“The other” is a term that was used by Simone de Beauvoir in her ground-breaking book The Second Sex published in 1949 and instrumental in influencing many second wave feminists. But de Beauvior is certainly not the only person who has used this term and “the other” does not only reflect women’s experiences. Arturo Madrid, prize-winning scholar of Latino literature, uses the term to describe all people located on the margins, on the periphery, of social and political life. Immigrants, women, gay/lesbian/transgendered people, the disabled, people of color, and people of lower socioeconomic classes. And one of my personal heroes and influences, the incredible Audre Lorde introduced the concept of “the mythical norm,” the normative standard of the white, thin, wealthy, young, thin, Christian, male that so many of fall outside of.
Ugly Betty‘s examination of the intersection of race, class and gender and the incredibly limiting dominant beauty norms have been a staple feature since the show’s Latin America roots. Scholar and writer Yeidy M. Rivero lauded the show’s adaption for U.S. television in early 2007 but ends the article wondering if her expectations of a network television show are too high. Will the creators continue to examine these issues as the show progresses? Essentially, will Betty sell out?
Nearly four years later, lets ask the question: How has Betty done?
Well. Betty has done well and I love her for it. Yes, Betty has lost some weight, her eye brows have been tweezed and shaped, her hair has been de-frizzed and the signature braces have come off. Can I hold the loss of a few pounds, sculpted eye brows, shiny hair and straight teeth against her? After all, Betty still does not remotely resemble the ultra-thin women crossing our screens most of the time. Hey, I like a sculpted brow (I was changed after my first brow waxing in 1992), sleek hair when it can be accomplished and I am still a hardcore feminist. And how long can someone wear braces? I mean, really?
No, in my eyes, Betty has not lost credibility because of these physical changes. I’d probably harp on them more had she sold out to the pressures and expectations of her industry. But she hasn’t. She’s evolved and grown but Betty is not a fundamentally different woman after four years at a fashion magazine. That’s a major feat. It’s difficult to stay true to your core values, beliefs and goals when the world around you is poking fun at you and pressuring you to conform. And, lets face it, even after Amanda and Mark became her “friends,” the ribbing didn’t end and I don’t know how much of it became “good-natured.” Throughout the entire series, waxed eyebrows, sleek hair and all, it was clear that she was the other.
As a viewer, we have been given the opportunity to not just experience her as the other but to identify and examine that experience through the show’s deliberate spoofs and over-the-top dialogue. They may not identify the intersection of race, class and gender or use the concepts of the other or the mythical norm but we sense it, we feel it, we’re challenged to identify it.
Betty’s remarkable courage and strength despite her own recurring and natural feelings of self-doubt (who doesn’t question themselves? experience lower levels of self-esteem on some days that others) is trumped by her dedication to challenge the superficiality of the world she is a part of. She may work for a high-fashion magazine with colleagues whose interests revolve around the pursuit of thinness and glamor but Betty is committed to using that medium to send critical and thoughtful stories to the masses.
In Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future, Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, urge young feminists not to shun or discount the mainstream media in terms of creating change. Women’s mainstream magazines may contain endless advertisements and conflicting messages but these magazines do constitute women’s culture. They are a source of information for many girls and women. Inserting thought-provoking articles on timely and important topics in one of these magazines may be the first place or a girl or woman is exposed to a new way of thinking. Heck, this may bring them to feminism. Betty may be a fictional character but this is the type of feminist activity she has been engaged in the entire series. And, like many feminists today, especially third wave feminists, she started her own blog and self-published stories that did not get past the editors at Mode. All the while, scores of viewers watched Betty pursue her goals and the stories that were important to her, rarely flinching in the face of resistance. That’s a super role model, fictional or not.
At the end of the day, though, Betty is an extension of America Ferrera herself with the creative and professional support of executive producer, Salma Hayek. I have tremendous respect for both of these women and, admittedly, pretty gigantic crushes.
I fell for America Ferrera in 2002’s Real Women Have Curves. As a working class woman who has confronted body image issues her entire life (sometimes, emerging successfully), I was excited for a more realistic depiction of young women in film. Like Ugly Betty, Real Women examined gender, race and class as well as the relentless pursuit of thinness and unrealistic notions of beauty in contemporary culture. In scores of interviews, Ferrera has been vocal that she has dealt with these pressures and that they undermine us from loving ourselves. Feminist, indeed. This personal commitment to bring feminist content (and America is indeed a self-identified feminist as made evident for the Feminist Majority Foundation‘s This is What a Feminist Looks Like campaign) on body image and the power and importance of women’s relationships to pop culture has not wavered. To read the impact that Ferrera has had on young women, read this open letter to America Ferrera at W.I.M.N.
Like Ferrera, Salma Hayek is an out-spoken advocate on women’s issues. She has worked with Eve Ensler and the V-Day Movement performing the Vagina Monlogues and appearing in the film, Until the Violence Stops. I especially loved the way she spoke out against all the ridiculous baby-body-bounce-back stories after the tabloids published story after story ridiculing her for not losing the weight fast enough after giving birth. She has challenged the limited roles available for women of color and the extreme pressure placed on all women to become mothers, to be sexy and to do it all at once.
I credit Ugly Betty‘s consistent commitment to presenting visions of “what could be” like the supportive response to Justin’s coming out last week and the ways in which conscious individuals can use the mainstream media to bring critical, thoughtful and entertaining content to viewers in a sea of reality shows (for a critical analysis of reality shows, see Jennifer Pozner of Women in Media and News).
As we wave good-bye to Betty tonight, I can only hope that Ferrera and Hayek’s future endeavors will bring us more critical, entertaining and feminist content. I hope that MTV will not dilute Ferrera’s commitment in the upcoming “muticultural, interactive telenovela” in development at this time. Like the hope Betty inspired years ago, I remain hopeful that we’ll see more inspired media content from these two women.