"Anything you can do, I can do better!":
Representing gender in the talk show ¡Qué Mujeres!
Carolina Acosta-Alzuru, Ph.D.
Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication
University of Georgia
Athens, GA 30602
Phone: (706) 542-5680
Fax: (706) 542-2183
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Paper submitted to the Critical and Cultural Studies Division
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
"Anything you can do, I can do better!":
Representing gender in the talk show ¡Qué Mujeres!
Talk shows have become a "hot" topic, eliciting discussion in both the
public and academic arenas. These debates, however, have not included the
talk shows broadcast by U.S. Spanish-speaking networks--Univision,
Telemundo, Galavision, and Telefutura—ignoring what has become one of the
two main staples of Latino television programming. El Show de Cristina,
Marta Susana, Laura, Mónica, and ¡Qué Mujeres! are broadcast to high
ratings in the U.S. and Latin American countries. Drawing on feminist media
studies and cultural studies, this paper analyzes ¡Qué Mujeres! (loosely
translated as These Women! or What Women!), a show produced in Venezuela by
Venezuelan network Venevisión, and broadcast in the U.S. on Univision.
¡Qué Mujeres! is conducted by veteran 48 year-old Venezuelan actor, Elba
Escobar, who has performed memorable roles in Venezuelan films,
telenovelas, and theatre, including the Venezuelan national tour of the
Vagina Monologues (Elba Escobar, 2003). Escobar is well known for playing
strong-willed women. Her performance as Catalina Falcón in the telenovela
El País de las Mujeres, a battered wife who escapes from an abusive
relationship and reinvents herself, turned Escobar into a symbol of the
plight of abused women in Venezuela.
As its title suggests, ¡Qué Mujeres! is a show about women, for women. It
tackles a variety of topics such as: "The Art of laughing," "Problems with
sharing an inheritance," "People who are maniáticas [very particular]," and
"Touch yourself: preventing breast cancer." Although the show's structure
and format unmistakably place it in the talk show genre, the program
displays some variations from the traditional U.S. talk show. The most
striking difference is that, in addition to the presence of the host,
guests, and studio audience, there is a panel of eight women who contribute
to the discussion of the issue at hand. As the show's web site explains,
¡Qué Mujeres! is "a thematic show of conversation and confrontation, in
which eight women, who represent different areas and levels of Venezuela's
society, interact as a fixed panel" (¡Qué Mujeres!, 2003).
I examine ¡Qué Mujeres! attempting to uncover the ways in which gendered
representations are immersed in the "conversation and confrontation"
present in the show. I focus on the text's construction of meaning. My
analysis embraces Johnson's broad conceptualization of culture as a "site
of social differences and struggles" (1986/87, p. 39) and van Zoonen's
concern for the "symbolic conflict about definitions of femininity (and by
omission masculinity)" (1994, p. 12). I first present a literature review
of previous scholarship on talk shows, the theoretical framework of the
study, a brief description of the method used, and contextual information
about Venezuelan society. The presentation and analysis of findings follow.
The conclusions section interprets these results within the theoretical
TALK SHOW LITERATURE
A variety of theoretical and methodological perspectives have been used to
study the talk show genre. Content analyses have examined the show's titles
(Smith, Mitchell, Yun, Johnson, Orrego, & Greenberg, 1999), ethnic and
gender characteristics of the shows' guests (Greenberg, Sherry, Busselle,
Hnilo, & Smith 1997), and gender differences in guests' behavior (Brinson
and Winn, 1997). Using discursive analysis, Ilie highlighted the host's
overt control of the show, as he examined the discursive nature of these
programs (2001). Also from a discursive perspective, Tolson edited a volume
that includes six case studies from British, Israeli, and American
English-speaking television (2001). The book develops the argument that the
shows' significance is directly related to their enactment of "the
performance of talk" (emphasis in the original, p. 3).
The genre has also been examined from a cultural perspective. Carbaugh
(1988) concluded that the discourse seen in Donahue, namely "therapy talk,"
is specific to American culture since the latter is characterized by an
exacerbated sense of self and individuality which emphasizes that good
communication is essential to problem solving. More recently, Glynn (2000)
examined talk shows as an integral part of a larger popular culture
phenomenon he calls "TV tabloidism" and defines as "a collection of
interrelated, transgeneric tendencies, sensibilities, and orientations"
that includes "actuality programming" such as America's Most Wanted,
"disreputable, sensationalistic" news programs like A Current Affair, and
talk shows like Ricki Lake and Jerry Springer (p. 3). Also from a cultural
perspective, Liebes (1999) focused on non-American talk shows, analyzing
how Israeli audiences now give preference to prime-time political talk
shows over traditional newscasts. In similar fashion Mazdon (1999) examined
how the changes in talk show format in France mirror the transformations
suffered by the generic format and cultural understanding of debate modes.
Most of the scholarly debate about this topic, however, mirrors the
controversial nature of the talk show genre. The academic literature is
more or less polarized between two extreme positions: (1) talk shows are
damaging to their audiences and demeaning to their guests, and (2) talk
shows have the potential to empower and give voice to underprivileged
sectors and to become an arena for public opinion formation.
