In 2004, a statistically significant number of rural Brazilian fifth graders had the same names as the main characters in a popular soap opera.
Where are we going? To the impact of soap operas on family size in rural Brazil.
How a Soap Opera Changed Lives
According to their 2000 census, 73 percent of Brazil’s rural adult population had no more than four years of school. Minimally connected to urban life through education and books and newspapers, those rural households knew little about middle class life. But the TV had arrived and with it, the soap opera.
One soap opera in particular from the network Rede Globo appears to have mesmerized the population. Occupying an 8 pm prime time slot, episodes could involve marriage, divorce, adultery or homosexuality. Their typical middle or upper middle class female protagonist had one child, a job and sometimes, a lover. Although the families were white, happy and relatively rich, everyone identified with a message that related to freedom and fewer traditional values. It sounds like there was no political agenda–just high quality entertainment. However, for the rural cohort a lot more was going on.
Scholars who gathered data on the impact of the program during several decades believed rural Brazilian women were influenced by the series’ female characters. Seeing men who displayed less machismo, married and divorced mothers with one or two children, and women who had jobs outside the home, these rural ladies were introduced to an appealing world. When researchers saw that fertility rates declined in rural areas that could access the program, they said the contact with an urban TV family was the reason.
Our Bottom Line: A Declining Fertility Rate
At the end of the 18th century, the Reverend Malthus (1766-1834) first told us why population would outstrip the food supply. Explaining that people multiplied exponentially while the increase in the land’s bounty was arithmetic, he said we would run out of resources. Because there was a finite amount of land and only war and disease could stop people from having babies, we were doomed.
It has not worked out that way. Because of agricultural innovation and slowing population growth, Malthus’s prediction did not develop. Except for Africa, world fertility rates have declined to replacement levels and even less. In Brazil, the total fertility rate (the number of children that would be born to a woman if she were to live to the end of her childbearing years) has declined from 6.3 in 1960 to 1.8 in 2013.