Rosario Tijeras is a Colombian drama. It is an adaptation of a novel by the same name. Rosario, the protagonist, played by Maria Fernanda Yepez, was raised in the slums and raped by a local gang. After the rape – her friend was also murdered by an infamous drug lord – she seeks revenge, and gets it by killing the drug lord. Word spreads fast, and, in a reversal of expectations, a gang hires her to become an assassin and from that moment she works for the new mafia boss.
The show has murders, betrayal, fast money and beautiful women and appears to make riveting television. It was one of Colombia’s top-rated shows of 2010. When the series began airing on Telefutura in the US in September 2010 it delivered the highest rated series finale in the history of the network. (Columbia is the third largest Latin American country after Brazil and Mexico, and, sadly, one of the most dangerous places on the planet.)
There were disapproving voices, of course. Though extreme tales of drug bosses and glamorous women assassins are common on Colombian primetime television, this latest “narco-soap” has been controversial and sparked protests in the city of Medellin. The show’s posters, emblazoned with the slogan “It’s harder to love than to kill”, had to be taken down in Columbia’s second largest city, home to infamous drugs lord Pablo Escobar in the 80’s and 90’s.
The main complaint has been that the series glamorizes the life of criminals and will encourage young people to imitate that lifestyle. The main Medellin newspaper El Colombiano said that the show was a "gulp of absurdity, vulgarity, bad manners and a big dose of narco-culture". The argument also spread over to neighbouring Panama, whose president, Ricardo Martinelli, complained about the Colombian shows that air on local television there. "They exalt drug trafficking, theft, muggings," he said, adding that the shows do "damage to our country" and corrupt "moral values".
The show has also hit problems in neighbouring Venezuela.
The show has also hit problems in neighbouring Venezuela.
It’s not the first time that Columbia has seen anti-heroes like Rosario. This one is actually just the latest in a group of telenovelas, dubbed “narco-soaps”, which have caused an outcry in Colombia. There has been The Capo, which paints a wily drug boss as a sensitive anti-hero. There was a smash hit Without Breasts There Is No Paradise that glamorized the lives of the women who surround the drug lords, as did Mafia Dolls, which ended in early 2010.
Two questions arise whenever this kind of debate comes up. First, are people indifferent to the moral issues? And second, what impact do media have on behaviour?
On the first the answer is No. A huge majority of Colombians supported late President Alvaro Uribe’s successful campaign against the drug cartels. Nobody except a hardened criminal wants to live in a violent and lawless country. But such issues are seldom simple. There is sympathy and some support for the farmers who have harvested the coca leaf for generations and who do not get adequate compensation for losing their business when their crops are destroyed. There is also resentment against the United States whose drug users consume most of the cocaine that fuels the drug trade.
However, most people feel they are able to distinguish “entertainment” from “reality”. They get pleasure out of entertainment. That pleasure is a signal that entertaining stories satisfy ancient instincts, instincts that were there long before the arrival of nation states and drug lords!
Rosario Tijeras has two of the ingredients that capture instinctive attention: murder and beautiful women.
A female assassin is an interesting case, however. A female assassin goes against “nature” (killing is usually the way male rivalries are settled), so she has to be sympathetic and credible. (You will have come across other female assassins who are just cardboard characters who do not engage serious attention). Rosario gets sympathy from the back story: she has been violated and her friend has been killed. That justifies revenge, which we instinctively support, but not the role of a career assassin. I would like to watch the series to see how they have secured continuing interest in Rosario’s role as a career criminal -- for that will be main challenge for the writers of this series.
As for the other question, we still know relatively little about the precise impact of entertainment on the moral culture of a nation or community, although reams of paper have been written on the subject. Most countries have “standards”, which vary widely. But do violent telenovelas encourage young people to join drug gangs or sanction muggings?
In truth, this is a very confused issue. On balance, there is now a consensus among academics that violent entertainment does not directly promote violent behaviour -- with some exceptions, like young people and sociopaths. But media are clearly part of a culture. Culture is complex and multi-layered and it is often very hard to determine what is driving change and what is following.
However a particular culture, however pluralistic, has its own character, and its own “attitude” towards key issues.
My guess is the media debate is animated by two different types within the administrative class. One group is concerned with public order and does not like crimes such as murder and drug abuse being treated lightly, i.e. as part of “entertainment”. The other group, predominantly academic, is protective of freedom of expression. Finding it hard to get hard data on media impact, they tend to rely on a kind of acceptability test, acting when a stream of complaints gets particularly noisy.
Most ordinary people, however, know they have little influence on public issues, enjoy being stimulated by good entertainment, and don’t think a “story” is going to change their lives or opinions.