Bleak times on and off screen: Contemporary social critique in Nordic noir and narconovelas
Nordic noir and narconovelas have become very popular TV genres in their respective regions as well as worldwide. Comparing the depiction of the state and society through the narratives and characters in these two types of crime drama allows us to better understand the concerns and challenges each region is facing and to recognise how cultural products can portray and critique social issues in a fictionalised way.
Popular crime TV series
Mexico and other Latin American countries have long been known for telenovelas, soap operas that typically feature narratives about family, social ascent and self-sacrificing female characters.1 In recent years, a new genre has emerged from the same foundations but takes a slightly darker turn, as it is set amidst the cartels, crime and violence of the contemporary Mexican ‘war on drugs’. These new TV series, taking drug lords as the protagonists, have been dubbed narconovelas.2
Nordic noir is another TV genre with a similarly specific regional context. Coming from the tradition of detective novels, but combining elements of thriller, political drama and noir, the Nordic countries have produced a new type of crime drama.3 Although Nordic noir TV series generally follow the storyline of a detective show, they have a darker tone, resulting from a gloomy cinematography similar to film noir, critique of social problems, and plot twists reminiscent of political thrillers.
Both new types of crime drama have become popular beyond their regions, with viewers from around the globe. Netflix has also produced US adaptations of series from both genres, attesting to their international influence and making the series accessible to new audiences. Although Nordic noir and narconovelas are both new and popular types of crime drama, they also have key differences, as they are set in very distinct social contexts and originate from particular backgrounds.
This article analyses and compares Nordic noir and narconovelas, focusing on the depiction of the state and society through the narratives and characters to reveal the critical social commentary beneath the entertainment. Comparing these two types of crime dramas can help us better understand the concerns and challenges each region is facing and recognise how popular culture can portray and criticise social realities. The article shows how both narconovelasand Nordic noir point to social injustices in a subtle, non-confrontational way, by including social problems within the setting of entertaining TV shows.
Cracks in the Nordic welfare state
The Nordic countries consistently top world rankings on quality of life, happiness, freedom, and stability.4 They are perceived as some of the least corrupt countries in the world and have extremely low homicide rates.5 Yet the crime drama series produced in the Nordic countries — Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland — paint a very different picture.
Nordic noir portrays the countries as gloomy places, far from the paradises the statistics would have us believe. Using cinematographic elements such as “unusual camera placement, heavily subdued lighting and a pronounced use of shadows,” 6 the TV series present their Nordic settings as cold and bleak places where people are alone, unhappy and struggling. Furthermore, rather than simply focusing on how the crimes are solved, as in typical detective stories, Nordic noir also highlights the pain and struggle that characters feel.
Nordic noir suggests that beneath the surface of the Nordic welfare states, there is a part of society filled with crime, violence and marginalised people falling through the cracks of the system. Social critique is particularly pronounced in the first season of Bron/Broen, where the perpetrator seeks to gain attention by targeting social issues such as immigration, homelessness and child labour. In other series, even when the murderers do not explicitly point to social inequalities, the detectives uncover social problems at every turn. In Karppi, for example, the murder of a social worker leads detectives to discover shady business deals, drug trafficking and sexual abuse, while in the first season of Forbrydelsen, the brutal rape and murder of a young student is linked to a prominent politician.
The transnational nature of contemporary society is also a core aspect of many series in the genre, perhaps most clearly in the Danish-Swedish collaboration Bron/Broen, which begins when the body of a woman cut in half is found in the middle of the Øresund Bridge, the connection between Malmö and Copenhagen.7 The corpse belongs to two different people: the upper half to a Swedish politician and the lower half to a Danish prostitute, bringing together detectives Saga Norén from Sweden and Martin Rohde from Denmark to investigate the crime. The use of real, recognisable places and the inclusion of topical phenomena in Nordic societies today, such as migration, environmental concerns, and new technology makes the misery and gloom portrayed in Nordic noir series more tangible.
Indeed, the series exaggerate the social problems found in Nordic societies, but setting them in a recognisable, contemporary Nordic society with enough accurate detail and context makes the shows more believable. Although the Nordic countries generally do well in quality of life rankings and even happiness surveys, the genre depicts the kinds of crime and hardship that could conceivably occur there, particularly in their portrayal of violence against women and social exclusion. Through an exaggerated image of the contemporary Nordic society, the series subtly point to social injustices of the real-life Nordic countries.
A broken Mexican state
Similar to Nordic noir, narconovelas portray social problems and the weakness of the state in their own regional context. Narconovelas present a state that is not in control of its territory, with corrupt leaders in charge and a police force that does not investigate crime but is complicit in it.8 They depict Mexican society as a violent setting, where drug lords run the show.