Vicky Abt best exemplifies the first position. Along with Seesholtz (1994;
1998) and Mustazza (1997), she argues that talk shows are an attack on the
American way of life:
Television talk shows create audiences by breaking cultural rules, by
managed shocks, by shifting our conceptions of what is acceptable, by
transforming our ideas about what is possible, by undermining the bases for
cultural judgment, by redefining deviance and appropriate reactions to it,
by eroding social barriers, inhibitions and cultural distinctions (Abt &
Seesholtz, 1994, p. 171).
In the name of ratings and revenues, they break rules, divert our attention
to the most extreme forms of private and public misbehavior, and generally
redefine our conceptions of what constitutes acceptable and appropriate
reactions to such displays. In the process they erase distinctions between
fame and infamy, hero and celebrity, therapy and exploitation, intimate and
stranger, sickness and irresponsibility, and perhaps most troubling, any
distinction between fact and fiction (Abt & Mustazza, 1997, p. 7).
These authors are also concerned about "the misuse and trivialization of
therapy" (Abt & Seesholtz, 1998, p. 44), which can be damaging both to the
psychology profession and to the guests.
At the other extreme of the continuum are scholars who give more credit to
talk shows' guests and audiences. For instance, after interviewing guests
of the Donahue show, trying to understand what motivated these participants
to disclose their feelings and stories on television, Priest (1995)
concluded that talk shows allow certain groups to resist dominant
representations of their group since the shows "provide a national forum on
which members of marginalized groups can contest the prevailing societal
depictions of their group in a ritualized process of delabeling" (p. 94).
As it locates itself between these two extreme positions, much of the talk
show literature wrestles with the question of whether talk shows construct
a new form of "public sphere." For Carpignano et al., talk shows do
render a new kind of forum with a diversity of voices, some of which were
previously marginalized (1990). In addition, these scholars argue that the
shows construct/articulate common sense, which is regarded as the
discursive product of the talk generated in talk shows. Closely following
this argument, Livingstone and Lunt (1994) state:
Even if the audience discussion programme is in some ways a parody of the
serious public sphere advocated by Habermas, it still offers an opportunity
not present under post-war political and social civic culture for minority
groups, protest groups and ordinary people to gain access to mediated
communication (p. 176).
Some scholars, however, are ambivalent about the empowering "public
sphere" capabilities of talk shows, acknowledging their uneasiness with the
sensationalistic, for-profit aspects of the genre. For instance, even
though Alcoff and Gray (1993) admit that "speaking out" educates society
about specific problems, and talk shows "empower victims to act
constructively [...] and thus make the transition from passive victim to
active survivor" (p. 261-2), they also believe that the "speaking out" of
survivors has been "sensationalized and exploited" (p. 262). Shattuc (1997)
argues that these shows are "guided by profit" and enact "a disingenuous
game of appealing to the rebellious spirit of disenfranchised citizens
through appeals to sensationalism, free speech, and empowerment but closing
down that appeal by ending their programs within the conservative confines
of middle-class reformism and spiritual transcendence" (p. 195).
Talk show research also includes analyses of how problems are presented
and "solved" in talk shows. According to Wood (2001) the genre maximizes
conflict in order to attract attention. Thornborrow (2001) argues that
personal experience is transformed into a public performance highlighted by
the dramatization role of the host who is key in rendering the narrative as
a performance. Finally, Hutchby (2001) examined the role played by
confrontation in the shows' spectacle of "therapy talk."
In sum, the academic literature has focused on English-speaking talk
shows, underscoring the many faces of these programs. Most scholars wrestle
with whether the shows are damaging, empowering, or both. However, this
important and varied body of literature does not address Hispanic/Latino
shows, thus ignoring what the fastest-growing minority in the United States
Feminist media scholarship has grown and established itself as a line of
academic thought and research of great influence in communication studies
and related fields. Its theoretical roots, themes, methods and major works
(until 1994) have been outlined by van Zoonen, while recent developments
and future challenges are chronicled in the inaugural edition of the
long-awaited journal Feminist Media Studies (2001). This rich body of
literature is testament to the large number of scholars who affirm that
gender is a key element in the analysis of media representations
(McLaughlin & Carter, 2001). Feminist media scholars have examined the
media's images of women, trying to understand how these texts "promote
particular understandings of women's lives and roles" (Meyers, 1999, p. 5).
The study of representation focuses on how language, images, and signs
stand for—represent—people, objects, activities. Representation is an
active process through which meanings are created. Therefore, "metaphors of
glass" (Glasser, 1996, p. 784) cannot explain it, because representation is
neither a mirror-like reflection of the world through language, nor a
window framing only a section of the world. Representation constructs
meaning by connecting the world, language, and lived experiences. By
performing these connections, representation does not reflect or frame the
world, it constitutes the world.
