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.
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!