lunes, 27 de enero de 2014

Sabor Latino and the militarized male gaze

Between 1981 and 1982, amidst economic recession, state of siege and repression, before even the first public protests against Pinochet, the successful but short-lived variety show Sabor Latino under the direction of Sergio Riesenberg was broadcast on national television, showcasing performances of a number of vedettes mostly from Argentina and Spain. The show reached record audience ratings (80 points) but lasted only a year on the air and was abruptly cancelled under pressure of the Catholic Church. In 2005 the Chilean series “ExpedienTV” dedicated a whole program to Sabor Latino, in the context of a number of television programs that have begun to make public their archival footage of the last forty years (see for example, “TVN 40 Años” and “Chile. Las Imagenes Prohibidas”). In it, Sabor Latino’s director Sergio Riesenberg admits that the junta, anticipating the economic recession, gave him the order to develop a “high impact” show. Pinochet and his advisors had realized about the broad reaching power of television, after the unprecedented success of the telenovela “La Madrastra” by Catholic Television Station and the Festival Internacional de la Canción de Viña del Mar. The latter had been particularly instrumental in providing the military dictatorship with an image of international credibility, normality, and economic prosperity within and outside of Chile.

It is also important to mention that in 1981, Chileans’ context was of seven years of sustained curfew, and people in Santiago had stopped attending variety shows such as the Bim Bam Bum (the most popular theatre/variety spectacle in 1970), bars, and even movies. The street as the space outside the house became signified as dangerous, as a space in which one could be suspected, or blamed for transgressing that boundary that divided domestic respectable family private life from outside suspicious political subversive activity. At the same time that the streets had become dangerous, and the house was supposed to be the proper place for decent family men and family women, conservative gender ideologies were mobilized and reproduced by the Centros de Madres. What could possibly be the relationship between the interests of the junta and Sabor Latino as a sexualized spectacle? One key to understand this relationship is the admitted fact that the junta was supportive of the broadcasting of this show, not despite, but because they were acutely aware that it would stir a public debate and controversy. Not surprisingly, the day after the first emission of Sabor Latino, which featured a close-up shot of Maripepa Nieto’s monumental buttocks, there were head titles in all newspapers announcing the Chilean destape. This word, which translates as “uncovering,” had been initially used to refer to the end of Franco’s dictatorship in Spain.

The result was then a nationwide public debate on what should be the limits of this destape understood as a sexual liberation. For historian Sergio Durán, who has recently published his research on the transformation of television during the seventies and eighties, while the sexual destape in Spain was seen as antagonic to the Franquista dictatorship, in Chile the dictatorship saw these spectacles as somehow instrumental to them. Instead of signifying the end of military rule as it did in Spain, the supposed Chilean destape that Sabor Latino announced seems retrospectively more as a simulacrum of freedom during one of the most harsh periods of dictatorship. Let us not forget that in 1979 the Plan Laboral had completely restructured labor relations, and that in 1982 the economic recession provoked by the Chicago Boys shock treatment of Chilean economy abruptly put millions of Chileans in poverty and extreme poverty. In fact, Duran sees the broadcasting of Sabor Latino as sitting in the point break between the extreme neoliberal policies that created the short perception of an economic boom, and the economic recession.

It [Sabor Latino] was a milestone. It was the peak of a moment in television because the dictatorship was going through a good moment economically and could promote itself that the model was working out, people had more access to consuming goods, and television was reflecting that with the millionaire budgets of these shows, broadcast live from luxurious venues with very important international guests. Sabor Latino represented the highest point of this, and also the point in which this begins to change. By 1981 there was not enough budget to produce such shows at the same level than before, and that lead to seeking out vedettes from Argentina and Spain. 

