The Birth Control Box in Your Living Room
What is played out in the imagination of the artist foreshadows, however dimly, the social reality of tomorrow.
—Daniel Bell, The Contradictions of Capitalism.
If you want to know just what sorts of “change” the movers and shakers would like to see take place in society, then watch a few episodes of some soap operas. Take Coronation Street, the only one I see on a regular basis. It is set in a suburb of Manchester, and most of the characters are lower-middle or working class. A disproportionate number of them are active homosexuals, but there is never any suggestion that this could conceivably be a matter for disapproval, however mild. All the “straight” characters accept such behaviour, and even encourage their “gay” friends to look around for “partners”. I don’t believe this yet totally reflects proletarian life in Northern England, but there is reason to believe it may well do so in the not too distant future. Not so many years ago, sodomy was universally regarded as depraved and reprehensible, even among many atheists and agnostics, but nowadays it is seen as an acceptable lifestyle “choice” by virtually the entire media and political establishment.
“Sean” has been in Coronation Street for a long time now. In the early days he was a figure of fun, camping it up like Kenny Everett or Benny Hill. Now, time is devoted to his love life, which is taken quite seriously. The latest twist, which is still working itself out, is that Sean picks up a vicar in a “gay bar”, and they are just on their first date. He asks this vicar whether he is a “shalt” or a “shalt not” type of guy and receives an evasive reply. It will be interesting to see how this develops.
In an earlier episode, “Sophie” a holy roller evangelical, decides she is a lesbian. It doesn’t seem to bother her particularly when her group tell her that such conduct is incompatible with Christianity, probably because they can’t give her any convincing reason why this is so, beyond mentioning a few Bible verses which they don’t elucidate. Now she is still “a Christian”, and apparently at ease living with her “partner”.
It is well established that in most of Europe and North America, Catholics are contracepting, and even aborting, at just the same rate as the rest of the population. This is not just because their clergy hardly ever dare to speak out about it, but because for decades now the laity have been exposed to intense anti-life propaganda by the media and entertainment industries.
The same story seems to be developing all over the world. The latest issue of the New Oxford Review, in a well-documented article, confirms the process I have outlined above, particularly in relation to population control in Latin America, and even parts of Africa. The importance of the part played by soap operas in conditioning entire populations to accept contraception, in particular, would be difficult to exaggerate.
Take Brazil, for example. There, one television network has for decades had a near monopoly on telenovelas (soap operas) . In over a hundred Brazilian telenovelas from the 1970s to the 1990s, 72 percent of the female characters under 50 years of age had no children, and 21 percent had only one child. Needless to say, this did not reflect the reality of Brazilian life: The average woman had five children. But a peculiar thing happened: “As the soaps reached each region and as the majority of the population tuned in, there was a discernible, additional fall in fertility.” Today, the Brazilian fertility rate is down to 1.8 children—lower even than that of the U.S. So it seems life really might imitate art.
Though the link between idealised families in Brazilian soaps and the fertility rate of the country at large may seem a bit tenuous, there is no doubt that farther north, in Mexico, soap operas have directly been used to reduce fertility. In the 1970s, the average Mexican woman had five or six children. Miguel Sabido, then-president of Televisa, Mexico’s national TV network, developed a soap-opera format designed to effect social change. In what would become known as the “Sabido Method,” viewers are encouraged to identify with a “transitional character” whose personal ethical dilemmas drive the story. Sabido’s first offering, Acompáñame, focused on an impoverished woman living in a crime-ridden slum who uses artificial contraception to limit her family size in order to break out of the cycle of poverty. While some have likened the Sabido Method to “crude social engineering,” the U.S.-based Population Media Centre praises it as “a highly successful and proven mass media instrument” that excels at “raising awareness among large numbers of people about critical issues,” such as “the benefits of smaller families,” and motivating audiences to “adopt new behaviours.”
The PMC is quite open and unashamed about its methods. It has produced a television series, East Los High, targeted at young Latinos based in the U.S., and boasts of its success in getting them to use contraceptive devices. I googled “Population Media Centre” to watch their propaganda video, and found it a depressing experience. There is no doubt about their professionalism.
Getting back to the situation in Mexico…According to the PMC, over the course of Acompáñame’s nine-month run, more than 2,000 women registered as voluntary workers in Mexico’s national family-planning programme, as was suggested in the telenovela; contraceptive sales increased 23 percent in one year, compared to a seven percent increase the preceding year; and more than half a million Mexican women enrolled in family-planning clinics, an increase of 33 percent, compared to a one percent decrease the previous year.
Miguel Sabido went on to develop five similar telenovelas from 1977 to 1986, a time during which Mexico’s population growth rate declined by 34 percent. As a result, in May 1986, the United Nations presented its Population Prize to Mexico as “the foremost population success story in the world”.
Not surprisingly, the population controllers at PMC and elsewhere were eager to export the Sabido Method worldwide. Copycat shows were broadcast in numerous impoverished nations. In Jamaica, for example, Naseberry Street ran from 1985 to 1989, a period that saw the island’s fertility rate drop from 3.3 to 2.9 children. When Tushauriane topped the ratings in Kenya in the late 1980s, it coincided with a drop in that nation’s fertility rate from 6.3 to 4.4 children. David O. Poindexter, president of Population Communications International, which worked with the Kenyan government to develop the soap, told The New York Times that Tushauriane “is not, first of all, drama, but value reinforcement” (June 14, 1987). Greg Adambo, the soap’s Kenyan producer, echoed Poindexter’s utilitarian approach to entertainment: “Our first concern,” Adambo said, “is to persuade our audience to go for family planning and health services.”
More recently, since Makutano Junction was first aired in 2001—it’s now in its twelfth season—Kenya’s fertility rate has dropped again from 5.0 to 3.8 children. Makutano Junction is funded by the British government’s Department for International Development (DFID) in conjunction with Marie Stopes International, a British non-governmental organization whose aim is to export abortion. The purpose of Makutano Junction, according to DFID, is to provide viewers with “very specific and practical information” about family planning, including how to find Marie Stopes clinics.
One would think that a country like Kenya would be wary of Western cultural influences. But maybe the Kenyan government considers the importation of Western sexual values to be more benevolent than old-style colonialism. Nevertheless, as the New Oxford Review comments, this imposition represents a type of spiritual enslavement.
There is little doubt that television is “the most dynamic force in changing social mores in villages and slum communities” in impoverished regions. But its power is not limited to the so- called developing world. Soap operas have played a role in changing attitudes about homosexuality and same-sex marriage in the U.S. and Europe. Coronation Street, the example I gave at the beginning of this article is a case in point.
It will be interesting to see how the campaign for the forthcoming referendum on homosexual pseudogamy (“gay marriage” ) will develop in Ireland. Of one thing you may be sure; the media will have an enormous influence on the result.
That little glowing box in the corner of your living room is more powerful—more insidiously powerful—than it appears. It has the power to affect, however subliminally, not only its viewers’ outlooks but their most intimate habits as well. It is a transformative presence whose content is at times controlled by forces that have a very specific agenda in mind—a radically anti-family agenda. Used without caution by unwary viewers, television subtly applies its imprint on their hearts and minds.