Queer Eye for Reel Latinx:
camp, chic, and queer familia in Ugly Betty and One Day at a Time

by Astrid M. Fellner

For decades, Latinx LGBTQ+ people have hardly been represented in North American popular culture, and when they were depicted on screen, they were grossly misrepresented.[1] [open endnotes in new window] In general, the entire Latinx population remains underrepresented in leading roles on TV. As Chelsea Candelario complained in 2018,

“Latinx are the U.S.’ second largest racial group with 18 percent of the population. Yet, we only make up around 8 percent (just a five percent increase from 2016) of media representation. As people, citizens, movie goers, and TV watchers, we deserve a larger share in the pop culture that we help shape” (Candelario n.p.).

The only time that a Latina woman won an Emmy for a leading role was America Ferrera for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series of Ugly Betty (ABC 2006-2010) in 2007. In the wake of Ugly Betty, however, Latinx LGBTQ+ characters have increasingly gained more visibility on TV.

In the show Ugly Betty, triggering the success of a so-called “Betty Style,” the character Betty Suárez is a style-challenged young woman from a Mexican immigrant family living in Queens who stumbles into a job at a Vogue-parody in Manhattan called Mode, and in doing so created a new form of queer Latina chic. This flamboyant queer Latina chic then also appears in other TV shows and comprises an important source of humor in the sitcom One Day at a Time (2017-present). But what exactly constitutes the power of style in Ugly Betty and One Day at a Time and in what ways does the politics of style engage queer ethnic identity?

In 2006, U.S. audiences loved America Ferrera, the actress who played the underdog awkward girl in Ugly Betty. As the TV Guide stated on December 21, 2006, “This was the year that America fell in love with America” (Malcom n.p.). Fashion and style, the “Ugly Betty way,” included a Guadalajara Poncho, clunky glasses and braces.
Betty’s dorky persona set new fashion standards on TV, and fans both in North America as well as in Europe picked up her style. As David Graham states: “From her tartan kilts to her boisterous tie-front blouses and knit sweater vests, Betty’s wardrobe can be found in many of Toronto’s trendy stores. In London, hip stores like Topshop and H&M can’t keep the elements of her look in stock” (Graham, n.p.). Lydia Margarita Riera (portrayed by Rita Moreno) is one the main characters on the Netflix TV series One Day at a Time. She has a strong affinity for fashion, enjoying the performance of Latin chic every time she enters the stage in this sitcom.

I wish to look into cultural performances of queer latinidad (‘Latinness’) via the politics of style in these two recent TV series, Ugly Betty and One Day at a Time. Particularly since the 1980s and 1990s, we have witnessed an increased commodification of and growing trend in exploiting an exotification of cultural representations of Latinx people. A major effect has been an “homogenous conceptualization of Latinidad” that erases “the specific histories and cultures of specific national groups within this pan-ethnicity” (110). Drawing on Arlene Dávila’s study on the emergence of a “Hispanic market” (2001), Báez has shown how this “commodified latinidad” co-opts ethnic identification and has “appropriated feminism […] to cash in on the ‘buying power’ of the female audience” (110, italics in the original). Ugly Betty and One Day at a Time, I argue, nevertheless manage to offer a queer politics in that they challenge norms of beauty, ethnicity, family, and heterosexuality through a performance of what I term camp latinidad.

Fashion and style not only serve as sites for exploring the body and issues of sexuality but also constitute powerful queer expressions on TV. These newer cultural productions lend social visibility to U.S. Latinx and they participate in both the construction and deconstruction of ideas of “the normal.” While mainstream images of Latina women on TV are part of an extensive disciplinary apparatus which promotes unrealistic beauty norms, producing widespread anxiety and alienation among women, Ugly Betty and One Day at a Time have provided representational spaces for Latina women as well as Latinx people. In the following essay, I will analyze how Latinx politics and identity are portrayed in recent TV series, and examine the possibilities for resistant Latinx sartorial performances. Ugly Betty and One Day at a Time, as I argue, serve not only as instruments for global consumer capitalism but also as forums for the empowerment of Latinx LGBTQ+ people. While Ugly Betty addresses today’s fascination with style and fashion with a protagonist who defies current hegemonic standards of beauty, One Day at a Time revels in latinidad by presenting an over-the-top grandmother who performs stereotypical representations of Cubanness. Both shows exhibit a politics of style that engages ethnic identity and creates new versions of Latin chic. Furthermore, both shows feature queer and non-binary characters. The queerness of these two shows, however, does not lie so much in the representational character of queer people or in the overtly LGBTQ+ content the shows feature. Queerness, I want to suggest, is rather produced through a disruption of norms, the disturbance of hegemonic kinship structures, and the depiction of what Richard T. Rodríguez has called “queer familia” (325).

