How Soap Operas are Changing the World, and Why That’s Great

I will not pretend to be a fan of soap operas, but this headline got my attention immediately:

The secret to bringing down India’s birth rate: get more women to watch soap operas

It turns out that there’s a significant level of correlation between which regions of India have access to cable television and which regions are experiencing lower total fertility rates.  The study on which the article is based goes into further detail of the positive social change in its abstract:

Using a three-year, individual-level panel dataset, we find that the introduction of cable television is associated with significant decreases in the reported acceptability of domestic violence towards women and son preference, as well as increases in women’s autonomy and decreases in fertility. We also find suggestive evidence that exposure to cable increases school enrollment for younger children, perhaps through increased participation of women in household decision-making.

Apparently, similar findings were uncovered when tracking fertility rates in relation to cable-viewing in Brazil.  An important nuance to note about this, though: only viewers who primarily watched programming on the Brazilian network Rede Globo correlated to lower fertility rates.  Viewers of the second largest network in Brazil, Sistema Brasileiro de Televisao, did not behave the same way.  The primary difference between networks?  The majority of SBT’s programming is imported shows from Mexico and the United States.  Only the viewing of “real” Brazilian families in Brazilian-produced soap operas, such as on Rede Globo, influenced fertility decisions in women.  This is despite the fact that as a rule the families on these soap operas were significantly smaller than the average Brazilian family, including featuring childless women as main characters – them being Brazilian and identifiable was the most important factor.

Apparently soap operas are doing what this fetching mural couldn't.  Credit ME, Kolkata, 2008.

Apparently soap operas are doing what this fetching mural of mustachioed condoms  couldn’t. Credit Lucinda Stroud, Kolkata, 2008.

Martin Lewis has a great piece covering this and how it forces us to question the narrative we’ve swallowed about “the population bomb.”  India on average has a fertility rate only slightly higher than the United States – although, as anyone will tell you, the variance between regions in India is extraordinary. The major region of the world that has not experienced lower fertility rates is sub-Saharan Africa, where television access is growing but programming is limited primarily to sport.  Lewis makes the important statement that for these findings to be implemented,

… it will take a fundamental change in the way we talk about technology, population, and environment for this point to come across. As Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger argue, old-school environmentalists typically prefer to “wrap the latest scientific research about an ecological calamity in a tragic narrative that conjures nostalgia for Nature while prophesying even worse disasters to come unless human societies repent for their sins against Nature and work for a return to a harmonious relationship with the natural world.” The data presented here confirm that it is time for a new mode of environmental rhetoric.

There are so many fascinating facets to these findings.  What we see changes what we imagine to be possible for ourselves, but only if we can realistically identify with it.  (So pop culture colonization in the form of imported programming is out, thank deity.)  Both Brazil and India have a deeply troubled history with contraception and population control; India implemented a number of coercive policies for sterilizations, and Brazil until relatively recently banned advertisements for contraceptives.  The additional positive affects, particularly for Indian women rejecting domestic abuse as normal and moving away from preferring sons, mean that the fact that television can change thought is sometimes a really, really wonderful thing.

(h/t Andrew Sullivan)

Lucinda will give $500 to the first organization that starts a broadcast network of women-centered programming in sub-Saharan Africa and/or Afghanistan.  Seriously.  Let’s get on this.


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