Cómo Orientalista: Telemundo’s El Clon, Part I

Spanish soap operas (telenovelas) are just like any other serial dramas, with all the conventional characteristics: star -crossed lovers, dramatic music, a flair for the outrageous and a seemingly never-ending plot.

This is exactly what can be expected from Telemundo’s telenovela, El Clon (The Clone). A remake of a Brazilian soap opera that aired in 2001 and 2002 titled O Clone, this Spanish-language telenovela is targeted at the U.S.’s Spanish speaking market. However, what is unexpected is the drama’s lengthy commentary on Islam (although, this seems to be a common theme in soap operas these days).

Not withholding any stereotypes, El Clon lays it on thick with the usual suspects: the controlling, abusive Muslim man (albeit without the turban and dark, hairy features); the helpless Muslim girl longing to escape oppression; the love interest, who is—gasp—not Muslim; men smoking shisha in tents while being entertained by belly dancers; and, of course, the hyper-sexualization of the Muslim woman.

Although El Clon has many characters with different stories, the main story of interest is that of protagonist Jade, who is played by Spanish actress Sandra Echeverria. Here is a brief summary of events so far: Jade, an Arab Muslim woman living in Miami, Florida, moves to Morocco to live with her Uncle Ali after the sudden death of her mother. Abhorred by his niece’s western ways, Ali compels Jade to read Qur’an and get married as soon as possible to Said, a man she does not know. Jade, however, is in love with a young man, named Lucas, who came to visit her Uncle’s house and who saw her, mistakenly, while exploring Ali’s home. Jade tries numerous times to escape with Lucas, but she is eventually forced to marry Said and accept her destiny.

The opening credits of the show establish a theme:

Jade and other women are seen belly dancing in a harem-like setting, then all of a sudden the costumes and scene change and they are dancing with men in a crowded Miami club. The music continues as she moves between these two worlds, creating a contrast between “East” and “West,” Islam and the “Modern World.”

The characters’ speech and actions reinforce this perceived dichotomy. In a conversation between Lucas and his godfather, his godfather says, “For us love is very natural, but for Muslims it is not. Here the women are not in love, they are in the house.” They even show that two men, one from America and one from Morocco, differ in their views regarding respecting women. For example, at one point Lucas says to Ali, “You are able to take four wives at a time. Where is the respect in that?” Ali replies, “Yes, we are allowed to take four wives, but only if you are able to maintain all of them and if you know your wives and if all four have the same rights. You guys only recognize one legitimate wife, but you have as many (women) as you want in secret and you say that you respect women more than us.”

This conflict between Islamic values and the “Western world” continues throughout the show as covered Muslim women are juxtaposed against scantily clad American women. Even though Jade is an American Muslim woman, the show depicts her as an “other” in American society. She is therefore categorized simply as a Muslim woman, allowing her character to be placed in the middle of this conflict. In one scene, Jade is sitting at a bus stop wearing a loose hijab and the image directly behind her is an advertisement featuring a woman in lingerie. Almost every American woman pictured on the show has an exaggerated air of sexual liberation, assumingly to show American women in sharp contrast to Muslim women.

An image from Telemundo's El Clon website: Nazira dances for Ali.

This is not to say that the Muslim women on the show are always covered up and devoid of sexuality. On the contrary! It seems like owning a belly dancing costume and knowing how to belly dance are criteria for Muslim women. The show portrays Muslim women as only able to act freely within woman-only spaces or when doing so in service to men—their husbands or otherwise.

In the show, belly dancers come to dance at Ali’s home for Ali, Said, and Said’s uncle. The constant depiction of Jade and Latiffa (Jade’s cousin) as overtly sexual in private while maintaining a public image that is void of any sexuality lends itself to the never-ending mantra of the “exotic” and “sensual” Muslim woman and the fantasies of what’s “under the veil.”