Stereotyping links representation to identity. It is a widespread
representational practice that "reduces people to a few, simple, essential
characteristics, which are represented as fixed by Nature" (Hall, 1997, p.
257). Hall argues that stereotyping occurs where there are power
inequalities that work to accentuate differences that are presented as
dividing what is "normal" from what is not. In this sense, the creation of
identities also generates and modifies meanings as they are produced,
consumed and regulated within culture (Woodward, 1997).
Issues of identity are always underpinned by the tension between
essentialism and anti-essentialism. The former looks at identity as fixed
and based on nature (race, gender), arguing, for instance, that there is "a
fixed essence" of femininity and masculinity (Barker, 2000, p. 166).
Anti-essentialism views identity as a dynamic concept based on symbolic
characteristics that attempt to differentiate in order to identify.
Identity, then, is a discursive construction. Feminist scholars take an
anti-essentialist stance arguing that gender is not reducible to biology;
it is, rather, a cultural construction (Nicholson, 1990; Weedon, 1997).
This position suggests that social reality acquires meaning through
language and that language is not "transparent." Language is always located
in discursive fields/formations (Foucault, 1980), which are "competing ways
of giving meaning to the world and of organizing social institutions and
processes" (Weedon, 1998, p. 179). Hence,
Experience has no inherent essential meaning. It may be given meaning in
language through a range of discursive systems of meaning, which are often
contradictory and constitute conflicting versions of social reality, which
in turn serve conflicting interests. This range of discourses and their
material supports in social institutions and practices is integral to the
maintenance and contestation of forms of social power, since social reality
has no meaning except in language (p. 178).
Gramsci's concept of hegemony is also instrumental to my analysis (1971).
Hegemony involves the production of consensus for cultural practices and
ideas that will sustain power relations. Hegemony is fragile and always
changing, rendering popular culture as a crucial site of ideological
conflict in which power relations of gender, ethnicity, class and identity
are struggled over.
In social formations, then, it is inevitable to find a range of
constructions of "women," "men," "the feminine," and "the masculine." Some,
however, will be preferred to others (Baldwin et al., 2000). Dominant
ideologies and gender codes underpin these preferred constructions,
rendering a hegemonic version of what it means to be a woman or a man. This
framework raises the following questions regarding the topic of this study:
What representations of women and men are present in ¡Qué Mujeres!? How are
these constructions embedded in Venezuelan culture? Are these
representations empowering for women?
I used textual analysis, which examines texts in terms of their cultural
significance and the power relations in which they are located. The method
acknowledges that texts "are never transparent windows on to the world"
(Rose, 2001, p. 6), allowing us to understand how they provide a version of
the world that naturalizes hierarchies and differences.
The text analyzed included nine randomly selected shows, which were
broadcast between September 2002 and February 2003 on Univision. The shows
were taped and then transcribed using a two-columns system (Rose, 2000).
The first column described the visual aspects noting who was shown, what
they were doing (Altheide, 1996), and the camera angle (Rose, 2000). The
second column consisted of a transcription of the verbal elements that
included tone and emphasis. The analysis followed the three steps described
by Stuart Hall in his "Introduction" to Paper Voices (1975). First, a "long
preliminary soak" (p. 15) in the text, which allows the analyst to focus
on particular issues while preserving "the big picture." Second, a close
reading of the chosen text and identification of discursive strategies and
themes. Third, interpretation of the findings within the theoretical
framework of the study.
It is important to note that meaning is also made in the production and
everyday consumption of these texts. However, my argument here concerns how
the textual edifice itself works. Textual analysis is an interpretive
method; therefore, its purpose is not the discovery of "truth," but rather,
as Dow suggests, to note the possibility of meaning (1996). Furthermore,
this interpretation is critical since it addresses issues of power,
meaning, and cultural significance.
There is a strong connection between Latin America's patriarchy and the
Catholic doctrine that dominates the region. This is especially evident in
three interconnected ideological areas: the myth of the patriarchal family,
the presence of machismo and marianismo, and the prevalence of the
Virgin:whore binary opposition. These three constructs underpin and
reinforce the particular brand of the public/private dichotomy that
subordinates women in Latin America.
The patriarchal family is considered the ideal (and natural) societal
unit. Women are then responsible for the care of the domestic (private)
environment, while men are in charge of the public sphere. The system of
social relations is anchored, in this way, to the male-headed household
(Jelin, 1990). In reality, however, Latin American female-headed households
are almost as common as patriarchal ones (Cicerchia, 1997; Dore, 1997).
Nevertheless, Latin American society functions under the assumption of the
prevalence of the male-headed household.
This assumption is connected to the dominant ideologies of machismo and
marianismo. Machismo is the belief that men are superior to women, have
more extensive rights, and belong to the public sphere while women should
stay in man's shadow and in the private realm. Marianismo, a "cult of
female spiritual superiority" (Stevens, 1973, p. 91), holds that women are
morally superior, owners of spiritual strength and a capacity for
self-sacrifice which renders them fit to be good mothers. The combination
of these two ideologies places women in the private sphere of the household
and assigns them the brunt of parental responsibility.
Marianismo is based on the figure of the Virgin Mary, who represents the
epitome of the private sphere, and is always portrayed as "an idealized
woman who is an obedient, self-sacrificing mother, subordinating her needs
to those of her children, [she] obeyed the wishes of her son, Christ, and
of other men including the disciples and God himself" (Stephen, 1997, p.
35). The counterpart image of the Virgin is the whore (based on the
biblical Mary Magdalene), who is seen "as aggressive, impure, disconnected
from motherhood, and a male sexual object. Her sexuality is constructed to
service men, and her personhood (if she is granted any) is focused through
this role" (Stephen, 1997, p. 35). The whore is defined by the term mujer
pública [public woman], which means prostitute in Latin America, equating,
in this way, women in the public sphere to prostitution. Latin American
women are continuously teetering between these two images. As Stephen
(1997, p. 35) notes, "women who deviate from the characteristics associated
with the Virgin Mary by disobeying the state authority and assuming an
active role in society can be cast into the opposite role of symbolic whore."
These ideological underpinnings have important consequences for the
everyday life conditions of women and men in Latin America in general, and
Venezuela in particular. For instance, even though in the last three
decades Venezuela has seen a decline in fertility rates and an increase
in women's participation in the workforce, most women are still
conceptualized as belonging in the private sphere. Increasing participation
in the workforce can be misinterpreted as a sign of women's emancipation.
However, for most Venezuelan (and Latin American) women, working is a
matter of survival. In Venezuela, women head 25 percent of all households.
Moreover, women head half of all poor households (JUVECABE as quoted in
Friedman, 2000). Given these circumstances, in most cases there is no
relationship between earning a wage and empowerment (McClenaghan, 1997).
Hence, the entrance of women in the workforce is not the product of an
ideological change in the social formation; it is merely the outcome of
financial need. In addition, women who work outside their homes are still
responsible for domestic work, and expected to juggle multiple roles. Even
when a woman has the resources to pay for help, she is still responsible
for the supervision of her helper (who is usually a woman) (Inter-American
Development Bank, 1995).
The conjunction of marianismo and machismo has other consequences for the
everyday life of Venezuelan women. First, there is a significant incidence
of male infidelity and a sociocultural legitimization of this behavior
(Esteinou & Salles, 1996). On the other hand, women's infidelity is not
socially sanctioned. Second, domestic violence is a widespread problem that
transcends class and age differences (Inter-American Development Bank,
1995). Third, abortion is illegal, unless the mother's life is in danger.
Fourth, Venezuelan women have often taken "great pains to deny that they
[are] feminists" (Friedman, 2000, p. 280), since feminism has been
generally associated with the subversion of traditional gender roles, which
are considered one of the cornerstones of Venezuelan society.
These are some of the conditions that define women's (and men's) everyday
life in Venezuela. Women's lives are centered on the reproductive
responsibilities of taking care of others, which, in turn, define their
moral worth. Women endure infidelity and, in many cases, violence. And
their participation in the workforce is framed by patriarchy "in a context
where no alternative ideological models exist" (González de la Rocha, 1994,
Structure and Characters
Every edition of ¡Qué Mujeres! begins with a brief introduction by the host
of the day's topic. For instance, "Why, if women don't care about a guy's
past, men care so much about women's? Should we be completely sincere and
tell our partners about our past?" A short vignette about the show's
subject follows this opening. For example, in the same show, a
dramatization showed a couple that is about to get married as they learn
secrets from his and her past. He confesses that he has a son from a
previous girlfriend. She discloses that she is not a virgin. While she
readily accepts his son, he gets furious when he learns about her past.
After the vignette, guests are then introduced one by one as their stories
and testimonies illustrate different aspects of the issue at hand. Guests
are identified with captions that include their name and a sentence/phrase
describing his/her role in the conversation: "He went from love to
hate," "I have the right to have friends." Sometimes guests are Venezuelan
entertainment celebrities—television personalities, and telenovela actors
and writers. Host and panelists interact with guests as the topic is
fleshed out. The show ends with a short conclusion statement delivered by
the host, e.g.: "Live life in forward mode, because forward is where we're
The panelists come from a pool of sixteen women of all ages, who are
listed, along with their "characteristics" in the show's web site (¡Qué
Some of these women are successful professionals, sure of themselves, at
the vanguard of social themes. Others are excellent homemakers with the
life experience of heading a family, maybe more conservative, but with a
lot to say about any of our topics. There are students, with the
rebelliousness typical of their age, who also want to voice their opinion.
Any woman could identify with one of them.
Profession: lawyer-professional model
Works, takes care of her three children, and attends to her husband.
Profession: spinning instructor
Divorced, two children
Audacious, cheerful, a fighter.
