The Golden Globes were handed out last week. Though I've become jaded about awards shows in general, this year's affair left me just plain discombobulated. Grey's Anatomy as best TV drama series? At least that underwhelming Ellen Pompeo didn't win in her category (that went to Kyra Sedgwick for The Closer). And the backstage "F" bomb by Isaiah Washington? Brother man, please!
My moment of angst occurred when the best actress in a comedy award was given to America Ferrera for her role in Ugly Betty. Later, the series was named best comedy series. Now, shouldn't I, a Mexican-American woman pining for more images of Latinos on TV, be blazingly, viva la raza happy? From the beginning, I've had a tormented response to Ugly Betty. Now that it has two Golden Globes, it's even worse. Instead of the glorious, residual ring of triumph, something unseen is driving me crazy.
First, I have to give Ferrera credit. She makes her Betty enormously likable. Now there are several Web sites devoted to her. Most of these feature talk about how beautiful Ferrera really is and how Ugly Betty has improved the self-esteem of viewers (i.e., women) who watch it. AlterNet.org, which I usually rely on to provide a less starry-eyed look at media, featured a piece by Yeidy M. Rivero that, after explaining why Ugly Betty is a watered-down version of the original Colombian telenovela, congratulates the show as "important and timely," because it "brings forth a complex assortment of U.S. women's issues, interconnecting gender, ethnicity, race, class, and, of course, dominant beauty norms."
If it takes a silly sitcom, working somewhat subversively to do that, who am I to protest? What I do take issue with is how these issues are presented broadly and how the spin is not toward a deeper understanding of these issues but toward furthering one-click consumerism. This struck me when I happened upon the Be Ugly in 2007 campaign (www.beugly07.com). Various graphic images of Ferrera's goofy Betty face the ethnicity of which has been effaced are offered on posters, stickers, and the like, inviting viewers (presumably women and girls) to "Be real. Be smart. Be kind. Be honest. Be true to yourself." The entire litany is included on a Betty's Daily Affirmation Card you can print out and carry around in your pocket. The gist of all this seems to be: Hey, we all feel ugly sometimes, but you're not, even if you think you are. And by the way ... look at all this cool stuff you can buy!
All TV shows have tie-in merchandise (the proceeds of the Be Ugly T-shirt and an empower ring go to Girls Inc.). And I admit to having a hankering for the cheesy "B" necklace with the pearl drop dangles Betty wears. But at $172, just who is the audience for this high-end kitsch? Certainly not the Mexicana I spoke with at the bus stop last Sunday, who I doubt has much time to watch TV. "Being real" for her, means having back-to-back food-service jobs at minimum wage. After I met this woman, and walked around with my Betty angst, I was reminded of a card I received featuring the art of J. Michael Walker. His series of colored pencil drawings featuring the iconic Virgin of Guadalupe doing ordinary things (ironing, embroidery) moved me because the faces were fleshy and brown and decidedly non-European (www.virginguadalupe.com). These were faces of women I grew up with, who worked in factories, cleaned hotels, changed babies' diapers, and washed dishes.
"Being real" has a much harsher glow than the sparkling invitation the Be Ugly "pro-social movement" suggests. It's not that I don't like to have fun, but by celebrating an individualist stance, it encourages women to ignore our greatest asset. One another. What a force women could be if we spent less time staring into the mirror and spoke to one another, asking smart, honest, and kind questions. Rivero suggests that Ugly Betty is an important step in opening the window to the realities that are little understood by mainstream culture.
Am I expecting too much from a network television show? Maybe so, but I will dream on.
Dreams are good and necessary for survival. But if all this Ugly Betty excitement is to direct passions to the pulpit of consumerism, laden with its terminally narrow ideas of beauty, worth, and what is "real," this is one bandwagon I am hesitant to jump on.