Jade and Latiffa are the typical victim prototypes: forced into marriage, spoken for by men, and most often secluded or limited to women-only spaces, such as the home. Jade, in contrast to Latiffa, struggles to accept the rules forced upon her, and embodies the perceived struggles between what are depicted as “Islamic values” (read: cultural stereotypes) and American values. She even seeks the help of Christina, Lucas’ Western friend, who tells Jade that if Lucas makes her happy then she should leave her family for him and forget her religion and principles. The scene is overwhelmingly reminiscent of the rhetoric of American women “saving” Muslim women from oppression, with the American woman pictured as having sexual agency and autonomy.

On the other hand, Latiffa has already accepted things as they are and seems to accept them as part of her destiny—at times, she even expresses happiness with her situation. She does everything to make her husband happy and does it with a smile. Even her husband’s jealousy and his sister’s rude manners do not deter her from being the quintessential demure woman. If she speaks out of turn or with too much emotion, she quickly apologizes.

Tomorrow, we’ll finish looking at El Clon’s female characters and examine how the issues regarding women and Islam are treated in the series. Stay tuned!

  • Rida

    i don’t have anything positive to say about this…!

  • Person

    Wow, just wow. Way to fall out the stereotype tree and hit every branch on the way down.

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  • Kathycelt

    A couple of months ago I read an American journalist’s criticism of American news media that are feeding the public shock-value “news porn” instead of genuinely informative news. I agree. Unfortunately, I think that’s what you are unwittingly doing in your article.

    …and, of course, the hyper-sexualization of the Muslim woman.

    (What about the hyper-sexualization of ALL the women in this novela, American and Muslim alike? It’s extremely annoying and insulting to all of us American female viewers who have been complaining about it on our fan forum.)

    Jade and other women are seen belly dancing in a harem-like setting, then all of a sudden the costumes and scene change and they are dancing with men in a crowded Miami club.

    (That is not correct. Jade and other Muslim women—except for Nazira, once—have NEVER been shown dancing with men in a crowded Miami club.)

    The characters’ speech and actions reinforce this perceived dichotomy.

    (There is a dichotomy and, in this exchange, it looks like Tio Ali has made a good point. Tio Ali is the voice of wisdom throughout this novela. He is a respected character. There is nothing wrong with dialogue that explores differences in order to come to understanding. It’s a process that takes time.)

    An image from Telemundo’s El Clon website: Nazira dances for Ali.

    (That was Nazira’s daydream; not reality.)

    The scene is overwhelmingly reminiscent of the rhetoric of American women “saving” Muslim women from oppression,

    (I’m not familiar with that rhetoric; never heard of it. However, I do know the United Nations and other organizations around the world are working to save women of many cultures from oppression: African, Asian, Indian, etc. As you should know, it’s a hot issue in Europe right now, not particularly so in America.)

    I have learned that Telemundo is famous for its unrealistic and (in my opinion) disrespectful portrayals of women in general. Telemundo does not represent America. Perhaps you could direct your observations more pointedly toward Telemundo.

    I should note that I have seen the original O Clone. Those of us who know and love it often say that we learned so much good from it. In fact, I even read a translation of the Koran because of O Clon and was pleasantly surprised by it. I work with Muslim colleagues and students every day and am impressed by how lovely Muslim people are. None of this would have happened without my having seen the original O Clon.

    What I’m saying is, don’t look only at the negative, unrealistic side. Open your eyes to the good that has come out of this story—communication and understanding.

    • Fatemeh

      @ Kathy: I’m very happy to know that O Clone led to your wanting to read the Qur’an–this is great!

      However, this isn’t the place to discuss semantics about the plot–there are fan sites for this sort of thing. This is a media analysis website. And Diana did just that–analyzed a television show that U.S.-owned Telemundo produces. She did find good in it, noting that the producers seem to have actually done their research when it comes to the Qur’an, but still remaining critical of the fact that the female characters reinforce common stereotypes about Muslim women.

      Something tells me you’re a first-time visitor to the site. Feel free to have a look around! :)

  • Diana

    @ Person and Rida: Stay tuned…the show actually gets some things right.