Other occupations represented in the panelist pool are: journalist,
nutritionist, homemaker, psychologist, pharmacist, writer, publicist, and
student. The group includes all marital states—single, married, divorced,
remarried, widowed—and personalities described as: "strong, but loving,"
"passionate and volcanic," "spontaneous, loving and conciliatory,"
"cheerful, optimist, tenacious," "authentic, never has second thoughts,
proud and stubborn, but very constant," "controversial, analytic and a
risk-taker," "extrovert, too sincere, aggressive and very drastic in her
decisions, sexy and selfish," and "loving grandmother, but relentless"
(¡Qué Mujeres!, 2003).
Panelists sit on a stage area facing the guests and studio audience. Hence,
in contrast to most talk shows, guests do not face the studio audience.
With rare exceptions, panelists, guests and audience stay in their assigned
places and play their expected roles. Only the host, Elba, is free to
move around the studio as she directs and controls the conversation. This
contrast signals her position at the top of the show's power
hierarchy. Panelists, who also question guests and express their opinions,
are second in the show's "pecking order." At the bottom of the hierarchy is
the studio audience, whose participation in the show is limited to reacting
to the statements made by host, panelists, and guests. Furthermore, the
fact that guests face the panelists, not the studio audience, also signals
who will participate in the show's conversation, leaving audience members
in a non-participating role.
Elba's position as involved and wise host is strengthened by her knowledge
of the guests' stories and testimonies. For instance, she tells panelists
and audience the stories that the guests have not disclosed to them: "[her
husband] tried to commit suicide in front of the children and told her
'I'll kill myself because you need to choose between your friend and me'."
In addition, even though she is not a therapist, she often performs that
role as she diagnoses the situation:
Elba: According to Jung's psychological theories, when a person dislikes
or rejects another, it's because the former is seeing in the latter
something he or she dislikes about his or her own personality…maybe the
problem is that you resemble each other.
Panelists, even those who are not psychologists, also act as therapists,
volunteering their opinions and analysis:
Carmen (panelist): A man like him, that ends a relationship while your
mother is dying, isn't worth anything.
Ariadne (panelist): He isn't worth anything, but she has no
self-esteem…those who are stuck in the past have low self-esteem.
Many times the analysis is simplistic, often supported not by logical
arguments, but by Venezuelan popular expressions or clichés:
Yulene (panelist): Women…you don't touch them, not even with a rose petal
[a la mujer no se la toca, ni con el pétalo de una rosa]
Osmelia (panelist): There's only one step from love to hate [del amor al
odio hay un solo paso]
There is, however, an important contrast between host and panelists. Even
when she disagrees with a guest, Elba is careful in her choice of words and
empathetic in her tone. Panelists, however, have a double standard. While
they are nice to celebrity guests, panelists are frequently aggressive
and/or ironic in their questioning of non-celebrity guests:
Elba: What do you need from your husband?
Guest: That he be a little more careful with me, more caring…
Jean (panelist): Do you believe in witches?
Jean (panelist): So, why are you expecting him to change, then?
In this way, even though there is no physical violence on the set of ¡Qué
Mujeres!, there is some verbal aggression from the panelists towards the
non-celebrity guests. At the same time, panelists often vie for the
audience's approval and applause by delivering strong statements laced with
humor, reminiscent of punch lines. For instance, when a guest discloses
that she is still in love with her first boyfriend, even though she married
someone else, panelist Osmelia remarks, "she's thinking of a sancocho,
while she eats pizza." The audience roars with laughter and applauds
loudly. In this way, the show often becomes a stand up comedy contest in
which delivering the witty remark is more important than the quality of the
analysis or being understanding to the guest.
Additionally, panelists frequently argue with each other. Many times they
all speak at the same time, making it impossible to follow any particular
exchange; while the host tries, unsuccessfully, to control the
conversation. In these cases, Elba often privileges panelist Jean Raskyn's
opinions, requesting her professional judgment about a guest's situation or
the day's topic:
Elba: Jean, do you think Rosalin (a guest) is afraid of being abandoned?
Jean (panelist): no, I think she's so confused that she will only keep
Jean is a psychologist, "mother of three children, who defines herself as
an intelligent, audacious, perseverant woman" (¡Qué Mujeres!, 2003). She is
blunt in her exchanges with guests and panelists, sometimes warranting
Elba's intervention. For instance, in a show about how friendships can
jeopardize a marriage:
Jean (panelist): Why is he placing the friendship at the level of the
marriage? Did you do the same with him and his friends? Do you think he is
homosexual, or that he had a homosexual relationship, and now, by the same
token, he thinks you're a lesbian?
Guest: No, no!
Elba (to Jean): That's kind of heavy.
Elba (to Guest): Don't worry, that's Jean's job here in the show.
For their part, guests must be willing, not only to disclose their stories,
but also to endure the panelists' reactions, comments and opinions, which
often place the blame of the problem on the guest's shoulders:
Carmen (panelist): I'll tell you something, marriage is very important, say
good-bye to your friend.
Yulene (panelist): When your husband tells you, 'either her or me,' you…you
just can't be the whole day with your friend and not take care of your husband!
Guest: No, no! I do take care of my husband, I'm not with my friend all day
long, it's just that he doesn't like her.
