Sunday, April 25, 2010

Soap Opera Diplomacy

Most governments recognize the power of cultural diplomacy, from the Family of Man exhibit in the 50s during the Cold War to the food diplomacy of many different countries to your basic cultural exchange. However, the power of soap opera diplomacy has yet to be widely recognized or discussed. The first I heard of soap opera diplomacy was with the Colombian soap opera, Yo soy Betty, la fea (I am Betty, the Ugly) which ran from 1999 to 2001 in Colombia which was then adapted for the U.S. market into Ugly Betty which just aired its final episode after 4 seasons last week. Because of the popularity in both the US and Colombia, it was adapted again for a Mexican and Mexican-American audience into La Fea Mas Bella (The Most Beautiful Ugly) in 2006 through 2007. For those of you who don't know, the plot is that an "ugly" woman makes her way into the world of fashion and becomes successful through various transformations while getting more beautiful as time passes by. It would seem the premise most likely originated from the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale of the Ugly Duckling which is a great example of spreading ideas globally - from Holland to the rest of the world long before the age of the internet, television or radio.

Anyway, back to soap operas. So Ugly Betty was a great example of demonstrating through television the shared values in the Americas - but where else can television play a role in aiding U.S. (or any country's) public diplomacy? Well, I am a big advocate of FRIENDS diplomacy for the U.S. but what really sparked inspiration for this post was an article in FP sent my way from a good friend Andrea in Tel Aviv about a Turkish soap operas exported to the Middle East and dubbed into Syrian-Arabic. Basically, second-rate Turkish soap operas became extraordinarily popular throughout the Arabic speaking Middle East because:

"The idea of watching Muslim men and woman who share the same values and cultural background with their
brethren in the Middle East is a very appealing one because it raises taboo subjects and challenges conservative values by someone from within, as opposed to an outsider." - Nadia Bilbassy-Charters

Bilbassy-Charters continued to explain in her article that Turkey, partly because of these popular soaps, has gained more credibility in the eyes of the Arab publics. She argues that public diplomacy can be a successful strategy to help repair and grow the relationships between the U.S. and the Middle East if done correctly. An argument that I fully support. Demonstrating shared values is just one aspect of a successful PD strategy. While soap opera diplomacy would probably not work from the U.S. to the Middle East, we still need to find "out-of-the-box" ways to related to, understand from, and share values, ideas, words and images with the Arab publics while focusing on listening and learning from each other and different examples of successful public diplomacy. Maybe, the U.S. government should brainstorm with some of our best cultural exporters out here in Hollywood, but it has to be authentic - not contrived but something real - I know it's a lot to hope for and very complex but fictional television captures the imaginations, hearts and minds of its viewers because of the people in the stories and their lives. We can't forget that people relating to people can make a big impact - real or imagined.

*Originally Posted on April 18, 2010 at

1 comment:

  1. Another piece on Turkish soap opera diplo: