Tuesday, January 16, 2007

An Ugly Turn

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.


tornwordo said...

I agree the negative stereotyping is in there. It's like it's supposed to be funny, but it's really just embarassing.

Note to self: Do not watch light-hearted comedies with Gayprof.

Anonymous said...

I thought the show originally started out strong: the criticism of Daniel's inherited (and white) privilege against Betty and Sofia's attempt to counteract that privilege was done with humour and intelligence.

The recent turn in the show has really changed my mind about whether the progressive undercurrent I saw in the show was there in the first place. Calling Sofia's magazine a 'femi-nazi periodical' was such an obvious indication of the real motivation of the show: present stereotypes of minorities to make them more palatable to mainstream audience while remaining as politically neutral/conservative as possible.

It's too bad. I really liked the show.

P.S. Did you hear about the recent troubles at the American Historical Association in Atlanta (link)? I thought you might get a post out of it.

Anonymous said...

It's always interested me how deeply rooted stereotypes of people with Mediterranean features are. Even as a kid I thought it was strange that, in "The Little Mermaid", Ursula takes the form of a woman with tanned skin, dark eyes, and black hair in order to seduce the prince.

Anonymous said...

A lot of the stereotypes of foreign peoples comes from the Motherland, England. England always mistrusted the mainland Europeans as the "foreign other" not to be trusted. The exotic beauty of Spain, Portugal, Italy, the Slavic countries, Greece and France contrasted to the fair-skinned British Isles.

Even American soap operas follow certain norms. The dark-haired woman was always the villain or trouble with a capital "T". Like "Erica Kane" on "All My Children."

At the end of the day, it's a tv show. Television is all about broad stereotyping of everyone. The willingness of the show to tackle issues like circumstances surrounding illegal immigration and health care still put this show far ahead of most other braindead comedies on the air. Plus, the show has matter-of-fact gay characters, mixed-race characters, many Latino characters, and is a satire on the "tyranny of beauty." It's not perfect but I love it.

diablo said...

whats the diff between a latino and a hispanic? i should know but i have a schizoid condition that prevents me from settling on a label for myself.

GayProf said...

Torn:Note to self: Do not watch light-hearted comedies with Gayprof.

I am like this all the time. Probably you would not to watch anything with me -- unless you are okay with a running commentary throughout.

Olaf: I agree that the show seemed like it was heading in one direction (critique of stereotypes, economic priviliege, etc), but suddenly veered off to another direction.

A friend had sent me the bit about the AHA. When I wrote my first post, I didn't know about the arrest. I thought about mentioning, though, how seriously the cops took jaywalking. They harassed me as well, but (luckily) I evaded arrest. Yet, there weren't easy ways to get from one to hotel to the next. Just more evidence that AHA should never return to Atlanta. It sucked as a convention site (though I am sure has lovely other features).

Chad: Yes, there is a long standing assumption that dark hair and dark eyes means trouble.

Mike: I do appreciate the other elements in Ugly Betty that you mention. As I said, I have an ambivalent view of the show. Still, those elements coexist with the negative elements. I can't ignore those bits.

Diablo: Confused by the terms Latino/Hispanic/Chicano etc? You're not alone. It's the most common question when I teach "Latino History."

Latino and Hispanic are different words used to refer to the same population (individuals whose ancestors originated from Latin America)in the U.S. Much of the choice about which term one uses depends on one's geographic and economic background. In New Mexico and Texas, Hispanic dominates. In California, New York, and other areas, Latino is heard most often.

There is also a distinctly political history to the terms. In the 1970s, the U.S. government intentionally started using "Hispanic" as an alternative to "Chicano" or "Mexican/Puerto Rican/Cuban, etc." It connoted an alleged connection to Spain. At the same time, it was also an explicit distancing from Latin American countries as well as the radical movements at the time.

Latino, therefore, developed to reinsert the reality of Latin American migration. Others, though, point out that Latino is equally imprecise. After all, theoretically Italians could be considered "Latino," though that is not the term's general usage in the U.S.

Chicano, btw, generally refers only to second+ generations of Mexican Americans in the U.S. Usually there is an explicit political stance for using this term as well, signaling an allegiance with a particular fight for social justice.

In the end, all the terms are made up. So, it comes down to which one makes the most sense to you. None are "wrong" and none are "right."

Doug said...

