The Beauty of Ugly Betty
by Beatriz Villamor
On January 20, 2009, the United States of America saw the first African-American man sworn in as the nation’s 44th President. This was an historic moment for people of all races and ethnicities – it demonstrated that the country that had once upheld slavery, segregation and second-class citizenry are a progressive people who embrace diversity and multiculturalism. All over the world, it represented the American dream – in the land of opportunity, one could determine one’s own destiny. That sense of possibility is powerful, especially when one witnesses the most unlikely candidate defying the odds and expectations, rising to the highest office in the land.
The promise of a new and better life is part of the mythos of the American dream and has always attracted immigrants to America. In turn, the country has flourished, thanks to centuries of immigration that brought young, talented, hardworking and ambitious individuals from every corner of the globe. Immigration has impacted the American population so much so that by 2042, the U.S. Census Bureau has stated that the minority, taken collectively, will be the majority. While this should not be a surprise given immigration trends, especially the most recent waves, it is interesting to note that many sectors of society have yet to reflect this diversity. Multiculturalism is often an afterthought – the present establishment has yet to shift its focus.
One of the industries that often overlooks immigration and the multiculturalism it yields is the television entertainment industry. For decades, the talent that was cast was predominantly Caucasian. Today, diversity is making its way to the forefront but this primarily focuses on casting a significant variety of people of color, and it does not typically highlight the phenomenon of immigration and multiculturalism. This essay seeks to address this gap by focusing on immigration, from the driving force behind an immigrant’s desire to establish him or herself in America to the impact immigration has yielded in creating an eventual majority-minority country. I hold that in the television entertainment industry multiculturalism has yet to surface despite the rising social awareness of diversity. I present some thoughts on “Ugly Betty,” ABC’s award-winning comedy whose main character is a young Latin-American female who comes from a family of immigrants. It is noteworthy in that the show’s themes, characters and storylines realistically reflect the multicultural life that millions of immigrants live out today, a version that is nevertheless of the ‘benevolent’and assimilative kind and steers clear of the harsher aspects that make immigration a contentious issue today.
With the exception of Native Americans, who are believed to have settled in North America between 50,000 to 15,000 years ago, the American population has been composed of immigrants. In order to understand the appeal that America has held, Ernest Ravenstein’s “Push-Pull” migration theory comes into play. Simply put, Ravenstein argues that an individual migrates when circumstances in his or her home country are undesirable, thus becoming a factor in “pushing” him or her away to consider migrating to another place. The “pull” factor emerges when he or she perceives a place to have better circumstances, one that is promising and can potentially lead to more opportunities and a better life. Throughout the course of American history, it is evident that many émigrés were “pushed” out of their home countries – many were discriminated against or persecuted for their religion or ethnicity; others were living under harsh economic conditions or lacked social mobility. America has always had the “pull” factor since it promises freedom, liberty, and a multitude of opportunities. Once the first set of immigrants took the risk and migrated to America, word of their successful voyage and the promising lives they led often added to the “pull” factor for immigrants who eventually followed.
The history of immigration in America is typically divided into four categories, which represent the biggest waves of immigrants: the colonial period from the 1600’s to 1775, the mid-19th century from the 1820’s to the 1870’s, the turn of the century from the 1880’s to the 1920’s, and post 1965 (http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1999/3/99.03.01.x.html). In addition to these periods of significant immigration, it is also important to note the role both slavery and indentured service played in the migration of people to America. Slavery forcibly brought and settled Africans in America. Indentured service, which was technically a labor contract between the migrant and an employer in America, is now looked upon as not much better than slavery in that the migrants were often bound to decades of hard labor upon their arrival in the country.
Taking a closer look at each period of immigration, it is essential to realize why migrants wanted to leave their home countries in order to understand the push-pull theory. During the colonial period from the 1600’s to 1775, much of the English, Irish, Scottish and Jewish immigrants were fleeing religious persecution and moving towards more economic opportunities in America. The economic incentive was also true for French, Dutch and German immigrants.
During the mid-19th century from the 1820’s to the 1870’s, these nationalities as well as the Italians and Eastern Europeans immigrated to America. A total of 7.5 million immigrants arrived during this period. The Eastern European migration was fueled by the economic opportunities to be found in America. This was true for the Italians, who also faced political instability at home. The number of Irish immigrants increased significantly due to the famine caused by the potato crop failure. This period also saw Chinese and Latin American immigrants, who sought their fortune in the Gold Rush.