The politics of style and Latin Chic

As retailers are discovering that Latinas—primarily celebrities—can boost their sales and appeal to a broader audience, Latina chic has developed as a fashion style. For example, Mexican actress-singer Thalía Sodi has a clothing line at Kmart; model Daisy Fuentes works with Kohl’s; and Lucy Pereda, host of Galavision’s popular home decorating show En Casa de Lucy, has collaborated with Sears. Most famously, Jennifer Lopez boosted the modern Latina celebrity clothing line craze in 2001 by launching her JLo apparel line, one of the first celebrity fashion lines. She also created Sweetface Fashion Company, which Lopez owns jointly with Tommy Hilfiger’s brother. Latin style, however, has not only become popular in fashion, but it has also become a lifestyle which is promoted in books such as the 2005 Latin Chic: Entertaining with Style and Sass and advertised in the following way:

“Latin Chic: Entertaining with Style and Sass captures the best pan-Latin flavors and the unique spirit of Latin entertaining. Picture high heels, sexy women, handsome hombres, salsa music, exotic cocktails and irresistible food.”[2]

A celebrity of Hispanic TV, Lucy Pereda flaunts Latina chic in Galavision’s popular home decorating show En Casa de Lucy. Latin Chic: Entertaining with Style and Sass is a guidebook on how to throw parties. Featuring the fashions of top Latinx designers, it follows journalists Carolina Buia and Isabel González as they host parties in various locations in Latin America.

As Latin chic is packaged for mass consumption by some leading apparel makers, style and fashion advertising, drawing on the current fascination with Latina exoticism, has found its way into TV series. From Gabrielle Solís in Desperate Housewives (2004-2012) to Carmen De La Pica Morales in The L Word (2004-2009), Latina women are represented not only as “hot” but as extremely “stylish” and fashion-conscious. Ugly Betty and One Day at a Time pick up on TV’s fascination with Latin style and fashion but these shows feature characters who go against current standards of beauty. The power of style in these shows, I claim, lies both in their strategic re-inscription of Latin chic and in their queer politics that challenge dominant norms of beauty, whiteness, and heterosexuality through a camping of ethnicity.

Desperate Housewives’ Gabrielle Solís (played by Eva Longoria) is a Latina super model from Guadalajara, who by marrying rich has made it into the exclusive community of Wisteria Lane. In this TV show, the character of Gabrielle is used as an icon of Latin chic. Carmen De La Pica Morales is a Mexican American character on the Showtime television network series The L Word, appearing in season 2 and 3.

In All Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture, Stuart Ewen has argued that style “is a way that the human values, structures, and assumptions in a given society are aesthetically expressed and received” (3). Style is defined by its currency and its consumption, and it is often about “beautiful mouth-watering surfaces” (14), dealing with external impressions. Within the sensibilities of modernity, style gains power from being “inextricably woven into the fabric of social, political, and economic life” (23). In our postmodern times in which cultural modes of representation like TV “simulate” reality, people live in the “hyperreality”of simulations. In these simulations, images, spectacles, and the play of signs depict a situation in which these signs are the organizing forms of a new social order where simulation rules. As Baudrillard has argued, in a society of simulation, identities are constructed by the appropriation of images:

“It is reality itself today that is hyperrealist […] it is quotidian reality in its entirety—political, social, historical and economic—that from now on incorporates the simulating dimension of hyperrealism. We live everywhere in an ‘aesthetic’ hallucination of reality” (148).

While I agree that we live in a hyperreal world, I believe that fashion is not only a simulacrum, but also a powerful political tool that has a direct grip on the body. The representation of appearance and its projection through media culturally engage various discourses regarding the construction and performance of gendered, ethnic, and sexual identities. “The signs of fashion” are not only “free-floating”; they are also “grounded in the referential” (Kellner 97). It is precisely this referential power that I want to analyze here.

