Political Positions

Mark Sawyer: 'Ugly Betty' Just Plain Ugly

Ugly Betty

America Ferrera stars in ABCs' Ugly Betty. Courtesy ABC hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy ABC

Does TV's Ugly Betty play in ugly stereotypes? Mark Q. Sawyer thinks so.

He's back with this submission titled, "Ugly Betty Just Plain Ugly: Latino Assimilation at Black Expense."

Sawyer is director of the UCLA Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Politics and the author of Racial Politics in Post-Revolutionary Cuba.

I really tried to love the show Ugly Betty. I even like America Ferrera. The idea of a less than anorexic real woman with curves representing a Latina on television is wonderful. I have also been a longtime fan of Vanessa Williams so, why does Ugly Betty offend me?

In my opinion, the show is pseudo-feminism where the bottom line message is that Latinos can assimilate and achieve success by protecting white male privilege. The central message is that if Latinas take care of white men, and don't challenge their undeserved privilege and in fact defend it, they too can be upwardly mobile.

The show not only offends me as an African American but also should offend hordes of Latino men, who are either absent in popular films or television or there is a suggestion that they are so sexist and backwards the only way for a Latina to achieve liberation is through white men.
Let me explain.

The central conflict in Ugly Betty is that Betty is the plump, 'ugly' and awkward secretary of a callow but handsome white male heir to a publication empire with the jewel of the crown being a fashion magazine "Mode." Betty is also secretly in love with him, but this fact is only vaguely foreshadowed to viewers.

When the white man is not busy partying or chasing women, he has to occasionally fight for control of the magazine from his chief rival played by Vanessa Williams — a black woman who plays the "bitch" on the English language telenovela. The dynamics of the interaction are stunning.

The audience is supposed to cheer by proxy for a white man who has inherited his wealth and position to thwart the ambitions of a black woman, who works harder and tries to survive on her wits, and charm rather than her inherited wealth.

The fate of her boss and Betty, our heroine, are intertwined such that his success is Betty's and vice versa. My problem is, I just can't cheer for Betty or what she represents. Yes, of course, in the world of the beautiful and fashionable, Betty is the underdog. But ultimately her success is tied to protecting white male privilege.

This seems to be Hollywood's twisted interpretation of Chicana feminism. A consistent convention in films is that Latinas achieve liberation and upward mobility in particular from Latin men through sexual liaisons with white men who are not weighed down by tradition and machista culture.

Let me list a few of these films: Real Women Have Curves (2002), Fools Rush In (1997), Tortilla Soup (2002), Bread and Roses (2000), etc. The convention is so normal that the film I Like it Like That (1994) makes fun of it. Lizette — the film's Puerto Rican protagonist — who is estranged from her cheating husband sleeps with her white boss.

The encounter is not liberating, it is degrading and sexually disappointing compared to her romps with her husband. Machismo or sexism is no less an issue among white men than it is among Latinos.

As an African American, I find this use of Latinos interesting. The film Something New where a character played by Sanaa Laython finds her groove with a white landscaper is so unusual that the film had to be called "something new." Black women are often in movies to save white men and white families but they only on rare occasions have sex at all and let alone with the white men they are there to serve. The careers of Whoopi Goldberg and now Queen Latifah are built on these films. But why the twist with Latinas?

My guess is the answer is in Greogry Rodriguez's book Mongrel, Bastards, Orphans, and Vagabonds. The book itself begins with a celebration of the making of "mestizos" in Mexico through sexual liaisons between the Spanish conquistadors and Indian women. Rodriguez even, at points, dismisses the violent nature of these liaisons to craft a notion of Mexicans happily living between and undermining the color line then and now through assimilation and interracial sex.

Rodriguez, backed by the Los Angeles Times and the New America Foundation, echoes the same message as Ugly Betty: protect white privilege, distance yourself from black people and most of all lay down — literally and figuratively — for white men and you to can move up the ladder.

I find the message insulting, racist and humiliating.

There are possibilities for real shared struggles and issues for African Americans and Latinos in the United States. There are also forces like anti-black racism among Latinos and xenophobia among African Americans that hurt these efforts. There are also institutions like prisons and failing inner city schools that seek to turn tensions into out and out conflict.

But Hollywood is also sending subtle or not so subtle messages that don't help the situation. It needs to stop.

Sorry America, I just can't watch anymore.

— Mark Q. Sawyer

Flashback: Mark Sawyer: McCain's Crooked Talk on Cuba



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I to like "Ugly Betty", but found something about it "unsettling";thanks Mark Sawyer in helping me "uncover what it was about "Ugly Betty" that made me feel uncomfortable about this series ! I believe your analysis is right on target,hope it starts some discussion on the topic !!

Sent by Robert H. | 6:25 PM | 5-27-2008

I agree completely with Mark Sawyer's criticism of Ugly Betty. It's the U.S. franchise version of Betty La Fea, the popular Columbian telenovela. There, the issue was class. But race is subtext in Spanish television, where you have a parade of buxom blondes every night. The audience may be brown and black, but the images are as white as snow.
The American version of the telenovela was produced by Selma Hayek, who began her career in Mexican telenovelas, so it's not surprising to see the show the way it is.
Mr. Sawyer wonders why there's no outrage over the program. America Ferrera is one of the few Latinas staring on television. The number of Latino actors on the screen, small and large, are very few. I'm 51,Puerto Rican, and remeber cringing at the sight of Freddy Prince on Chico and the Man. What we Latinos need are our Tyler Perrys, Spike Lees, Alfre Woodards, Denzl Washingtons, etc., people in front and behind the camera who will honestly depict our stories.

Sent by Dominick Arbolay | 7:50 PM | 5-27-2008

Based on Mark Sawyer's description of the characters and central plot, I have to wonder whether he has ever actually watched Ugly Betty.

Sent by Angela Boufford | 6:34 PM | 5-28-2008

As a recent avid watcher of "Ugly Betty," I definitely didn't see the points of Mr. Sawyer's article. I don't think that the point of the show, unless you're trying to read into it to grasp at straws for a story, is Latina subjugation under white male privilege. I think it's about a person trying to do her job and developing friendships and relationships with the people she works with. All of us, no matter any race or background, have had "that" job that we take to help us get to where we want to go in life. And it's up to us to make the most of what we have and be positive or whine against the disparities, even developing relationships and making close friends that transcends race and privilege in the show's case.

I think Ugly Betty is about family and her father is a very important and central role to the story. Not only does he hold his family together after a tragedy, but he becomes the rock in the white and priviledged Meade family as well. So Mr. Sawyer's comments make no sense to me in regards to Latino men.

If it's offensive to anyone, it should be offensive to Scottish people since Christina is always drinking like a fish and getting suckered by Willhemina. :)

Sent by Grace | 10:40 AM | 5-31-2008

I am an American male of Hispanic descent. I am not offended by ugly betty at all. I try to watch the sitcom weekly. I have a problem with Mary Sawyers analysis. I think Mark does not like the fact that Hispanics mingle with non-Hispanic whites. I wonder if his opinion would be different if the characters were all Hispanic.

Sent by fred | 5:28 PM | 6-15-2008

That's just how "The Apprentice" portrayed Omorosa as a mean black woman trying to undermine white men. Omorosa had many good qualities to her as well, one being ambitious and attractive. It's what I call hidden or subliminal rascism.

Sent by Catherina | 3:40 AM | 9-8-2008


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