Mercedes O. (panelist): You're only looking at your side! You're only
looking at your side of the story! It's your fault!
These exchanges constitute the daily fare in ¡Qué Mujeres! The show's
presentation and analysis of the day's issue is often weak; both eclipsed
and clouded by the mix of guests' stories and panelists' comments. For
example, in the show about the differences between men's and women's
acceptance of their partner's "past," guests and discussion focused on
women who are "hung up" on past relationships. Therefore, Elba's question
at the beginning of the show, "Why, if women don't care about a guy's past,
men care so much about women's past? Should we be completely sincere and
tell our partners about our past?" was never answered because the show's
topic was never addressed. In sum, the entertainment aspects of ¡Qué
Mujeres! —aggressive exchanges, witty comments, and celebrity
guests—supersede the analytical possibilities of the show.
Men v. Women
Even though ¡Qué Mujeres! includes topics as diverse as "Do you dream of
becoming famous?" " The meaning of dreams," and "When we become our
parents' caregivers," most shows revolve around women-men relationships.
Testimonies and discussions center on two questions: How are women and men
different? Who is better/more competent?
Machistas and Cuaimas
The first question is addressed repeatedly throughout shows. Prevalent
Latin American ideologies of machismo and marianismo underpin discussions
that are pervaded by essentialist notions of men and women. The machismo of
Venezuelan men is assumed as a well-established fact and men are
characterized as unworthy of women's trust. Host, panelists, and guests
wrestle with the characteristics and causes of machista behavior. One of
their preferred explanations is that men "are like children who need to be
educated" (Panelist Rita).
Yulene (panelist): I agree with Rita, men must be educated…you have to
teach them how to behave.
Elba: Yes, men learn from their family models. It's very typical in Latin
America and in Venezuela where there are no fathers, that men don't have a
male role model and the women, we don't teach them how to be
better…(turning to the camera) the responsibility of rearing good men is
yours too, woman.
Furthermore, men are deemed "complicated," which triggers a show about
writing "Instructions for handling a man." Elba begins this program by
showing how microwave ovens, toasters, blenders and television sets have
manuals that explain how to operate them; however, "what happens when we
acquire one of these (standing by a man)? We only know how to plug it,
nothing else…in this show we will work on a manual of instructions for
handling a man."
Since men are both complicated and in need of education, another recurring
theme is the scarcity of good men in Venezuela. Guests and panelists argue
that "there aren't enough good men around." For instance, when a female
guest explains how wonderful her husband is, a panelist exclaims: "let's
clone him!" Moreover, panelist Jean often remarks, "in this country we have
an excess of patanes and a lack of real men." And celebrity guest Mimí
Lazo jokes with a fellow male actor who has been married for 20 years,
"haven't you heard that there's only one good man for every 14 women? How
can you, then, be married to the same woman for over 20 years? That can't
be! It's unfair! We should be able to share the few good men!"
According to host, panelists, and celebrity guests, a second explanation
for men's machismo is that men, accustomed to being "providers," are
"naturally polygamous" and have not adapted to the new reality that women
can also play the role of provider.
Osmelia (panelist): Throughout history, men have been seen as the home's
provider; but, among the things they must provide is daily love and caring.
Male guest: Since we are providers, we believe that we need to provide
material things, whereas women are satisfied with other small details.
Elba: Men have a natural hunting instinct. The woman used to stay in the
cave while the man would go hunting, bringing in the food and other
material needs. But now, women are also out of the cave, also hunting and
Celebrity guest Noheli Arteaga: By nature, men are unfaithful.
Celebrity guest Juan Manuel Montesinos: Naturally polygamous
Celebrity guest Noheli Arteaga: By nature that's the way it is. By nature,
the man would bring the food home. So, what happens now? That relationships
are more complicated because there's competition. Women expect more and men
aren't the center of the universe anymore!
According to the show's participants, this inability of men to adapt to a
new Venezuelan reality in which women are increasingly present in the
public sphere, is the main cause of a new phenomenon: "the general
cuaimatization [la cuaimatización generalizada]" of gender relations in
Venezuela. Cuaima is a type of Venezuelan poisonous serpent. Referring to
women as cuaimas is widespread among the country's male and female
population. The word first appeared in the everyday language of Venezuelan
men as a derogatory term for women. The word denoted excessive
aggressiveness and a cunning nature. Soon women also started using the term
in this negative fashion. In time, however, cuaima was modified to include
a woman who defends herself from inequality and infidelity. Today, cuaima
is a controversial term, a frequent element in the everyday vocabulary of
all Venezuelans, and an important ingredient of Venezuelan popular culture
("Las Cuaimas quieren, 2002). In ¡Qué Mujeres!, cuaima is used in
almost every show. Moreover, a whole program, "Las cuaimas," was dedicated
to the study of the term. The show's analysis of this word mirrors the
struggle over the meaning of this expression that occurs in Venezuelan
society. In short, are cuaimas good or bad?
