By Yeidy M. Rivero
A colleague recently asked me to compare Betty Suárez, the leading character of ABC’s new hit Ugly Betty, to Ally McBeal. “Well, they probably both have vaginas,” I replied. Gender is about the only identity that Betty shares with previous and contemporary female television characters. How many working-class, Mexican American, clumsy, allegedly “ugly,” intelligent women with an illegal-immigrant father have been portrayed on U.S. television? Until Betty’s arrival, none.
In Ugly Betty, a first-generation, college-educated woman (played by America Ferrara of Real Women Have Curves and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants fame) lives with her father, sister and nephew in working-class and ethnically diverse Queens. Contrary to the Sex and the City troupe, Betty and her single-mother sister can’t enjoy the wonders of New York City’s nightlife, as they are the family’s primary financial providers and have to worry about their father’s health plan and the legal expenses related to his illegal status.
As an assistant for fashion magazine Mode, Betty has been labeled ugly, fat and classless, and suffers numerous humiliations from co-workers. But while Betty has apparently internalized the pain of being categorized as ugly, she does not seem concerned about her weight. As an intelligent and ambitious woman, Betty wants to succeed at her job, yet her distance from upper-crust culture has thus far been an obstacle at class- and image-conscious Mode.
The idea for Betty came from a Colombian telenovela (soap opera), Yo soy Betty la fea (I am Betty, the Ugly One), which narrated the story of a single, physically awkward, working-class, brilliant and hard-working woman in her late 20s who was employed as a secretary at high-fashion company EcoModa. Following the conventions of Latin American telenovelas, which typically portray the complexities of an almost impossible love between two people from different social classes, Betty fell in love with Armando, the company’s president.
Yet, Yo soy Betty la fea was more than a highly improbable match between a poor, “ugly” woman and a rich man. Upper-class codes of conduct and appearance usually defined who was considered ugly or beautiful within the narrative. Therefore, the central message in the Colombian version was that women’s beauty is defined by those who possess economic power.
The telenovela was an instant hit across Latin America and, according to a Variety report, either the original Colombian version or the concept alone have been sold to more than 70 countries. India, Germany, Mexico, Russia, Spain and others have each produced versions of Yo soy Betty la fea.
I am an avid Ugly Betty viewer, but initially I was partial to the telenovela. Yo soy Betty la Fea has a harsher, more direct approach to women’s self-esteem issues, and I appreciated the inclusion of Betty’s six “ugly” girlfriends-a support network, who loved her and admired her deeply. Through Betty and the cuartel de las feas (the cartel of ugly women), the narrative created a space for gender and working-class solidarity.
That said, Ugly Betty is an important and timely show. It brings forth a complex assortment of U.S. women’s issues, interconnecting gender, ethnicity, race, class and, of course, dominant beauty norms. Significantly, the show also addresses the thorny migration question, indirectly confronting the anti-Mexican sentiment that prevails in the U.S.
For my part, I will continue to welcome Betty into my home as long as the show’s creators keep pushing the envelope regarding what constitutes ugliness in contemporary U.S. society. Am I expecting too much from a network television show? Maybe so, but I will dream on.
Yeidy M. Rivero is associate professor of communication and culture at Indiana University Bloomington. She is the author of Tuning Out Blackness: Race and Nation in the History of Puerto Rican Television (Duke University Press, 2005).