If you think daytime soap operas are passé, consider this: millions are watching Spanish-language soap operas – telenovelas – in prime time, and their availability on digital media has increased and widened audiences.
The telenovelas grab audiences with romance, crime and drama. But many of them are conveying the wrong messages, especially to young women, says Diana I. Rios, associate professor of communication sciences and interim director of the Institute of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies.
Rios, co-editor of a new book, Soap Operas and Telenovelas in the Digital Age, says the telenovelas are designed to be very melodramatic even to the point of being funny to some audiences. Also, these programs use plot twists to build audiences.
Telenovelas are very similar to U.S.-made soap operas; both are serialized melodramas, Rios says. But telenovelas are aired at night and “command large audiences by promising vicarious involvement in a virtual social network of friends, lovers, relatives and communities.”
Since so many family members watch them, they were, especially before the digital age, a family pastime. Unlike daytime American soap operas, which are designed for women primarily, the Latin American-style soaps, imported from Latin America, are geared for a co-ed, multi-generational audience.
Research shows, she adds, that they have influence on audiences, especially on younger audiences who come to accept the sexual stereotypes presented in the material.
“There is a lot of misinformation for teens in the programming,” she says. “These young people are forming their views of society and it is providing them with a warped picture.”
Both mainstream, daytime soap operas and Spanish-language telenovela imports don’t deal well with issues such as HIV, alcoholism, teen pregnancy, date violence, or how the elderly are treated, she says. And they often don’t portray successful women well. For instance, in U.S. soap operas when there is an African-American woman professional such as a doctor, writers can’t seem to figure out what to do with the character or how to create a romance without introducing another African-American character, Rios says.
“The U.S. soap operas are not keeping up with other types of entertainment,” Rios, who often writes about pop culture, says. “And they rely on stereotypes. The man with the Hispanic-sounding name is always very debonair, for example.”
Likewise, the telenovelas contain highly sexualized content without addressing risky behaviors or serious social problems, leaving younger viewers to form opinions based on incomplete or faulty information.
Rios, who is Mexican-American, says that audiences are watching both telenovelas and U.S. soap operas for entertainment but are unconsciously picking up a lot of subtle messages not only about morals and values but also about fashion, makeup and even cereal and shampoo.
“The problem is that we are not watching them with a critical eye,” she says. “More and more often teenagers are watching them on their smart phones and adults are not discussing the content with them. People are not viewing them critically.”