Latinas on TV, from ‘Modern Family’ to ‘Superstore’
“Modern Family” is one of the longest-running sitcoms currently on TV, now in its 10th season on ABC. The show has made Sofia Vergara a star — so much so that she is the highest paid actress on TV, according to Forbes.
When looking at the landscape of Latina representation, Vergara’s success stands out. But so do the stereotypes her character embodies. In her book “Latinas & Latinos on TV,” Isabel Molina-Guzman analyzes recent comedies, assessing the good and the bad.
Even as we inch closer to 500 scripted TV shows available per year on various platforms, only a small percentage center on Latino characters.
“Part of the reason I wrote the book is I was kind of frustrated with all of the publicity coming out of the showbiz trades about how diverse Hollywood had gotten — and then you look at the actual shows and the people writing them and producing them, they’re not diverse.”
I spoke with Molina-Guzman, who is a professor of media and cinema studies, as well as Latina/Latino studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, about some shows on TV this season. The following is an edited transcript:
Q: In your book, you talk about how Sofia Vergara is this really notable pinnacle of achievement because she’s one of the most recognizable actors on TV, as well as the highest paid. On the other hand, as Gloria, she’s playing this sexualized Latina stereotype.
A: Personally, I love her. I think she’s a brilliant comedian and a very smart comedian. And until very recently she was the only Latina character on television in such a prominent role on a successful show. She’s playing a stereotypical character, but Gloria has also been allowed to be more nuanced in ways that are unexpected and really interesting. Her sexual politics on the show are much more progressive than the more conservative stereotype. For example, Latina women and mothers in particular are often portrayed as more Catholic and more socially rigid, whereas Gloria seems more socially conscious than a lot of the characters.
But we can’t forget her only way to access that visibility is through this decades-old stereotype that is super-familiar to most U.S. audiences. And that’s a problem. The scope of representation is so narrow that for Sofia Vergara and this character, her path has to be through this spitfire Latina trope, which means: usually has an accent; usually very temperamental; tends to look a particular way and have a particular body type.
Q: You also talk about the idea of color-blind casting in the book. “Modern Family” clearly does the opposite — Gloria’s ethnicity is part of who that character is. America Ferrera now stars on the NBC comedy “Superstore,” which I really love, and that show takes more of a color-blind approach, where everyone is just this beleaguered big box store employee.
A: That’s one of my favorite shows, too. I think one of the things that has changed over the years is the rise of Shonda Rhimes and her success with color-blind casting, where ethnicity and race are not necessarily the motivating factor in storylines. And “Superstore” falls into that, but it’s also very smart about finding humor in the ethnic and racial differences of its characters.
Q: Right, last season there was a storyline where a delivery guy started flirting with Ferrera’s character in Spanish, and that ended up playing on some of her insecurities about her own Spanish fluency and not feeling Latina enough.
A: And one of the best episodes from the first season was the whole salsa wars episode (“Shots and Salsa”) where they want her to dress up in the sombrero and she refuses to do it because it’s stereotypical and she feels like her manager is just asking her to do it because she’s Latina. So they’ve played with it. But it’s not the primary focus of the story, and I think that’s fine.
I just wish there was more diversity in the storylines writ large and that talented Latina and Latino actors got to play the same roles as white actors get to play, but maybe more embedded or informed by a particular set of experiences. There should be a space for that. And for pushing back on stereotypes and allowing us to see a broader spectrum of what it means to be not only Latina but African-American, Indigenous, Asian — that’s been the general problem, it’s always been so narrow and so few.
So color-blind casting and color-blind storytelling can be great, but it does erase that specificity, as well.
Q: “One Day at the Time” is a show that has been specific, but it’s only one of a few.
A: And it’s really had to fight for its existence at Netflix. That’s a show where Norman Lear used his capital in the industry to create a space for the showrunner (Gloria Calderon Kellett with Mike Royce) to tell that story the way that she wanted to do it. I wish more established showrunners did that for writers of color.
Q: Gloria Calderon Kellett told me that even visual cues were important to her. Like, she wanted cans of Bustelo coffee and Goya in that kitchen. Things that were recognizably Latino that a Cuban-American family would have in their home.
A: And you get that when you have showrunners and writers who are able to speak to that experience. To have real change, you have to have those voices in the room. And there are multiple ways to tell any story. It’s not like all Latino writers are going to write a story the same way.
Q: The “Charmed” reboot got a lot of viewers excited because the network and producers led people to believe it was going to be an all-Latina cast. It turns out that’s not the case. One of sisters is played by a Latina, Melonie Diaz. The other two actresses, Sarah Jeffery and Madeleine Mantock, are multiracial, but not Latina. I don’t think the actresses should have to shoulder this debate, it’s more about how the producers and the CW weren’t forthright in the lead-up to the premiere.
A: It wasn’t just journalists who thought it was going to be a Latina-led show; fans thought so, too. That’s a perfect example of color-blind casting, where they cast an actor, but don’t really think about what that means for the character.
This is something I try to tackle in the book: That networks and showrunners are trying to tap into this sense of multiculturalism, but they do it in this hamfisted way. That putting diversity on screen is enough, supposedly. And that’s a way do it (laughs), but for younger audiences, I don’t think that’s going to be enough.
Q: Especially since there’s already a tradition of magic and witchcraft with brujas, it seemed so obvious to incorporate that to make the reboot distinct with a Latina cast and Latina characters.
A: I was just at a conference, and “Charmed” was all the talk and people brought up the fact that there’s already a web series called “Brujos” (the Chicago-shot series created by and starring Ricardo Gamboa) and there’s another TV series in development called “Brujas” (from former Chicagoan and “Vida” show creator Tanya Saracho), which is supposed to be all Afro-Latinos.
Q: I saw this come up a lot on social media because people are legitimately frustrated that we don’t really see Afro-Latina characters on TV. Meaning, characters who identify both as black and Latina.
A: Oh yeah, the way “Charmed” handled this is such a missed opportunity. In many ways, Afro-Latina actors in particular are completely constrained. They are mainly cast in African-American roles, like Gina Torres on “Suits.” Or playing aliens, like Zoe Saldana in “Avatar.” But very rarely are they considered for roles where they play Latinas.
So these actors are being written out of Latinidad because the media has a certain construction of what Latinas look like. In other words, like Gloria on “Modern Family”: light skin, straight hair, blah, blah, blah.
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