The heaving busts and melodrama of a Latin American soap opera, a television industry desperate for a ratings hit, and the writer makes a woman with Asperger’s syndrome the love interest for the dashing plastic surgeon in the latest telenovela. It sounds like a recipe for disaster but it turned out to be a triumph.
The Venezuelan telenovela was called La Mujer Perfecta – The Perfect Woman. The name was a play on its plastic surgery theme, a subtle nod to the country’s obsession with surgical tweaks and a knowing satire on the fact that the heroine was unconventionally, well, perfect.
If you’ve never seen a Latin American telenovela most are like a crap version of Knots Landing that exist as the semi-official residence of ex-beauty queens. Occasionally, however, they soar into brilliance.
La Mujer Perfecta was one of those examples and it’s discussed in an English-language article by media researcher Carolina Acosta-Alzuru. Wonderfully, she writes the piece as a letter to the lead character Micaela.
Of these six women, you would be the most peculiar, Micaela. You, who had never gone under the plastic surgery knife and who had never fallen in love, would discover the symptoms of love on meeting Santiago Reverón, a famous plastic surgeon married to a diva with a body and face operated on to the point of perfection. And Santiago would fall in love with you, the strangest woman he had ever met. Among your peculiarities is that you process what you hear literally. You do not understand the nuances of spoken language, nor of body language. As such, you cannot parse metaphors, sarcasm, and jokes.
In addition, you lack social filters when speaking; hence, you never lie or sugar coat your expressions. Brilliant, with an intelligence that is above average and a photographic memory, you can speak extensively about some subjects in which you are particularly learned. At the same time, you have difficulty deciphering emotions — your own and those of others. You are methodical and attached to your routines. They are your safety net. Hence, you suffer if anything alters your habits or environment.
Your body language can confuse people: you have difficulty making eye contact and, in general, you do not like to be touched. At the beginning of La Mujer Perfecta, no one (not even you), knew the reason behind your characteristics: Asperger’s Syndrome, a condition that lies in the spectrum of autism. But Asperger’s would not impede the occurrence of your love story with Santiago. And, as you know, a central love story is the defining characteristic of telenovelas.
Imagine if you had the production values of Dallas but still managed to create a brilliantly subversive, interesting and entertaining TV show that the autism community were really proud of.
Imagine if it topped the ratings without resorting to a librarian moment where the lead character takes off her dorky clothes, flicks her hair and is suddenly ‘cured’.
Most of the series is on YouTube but even if you don’t speak Spanish, it’s worth checking out the scene where Micaela and Santiago have their first kiss. It’s incredibly touching.
Micaela says she doesn’t understand why he says ‘he feels butterflies in his stomach’. Santiago comes out with a passionate but poetic declaration of love that Micaela doesn’t get. He touches her. She asks him not to because it feels uncomfortable. He withdraws his hands.
He says he has been trying to distract himself but he constantly thinks about her and feels completely consumed by her. She asks, concerned, “is this bad?” “No”, he replies, “it’s spectacular”.
She smiles and their lips edge closer. The music surges …you seem the perfect woman for me…. They kiss, a gentle tender kiss. Butterflies are flying around them.
And the adverts come and ruin the moment.
Even the most subversive telenovela of its generation is still, after all, a telenovela.