Elba and her panelists use the term with both positive and negative
connotations. Positive associations of cuaima include women who are
independent, determined, and assertive. The show's participants believe
that men who cannot adapt to situations and relationships in which women
are not relegated or submissive call these women cuaimas:
Celebrity guest Beatriz Valdes: If being a cuaima is to have the ability to
be adventurous, to have goals, to say 'that's where I'm going,' to defend
what one thinks…then, that's what detonates the inability in the man,
that's why they call you a cuaima!
Ariadne (panelist): I don't know why they say that a cuaima is a cruel and
perverse woman. I would say that a cuaima is an intelligent woman who
Yulene (panelist): We're not cuaimas in our romantic relationships; we're
cuaimas when we have to defend our children, our jobs, and anything else
that is in jeopardy of being invaded or taken from us.
In the show's discussions there is a widespread sense that men use the
negative form of cuaima "out of fear" (Osmelia) and in an attempt to
Elba: It's typical that when a man sees a woman succeed at any level, he'll
try to disqualify her.
Jean: When a man feels that a woman is above his level, he will attack her,
trying to lower her to his own level so that he can negotiate with her.
In this sense, the "general cuaimatization" of women is seen as a positive
development that signals women's independence and incursion in the labor
market, in particular, and the Venezuelan public sphere, in general.
At the same time, host, panelists and guests also use cuaima in its
original negative connotation: "perverse," "cruel," "aggressive,"
"nagging," and "cunning." When the two conductors of the radio show Tiempo
de Cuaimas appear on ¡Qué Mujeres!, they define some of the characteristics
of "a good cuaima:"
Celebrity guest Vanessa Archila: A good cuaima doesn't show that she's a
cuaima, it can't be obvious.
Celebrity guest Noliyu Rodríguez: For us, a cuaima is an alert, dangerous,
and cruel woman who manipulates men without letting them notice that
they're being manipulated.
Analogies with snakes and reptiles abound as women are described as
"shedding their skin, when they 'cuaimatize' [cambian de piel cuando se
cuaimatizan]," "sly," "bossy," and "ambitious." Male guests underscore the
"extreme aggressiveness" of all "cuaimas." One particular guest said
jokingly, "all cuaimas are born prematurely, because not even their mothers
could stand them for nine months." Other male guests speak of "taming" and
"training" their cuaimas. Moreover, panelists also express these negative
Berenice (panelist): My mother taught me that a good cuaima must have short
fingernails, because if these are long, she can inoculate herself…
Ariadne (panelist): We could say that we're cuaimas for certain things,
that we're cuaimas with our men, but not with our friends.
Even Elba, in an attempt to control a conversation in which most panelists
are speaking at the same time says, "We're acting like cuaimas!"
In sum, in ¡Qué Mujeres!, the term cuaima, as a descriptor of Venezuelan
women, is fraught with contradictions that reflect, not only the conflicts
over the meaning of this word, but also the elements in the battleground
for defining women's changing role in Venezuelan society.
Who is better/more competent?
The show's recurrent focus on men-women relationships often sets the
analysis in terms of a competition between men and women. For instance,
signaling that men are "very basic human beings," host, panelists and
guests developed a long list, "What women want from their men," which
included among other things, that he be caring, mindful of details,
respectful, faithful, good father, intelligent, good friend, good lover,
etc. A similar list for men only had three items: sex, food, and the TV
This "war of the sexes" theme was taken to the extreme in a show in
which a team of three women competed against a team of three men in a
series of "trials" that included changing a tire, cooking the traditional
Venezuelan food arepas, sewing buttons, and "general knowledge" questions
such as: "how many sparkplugs are in a V8 engine?" and "name five
ingredients necessary to cook a bienmesabe" The show's initial vignette
presented selected footage from previous ¡Qué Mujeres! with this voiceover:
"In our show, you've seen a war between women and men. Females have
defended themselves when categorized as the weak gender, while men have
also tolerated a lot! Therefore, we've decided to put an end to this war,
and ask 'who said strong gender?'" In a visual rendition of
essentialism, studio audience members were divided into two groups
according to gender, dressed with a team t-shirt (blue for men, pale pink
for women), and given pompons to cheer their team. The panel included both
men and women, (a rare exception), who encouraged their respective teams
while heckling the opposite team. Elba did not hide her wish that women
"settle this issue once and for all, and show that we are better."
In this way, throughout the program, essentialist conceptualizations of the
masculine (tire changing, knowledge about car engines) and the feminine
(cooking, sewing) are used towards the obvious goal of showing that women
are more competent than men. Paradoxically, this determination to show that
women are better because "they can do everything" is set in a way that
reinforces the male standard. In other words, women are better, not because
they are different from men, but because they can do what men do. This
notion is furthered by the panelists' use of Venezuelan expressions that
denote that the standard is still male. For example, in an exchange with a
guest who is a guest cancer patient facing her illness with unusual
bravery, panelist Yulene exclaims in admiration: "You're a courageous,
macha! An expression that denotes that someone is as brave as a man. In a
different show, panelist Berenice states "A man isn't worth a single tear
and a woman friend, even less!"
