The Evolution of Obsesión: How a Mexican Telenovela is Taking Over the Lesbian World
In 2010, I wrote a paper titled “Nobody Puts Baby in a Corner: Moving Beyond Compulsory Heterosexuality in 21st Century Media,” focusing on the relationship between two characters on Glee, Santana Lopez and Brittany Pierce.
I know, I know. I was young and very into jazzing up my academic papers. But the show was a revolution for me when it first aired. It was the perfect mash-up of media’s power and influence on shifting societal expectations and norms coupled with an entertaining narrative.
THE ROOTS OF OBSESSION
Santana and Brittany were two characters whose relationship was complicated, messy, and above all — real. Rooted first in friendship. Confusing even to themselves. It was also airing on a major US network (Fox), and although lesbian storylines been done before, was targeted towards a younger audience. It was propelled by queer fans latching on to what was intended to be a throwaway scene but helped launch the good ship #brittana.
To put this in context for others, I ship #brittana the way some of you ship Tara and Willow. Or Dana and Alice. Or Luce and Rachel. I lived and breathed for what was going to happen to these characters. I had a Tumblr. I read fanfiction. I live tweeted the episode every week with the #gaysharks hashtag. I religiously read Heather Hogan’s weekly recaps when she was still writing for the now-divisive AfterEllen.
Also, I wrote that paper as an “ally” in my Intro to LGBTQ Studies class, in case you’re wondering how deep the closet goes. And sure, we can look back on Glee through the lens of time as a little hokey. But, for a young person watching Primetime television in their rural town, who didn’t have any lesbian friends––it meant something. It still means something.
PROGRESS (OR, SOMETIMES, LACK THEREOF)
A lot has changed since then. There’s now a lesbian media conference centering specifically around f/f ships. Lesbian storylines are more nuanced with complex character arcs, and more than simply a February sweeps ratings tactic (looking at you The OC). And notably, some of the best pairings are now coming from outside the United States, which should be considered one of the most progressive nations in the world, but has consistently failed its lesbian viewership.
I will not be getting into the horrible trope of killing lesbian and bi characters on shows since this article is focusing on what’s going right, but if you haven’t seen it, Autostraddle has an amazingly comprehensive list of all characters that have fallen prey to the death trope.
ALL THE WORLD’S A (LESBIAN) STAGE
Sake of full disclosure, I write lesbian romance novels, so I spend a lot of time dissecting tropes and analyzing the plot devices employed to create fulfilling character arcs and satisfying resolutions.
For the last few years, the well-developed lesbian storylines have come from Canada (see: Orphan Black, Lost Girl, and Wynonna Earp). Two of those shows had the same showrunner, Emily Andras, which is a testament to how much of a difference one person can still make in the world of inclusion and visibility.
But for the last three months, Mexico has been leading the charge with a telenovela, Amar a Muerte––in which a wealthy member of Mexico’s elite unexpectedly falls in love with her friend from another social world.
This is, and I am not being melodramatic here considering I’ve attempted to watch almost every piece of lesbian media ever produced, one of the best portrayals of love between two women I’ve ever seen.
TELENOVELAS DO IN 4 MONTHS, WHAT AMERICAN TV DOES IN 4 YEARS
They generally air Monday through Friday for an hour per episode. Imagine a soap opera that airs a new episode every night, five days a week. This is unheard of in US television.
To put this in perspective, 80 episodes of a telenovela will take 16 weeks or roughly four months to air. Compared to the standard US airing schedule for television shows, it would take a show that airs once a week with a 20-episode season four years to hit 80 episodes.
Most shows don’t make it that far, let alone produce quality content for the entirety of the series. I say this because, well…you get sucked in…really quickly––episodes taking up fractions of days as you fret about your beloved characters.
MEXICO MAKING HISTORY (AND LOVE) WITH JULIANTINA
So what’s the deal with this show? God, I’m so excited to tell you. While same sex marriage became legal in Mexico in 2010, Amar a Muerte features the first lesbian pairing in a broadly watched primetime telenovela in the history of the country. It’s also helping me learn Spanish, or at least become versed enough to have a really passionate fight in Spanish, but that’s not the point of this article. Pro tip: you should 100% start hollering “escúchame” at your pets.