You may have hit the problem with the last sentence of your first paragraph:

"...according to Hollywood."

As if Hollywood ever has, ever does, or ever will depict reality as it truly is. It's all about the money, honey.

vuboq said...

I had a well thought out comment, but my germ-infused brain forgot it. Now, all I can think of is that when I was a kid, I thought "Chicano" referred to people from Chicago.


Anonymous said...

Doug summed up what I was going to say nicely ("As if Hollywood ever has, ever does, or ever will depict reality as it truly is."). But could the machinations of Karl Rove, etc., have made it not just acceptable but maybe even required to reduce people—especially those outside Bush's "mainstream"—to negative stereotypes? I know there's a long cultural history at work, but the current political climate has to influence the expression of that cultural baggage at least a little.

GayProf, when you say one shouldn't watch anything with you "unless you are okay with a running commentary throughout," at least the commentary would be interesting!

Anonymous said...

Stereotypes market well, especially those who are hot as well. I don't know about the kind of feminism practiced in the show, but editorially it was an incredible twist I found delightful. It was pretty obvious within the first 20 minutes of the episode, but it made for such slobbering TV-viewing. Ugly Betty is a guilty pleasure.

Adam said...

Funny, I was never exposed to the stereotype of latin women being manipulative and dishonest. The earliest archetypical example I ever had of latin woman I can remember was Rita Moreno in West Side Story. Clearly my experience is atypical.

Sounds like the show is insipid. I think this ties in with the recent firestorm that was fabricated by right wing talk radio turds when Nancy Pelosi had her grandchildren with her when she took the oath of office. The right wing turd talkers proclaimed that by having her grandchildren with her she was portraying too soft an image.

It is clear to me that in this country that sexual and racial equality are still novel ideas, celebrated only a couple of times a year. Namely at The Oscars, Bowl Games, and the Forth of July; you know those times when its fun to put on your pretend costume of morality. The rest of the year you don't have to scratch very hard or very long, past the veneer, to see the true sentiments in this nation. Racism, anti-semitism, xenophobia, misogyny, bigotry are alive and well in the United States.

Da Nator said...

Well, I felt obligated to hang in with The L Word for a couple seasons too long, just because it was the only "lesbian" thing out there. I still feel the pain and shame. (I can't imagine Ugly Betty - or any other show, for that matter - could get that bad.)

I had high hopes for Betty, but I agree that it has turned out disappointing, if sporadically entertaining. I keep waiting for Betty to finally stand up for herself and be rewarded, but it may never happen. If it continues in this vein, it may get just a bit too much like my real life to keep watching...

Anonymous said...

I love Salma Hayek, and I think she is the smartest woman in Hollywood, but have only watched Ugly Betty once, and it was the episode you mentioned. Maybe Salma has been reading Camila Paglia, but the best moment for me at the Golden Globes was watching the tenderness in Salma's face when America won. There are no real gay people on t.v. since Six Feet Under went off the air. I miss that show. There seems to be a growing hispanic population in Vancouver, but then again, there seems to a growing every ethnic group here, except African. Oh, not true, lots of white South Africans.

Anonymous said...

being a rather average woman, i have refused to watch the show simply because of the title. i couldn't get past that. one thing about "light-hearted" shows is that they run rampant with stereotypes. a possible exception is grace under fire. the characters were a bit more complex than their face roles appeared. too bad brett got all drunk again. it was a good show.

Anonymous said...

being a rather average woman, i have refused to watch the show simply because of the title. i couldn't get past that. one thing about "light-hearted" shows is that they run rampant with stereotypes. a possible exception is grace under fire. the characters were a bit more complex than their face roles appeared. too bad brett got all drunk again. it was a good show.

Anonymous said...

Touche...graduate school has almost annihilated any hopes I had of viewing cultural artificats without critiquing them from various lenses/theories: feminism, queer, Marxist, postcolonial, etc. And yet, I can't help but watch "Ugly Betty" because it still is a funny and engaging show with its subtle pro-feminist and pro-diversity message and high-camp, hyperbolic plot twists. This is Hollywood after all. And, how great was it to see America Ferrara, Salma Hayek, and Silvio Horta on stage at the Golden Globes. Anyone else notice que mono (Cuban dialect) Silvio is?

Anonymous said...

It works for me, though, because I am trouble

GayProf said...

