Hugely popular Turkish soap operas feature not much sex, but plenty of violence against women
Turkish soap operas have become a pompous, colorful, stressful, romantic and ultraviolent global phenomenon. But first of all, let’s forget this archaic soap opera term; since the Turks have created their own genre. Well, I don’t know if they really created it, but they label it under the name DIZI; this is the way they call what you usually know as a soap opera. But the Dizi genre is not far from using the same narrative tools that, for example, Latin soap operas have employed since the beginning of television: stories full of problems for the characters in their search for happiness, love tribulations, romantic triangles, an emphasis on the importance of family and lots and lots of secondary characters whose subplots overwhelm the viewer.
The main differences are clear: obviously, because it is a Muslim country, there is no kissing, no sex, no alcohol, but it deems violence necessary. An astonishing fact is that the Turkish serial drama industry has become one of the most powerful in the world. Currently, it is the primary export product from that country and is only surpassed by the United States’s cultural output. By 2023, the projection is that it will exceed a billion dollars in worldwide distribution. So from now on, we will refer to Turkish dramas the way they themselves want us to: Dizi.
For some years now, both global television networks and streaming platforms have filled with content from Türkiye (a country formerly known as Turkey). This phenomenon began in 2011 with The Magnificent Century, a fictional story about the life of Sultan Suleiman during the era of the Ottoman Empire, extended to 139 episodes in prime time on Turkish television, with chapters that even exceeded two hours in duration. The Magnificent Century was an incredible start to what is today a global dramatic hegemony. That show told the fictional life of Sultan Suleiman and how a young slave became his main wife, but not the only one. The staging was great; costumes, art direction…By God, these people spared no effort to take the viewer to the heart of the Ottoman Empire, applying narrative formulas very similar to those typical of Latin soap operas. This is perhaps why Dizi is extremely popular in Latin America and in countries like Chile, Colombia, Argentina, Mexico, and the United States (and even Venezuela) millions of people see them.
Of course, to make a Dizi, there is a formula and it is very simple: There is not a single unattractive human being in the casting; so prepare to see only attractive people. Forget about seeing Danny DeVito jumping around the corner. That will not happen. Another issue is family unity; and this is something that the Turks take very seriously. In the first years of the Dizi, the family union was the axis of all the stories: an improvement was always sought, a fight for the evolution of the family, of love, of the fight against all obstacles. Before, say, a decade ago, when the Dizi only broadcast in Turkey, the length of each show or the duration of each episode did not matter (the longer the better, since the television networks could include many sponsors in the commercial breaks). Another characteristic is that if there is no love triangle, it is not a Dizi; love always comes in the middle of obstacles and there is always a third person who is there to complicate everything.
And the plots, subplots, entanglements, and happy endings filled viewers with an aspirational feeling: “Yes, it is possible for a slave to be the first wife of a sultan!”, and similar crazy things. All of this: the music, dances, food, the spectacular settings, the cast, became a cultural mirror that showed for the first time to large audiences what characterized the Turkish community, which soon resonated in the Balkans, making a leap to international success… and then Netflix arrived.
Let’s make this huge!
The original Dizi dramas had two themes: historical dramas or dramas based on the present, with Turkish families and their problems that they were struggling to resolve in the midst of disputes, unrequited love, and all the plot twists that, I repeat, except for the absence of some inebriated, passionate kisses and some erotic scenes, it is very similar to the format of the Latin soap opera. Always with a happy ending, full of hope (regardless of whether a husband beat his wife). But this was like wasting so many beautiful people doing the usual… Then when Netflix started making original Turkish productions, oh boy, things escalated to another level. First, it was no longer necessary to have two-hour episodes, because Netflix does not have commercial breaks and then, yes, there are still historical dramas, but the Dizi stories expanded their spectrum to… well, vampires, thrillers, submarines, hitmen and whatever comes to your mind.
And Netflix has taken advantage to create original Turkish series that maintain the same lines and storytelling formula (there is always a love triangle, family ties, etc.). After an agonizing scientific investigation that led me to waste an insane amount of hours of my life watching my gray hair grow due to anguish and suffering and laughing and believing that despite everything, life should be beautiful no matter what challenges we have to face, love will always prevail and even if you are poor… but, you know, sometimes you actually have to kill people… Sorry, I recap: after watching too many episodes of several Turkish series, my brain is like a mix between a minefield and an island full of illusions and romance. Simply put, I think I’ve gone crazy.
Netflix offers an extensive Dizi catalog. And during my research, I watched a couple of limited series, and many episodes of various series; I will only mention a few, since I am not trying to review any of them, but to show the general panorama of the Dizi world and its discrepancies between the screen and reality within Islam. But I dove into the following series: “Yakamoz S-245” (action/drama); “The Club” (drama); “Ethos” (drama/thriller); “Rise of Empires: Ottoman” (period drama); “Masum” (crime); “50M²” (thriller); “Midnight at the Pera Palace” (period drama) and “Fatma”, which has everything you can imagine, murders, extreme violence, love, drama, more drama… even more drama… suicides, sexual abuse and a terrible ending. Far from the original Dizi spirit.
Something that catches my attention is the number of female protagonists in the Dizi. Before going into the details of women in Turkish series, it is necessary to mention the Radio and Television Supreme Council, which is the Turkish government body that monitors and establishes censorship in films and series. Censorship is everywhere, especially when we refer to sex, alcohol, and political topics.
But many series, present violence against women at really extreme levels. Sure, then some of these women (the characters) get over their traumas and blah blah blah. Although we must not be hypocrites and point a finger at the Turks for the violence against women in Dizi dramas, because Hollywood has long subjected women to tremendously horrible beatings on the big and small screen. So if a Turkish woman’s partner drags herby the hair because she wants to do things her way, well, it’s not that big of a deal, is it?
However, there is also a false narrative when the Turks say that their Dizi are different from Hollywood productions, because America only shows decadence…when the truth is that Dizi and Hollywood show the same thing in their own way.
But I take the example of the limited series “Fatma”; the protagonist is a poor cleaning woman who becomes a murderer and in doing so, the narrative seems to justify her actions and even give her power and the respect of the audience… But absolutely all Muslims on planet Earth know very well what would happen to her, to a woman who would follow the path of this character. In fact, and again, when there are so many female leads and when there is so much insistence that Turkish dramas differ from Hollywood in their approach to reality, well, certainly in some respects this is true: when you show all gender violence passing sideways before the romances, the great empires and the lavish sets and locations… We must remember the situation of violence against women in Türkiye and the embarrassing rate of femicide that is one of the highest in the world. A study showed that between 2013 and 2021, 3,035 women were murdered, mostly by their husbands, partners, ex-husbands. Another study investigates the relationship between violence against women and the possible influence of Turkish series.
And the truth is, I would rather watch a despised series in Türkiye, Sex and the City. People criticize the show because it supposedly does not show reality but rather the emptiness of American society. But, man, I prefer to see Carrie drunk or having sex… I think there is more dignity in that content than in a mirage that hides a much darker real hole in the Dizi universe.