There was another show that aired in Mexico in 2010 called Las Aparicio and featured a lesbian storyline between two best friends, but it aired on a smaller network, Cadena Tres, that didn’t have the reach of Televisa (in Mexico) and Univision (in the United States), the channels responsible for airing Amar a Muerte.
It also employed a problematic trope of polyamory (with a male love interest), which objectively isn’t an issue, but happened in spite of one of the characters fully identifying as a lesbian. It felt like more of a behind-the-scenes force of hand to titillate viewers and keep men integrated into the storyline than an organic exploration for the couple. But I still watched it in my little closet, coincidentally the same years I was watching Glee, wondering if we could do better for our characters.
TROPES TROPES ALL TYPES OF TROPES
As it is my bread and butter, I want to dissect exactly why the lesbian storyline on this show works. They just happen to be women, but the relationship centers around so much more than that fact while also using it to anchor a beautiful coming-out storyline.
You have Valentina Carvajal, the rich daughter of a “deceased” media conglomerate, dubbed by society as “La Princesa.” She has access, means, and all the opportunities the world can afford. But, she’s lost both of her parents, lives in a gigantic compound with armored guards in Mexico City, and has a terribly volatile relationship with her boyfriend Lucho.
Juliana Valdes enters Valentina’s life, a poor girl fleeing from San Antonio, Texas with her mother, for reasons that are far too complex and would require another article to clarify but know that it involves mysticism and body-switching.
The point is, as any good love story starts: they meet one another and feel an instant connection, although neither of them knows what that connection is yet. It’s so reminiscent of some of my first loves, of that need to want to be close to someone and provide things for them but deluding yourself into thinking that’s just what best friends do for one another––how they feel about one another (I once got so frustrated when I had to spend the day with my boyfriend instead of going sledding with my best friend. Spoiler alert: I didn’t just want her to be my best friend).
Lisa Franklin just published a great piece on making birthday gifts for her not-so platonic friends growing up, and if that’s the bar, Valentina and Juliana should be married already given the reciprocity they’ve shown one another. Hell, Valentina bought Juliana a designer dress for a party she invited her to (and conveniently refused to invite her boyfriend), and Juliana made Valentina the outfit that she wore to the same party.
There are so many beautifully shot scenes, so many nuanced emotions, so many times when the actors do an amazing job of portraying the want and confusion and intensity of the situation, of the characters behaving with their hearts although their brains haven’t quite caught up yet.
ONCE MORE, WITH FEELINGS!!!
Don’t even get me started on the processing. The willingness to talk about what’s happening between them, however confusing, to try and make sense of it. The ability of both characters to acknowledge they’re having difficulty considering themselves as gay and then dissolving into a fit of giggles at the admission. I don’t have time to parse out on the forehead touches, pinky swears, and pacts. But the show gives us so much more (including kisses, sex scenes, and proclamations of love). They manage to take actions that are historically the bones thrown to lesbian viewers instead of showing more explicit content and make you blush and squeal and melt with every single hug and intertwined pinky. It’s that good.
I won’t pretend the fact they’re women doesn’t complicate things for both of them, but there’s so much more going on that it isn’t the biggest obstacle they face — not by a long shot. They come from different worlds. Valentina’s father is inhabiting the body of Juliana’s father (yes, you read that right). Valentina’s boyfriend is salty because she’s paying less attention to him, and he begins a crusade to prove she’s cheating. Society loves to gossip and regardless of personal opinions, a lesbian Princesa makes for great headlines.
That’s not to say the progress hasn’t had obstacles. Televisa and Univision have both attempted to censor some of the content, but shippers (and the actors portraying the characters) have worked to get the scenes released and momentum and visibility for the pairing (known as Juliantina) has increased steadily since the show’s release. For US viewers who don’t speak Spanish, this has mainly been propelled by YouTube accounts uploading subtitled scenes for viewers to follow. And trust me, the dialogue is so, so good that you don’t want to miss out on it.
With only a few weeks left before the show ends, tensions are at an all-time high. I don’t want to give any spoilers away, but I will leave you with these heart eyes, so you understand what you’re getting into.
Come find us on Twitter to talk about Juliantina any time you want! We clearly have a lot of feelings on the subject.