Louise Morris is a freelance journalist and broadcaster who works for CAWN producing media content and interviewing activists. She is also a fundraiser for Sound Women and is currently studying for a Masters in Global Media and Postnational Communication at the School of Oriental and African Studies.
Television has a strong potential to socialise. Socialisation is the transmission or teaching of “values and habits appropriate for society”. Television’s capacity to inform is largely thought to be for its popularity, ability to intrude into viewers’ private lives and that it is “cheap, ubiquitous, easy to consume and accessible to all” . Furthermore, television has been seamlessly integrated into daily routines and popular consciousness, making it an unobtrusive yet potent educator.
Puntos de Encuentro, the Nicaraguan feminist NGO, have recognised this potential and have created two successful socio-dramas Sexto Sentido (2001) and Contracorriente (2011) which aim to change cultural mores to promote gender equality, addressing what occurs behind the camera as well as in front of it. In the context of a politically conservative Nicaragua, Puntos de Encuentro’s socio-dramas have both undermined dominant narratives for women’s visual representation and have challenged patriarchal perspectives ingrained in society.
While Nicaragua’s state discourses have become increasingly aligned with the Catholic church, pushing the women’s movement out of political discourse, Puntos have used popular culture to counteract this, creating a new space to voice feminist concerns. Puntos’ socio-dramas have avoided expected censorship in Nicaragua, managing to represent wider problems around issues like abortion, which are both culturally stigmatised and illegal, and through this invite reflection on culturally entrenched beliefs.
With no television drama production within Nicaragua, Puntos have trained numerous staff to work on the socio-dramas, creating a “School for Women in Television and Film” to try and encourage gender equality in the broadcasting industry (Casa 2013). Each episode results from months of deliberation as Puntos meet with women’s organisations who work to prevent domestic violence and with victims of sexual abuse. The organisations use their experience to suggest problems they are facing and what might be useful for Puntos to include in the plotlines.
Puntos’ socio-dramas radically change the common masculine gaze of television production to a feminist one, reducing the objectivity of the women, to instead view the consequences of seeing them in this way. Scenes of sexual abuse were thought through carefully with Banks affirming: “We didn’t want there to be any voyeuristic potential of interpretation”. This references Laura Mulvey’s work on scopophilia in cinema; through the victimised/sexualised representation of women on screen even female viewers are constructed as male spectators.
Puntos subvert the damaging voyeuristic potential, and instead promote empathy for the victims, through several filming techniques in Contracorriente (2011). For the plotline of Jessica, a young girl from a middle-working class family who is tricked into prostitution, the camera avoids titillating images by focussing on her distress and the traumatic after-effects. She vomits, has nightmarish flashbacks, and cannot stand being touched, even by her mother, feeling constantly unclean. The rape scenes, when included, present the men as oppressive, physically smothering Jessica, who is childlike in comparison, emphasising the immorality of their actions. Jessica’s pimp, Richie, is eventually shot by the police, demonstrating that sexual exploitation leads to retribution, but the prostitutes, as victims of exploitation, are able to seek a normal life once more. Puntos attempt to change public perception of victims by explaining or representing the reasons the girls turn to prostitution, usually being tricked by a man they love or having to do it for survival.
Difficulties remain within the socio-drama format and Puntos’ multi-pronged campaigns perhaps not being enough to effect cultural change and ultimately not making an impact at government level. However, the fact that women’s rights issues are being discussed in mainstream culture, particularly ones deemed taboo or inequalities perceived as cultural norms, is promising. Although the effects are not easy to anticipate, the potential for commercial television to be used to promote social and cultural change points to its potency for advocacy in an age defined by mass media markets.