From the 1880’s to the 1920’s, the number of immigrants that came to America rose to 23.5 million. Most came from Southern and Eastern Europe, where they lived under poor economic conditions and also faced warfare. Anti-immigration sentiments rose during World War I, and immigration restrictions from 1930-1964 decreased the number of immigrants to America.
In the period of 1965-onwards, the Immigration Act of 1965 did away with immigration quotas based on nationality. This resulted in a resurgence of immigrants, particularly from Latin America and Asia. Like the millions of immigrants who came before them, they were all seeking religious and political freedom as well as more economic opportunities. And while America is certainly far from perfect, those who chose to migrate reaffirm that what it offers is much more ideal and appealing than what their countries of origin can offer. The promise of a better life – be it more religious or political freedom, liberty or economic opportunities – is enough of a “pull” for immigrants to America.
Globalization has also played a role in the increase of immigrants: the spread of American pop culture has heightened the country’s appeal; technology, especially the Internet, has made migration easier in terms of seeking information, establishing connections in America as well as staying in touch with family and friends in the country of origin; inexpensive and efficient means of transportation makes it easy for an individual to migrate.
The increase in immigration has resulted in a highly diversified population. The U.S. Census Bureau started to monitor minority-majority counties, where the minority population was growing and gradually became greater than the majority. In 2007, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that “minorities … roughly one-third of the U.S. population, are expected to become the majority in 2042, with the nation projected to be 54 percent minority in 2050” (http://www.census.gov/Press-Release/www/releases/archives/population/012496.html). It was also announced that in 2050, “nearly one in three U.S. residents would be Hispanic” (http://www.census.gov/Press-Release/www/releases/archives/population/012496.html). America has the second largest number of Hispanics worldwide, 45.5 million in 2007, making it second only to Mexico, which has a population of 108.7 million.
Immigration and Multiculturalism as Reflected in Television Entertainment
As mentioned earlier, American pop culture has spread around the world, thanks to both aggressive marketing and superior production values. It has great mass appeal, which is why it is critical that it is inclusive of all races, ethnicities and cultures. Needless to say, not every form of entertainment programming can include every single race, ethnicity and culture but it is imperative that all programs are diverse enough to reflect the reality of the multicultural population.
From the dawn of television, most if not all on-air talent has been Caucasian – think of the variety shows from the 1940’s and 1950’s, and the late night talk shows from the 1950’s to today, which are primarily hosted by Caucasian men. When sitcoms and drama series emerged, these were also dominated by Caucasians – one exception was Desi Arnaz in the 1950’s show I Love Lucy. Arnaz and Lucille Ball were a married couple and insisted on producing and starring together. The network CBS initially felt the audience would not believe a Latin American man was married to a Caucasian woman, although they eventually gave in since Lucy’s popularity would result in very high profits. Minorities soon gained a significant amount of prominence, especially with shows like Shaft in the 1970’s and The Cosby Show in the 1980’s. However, this was one step in simply getting minorities on air – it did not yet highlight the ethnic mix found in the population.
The industry’s 1999 fall lineup was declared a “white out” by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) since there were hardly any on-air roles for minorities. Diversity efforts were called for and the NAACP assessed the industry once again, releasing the “Out of Focus – Out of Sync” report in December 2008. It found that there is still a great lack of diversity on and off camera. The top four networks provided self-reported figures on the number of minorities employed for on-air roles in prime-time scripted series: from 2003 to 2004, FOX employed 50 minorities, followed by NBC with 47, ABC with 39 minorities, and CBS with 27; from 2004 to 2005, NBC employed 38 minorities, followed by ABC and FOX, both with 35, and CBS with 17; from 2005 to 2006, ABC employed 42 minorities, followed by NBC with 39, FOX with 34, and CBS with 24; and from 2006 to 2007, ABC employed 49 minorities, followed by FOX with 37, NBC with 36, and CBS with 31.
With minorities as one-third of the current American population, these figures are too low to properly represent the ethnically and culturally diverse people within America. Moreover, this makes it especially difficult for television entertainment to incorporate themes and storylines on multiculturalism – such cannot exist if a show’s characters themselves are not diverse and multicultural. This is primarily what makes “Ugly Betty” stand out – while it is not the only show that has a diverse cast and storylines that reflect the multiculturalism of its characters, it is certainly one of the few that provides entertainment as well as a realistic representation of the face of America.