In sum, In ¡Qué Mujeres! there is a pattern of rivalry between "the
masculine" and "the feminine." This competition is constructed in masculine
terms. Therefore, when women "win," they do because they were "machas,"
i.e.: they acted like men. In this way, the masculine standard is reaffirmed.
Even though ¡Qué Mujeres! has some elements that are different from
traditional talk shows, the program still presents talk as performance and
spectacle (Tolson, 2001). Guests and panelists' personal experiences become
public performances (Wood, 2001). In addition, excessive confrontation, in
the name of "therapy talk" (Hutchby, 2001), simplifies the issues,
rendering discussions that are colorful and entertaining, but analyses
that, although shallow, nonetheless become part of the public sphere
The representation of men in ¡Qué Mujeres! is simplistic and
stereotypical. Men, simply put, are machistas unworthy of women's trust. In
addition, men are incapable of adapting to the new Venezuelan reality in
which women play less traditional, more public roles. In contrast, even
though a superficial observation of the show would lead us to believe that
women are represented also in stereotypical fashion as cuaimas, a more
careful analysis suggests that this representation is nuanced and complex.
¡Qué Mujeres! is one battleground among many in which the struggle over the
definition of cuaima, i.e., "Venezuelan woman" is endlessly played.
Positive meanings—independent, assertive, intelligent—are in permanent
conflict with negative connotations—overly ambitious, aggressive,
cunning—as Venezuelan women teeter between the two poles of the binary
opposition virgin:whore, and distance themselves from the oppression of
marianismo and machismo. In this struggle, host and panelists express
ambivalent and conflicting meanings of cuaima, rendering paradoxical
representations of "woman." Similarly, even though they tout the empowering
aspects of being a woman, their behavior in the show—aggressive towards the
guests, competitive towards men—often exemplifies the negative meanings
associated with cuaimas.
It is important to mention the similarities between the conflict over the
meaning and usage of cuaima and similar battles over the term "feminist."
Interestingly, in all the shows examined, the words feminism and
feminist are never mentioned. Instead, the word cuaima was widely and
recurrently used. The end result for cuaima is the same as for feminist:
qualities that threaten the patriarchal order are neutralized by linking
them with negative and undesirable associations. In this way, possible
conflict is channeled and hegemony is maintained. The "hegemonic
masculinity" (Dellinger-Pate & Aden, 1999) is also preserved as men and
women are placed in competing camps ruled by an "anything you can do, I can
do better" paradigm that places the comparison in men's terms, and ends up
reaffirming that "femininity is …recognized not as a worthy equal to
masculinity, but as an inferior construction, privileged only when
masculinity is flawed" (p. 163).
This analysis highlights important articulations between media and culture.
¡Qué Mujeres!' messages about men and women reflect the strong ambivalent
feelings present in Venezuela about women's changing social roles. In the
end, the representation of gender roles is fraught with ambiguities and
contradictions that are inextricably linked to the meanings associated with
gender roles that circulate in the Venezuelan social formation, and that,
simultaneously and paradoxically, both empower and oppress women.
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 Telenovelas constitute the other main ingredient of these networks'
 Univision is co-owned by Venevisión and Mexico's Televisa.
 This concept was developed by Habermas (1984), who argued that the
public sphere is a forum in which, through debate and discussion,
"something approaching public opinion can be formed" (p. 198).
 According to U.S. Census Bureau official estimates from the 2000
Census, Latinos conform 12.5% of the U.S. population, surpassing African
Americans (12.3%) as the largest minority (U.S. Census Bureau, 2002).
 Following Rose (2000), description of camera angles included: extreme
close-up, close-up, medium close-up, medium wide, wide angle, tracking
(camera follows action) and environment (shot other than a person).
 Even though the analysis was conducted on nine shows, the "preliminary
soak" included 38 shows that were taped and watched.
 For this analytical stage, the unit of analysis chosen was each
program. NUD*IST, a qualitative data analysis software, was used to
identify discursive strategies and themes and to refine their selection to
the point of including over-arching themes.
 From 6.5 to 3.9 children/woman (Friedman, 2000).
 From 18 to 28 percent of the total workforce (Friedman, 2000).
 A word about typographical conventions. Host and panelists will be
referenced by their first names, celebrity guest by their full names, and
non-celebrity guests by the term "Guest."
 A Venezuelan soup.
 A Venezuelan expression that denotes an extremely rude, careless, and
selfish man. In short, a "bastard."
 There is a daily radio show called "Time for Cuaimas [Tiempo de
Cuaimas]." Additionally, the word is used in telenovelas, talk shows, and
stand up monologues.
 The network that produces and broadcast ¡Qué Mujeres! also produces a
weekly show "War of the Sexes [La Guerra de los Sexos]" in which men and
women compete in different trials.
 A traditional Venezuelan dessert.
 It is common in Spanish to refer to women and men respectively as
"the weak sex" and "the strong sex."
 These include all 38 shows that were taped and watched.