Fashion is material culture that clothes bodies which come in different sizes, shapes, and colors. While recent TV series that revel in hyperreal simulations and celebrate fashion as the supersign of the times have become global phenomena, the production of sumptuary style—while often appropriated globally—is also a local phenomenon rooted in local histories. The recent mainstreaming or crossing over of Latina style provokes complex questions that engage in the debates over “style tribalism.” As Andrew Ross puts it,

“Popular style, at its most socially articulate, appears at the point where commonality ends and communities begin, fractioned off into the geography of difference, even conflict” (Ross 289).

And as Sunaina Maira explains:

 “At certain moments, as when new style tribes emerge or the visual markers associated with one style subculture are taken on by another, these underlying ‘social values’ come under scrutiny, or are simply absorbed into already existing ‘geographies of difference’” (331).

Ugly Betty deals explicitly with fashion and style: Betty Suárez works for Mode, a fashion magazine. She is an ordinary young New Yorker who tries to fit into the world of high fashion. In this show, style functions as an ethnic marker, pointing to the local tribal styles and their various forms of appropriation in U.S. media productions. In a different way, One Day at a Time also engages in the politics of style as it plays with tropicalized versions of latinidad, offering an exaggerated version of the image of the exotic, sexy Latina. According to Frances R. Aparicio and Susana Chavez-Silverman, to tropicalize “means to trope, to imbue a particular space, geography, group, or nation with a set of traits, images, and values” (8). However, with humor and satire in One Day at a Time’s carefully crafted dialogue, underlined by the canned laughter of the sitcom format, the show not only self-consciously references the current trend in media to commodify Latinas but also subversively exposes latinidad as a construction.

When talking about the representation of ethnicity of U.S. Latinx—latinidad—we have to think of the various forms of mainstream appropriation as well as the ethnic engagements with fashion; for instance, we can see various parodic versions of haute couture in recent TV shows. Much has already been written about stereotypical representations of Latinas on TV and various transcultural forms of tropicalization. For example, in Latin Looks: Images of Latinas and Latinos in the U.S. Media, Clara Rodríguez has addressed Latinx (in)visibility in popular culture in detail. She concludes that in fighting misrepresentation, alternative filmmakers have sought to deconstruct media images of Latinos and construct new images and spaces that are by, for, and about the Latinx community. Other critics of Latina images have maintained that Latinas are often portrayed as exotic seductresses (cf. Holtzman), as tacky and overly emotional (cf. Valdivia), and as hypersexualized spitfire (cf. Molina Guzmán and Valdivia). In such representations, latinidad is tied to exoticism, and it is precisely that focus on the sexualized “brown” body that has been turned into a “postmodern ethnic commodity” (McCracken 11). What I am interested here, however, is less the representation of Latinx on TV and its related identity politics than the analysis of how high fashion—a sign of the white upper class—is scripted in these TV shows to have the Latinx characters create an anti-fashion. My question is about how fashion as a commodity that promotes a normative ideal of femininity get linked to latinidad in these shows and how is it queered in this process. How are cultural and political issues clothed in these shows to express camp latinidad?

To answer these questions, I want to shift the discussion of identity politics away from a debate that centers on questions of representation and turn to questions related to what Samuel A. Chambers calls the “politics of norm” (“Heteronormativity” 81). Thus, rather than investigate the transcultural representations of latinidad with reference to questions like, “How and in what ways are Latinx represented?” in these shows, I want to show how Latin chic is used to fashion or refashion ethnic and gendered norms, thereby engaging in a queer politics of TV.

Refashioning norms: Latin Geek Chic
and (un)coolness in Ugly Betty

TV, as Chambers argues, is a “constitutive element of culture” (“Heteronormativity” 84) that “like any other cultural artefact, participates in the constitution of our reality” (“Heteronormativity” 85). TV is political because of the multiple ways in which it can participate in the reproduction or deconstruction of norms. To clarify, norms are not the same as rules or a law, as Judith Butler has made clear. As she explains: “A norm operates within social practices as the implicit standard of normalization” (41, italics in the original). A norm calls for the normal, as Michael Warner has added: “The rhetoric of normalization also tells us that the taken-for-granted norms of common sense are the only criteria of value” (60).

