Latino television is transforming the American TV landscape. Following the global success of telenovelas, MyNetworkTV has introduced Desire and Fashion House, which the network names “English language telenovelas,” soaps that will run “full” seasons in three months, five nights a week. Acknowledging the breadth and influence of the Latino market in the U.S., network TV seems primed for something that is both new and traditional, a potential breath of fresh air.
Ugly Betty has just such potential, largely due to America Ferrera’s fabulous energy. Based on Colombia’s international hit, Yo Soy Betty, La Fea, and executive produced by, among others, Salma Hayek, the show follows the tribulations of Betty Suarez (Ferrera) as she tries to break in to the world of high-profile magazine journalism. She’s smart, creative, and driven, all the prerequisites that should position her nicely for an entry level job. The problem is she’s “ugly.” When, during the pilot episode, she waited in the lobby of the massive Meade Publications building for an interview, she couldn’t even get through the main doors. The assistant who came to fetch her took one look at her and coldly announced, “There’s been a mistake. All the positions we were hiring have been filled.”
Dejected but undeterred, Betty went home with a positive attitude, even though she fudged the details of the interview to her obviously adoring family: she told them she thought the interview “went well.” Shortly afterwards, she got a call from Mode magazine to set up an interview. Meade CEO Bradford Meade (Alan Dale) saw her in the building’s lobby and decided she was exactly what his son Daniel (Eric Mabius), the new executive editor of the fashionista rag, needed to keep the philanderer on topic and from screwing his way through a series of hotty “assistants,” again.
So the “ugly” girl was dumped into the superficial, back-stabby world of high fashion, much like Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada. Though she had never heard of Mode, her brother Justin (Mark Indelicato), clearly coded, troublingly, as a swishy “gay” preteen, quickly gave her the dish. It’s not exactly the magazine she envisioned, but she decided it would get her in the door.
Once Betty was on the job, the expected frictions ensued. Uber-bitch Wilhelmina (Vanessa Williams) and her arch assistant Marc (Michael Urie) sniped, photographer Steve (Stelio Savante) scoffed. But Betty pressed on. By the end of the premiere episode, Betty won Daniel over with her grit and proved her worth by saving Mode‘s biggest advertising account. Even more, she did it all selflessly, letting Daniel take the credit for her new ad. Though she assured Daniel that she will surely take the cred in the future, and though it’s not unlikely that a neophyte assistant would want to secure her job by making her boss look better, it was still disappointing that Betty so easily capitulated to male authority.
Such deference to men contradicts the show’s girl power buzz. Before its first episode, Ugly Betty received tons of press lauding the show’s positive message for women. The teen girl advocacy group Hey U.G.L.Y. (the acronym stands for “Unique, Gifted, Lovable You!”) issued a statement in support of the show. According to the group’s founder Betty Hoeffner, “All of us have felt like Ugly Betty’s in our life and we at Hey U.G.L.Y. are dedicated to helping teens focus on their inner qualities and strengths” (27 September 2006). It’s a sentiment Ferrera has echoed, both in press for Ugly Betty as well as previous films like Real Women Have Curves (2002) and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005).
It’s a lovely sentiment, and few could argue that self-esteem and body image are not important concerns for women and teenaged girls. But in Ugly Betty, “beauty” appears to be the primary barrier in the way of women’s equality, to the point of ignoring other structural discriminations. Even at a fashion magazine like Mode, in an industry devoted to “femininity,” the obviously talented Wilhelmina is passed over for promotion in favor of the boss’ son.
In Yo Soy Betty, La Fea and The Devil Wears Prada, the protagonists transformed from “ugly ducklings” into “beautiful swans,” and felt much better for it, contradicting any ostensible rejection of beauty tyranny. And Betty isn’t likely to stay “ugly.” By the end of the first episode, she had eschewed her Guadalajara poncho for a “smart” electric blue suit. Though ill-fitting and exactly the wrong color for her, it still marked her entry in fashionable superficiality. Let the transformation begin.