would have been the 2013 smooch between Félix Khoury (the closeted son of a virulently homophobic dad) and Niko Corona in “Rastros de Mentiras,” (“Traces of Lies”), a popular Brazilian soap opera that got broadcast all over the region, and whose depiction of same-sex affection made international news.
WHAT COULD THE IMPACT OF #ARISTEMO BE?
Having even a cursory understanding of how telenovelas have grappled with LGBTQ themes in the past, it becomes easier to understand why “El Corazón Nunca Se Equivoca,” whose teenaged same-sex protagonists openly lead a loving relationship consisting of more than just innuendo, could be so paradigm-altering.
“There’s nothing better than to see yourself portrayed on TV or in the media to realize that you are not alone in the world,” said Sosa, who now heads the Miami-based Unity Coalition. “So I think that telenovelas like this and characters like Aris and Temo can only help. It will help abuelitas understand their grandkids; it will help fathers understand their sons; and it will help daughters understand themselves.”
By putting the love between two boys at the forefront, and by also showcasing father figures vocally supportive of that love, “El Corazón Nunca Se Equivoca” offers non-traditional presentations of masculinity that challenge the outsized role of machismo in the Hispanic culture, activists say. And for those stereotype-busting elements to be included in a telenovela is especially powerful, given the influential space soap operas occupy in the world of Spanish-language entertainment, according to experts.
“Telenovelas are a common language for people from different Latin American countries,” said Dr. Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel, a University of Miami professor whose research focuses on queer and Latino studies. “It’s a unique genre. It’s something that everybody watches and that exposes the entire family. [...] So it becomes an opportunity for people to talk about these issues.”
She added: “I can imagine that, for many people who are questioning or maybe thinking about their identity, watching a telenovela with a same-sex relationship that’s front and center would let them have a totally different formation from, let’s say, a queer identifying or questioning young person in the past that never saw that represented in a telenovela and always thought that whatever their identity was was never visible on TV.”
Sosa, the show’s viewer, agrees.
“It would have been so positive for me growing up, and for many other guys and girls, to see something like this,” he said. “I think it’s so important for our Latino community to see that the world doesn’t end if your son or daughter is gay. The sky is not going to fall, God will not love you less. That’s really what it boils down to.”
Despite serious advancement in the fight for LGBTQ rights in Latin America, positive media representation is something the queer community could still benefit from, activists say. Progressive legislation on matters like marriage equality and same-sex adoption, for instance, hasn’t prevented the region from having one of the highest rates of violence against the LGBTQ community in the world.
That paradoxical state of affairs is a reminder that no law can write off homophobia and transphobia, experts say.
“Sometimes there is a disconnect between the cultural representation which lays out what could be the best possible scenario while society is still struggling,” said Martínez-San Miguel, the UM professor. “[El Corazón Nunca Se Equivoca] is a first step but there is a lot of work to be done.”