While both Butler and Warner mainly talk about “the normal” in the context of sexuality, the concept of “the normal” can, of course, be extended to race and ethnicity as well. Evoking the statistical bell curve, with a median point at the top of the bell which contains normal identity, the process of normalization also affects ethnic groups by marking their existence as other (cf. Chambers, “Heteronormativity” 84). White heterosexuality clearly is the norm and within the current Latin boom, one could say that sexualized, slim, and erotic Latinas have become the norm. As these norms have no transcendent standing but only persist “to the extent that [they are] acted out in social practice” (Butler 48), TV has a tremendous influence in the daily reproduction and implementation of “the normal.” Ugly Betty not only criticizes notions of normality but also offers a model that opposes this ethnocentric and heteronormative model. Defying hegemonic discourses of the normal on all levels, the show has a cast of characters who not only expose the workings of normality as an illusion but offer powerful counter examples which break this illusion and demonstrate alternatives to it.

Ugly Betty is based on the popular Colombian telenovela Yo Soy Betty, La Fea (I’m Betty, the Ugly One), which was produced by Radio Cadena Nacional de Colombia and was broadcast between 1999 and 2001. This telenovela was a blockbuster in Latin America and the United States, and it has been spun off into successful soap series in Europe and Asia (cf. Avila-Saavedra 135). The U.S. remake echoes the genre of the telenovela but substantially modified in format to fit the perceived taste of mainstream U.S. viewers. It was adapted for a New York City setting by creator/developer Silvio Horta and co-producers Salma Hayek and Ben Silverman. Hayek appears on the show as Sofia Reyes, in addition to playing a cameo role as an actress on a fictional telenovela watched by the main character’s family in early episodes. The series won numerous awards including two 2007 Golden Globes and a 2007 Writers Guild Award for best New Series. It promoted itself by using the tagline “Ugly Is the New Beautiful” and advertising features a 22-year-old woman (played by America Ferrera) who is “the outcast with her nose pressed to the window wanting to be with the cool kids who reject her” (cf. Jensen n.p.). Week after week, while trying to fit in or be whom she thinks others want her to be, Betty gets involved in some scheme only to learn by the episode’s end that the best way to live is to stay true to herself.

America Ferrara at the 2007 Golden Globe, winning in the categories ‘Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series’ and ‘Best Television Series.’ Betty, the slightly overweight woman with blue braces and ‘bad style’ set a new trend and turned geek chic into the new cool.

Ugly Betty advocates a new style that was soon considered cool. This style is expressed in the tagline “Ugly Is the New Beautiful” and refers to a particular notion of geek chic. In The Birth (and Death) of the Cool, Ted Gioia has proclaimed the death of cool, arguing that hipness and trendiness have fallen out of favor since the 1990s. He sees this as part of a process of “uncooling,” which entails a cultural paradigm shift towards nerdy tech-savvy characters in popular culture (cf. 154-163). Annette Geiger has also claimed that cool is out both as an aesthetic and affective category, and that young people have recognized that it has degenerated into fashion attitudes (cf. Geiger 90). The alleged death of cool in popular culture can be seen in the emergence of television formats “celebrating nerdiness” (Gioia 8), which portray the stories of the utterly uncool. Contrary to Gioia and Geiger, who cite diverse recent television formats and advertisement campaigns as evidence for an extensive uncooling of U.S. society, Judith Kohlenberger (2012) finds the celebration of nerdiness a new form of cool. Dr. Leonard Hofstadter, the experimental physicist and protagonist of the U.S. sitcom The Big Bang Theory (2007–present) epitomizes this notion of uncoolness when he says: “Our society has undergone a paradigm shift: In the information age, you and I are the alpha males” (“The Middle Earth Paradigm,” 1.6). Crucially, The Big Bang Theory relies on the tagline: “Smart Is the New Sexy.” Similarly, one could argue that Ugly Betty favors this new kind of nerdiness, giving it a cool connotation. The tagline “Ugly Is the New Beautiful” testifies to this change in cool sensibility, here criticizing society’s obsession with appearances.

Although many viewers might not consider Betty Suárez to be deserving of the adjective “ugly,” the stylization of this character diverges from conventional representations of the sexy Latina body. Betty’s ethnic heritage and lower-middle-class upbringing in Queens clearly add to her outsider status at Mode magazine. From the outset, however, viewers could tell that Betty has a beauty hiding beneath bangs, behind braces, and under frumpy clothes. As the show progresses, Betty gradually starts to allow some of her inner beauty to manifest itself in her outer appearance, making gradual changes throughout the fourth season, living up to the show’s tagline.