    @ Kathy: While I understand what you are saying, regarding looking at the, “negative, unrealistic side”, I would have to say that perhaps many viewers did not respond the way you did by picking up a Qur’an and reading it (for which I commend you).

    There is the reality though that many viewers will look at this show and it will only further reinforce within them the negative stereotypes that they have already been exposed to about Muslim women and men. This is the problem.

    I don’t find it necessary to play off of stereotypes in hopes that some, very few, very open minded, viewers may think twice and go pick up a Qur’an and learn what Islam really says about women. That is why it is our job to challenge what media, politics, discourse, literature and popular culture says about Muslim women because for many people this is their only source of information, their only introduction to Islam and to Muslim women.

  • Kathycelt

    My thanks for the response.

    I guess my concerns stem from an experience I had some years ago, along with recent remarks that Bill Clinton made about being careful of what we say. To wit:

    Back in the early 90′s, I desktop-published a newsletter devoted to the study of ancient Vikings and Celts. It covered history, archaeology, literature, arts and culture, mythology, etc., and (this was before half the world or I had even heard of the internet) xeroxed copies of it were mailed to a very small list of subscribers.

    Most writers like you and I have some image of who comprise our audience. To my mind, it was a very closed group because I had started it as the feature of an organization’s Special Interest Group (SIG) and, supposedly, only SIG members would ever see it. To my complete surprise, someone out in California happened upon a copy of it and gave it a stellar review in a fanzine. That led to my getting several new subscribers that included a murderer in prison for life and a professor from as far away as Latvia, which I found a lot of fun. To my utter shock, it also led to my receiving letters and mail order catalogs from several neo-Nazi groups, urging me to join their groups, buy their books, and publish their proffered articles on the glories of Hitler! As you know, he had adopted ancient Viking/Norse legend and imagery as a propaganda tool, and today’s neo-Nazis still imagine themselves stalwart Vikings destined for a glorious reward in Valhalla. The folks who sent me their material and put me on their mailing lists had assumed that, since I loved Vikings, surely I must love Hitler, too. Well, I had to do something about that so I developed a short disclaimer indicating that the purpose of the newsletter was learning and fun, that hate was not fun and, therefore, I reserved the right as publisher to decline article submissions I deemed “not fun.”

    I was reminded of that experience when, recently, I read of Bill Clinton’s response to some of Rush Limbaugh’s latest diatribe. Clinton said, “the words we use really do matter, because there’s this vast echo chamber, and they go across space and they fall on the serious and delirious alike. They fall on the connected and the unhinged alike.” He emphasized that we ought to have a lot of dissent and political argument but, “we also have to take responsibility for the possible consequences of what we say.”

    As published writers, you and I well know the tricks of the trade that can be used to subtly sway people to our opinions or points of view. The slight exaggeration, the tiniest bit of spin, the one-sided perspective can all incite an emotional reaction. What we have to be careful of is inaccuracies that may “incite” an undesirable audience we are not even aware that we have. I think that balance and accuracy in analyzing and reporting are key to avoiding such problems.

    A quick note: Someone noted that this is a media analysis website and also noted that you, Diana, had “analyzed a television show that U.S.-owned Telemundo produces.” The last is inaccurate. Telemundo is not owned by the U.S. on any level. It is owned by NBC and happens to broadcast in the U.S. It’s not like the British government’s ownership and control of the BBC. That sort of inaccuracy could well please the “delirious and unhinged” who thrive on anything that even remotely supports the closed views they hold, and could well encourage them toward acts that none of us want to see.

    I read with some pleasure the second installment of the “analysis” of Telemundo’s version of El Clon but, even less than the first installment do I see an objective analysis. What I see here is lip-service to a counterargument and, in the end, editorializing. Keep in mind the tenets of audience, purpose, content, voice. Although this purports to be a site devoted to media analysis, blithe inaccuracies make it appear that the purpose is to promote the idea among Muslims that all Westerners hold stereotypes of Muslim women and that Telemundo is proof positive. A true analysis would be objective and accurate and would express no such opinion, leaving opinions to its readers.