'East Los High' Serves Up Sex Ed With Its Teen Drama | KERA News

'East Los High' Serves Up Sex Ed With Its Teen Drama

Oct 26, 2015
Originally published on October 27, 2015 11:44 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Love triangles, mean girls, bad boys and some seriously skillful dancing - it is all there in "East Los High." The addictive teen soap follows a group of mostly Latino high school kids. It's been wildly popular. Fans flocking to this show have kept coming back for three seasons now. It's on the Hulu network. Maanvi Singh of NPR's Code Switch team says you might see the show as a bit of a science experiment.

MAANVI SINGH, BYLINE: In season three of "East Los High," Tiffany has a big problem. She tells a friend about it in the girl's restroom.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EAST LOS HIGH")

ASHLEY CAMPUZANO: (As Tiffany Ramos) It's like I'm peeing jalapenos.

SINGH: Her friend thinks she knows what may be wrong, but Tiff is totally clueless.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EAST LOS HIGH")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I think you may have an STI.

CAMPUZANO: (As Tiffany Ramos) I don't have an STI - I drive a Lexus.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) No, (speaking Spanish), an STI is a sexually transmitted infection.

SINGH: "East Los High" is one of Hulu's most popular shows among viewers of all ages and backgrounds. In addition to high school scandal, it also serves up information about sexual health. That's because studio execs and screenwriters teamed up with social scientists and health workers to create the series. Their end goal is to empower young Latinas and help them make healthy life choices. But Kathleen Bedoya, the showrunner, says this isn't some corny afterschool special.

KATHLEEN BEDOYA: Our show is very different because it's got much more edge, it's more street, it's more urban.

SINGH: At the same time, she says the writers made sure that when they address sexual health, they weren't reinforcing stereotypes.

BEDOYA: It's so easy to get a character pregnant and have her have a baby. What's not so easy is how to represent the consequences.

SINGH: Her team consults with nonprofits like Planned Parenthood.

BEDOYA: We're asking them - is this accurate? What would happen if this happened? Or what are the biggest issues going on with Latinas right now?

SINGH: It's an audacious undertaking, but does it work? That's where researchers like Arvind Singhal come in. His job...

ARVIND SINGHAL: Monitoring, assessing, evaluating this program.

SINGH: Singhal teaches communication at the University of Texas, El Paso. He designed an experiment - he enlisted 136 young Latinas in the El Paso area who had never seen "East Los High." Some got reading material about safe sex, some watched the show and others watched and looked at the "East Los High" website. A week later, it turned out that those who saw the show and got on the website learned the most about condom use. How come?

SINGHAL: The value of these programs comes from an evolving storyline, which gets audience members hooked.

SINGH: Fans get wrapped up in the drama.

SINGHAL: People talk amongst each other - gee, is she going to say yes to this hunk of a man?

SINGH: They look up the show's website and follow it on Twitter. Singhal says as they engage with the show, they start to pick up on those subtle messages about health. Of course, this was a small, early study - researchers are continuing to look at whether the lessons stick. Suruchi Sood teaches public health at Drexel University, and she says she gets why Latino views in particular would respond to this show.

SURUCHI SOOD: Audiences like seeing characters who are like them in very many ways.

SINGH: We're more likely to trust and learn from characters we can relate to. And studies suggest we feel validated when we see people like us succeeding on screen. Besides, Sood says...

SOOD: It's super fun. I have very little in common with the protagonists in the show, but I just had so much fun watching it.

SINGH: That's sort of the point. Executive producer Katie Elmore Mota says, if nothing else, she wants "East Los High" to redefine what a mainstream teen drama looks like.

KATIE ELMORE MOTA: It doesn't mean you have to be a rich, white teenager to be mainstream.

SINGH: If it offers more than that, she says, all the better. Maanvi Singh, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.