The very creation of “Ugly Betty” is rooted in multiculturalism – it was originally a Colombian telenovela, “Betty La Fea,” which was adapted by the American network ABC as a primetime series. The show’s lead character is Betty Suarez, who is a young, first-generation Latin-American woman. The first in her family to graduate from college, Betty lands a job at MODE magazine, the leading fashion glossy – this is a surprising move since Betty does not have the typical looks and background one would expect from a high fashion magazine assistant. The show follows her as she adjusts to working at MODE in New York City, seeing everything through her well-meaning and good-natured perspective. It is through the storyline and the characters that multiculturalism comes alive, realistically portraying the Latin-American family.
In Season 1, Betty discovers that her father, Ignacio Suarez, has been living in America illegally. Initially shocked and angry, Betty and her family moved forward and addressed the issue. This storyline intricately displayed layers of emotions and issues that are relevant to immigrants as well as legal and illegal aliens. The plight of illegal aliens was humanized through the character of the warm, loving and supportive Ignacio, who has always been a hardworking and genuine man. It also depicted the complications of the issue, given that Ignacio’s children and grandson were born and raised in America and they have all established their lives in this country. This is significant since there are those who depict illegal immigration simplistically – it is unlawful and illegal aliens must be deported, period. However, the issue is much more complicated, and we can see this in the example of the “Ugly Betty” storyline.
From the first season to the most recent one, the characters come alive and highlight the multicultural world they live in. As mentioned, Ignacio grew up in Mexico and migrated to America as an adult. His character and a certain portion of the storyline show the values and traditions he continues to cling to even though he is no longer in Mexico. For example, in Season 3, he did not understand Betty when she said she might stay in the city overnight, asking her how she could do that since she gave up her apartment in Manhattan and moved back home to Queens. In a comical scene, Hilda tells her father he doesn’t get it and that Betty will be spending the night with her boyfriend. Betty turns bright red and Ignacio gasps and leaves the room. Sex is a sensitive topic for all parents, although typically there may be more tension on this matter between immigrants and their first-generation American children if the parents migrated from a country more conservative than America. The balance of culture, tradition and values brought over from the country of origin to America are played out in “Ugly Betty,” particularly between Ignacio and Betty, bringing to life the tension, struggle and compromise between many immigrant parents and their first-generation children.
Betty’s sister, Hilda Suarez, speaks English with a slight Mexican accent that is authentic to her character – not only can any Latina relate to this but individuals coming from different ethnic backgrounds can appreciate the fact that not every character will speak with the Midwest accent that has been used as a primary standard for on-air talents. It is also realistic when Ignacio and Hilda speak in Spanish, resonating with the millions of bilingual homes in America.
Hilda’s son and Betty’s nephew, Justin, is a teenager, who has embraced his identity: ethnically, he is Latin American; in terms of his sexual orientation, he is gay. His character is completely comfortable with himself – instead of adjusting to whatever norm or mainstream expectation there may be, Justin is unique. He struggles at times – one plot involved the difficulty he faced in staying friends with a jock, who for a while did not want to be associated with Justin since he’s gay – yet Justin always emerges true to himself.
Such touches are calculated to please, and Betty and her family have endeared themselves to America. One in three Americans today is a minority who can relate to coming from a family of immigrants, growing up in a bilingual home that determines for itself which values and traditions it will carry on from the old country and which American qualities it will assimilate and embrace. Yet it is ultimately the middle-class ideal that is foregrounded. The show represents a version of the ‘new’ American family – a version that while it reflects contemporary realities, is true to established norms and values of hard work, playing by the rules, and smooth and easy assimilation.
Inasmuch as globalization means adapting to new economic, political, and cultural frameworks, it also means projecting a certain identity and outlook that enriches the world. This is partly one of the reasons why America is deemed the land of opportunity – over centuries, it has welcomed people from all corners of the globe, from different walks of life and beliefs. It has provided enough liberty and freedom for immigrants to contribute thoughts, values and traditions from their places of origin. The country has emerged stronger thanks to its tolerance and embrace of diversity. Yet certain institutions, such as the television entertainment industry, are not as progressive. In an era that has embraced the first African-American President with roots from Africa to Southeast Asia to the Midwest, it is appalling to see the dominant homogeneity within television entertainment. “Ugly Betty” stands out because it realistically and positively represents a Latin American family in multicultural America. The industry needs to catch up and embrace diversity, which is truly representative of the population – otherwise, its audience will tune out.