I have previously commented on my complicated love/hate relationship to Ugly Betty. The show has clever elements, including the fact that dudecruise.com links to the show’s web-page (though it would have been more clever to have a pseudo-webpage, IMHO). Also, let’s face it: Any show that has both Latino and gay characters is going to pique my interest. In some ways, I still subscribe to the notion that any representation is better than a complete absence or invisibility. Given we could probably count the combined number of gay and Latino characters currently on television on two hands, I am happy that Ugly Betty is out there. Of course, the notion of a gay character who is also Latino is just a fantasy. Such men don’t exist according to Hollywood.
Recent plot turns on Ugly Betty, however, have deepened my ambivalence toward the show even more. One of the problems facing a program like Ugly Betty is that it exists as one of only a handful of representations of Latinos in mainstream televison. As a result, the producer’s decisions about character development become magnified.
I adore Salma Hayek. Beautiful and smart, Hayek has become a major force in the entertainment world. She has spoken openly about the xenophobia, racism, and sexism that dominates Hollywood. Hayek worked against the odds and created a career for herself. To do so, she sometimes literally had to make her own opportunities to show her talents, such as helming the film Frida. In interviews, she usually appears smart, poised, and reasonable. These characteristics appear even greater when compared with her less interesting Iberian counterpart, Penélope Cruz. On her personal life, she has said "I keep waiting to meet a man who has more balls than I do." I so relate to that statement. I keep waiting for a man who has more balls than Salma Hayek as well. So, I was baffled when Hayek, who serves as Executive Producer of Ugly Betty, so perfectly replicated stereotypes of Latina women that have circulated since the invention of motion pictures.
For those who don’t follow the show, Hayek played the character Sofia Reyes on the newly-declared hit. At first, the Reyes character appeared to challenge assumptions about Latinas. At least, she sure had the chance to challenge assumptions about Latinas. Reyes’ initial interactions with Daniel, the Euro-American editor of the fictional fashion magazine MODE, exposed his (and presumably some of the audiences’) assumptions about Latina women. He expected Reyes to be sexually available to him, which she dismissed immediately. He later assumed that Reyes worked as a lowly secretary because of her accent and gender. Reyes made clear the foible of his assumptions when it turned out that she also edited a magazine. This one, unlike MODE, was premised as a feminist publication.
During her first episodes, Sofia articulated the need for women, and Latinas specifically, to have self-confidence and assurance. Sofia was also one of few who saw that Betty really did most of Daniel’s work and became a strong advocate for her.
Then Sofia kinda started taking some wrong turns. As her story arc continued, she became romantically involved with Daniel. Moreover, Sofia’s alleged articulation of feminism became skewed. Rather than being about obtaining social and economic equality, the show devolved into stereotypes about feminists being sadistic and self-absorbed.
It became clear that we were not intended to cheer for Sofia. On the contrary, by the end of her story arc, we are supposed to despise her. In her last episode, Sofia reveals that she has only used Daniel and his recent marriage proposal to promote the launch of her [not so] feminist magazine. She states that by getting the notorious bachelor to propose to her in 60 days, she has demonstrated that women can be empowered -- If by "empowered," we really mean "degraded." Daniel leaves the stage seemingly suicidal.
Could there be a more unfeminist message? Call me crazy, but the feminist movement didn’t appear focused on tricking men into marriage. On the contrary, those leading the movement sort of resented the implication that women needed to trick men into marrying them - or needed to get married at all. In the world of Ugly Betty, however, feminism appears disjointed and without foundation. Betty proclaims that she could never work for a magazine headed by a scheming feminist (or words to that effect). She would rather work for her sexist boss and the superficial fashion magazine, which is allegedly more “honest.”
Beyond her non-feminist credentials, Sofia’s character also fits a stereotype of the evil Mexican siren who lures white men to their doom. This type of Latina image appeared in one of the earliest motion pictures ever produced. In 1909, D.W. Griffith (yes, that D. W. Griffith) directed a three-minute film entitled Mexican Sweethearts: The Impetuous Nature of Latin Lovers. Within the film, the main character (imaginatively named “Señorita”) works in a bar that could easily pass as a brothel. She seduces a white U.S. soldier, but just as they are about to consummate their love, her Mexican lover enters the scene to kill the white soldier.
This image of the seductive, highly attractive, but secretly dangerous, Latina woman persisted throughout the twentieth century. Latina women have been presented as “too hot to handle.” They use their sexuality against helpless white men for selfish and evil purposes. These women are usually contrasted by a demure, more “lady-like” white woman.
Even the beloved Wonder Woman comic repeated this image when the Amazon princess took a trip south of the border during World War II. In a story that Griffith could have written, Wonder Woman discovers that Pepita (who comes up with these names?) has used her feminine attributes to seduce a U.S. soldier. In a moment of lustful confusion, she slips him a “special” cigarette and gets him to divulge U.S. military secrets! The opening panel for this particular comic made clear the racial and gender implications. “Little do Americans know,” the story opened, “that the fate of a neighbor nation and our own destiny in the pacific rest upon the carmined lips of a lovely, dark, and dangerous Spanish girl.” In these ways, the mainstream media has presented a recurring image of Latina women as hyper-sexual, devious, and a threat to white men – or even civilization itself!
Perhaps the only distinction between Sofia Reyes and her literary ancestors is that she did not follow the whims of a Mexican man. In most stories focusing on the wanton Latina figure, it usually turned out that she was merely a slave to the even greater threat of a dangerous and unstable Mexican man. I am sure the producers of Ugly Betty would see that as a big feminist step forward.
Sofia did, however, have the comparison to the long-suffering white woman Amanda. Even though badly mistreated by Daniel, Amanda, unlike the impetuous Sofia, stays loyal to Daniel. She even physically fights Sofia in her last scene in the show to defend the man who tossed her aside. Hey, everybody loves a catfight.
So, with the well-established litany of such stereotypes, it’s peculiar to me that Hayek would portray a character who could so easily be identified with this lineage. Then again, Ugly Betty has other problems as well.
I can hear some protesting, “But everybody in Ugly Betty is a stereotype. It’s just a fun show. You can’t take it that serious.” Oh, contraire, you underestimate my gravitas. I can take everything that seriously. Besides, it matters which stereotypes are selected and put out in visual forms. Being light-hearted doesn’t mean a show gets a free-pass.
The Latino figures in the show could fill a revolving bar of stereotypes. Betty’s father is an unemployed, illegal Mexican immigrant trying to obtain free medical coverage. Her sister, an unwed mother, “works” by selling an herbal health scam. The father of her son is a gangster thug who walked out on his family. Betty herself is, well, ugly.
Betty fits another stereotype of the faithful Latina/o with a heart of gold. Unlike Sofia, she takes her labor exploitation and humiliation with good humor. Maybe they should have named this show Chica and the Man. Much like Chico from the seventies sitcom, Betty always allows her Anglo boss to take the credit for her hard work. An undercurrent of racism exists among her coworkers, but she never challenges it. Rather, she dutifully does her job and keeps a sense of humor. Betty shows that being a good [ugly] Latina is being a martyr.
Ugly Betty suggests the limits of Latinos’ representation in the mainstream media. Though the show’s producers intend good (I hope), they have fallen into a pit of stereotypes that have defined images of Latinos for over a century. Perhaps Sofia will return the show, repudiate her bad choices, and articulate an epiphany about the true meaning of feminism. In the meantime, I will keep watching. Hey -- It's the only vaguely-queer, thinly-Latino thing on the air.