In 1960, the average Brazilian woman had 6.3 children. By 2000, the fertility rate was down to 2.3. The decline was comparable to China's, but Brazil didn't have a one-child policy. In fact, for a while it was even illegal to advertise contraceptives.
Many factors account for the drop in Brazilian fertility, but one recent study identified a factor most people probably wouldn't consider: soap operas (novelas). Novelas are huge in Brazil, and the network Rede Globo effectively has a monopoly on their production. Here's a sample:
During the past few decades, the vast majority of the population, of all social classes, has regularly tuned into the evening showings. The study, conducted by Eliana La Ferrara of Italy's Bocconi University and Alberto Chong and Suzanne Duryea of the Inter-American Development Bank, analyzed novelas aired from 1965 to 1999 in the top two time slots and found that they depict families that are much smaller than those in the real Brazil. Seventy-two percent of leading female characters age 50 or below had no children at all, and 21 percent had just one child. Hence, the authors hypothesized that the soap operas could be acting as a kind of birth control.
Using census data from 1970 to 1991 and data on the entry of Rede Globo into different markets, the researchers found that women living in areas that received Globo's broadcast signal had significantly lower fertility. (And yes, the study did control for all sorts of factors and addressed the concern that the entry of Globo might have been driven by trends that also contribute to fertility decline. I'll spare you the gory econometric details.) Additionally, people in areas with Globo's signal were more likely to name their children after novela characters, suggesting that it was the novelas specifically, and not TV in general, that influenced childbearing.
These findings on the power of TV are reminiscent of last year's FP article "TV Privileges," which reported on a study about the effect of satellite TV on Indian villages. Women living in villages that acquired satellite TV -- whose shows tend to depict relatively liberated urban women -- came to have less tolerance for spousal abuse and less bias in favor of having boys. They also became more able to spend money without a husband's permission.
It all suggests that soap operas can be a soapbox for social change.
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