Doug: Well, true, it would be impossible to depict life "as it truly is." Still, we can expect better and more thoughtful representations.

VUBOQ: I love Chicago. I am not sayin', I am just sayin'.

Arthur: Well, I think the commentary would be interesting... Others, though, get tired.

Chad: Be it, feel it, love it.

Yen: See, I didn't even think it was that interesting as a plot device. I like twisty plots, but I also like twisty plots to make sense in terms of character development.

Adam: Did you ever notice that Rita Moreno didn't get another gig for fifteen years after that movie?

Da Nator: This is the thing with Ugly Betty -- I think we all like the idea more than the execution, which has been pretty uneven. I never saw the L Word -- What happened there?

Lotuslander: How are Latinos perceived in Canada?

DykeWife: I liked Grace Under Fire as well -- until she went all boozy.

Words83: I have always firmly believed that you can both critique and enjoy a program all at the same time.

Anonymous said...

Have you seen QUINCEANERA? I'd be interested in your take on the Latino/queer characters and storylines in that film.

Anonymous said...

I have to admit, I had a different take on that episode, though I suspect I have a tendency to project added dept to the writing of shows I like.

The view I got of Sofia in that last episode was that she'll follow though on a bad idea even when she realizes her folly. (Then again, stubbornness would be a different latina stereotype, wouldn't it?) This flaw may be borne out of her position in society, since an admission of error can be seen as a greater weakness if you don't come from privilege, but my reaction to Sofia was that midway though her plot she saw all those problems and couldn't see any options for backing out. (The lie that grows until it becomes unstoppable is a soap opera cliche, though this time we didn't see it from the perspective of the person trying to figure out how to fix things before they get out of hand.) I think she first saw the article as a "how to reverse the balance of power" story and I'm not sure if she could have done what she did to Daniel (manipulating him, not breaking his heart) if she didn't give herself a reason to play a part.

Again, I do tend to project depth into shows I like, so it's pretty likely my mind added layers of unspoken characterization that maintain the aspects of the show I like.

Still, that was a really sloppy way to write out Sofia quickly.

CalGrad91 said...

I love my gayprof...always an armful of black trouble! As a fellow history geek I liked mike's comment about the geneaology of our hispanophobia. you take equal parts of the English "black legend" and fuse that with Anglo-American imperialist expansion in the Southwest and whattaya get?

Seems strange to me that even comedies which claim to and challenge stereotypes end up embracing them (perhaps it's some Gramscian war of position that I don't get). I had hopes too. I figured that Salma would do her bit for us all, and was pleased to see Vanessa Williams as an eeevyllll magazine exec with a spoiled daughter and exacting father. But amidst all the other bad news in last week's episode, I was equally dismayed to see the Mr. Suarez's caseworker as a darker-skinned, attitudinal, overweight sistah with bulging eyes, libidinous designs on her client, et al. (I don't know...anyone feel me on this?). Is there a hint that we might be getting a dose of Latin American pigmentocracy along with everything else?

Anonymous said...

It's crazy to me how wrongly portrayed feminists are in general. I always thought of the little kid as so endearing though. I agree that usually some visability is better than none. I can't wait to see Asian females exploited next!

Anonymous said...

i tried to comment last night, but blogger was being an asshole and wouldn't let me post it.

what i said was (roughly) that i refused from the outset to watch the show. i saw the advertisements and the premise put me off totally. my favourite comedy show was grace under fire. too bad brett went back to drinking and screwed things up.

Anonymous said...

First of all, Salma is Ugly Betty's executive producer.

Second, the show is based on the Spanish telenova Yo soy Betty, la fea. As in Ugly Betty, Betty faces scorn from her coworkers. It had nothing to do with racism, as they were all Spanish.

When it was decided to make an American version of Ugly Betty, they decided to keep Betty a Latina.

Third, concerning all the anti-feminist stuff; the people on the show specifically said that they were never going to give Betty a makeover that makes her look 'pretty' (as what happened in the original version), and America has said, ''I've been asked a lot when she's going to get pretty. But it's so not the point of the show. You need to love the whole package. You know, beautiful people do not a hit show make.''

And I fail to see how having the father, a sympathetic, positive character, an illegal immigrant is racist with the whole "illegal immigration" debate going on. For example, read http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1561152,00.html

Also; if you recall, Betty's nephew Justin is implied to be gay, and his mother defended him to his father, saying "He's comfortable with who he is and so am I."

