Rina Mushonga explains the strange appeal of soap operas and telenovelas, and why turbulent queer storylines are rocket fuel for her songwriting.
As a queer person seeking hungrily for some kind of representation, I and my fellow queer-sexuals are often resigned to watching a dizzying amount of bad TV. Since I came out (and a whole bunch of years before that, let's be honest) I've watched an 'unhealthy' amount of soap operas and supernatural sci-fi dramas involving werewolves, vampires, aliens – but most importantly, also lesbians.
There have been the Brazilian telenovelas, Mexican telenovelas, Filipino telenovelas, so, well, basically a shit tonne of telenovelas. But also some pretty dire creations made for TV movies with about 3 seconds of lesbian storyline in them, often ending in one of the lesbians being some twisted psychopath, or dying, or worse: falling in love with some guy.
My years of scouring the depths of bad TV have admittedly proven to be quite valuable inspiration and on occasion pretty great material for my songwriting.
Just to clarify, there are many kinds of bad TV. I suppose, much like Dante's hell is described to be comprised of several rings or layers, so too does bad TV occupy our ether. There's the ring of 'reality' TV, like The Bachelor or 'Love at first... (who gives a shit)'. There's the ring of talent shows, there's the sneaky ring of bad TV disguised as good TV, but you only find out after having binge-watched an entire season of zero dimensional characters and the excruciatingly slow-burn lesbian plotline which to be honest is why you were watching in the first place. So you're invested now, at least until the lesbian dies or falls in love with some guy. There's the ring of melodrama, of soap operatic emotions and characters returning from the dead over and over again across the span of a kazillion TV years. There's the aforementioned ring of sci-fi supernatural meta-humans with a heart of gold but a thirst for blood and multiple lifetimes of emotional baggage.
You see, as a visual ehm...'art' form…TV, even bad TV – like dance or theatre or film – does what most art does, even bad art, I guess, which is reflect part of us back at us.
Is bad TV bad because it reflects things badly? Yes! But what I've often found is that hidden in the repetitive storylines, the endless meddling and melodrama, hidden in the black hole of bullshit are these tiny echoes of something true: a shimmering sliver of something recognisable. Perhaps when that sliver of recognition is hard won, you seize it where you can get it.
Would I prefer these queer representations to be more representative? Hell yes! Would I prefer to watch more leading three dimensional queer narratives and characters in shows that are...well...better? Sure! And thankfully, though slowly, things are looking up.
But let's be real people. I'm not alone here. The majority of the world is hooked on soap operas and telenovelas, from south east Asia to sub Saharan Africa, from Reykjavik to Buenos Aires. These universal narratives of the ordinary spiced up with the extraordinary, of first loves, betrayals, vampire families coming together while falling apart, all these bleeding hearts oozing into our living-rooms, really got us hooked.
When I was younger I absolutely devoured writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie and Isabel Allende. Their seamless mix of everyday banality with flashes of the supernatural or mythical is something I also love in a lot of the bad TV I watch.
Take new Mexican telenovela Amar a Muerte, for example. The ridiculously gorgeous Valentina (who's rich) and Juliana (who's poor) meet and fall in love, the plot twist being that their fathers both die at the exact same time and Valentina's rich mogul dad gets reincarnated in the body of Juliana's deadbeat hitman mobster dad...whut?!! But strangely I find myself just going with it, together with Valentina dealing with being outed to all her 'friends' at uni and her jock-face ex-boyfriend's psycho reaction when he finds out she's just not that into him, and worse still, she's shacked up with...Juliana...who's…poor! The horror!
I know many would argue, and perhaps justifiably, that these kinds of shows are a marker of the vapidness and degradation of our society. With some rings of bad TV, hell, I'd even agree with them. But as much as I'm aware of its ludicrousness, I'm also still charmed and intrigued by it.
All this O.T.T. heartache, pain, doubt, and disillusionment is great songwriting rocket fuel. I take the brash, loud emotions, and sci-fi scenarios and strip them down to their soft, shimmering core and build something new from there.
So, will Juliana and Valentina's love survive their messed up families, the narcos, their reincarnated dads? I guess I'll just have to watch 'till the end to find out.