In El Chapo, a TV series following the life of the infamous drug lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the Mexican state creates a pact with drug cartels to redistribute their zones of influence under the condition that they stop violent disputes amongst themselves and continue to give profits to the government. Rather than following the rule of law, the police only seeks to arrest El Chapo after a political decision by the Mexican president. Even then, local officials are presented as self-interested individuals that can be bought to help El Chapo. Violence and murder form part of everyday life in a battle for power.
The main characters in narconovelas are drug lords, who are typically portrayed as macho men who always need to be the most powerful and demand respect. For example, in El Señor de los Cielos, Aurelio Casillas is presented as a powerful man with his hat, guns and a muscular body. Or, for El Chapo it is very important to be called “El Patrón” (The Boss) and he goes to great lengths to achieve this status. In the world of narco, the weak cannot survive.
Somewhat less typically, the protagonist in La Reina del Sur is female, Teresa Mendoza. She becomes involved with drug-dealing after her boyfriend is assassinated in Culiacán, a violent city in northwestern Mexico. Teresa has to escape to Spain, where she enters the drug business. The storyline shows another common narrative element in narconovelas: characters who become increasingly engaged in organised crime because they lack other opportunities in society.9
Transnationalism is also present in narconovelas, where, similarly to Nordic noir, criminal activity is not limited by national borders, and neighbouring countries’ law enforcement officials cooperate. Drug trafficking is by definition a transnational crime, and drug lords are presented as tricky characters who devise innovative ways to cross borders, whether by digging tunnels, flying airplanes or hiding in the boots of cars.10 The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) also plays a part in many series of the genre, pursuing its own interests whether by pressuring the Mexican president or working with local officials.
Making social problems visible
Both Nordic noir and narconovelas critique the society they are set in, not in an explicit or confrontational way but rather more subtly, by simply making visible the cracks in the systems and the hardship that some people in these societies may experience. Nordic noir presents the state as a functional structure that, despite ensuring public services and a good standard of living for most, has not been able to include some marginalised groups or deal with problems such as sexual and domestic violence. In narconovelas, the state is broken and institutions are corrupt, leaving social problems to be solved by individuals and self-organised groups.
These storylines reflect and critique the social realities of their respective regions. In Nordic noir, crimes are mainly perpetrated by individuals with personal motives and resentments, whereas in narconovelas, crimes are mostly executed by organised groups that portray a strong “gang” mentality, who protect their families and members with absolute loyalty, seek revenge and are in constant rivalry with opposite groups. In the Mexican context, the gangs often take the role that the state has in the Nordic context.
Both genres demonstrate an intricate and complex depiction of morality and ethics. In narconovelas, the drug lords are presented as the show’s heroes, but they also commit crimes. In Nordic noir, the main characters are police officers struggling with all sorts of personal problems, are disobeying the law or cheating, and are even committing murder. These nuanced depictions portray both character types such as drug lords and police officers, as human beings, flaws included. They also leave it to the viewers to decide for themselves whether something was morally right or wrong. Furthermore, presenting both police officers and criminals as flawed and emotional, struggling human beings adds to the dark, gloomy depiction of the contemporary society and lends credibility to the subtle social critique.
Although both genres criticise the societies they are set in, there are limitations to these critiques. They both mainly focus on violence and ignore some other prominent social issues. For example, narconovelas usually portray stereotypical gender roles, where women are portrayed as one-dimensional characters, whose actions are motivated by their relationship to the male characters.11 Furthermore, while in Nordic noir the gender roles are more equal, the series can still be considered to fetishize the female body, as the crimes portrayed often include sexual violence against women simply to portray the male perpetrator’s evilness and masculine authority.12
The societies and the social injustices presented in Nordic noir and narconovelas are distinct due to the different regional contexts of the series; however, in both genres the contemporary social problems of the region are made visible through an exaggerated, crime-filled drama. The backdrop of crime and hardship in a specific contemporary society that is the distinguishing feature of these two genres presents a critique that cuts through the entertaining elements of murder mystery, unexpected plot twists, sex and romance.
Nordic noir and narconovelas are two new types of crime drama, both with very specific regional contexts. Analysing these TV series by focusing on the depiction of the state and society through the narratives and characters has revealed a critical social commentary beneath the initial layer of entertainment. This article has shown how both narconovelas and Nordic noir point to social injustices in a subtle, non-confrontational way by including social problems as the setting of entertaining TV shows. More generally, comparing these two types of crime dramas allows us to better understand the concerns and challenges each region is facing, and recognise how popular culture can reflect and criticise social realities.
- Franco, D. (2012) Ciudadanos de ficción: discursos y derechos ciudadanos en las telenovelas mexicanas. El caso Alma de Hierro. Comunicación y sociedad, Volume 9 (1): p. 45. Available at:http://www.scielo.org.mx/pdf/comso/n17/n17a3.pdf (access date 26 April 2018).
