By Linda Levinson
Telenovelas have become an increasingly popular form of entertainment thanks to advances in technology, despite some of their negative themes. The shows have become so popular that they helped Univision jump ahead of NBC during the last ratings period.
Popularized by Latinos, telenovelas are dramatic television programs likened to American soap operas. However, unlike soap operas, which run indefinitely, telenovelas typically run for a predetermined about of time.
Univision closed the February sweeps in fourth place during primetime among Adults 18-49 and Adults 18-34, ahead of NBC, which finished fifth, according to Media Moves, a website covering Latinos in the media industry. The site pointed to the popularity of Univision’s prime-time lineup of telenovelas as a factor in that growth.
However, the perceived violence, homophobia, and skewed gender and socioeconomic roles prevalent in telenovelas do not portray some Latinos in the most positive light, a local author cautions.
Diana Rios, a Mexican-American professor at the University of Connecticut, has released her findings on the cultural impact of telenovelas in her new book “Soap Operas and Telenovelas in the Digital Age”, which she co-edited Mari Casteñeda.
Rios has served as director and associate director for the Institute for Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at UConn.
In this digital age, telenovelas are reaching record numbers of viewers now that programs are available not only on television, but online and on smartphones and tablets as well.
This growth in technology presents more opportunities to develop an audience and producers should be prepared distribute their shows across all digital formats, Rios said. “It’s done terrific things for the companies that were distributing telenovelas.”
According to Rios, while American soap operas have been losing viewers, telenovelas have seen the opposite. American soaps have not been able to attract younger audiences, while telenovelas, which are based on classic novels or pulp fiction, have grabbed the attention of the younger demographics.
Despite their success, there are social concerns that come with that popularity in terms of the way telenovelas portray some of their characters.
While there are some strong female characters on the shows, she said their power is usually usurped in a “happily-ever-after ending” where a man saves the day and the woman “must be rescued by a Prince Charming.”
Rios added that there seems to be a recurring message that to get ahead “you will need to cater to some man to really fulfill your life.”
Indigenous people are also not depicted well, she said, adding that black characters are also generally cast as servants or in an unflattering light. Their representation in telenovelas may lead viewers to devalue them compared to their lighter-skinned co-stars.
Conversely, Rios said, the happier, wealthier characters are typically portrayed by fair-skinned actors, suggesting that appearing to be more European makes someone successful.
The amount of violence in telenovelas is also “troubling”, she said.
“There are problems when sexuality is tied to violence,” she said, pointing out that when the story lines involve rape, the victim is often described as a prostitute or a woman who was behaving in a way that brought on the crime.
Homophobia also is a issue, she said. She explained that homosexual relationships are simply “not tolerated.”
Despite some of the negative aspects of telenovelas, Rios admits she enjoys watching and researching them. “It really is fun,” she said.
(Photo by Tostie14)