Latinas on television and film: Exploring the limits and possibilities of inclusion

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Sleep Dealer, the 2008 futurist film co-written and directed by Alex Rivera, focuses on a Mexican young man who sells his labor across the border and forges a transnational Latino alliance with his metaphorical counterpart, a US Latino soldier. Both men operate in a cyborgian hybrid of technology and the body (Haraway 1991) in which their labor is virtually transported across borders to accomplish geopolitical and economic goals. Crucial to the plot, although nearly erased from this narrative, is Dolores Cruz, the woman who brings the young men together through treachery and love, a classic situation in which the Latina character serves the internally contradictory role of translator and traitor. In this sense, she is like Malinche, an iconic figure in Mexican and Chicano history-a woman who acted as translator/interpreter between the Spanish conquistadores and the Aztecs, but also betrayed the Aztecs (see Alarcón 1989). The scitific film plays widely in the film festival circuit, and it deserves wide circulation for the novel and trenchant manner in which it treats its themes: exploitation of the Global South for both its labor and its natural resources; border crossing; incorporation of technology into work and into the human body; and the quotidian militarization of space. Departing from narratives such as Spanglish (2004) that depict feminized border crossers as safe, consumable, and docile (MolinaGuzmán 2010), Rivera provides a traditional portrait of domestic, troubled, and submissive women in general and the Malinche/Dolores character in particular; the latter contributes to the story as the connecting thread, bringing the men together through seduction, betrayal, and, eventually, romantic love. Similarly, another very popular ABC network prime-time show, Modern Family, foregrounds Gloria (Soffa Vergara), one of today’s best-known US Latinas. Listed on the character list as second only to Ed O’Neill,1 the patriarch and Gloria’s husband in the show, Soffa plays the traditional trophy wife with a new millennium twist, a Latina who often acknowledges her relational ethnic placement vis-a-vis the rest of the mostly white cast. Gloria reiterates many of the stereotypical elements of Latina representation in the US: She is loud and often hysterical; she speaks English with a very thick accent; she is hypersexualized and curvaceous;2 she has the long brown hair3 and light brown skin of the idealized Latina body; and she not only has a child from a previous relationship, but also gives birth in the 2012 season, thus illustrating Latina fertility. A gay white homonormative couple, who adopt an Asian child, and a white postfeminist nuclear family round out this show’s new versions of old narratives. Rounding out the contemporary location of Latinidad-the process of being, becoming, and/or performing a Latina/o subjectivity-in film and television are Jennifer Lopez and Selena Gomez. Lopez re-energized her career with a two-year stint as a judge in the show American Idol and as co-hostess (with ex-husband Marc Anthony) of the dance contest show Q’Viva! The Chosen, in Spanish on Univision and in English on Fox network. Gomez, a teen sensation on Disney Channel and beyond, was named after the Tejana (Texan) star Selena. Gomez has branched out from her debut in the Disney Channel show The Wizards of Waverly Place. Gomez has become a recording star with her famous ex-boyfriend, Justin Bieber, and her best friend Demi Lovato, yet another Disney star; and a range of products market her brand to tween and teen audiences. These examples illustrate the ruptures and continuities that turn up in exploring the limits and possibilities of inclusion of Latinas in television and film. These women stand in for the imagined nation. They track the interstices and struggles of the contemporary identity crisis that faces the United States, which formerly thought of itself as homogeneous or binary in composition (i.e. black and white). These themes cut across popular culture, whether in a Latina/o produced film about Latina/o issues, in a prime-time television show with a primarily Caucasian cast, or through the careers of two spectacular Latinas, that is, Latinas who are foregrounded in celebrity culture as singularly sexy and representing the excess of their embodied ethnicity (Molina-Guzmán 2010).4 Latina representations circulate and reiterate traditional narratives about gender, race, sexuality, and nation that in turn trigger a range of recognizable audience responses and community reactions. Drawing on a history of representations and discourses of Latinidad primarily but not exclusively in the US, this chapter examines the different stages of representation of Latinas, the competing discourses that abounded at the end of the last century, and the rise in hybrid and ambiguous representations now appearing in the mainstream media. In particular, I explore the implicit utopia that guides much of the research and activism about issues of production, discourse and representation, and audience and interpretation in ethnic studies in general and Latina/o studies in particular. The tension between a stereotype or easily recognizable discourse and an effacement or subtle presence places media producers in a difficult position. Which option within this difficult and untenable binary should they generate given that audiences’ responses, recognitions, and potential reactions work within a discourse of implicit utopias that wants both the obvious and the subtle? Many mainstream producers, who undeniably function within an industry that foregrounds the profit motive, nonetheless sometimes attempt to create representations that extend, extenuate, or rupture previous tendencies. Latina/o audiences expect linear progress to address historical issues of exclusion and stereotyping as well as contemporary gains and to acknowledge their majority/minority status, especially since 2000, when the US Census declared Hispanics to be the most numerous minority group. Expectations apply to mainstream presence, such as Soffa Vergara in Modern Family and Selena Gomez, as well as in widely circulated Latina/o entertainment media, as evidenced in Sleep Dealer and Jennifer Lopez on Q’Viva! Those involved in the production of media content must contend with audiences’ implicit demands for the presence of identifiable people who go beyond stereotypes. At the center of it all are the representations (depoliticized, consumable bodies) that unite the producers with the audience and force questions such as: What will make them/us happy? When and under what circumstances will they/we feel that Latinas on television and film are included in a satisfactory manner, in a satisfying way? What will resolve the gender and racial discomfort of the mainstream (Molina-Guzmán 2010) and the expectations of the Latina/o audience? Where is that fine line between offensive and/or demeaning stereotype and the whitening of culture and/or fiattening of difference? Given these questions, a focus on mainstream representations makes sense for several reasons. The struggle over signification through the figure of woman as nation occurs in the mainstream culture because Latina/os, and other minoritized groups, seek a rightful place as core members of the culture-that is, included in and contributing to its core values and narratives. Latina feminist media studies scholars have convincingly argued that the struggle over the nation is significantly carried out through and over women’s bodies in popular culture as well as other texts, such as laws and freeway signs (Shohat and Stam 1995; Ruiz 2002; Mendible 2007; Paredez 2009; Cepeda 2010; Molina-Guzmán 2010; Valdivia 2010). As Molina-Guzmán asserts: “Movies are informative of ideologically dominant and conflicted constructions Latina femininity, domesticity, and citizenship” (2010: 153). Similar analysis applies to television. Most importantly, in terms of the implicit utopia, being present at the center-that is, the mainstream-makes the figure of woman through television and film a central component of narratives about the nation in an ethnographic fashion (López 1991; Shohat and Stam 1995). Analysis of Latinas and issues of Latinidad in mainstream popular culture helps us chart a path of inclusion and representation with seven stages: exclusion; minimal inclusion/symbolic annihilation; binary black/secondary and white/primary; single ethnicity or combined minoritized ethnicities in television shows and movies; multicultural palette; Latina protagonist through sexualization, hyperembodiment, or ambiguity and hybridity; and utopia. This chapter defines and clarifies these stages in their order of emergence. Nonetheless, they continue to coexist. Some of them have become less prominent with time, but their rise and wane chart the inevitable political winds that influence representation far more than any given population’s proportion in and contribution to the nation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Routledge Companion to Media & Gender
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages10
ISBN (Electronic)9781135076955
ISBN (Print)9780415527699
StatePublished - Jan 1 2013
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)

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