This article develops the concept of "televisionary" activism—a mediated form of social justice messaging that attempts to transform culture. Focusing on a locally produced and very popular television show in Nicaragua, I consider how social justice knowledge is produced through television characters' scripting and performance. The ideological underpinnings aspire to a dialogic engagement with the audience, as producers aim to both generate public discourse and benefit from audiences' suggestions and active engagement. Several levels of media advocacy interventions are considered including the production, scripting, and translation of transnational material into local registers. Televisionary activism offers challenges to several conservative social values in Nicaragua by placing topics such as abortion, domestic violence, sexual abuse, homosexuality, and lesbianism very explicitly into the public sphere. At the same time, sexual subjects on the small screen must be framed in particular ways, as, for instance, with the homosexual subjects who are carefully coiffed in normalized human dramas. Finally, many of these televisionary tactics draw from and engage with transnational tropes of identity politics, and "gay" and "lesbian" subjectivity in particular, confounding the relationship between real and idealized sexual subjects in Nicaragua. That is, these televisionary tactics "market" transnational identity politics but derive legitimacy through their very "localness."
In the past, Cultural Anthropology has published many articles on gender and sexuality. See, for example, Katherine Pratt Ewing’s "Between Cinema and Social Work: Diasporic Turkish Women and the (Dis)Pleasures of Hybridity;" Deborah A. Elliston’s (2000) article on “the geographies of gender and politics” with reference to Polynesian nationalism; and Corinne P. Hayden’s "Gender, Genetics, and Generation: Reformulating Biology in Lesbian Kinship."
Cultural Anthropology has also published a range of articles on activist media. See, for example, Henry Jenkins’s ""People from that Part of the World": The Politics of Dislocation;" Arlene D ́avila’s (1999) article on art, museums, and “the politics of multicultural encompassment”; and Michael M. J. Fischer’s (1991) article on “visual-virtual realities and post-trauma polities.”
About the Author
Cymene Howe is an assistant professor at American University. Her forthcoming book is Sexual Sovereignties: Sex, Gender and Justice in Nicaragua’s New Media Era (Duke 2008).
Other Media Links
Questions for Classroom Discussion
Students should pick a primetime drama, sitcom, or soap opera that they are familiar with (this could also be done in advance, in pairs or groups). Have students reflect on and analyze the ways in which the TV program reinforces gender roles and sexual norms. How does the show (characters, plot, context) reflect and reinforce a specific local or national identity? Could the script be written differently? Students should envision how their chosen TV program might engage with the politics of gender and sexuality, e.g. domestic violence, body image, LGBT rights. As extra credit, ask students to find out who produces the show, are there blogs, or viewer websites that encourage participation?
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Buchsbaum, Jonathan. (2003) Cinema and the Sandinistas: Filmmaking in Revolutionary Nicaragua. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Howe, Cymene. (2002) "Undressing the Universal Queer Subject: Nicaraguan Activism and Transnational Identity." City and Society 14(2):237-279.
Alvarez, Sonia, Evelina Dagnino, and Arturo Escobar, eds. (1998) Cultures of Politics/Politics of Cultures: Re-Visioning Latin American Social Movements. Boulder: Westview Press.
Thayer, Millie. (1997) "Identity, Revolution and Democracy: Lesbian Movements in Central America." Social Problems 44(3): 386-406.
Randall, Margaret. (1993) "To Change Our Own Reality and the World: A Conversation with Lesbians in Nicaragua." Signs 18(4): 907-924.
In the February issue of Cultural Anthropology, Cymene Howe explores the ways in which a new Nicaraguan telenovela El Sexto Sentido (“The Sixth Sense”) has made “activism at a distance” possible as it bypasses the state and works through entertainment. Howe’s essay, “Spectacles of Sexuality: Televisionary Activism in Nicaragua,” explores how a social justice NGO use media to reframe discussions of abortion, domestic violence, and homosexuality by using transnational tropes of sexuality and gender to gain legitimacy in local politics. The essay highlights the tensions between importing internationally recognized identity paradigms and using local authenticity to sell social values.
Howe describes the techniques used by media activists against increased conservatism in Nicaragua, particularly anti-sodomy laws and rollbacks in abortion rights, as “televisionary” -- “a mediated form of social justice messaging that utilizes the pervasive, popular platform of television to create new ‘visions’ of social transformations to shape and change…‘culture.’ These practices, linked to larger social movements for sexuality and gender rights, tactically maneuver transnationally available content—including global iterations of identity politics—in order to challenge the marginalization of youth, women and sexual minorities in contemporary Nicaragua.” Even though televisionary tactics aim to bypass the state by working through entertainment rather than legislation, Howe shows that these strategies are still part of social movements that engage with state processes. “Spectacles of Sexuality” will be of particular interest to scholars interested in media studies, Latin America, social movements, and gender and sexuality.