The historian explains the apparent contradiction between the strict sexual morals of the military and the contents of Sabor Latino as something that the junta was willing to allow only because it was such a commercial success. While Duran still attributes to Sabor Latino, along with other television shows produced under the Pinochet years, mostly a role of evasion or distraction, I argue that the specific contents of the show are key to the disciplining of subjects under neoliberal Chile. Sabor Latino is instrumental to the dictatorship not only in terms of its implicit narrative of sexual liberation, but also in terms of what they do sanction as acceptable kind of desires, what do they say about gender roles, about class and race, about heterosexuality and homophobia. From the point of view of feminist cultural studies, there is no piece of popular culture that does not lend itself to the analysis of gendered cultural norms and desires in a particular context in time and space. Under this light, the contents of Sabor Latino need to be considered in its productive relationships with the practices and narratives of the military dictatorship, as well as in its convergence with the neoliberal order.

Moreover, I argue that the show can be seen as a screen where fantasies and desires about a national project were projected, as Sabor Latino enacted a militarized male gaze. In a 1975 article entitled “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey uses a psychoanalytic framework to understand the gendered politics of looking, 

In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/ male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic spectacle, from pin-ups to strip-tease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire. 

In the context of a complete lack of options for entertainment and television programs, the emergence of shows like Sabor Latino can be read as the sanctioning of a militarized male gaze over the terrorized and feminized population. Additionally, Festival de Viña, Sabor Latino, Vamos a Ver were all shows in which Chile appeared connected to an international circuit of high level foreign artists mostly from North America or Europe rather than Latin America. Paradoxically, while the name “Sabor Latino” (Latin Flavour) exploited a tropicalizing sexual imaginary, the vedettes invited were usually from Spain (the most immediate European referent for Chileans) and Argentina (the country that prides being “the most European,” along with the “whitest” within Latin America). In this sense, the show could have been reflecting some fantasies about the whiteness of the country, the desire to “whiten” the nation, as well as male desires and fantasies about a particular version of femininity. Given the fact that Sabor Latino was launched by the National State Television (TVN) in a period in which the country was under strict military control, we can begin to see the lines of convergence and mutual benefit between this show, and the accompanying narratives of “freedom” (of the Market) and “liberation” (from Communism) sustained by the military under Pinochet.

Conducted by Antonio Vodanovic and directed by Sergio Riesenberg, the variety show, recorded in the Casablanca hall of the Crown Plaza Hotel, aimed to broadcast a similar show to the ones offered by teatros de revistas. The goal, especially taking into account the political situation in Chile, was quite transgressive but could result in a success. Sabor Latino, through time, became a real cult space and a synonym of transgression and audacity amidst an extremely repressed social and political climate. Today, many remember [Sabor Latino] nostalgically since announced the more liberal times our country would live, from the 90’s onwards, with the arrival of the recovered democracy. (My translation and emphasis).

The broadcasting of this show at the beginning of the 1980’s is often read in terms of (sexual) transgression in a political context of absolute political repression, and explained as “announcing the more liberal times of democracy” as in the quote above extracted from the website “Guioteca”. Discussions about Sabor Latino frequently associate dictatorship with repression and prohibition, and democracy with sexual “destape.” I argue that this association of "free market" with "(sexual) freedom/liberation" seems to be at the core of neoliberal democratic legitimation in post-dictatorship Chile. Considering, additionally, that the main star of Sabor Latino at the beginning of the 1980’s, the Spanish vedette Maripepa Nieto, was romantically linked with Alvaro Corbalan, chief of the CNI, the broadcasting of the show did not necessarily represent a threat nor went against the economically neoliberal and morally conservative agenda of Pinochet’s regime: quite the opposite, because it was functional to the military domestic ideology, to the illusion of economic boom, but mostly, to the illusion of a Chilean destape, during the dictatorship. Riesenberg openly admits that the show could have not benefitted more from all the publicity that these national debates about a supposed destape. Additionally, it presented the appearance of a more democratic military government, as they seemed to be facing something that they did not approve, but were lenient enough to allow it to be discussed in newspapers. The show tried to be reinstated in 1987 but after three episodes, this time faced the firm opposition of not only the Movimiento Teocratico, but from the wives of the junta and their associations.