None of this sounds like a real conservative show, imo.

GayProf said...

Frank: No, I have not seen that film. Actually, I only recently heard about it. If I ever reinstate Netflix, it will make my list. What did you think?

Lyle:Yours is a more generous reading of Sofia. Still, even if she felt regret, she created the scheme in the first place...

CalGrad: Anytime an overweight African American woman character appears in a mainstream comedy, it probably is not going to go well.

Kalvin: Do you know of plans to add an Asian character to the show?

DykeWife: Your first comment made it through (see above).

Anon: I take it you really like this show and, therefore, hate to have any criticism directed at it.

I an aware of the show's origins as Betty la Fea as well as the Mexican version, La Fea más Bella. Though the very basic premise is the same (ugly woman goes to work in an office of pretty people), there are substantial differences and radically different characters, plotlines, etc.

Moreover, putting the show into the U.S. context necessarily makes it different. Betty is no longer in a Latin American nation and no longer surrounded by other Latinos. I am also aware of Hayek's role as executive producer, which I noted in the third paragraph of this entry.

Popular media can also have conflicting images all at the same time. So, there can be a thin feminist message about appearance (and I wonder how much this show really challenges that concept as all of Betty's romantic partners appear the same as she does) while the show also produces anti-feminist messages.

The character Justin does offer potential. Even there, though, his alleged gayness (which is never addressed directly) depends on gendered stereotypes about gay men.

Finally, stereotypes are not something that exist exclusively within in "conservative" ideologies. The left can be just as riddled with them. Moreover, a sympathetic stereotype is still a stereotype.

Thanks for commenting.

Anonymous said...

To answer your question, I really like QUINCEANERA; the movie's complex in its depictions, although I wonder if similar stereotypes might be in play. I'll email you with more thoughts, since that's not what this post is about!

Personally, I haven't seen an entire episode of UGLY BETTY, so I can't speak to its contents, but I'd argue there's a difference between a character that is stereotypical and a fleshed-out character that is based on a familiar archetype; maybe that's the dramatist in me. The challenge in creating characters is often to find ways to either turn familiar archetypes on their heads, or to look for characteristics that might contradict the quick assumptions we're prone to make about archetypical characters. If a dramatist hasn't done his or her work in that regard, that's when I tend to dismiss characters as thin, weak, or stereotypical. For example, I have a lot of mixed feelings about NOTES ON A SCANDAL, because, while I think it trades in pretty negative presentations of both straight women and lesbians(and it's all a little ludicrous), the characterizations and performances of the two leads are so detailed that I find it hard to dismiss either character as truly stereotypical.

I don't immediately object to basing characters on familiar archetypes (to a point, I suppose), in part because I think most dramatic characters (and people, for that matter) can be reduced to such if one tries hard enough; I just want that element to be the starting point in developing a character, and not the totality of it. Aside from reinforcing negative depictions of certain types of people, it's just lazy writing.

Anonymous said...

Have you considered Sofia being latina was unimportant to her character, and Salma just wanted to play the character herself because she was an exec-producer?

I never got the idea of her reinforcing that negative 'evil Latina' stereotype. The only thing it did remind me of was the original Terra from Teen Titans; how they built her up to be a really likable character only to pull the rug from under everyone's feet and reveal she was an irredeemable sociopath sent to infiltrate the team (not saying Sofia was as bad as her, but you get the jist).

"I take it you really like this show and, therefore, hate to have any criticism directed at it."

Not true. For starters, I didn't like the show so much at first, and was sort've feeling like "This is ok, but it good be better." Then it started to get better later on (like with Wilhelmina, Marc, and Amanda becoming more fleshed out and sympathetic characters).

But there's a difference between criticising the show and accusing it of racism.

Anonymous said...

I don't see anything special about Salma Hayek.

She's a rich girl who got full support from her daddy when she was starting out in LA and even in Mexico city where she was a telenovela star first.

Anyone that has someone's else money and/or title behind can have the luxury to succeed.So where's the challenge?

Let's hear from someone that made themselves on their own-completely on their own.

Unknown said...

As an Asian-American. My only thing with "Betty" is that she is a white care-taker and is not allowed to be honest and proud about. There is a sense of shame which I don't like.