- Volpi, J. (2013) Dispatches from the front: on narconovelas. The Nation. Available at:https://www.thenation.com/article/dispatches-front-narconovelas/ (access date 24 May 2018).
- Nordic Noir: The Story of Scandinavian Crime Fiction (2010). [TV programme] 4: BBC.
- See e.g. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2018) Better Life Index. Available at:http://www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org/ (access date 26 April 2018); Numbeo. (2018) Quality of Life index for Country.Available at: https://www.numbeo.com/quality-of-life/rankings_by_country.jsp (access date 26 April 2018); Helliwell, J. et. al. (2018) World Happiness Report 2018. Available at: http://worldhappiness.report/ed/2018/ (access date 26 April 2018); Freedom House. (2018) Freedom in the World 2018: Table of Country Scores. Available at:https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world-2018-table-country-scores (access date 26 April 2018); Fund for Peace. (2018) Fragile States Index. Available at: http://fundforpeace.org/fsi/ (access date 26 April 2018).
- See e.g. World Atlas. (2018) Murder Rate by Country. Available at: https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/murder-rates-by-country.html (access date 24 April 2018); Transparency International. (2017) Corruption Perceptions Index 2017. Available at: https://www.transparency.org/news/feature/corruption_perceptions_index_2017 (access date 24 April 2018).
- Waade, A. and Jensen P. (2013) Nordic noir production values: The Killing and The Bridge. Academic quarter, Volume 7 (fall): p.191. Available at:http://www.akademiskkvarter.hum.aau.dk/pdf/vol7/13a_AWaadePMJensen_NordicNoir.pdf (access date 26 April 2018).
- Åberg, A. (2015) Bridges and Tunnels: Negotiating the National in Transnational Television Drama. In: Gustafsson, T. and Kääpä, P. (eds.) (2015) Nordic Genre Film: Small Nation Film Cultures in the Global Marketplace. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 91-103.
- Vásquez, A. (2015) Narco Series: a new narco-ethics? Voices of Mexico, Issue 100: p. 58. Available at:http://www.revistascisan.unam.mx/Voices/pdfs/10012.pdf (access date 26 April 2018).
- Dittmar, V. (2016) Mexico’s narco soap opera do more than just glorify drug trade. Insight Crime. Available at:https://www.insightcrime.org/news/analysis/mexico-narco-soap-operas-do-more-than-just-glorify-drug-trade/(access date 25 May 2018).
- United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (2018) Drug trafficking. Available at:https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/drug-trafficking/index.html (access date 26 April 2018).
- Tiznado, K. (2017) Narcotelenovelas: la construcción de nuevos estereotipos de mujer en la ficción televisiva de Colombia y México a través del retrato de una realidad social. PhD. Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, pp. 137-211.
- Shaw, K. (2015) ‘Men who hate women’: masculinities, violence and the gender politics of Nordic noir. International Journal of Humanities and Cultural Studies, Volume 2 (3): p. 767. Available at:https://www.ijhcs.com/index.php/ijhcs/article/viewFile/421/418 (access date 28 May 2018).
TV series references
Bron/Broen (2011-2018). [TV series] Sveriges Television and Danmarks Radio.
El Chapo (2017-). [TV series] Univision Studios.
El Señor de los Cielos (2013-2017). [TV series] Telemundo Studios.
Forbrydelsen (2007-2012). [TV series] DR1.
Karppi (2017-). [TV series] Dionysos Films.
La Reina del Sur (2011). [TV series] Telemundo Studios.
Ella Rouhe is currently working as an international projects coordinator for the Young Greens in Finland, seeking to introduce youth to politics and changemaking and encouraging them to become active in society at local, national and international levels. Ella holds a Master's degree in Development Studies from the University of Helsinki and a BSc in Liberal Arts and Sciences: Global Challenges from Leiden University College The Hague. Her interest in Latin America stems both from her studies as well as her personal experience volunteering and travelling in the region. Antonio Romero is a lecturer on digital media and journalism at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). He holds a Master’s degree in Gender Studies at The College of Mexico (Colmex) and a Bachelor’s degree in Communication Studies at UNAM. Antonio has worked as a gender and digital media specialist for the Mexican Ministry of Health and diverse non-governmental organizations. He was also co-founder and media content creator of Bully Magnets, an edutainment channel and digital initiative for cultural promotion in Spanish. His main interests are regional collaboration on media literacy, Human Rights and gender mainstreaming in diverse fields. Antonio has completed research stays at different institutions in Berlin, Hamburg and Budapest. He will pursue a PhD in Communication Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin in Germany.