MOVING THE NEEDLE
Three Latinas Are Leading the Future of Comedy on TV. Pay Attention.
With Gina Rodriguez, Eva Longoria, and America Ferrera fronting three network comedies, Hollywood is inching toward better representation. It’s about damn time.
Earlier this year at the Golden Globes, Eva Longoria and America Ferrera stole the show with their hilarious onstage banter: “Hi, I’m Eva Longoria, not Eva Mendes.” “And hi, I’m America Ferrera, not Gina Rodriguez.” “And neither one of us is Rosario Dawson.” “Well said, Salma.” “Thank you, Charo.” The duo’s brilliant opening called out an error during the Golden Globes nomination telecast, when Ferrera was mistaken for Rodriguez in a tweet. Just in case we need a reminder, they joked, not every Latina actress is the same.
New to Monday nights on NBC, Superstore stars Ferrera as megastore Cloud 9 floor supervisor Amy, an expert at both stacking paper towel pyramids and counseling her co-workers. Right after Superstore, people can tune in to watch Longoria play leading lady Ana Sofia Calderon in Telenovela, a comedy about the cast and crew of telenovela Las Leyes de Pasión. Both shows join Rodriguez’s Jane the Virgin as new, critically beloved series fronted by Latina actresses.
The fight for diverse representation in Hollywood continues to be an uphill battle, one that’s playing out right now with #OscarsSoWhite. It’s worth noting the significance of Longoria, Ferrera, and Rodriguez as Latinas fronting three network TV comedies at the same time. Telenovela and Jane the Virgin are unapologetically soapy and unapologetically Hispanic, while Superstore brings a more nuanced approach to how ethnicity is simply one part of a person’s character. We’re inching toward an entertainment landscape that better reflects the world that we live in, with these shows illustrating the multiplicity of Latino and Hispanic experiences.
Critics have been in love with CW’s Jane the Virgin since its first season, for which Rodriguez won a Best Actress Golden Globe for her portrayal of Jane Villanueva. Jane the Virgin not only explores Jane’s Latina identity, but also different facets of what it means to be Latino in America today. When Jane is accidentally impregnated in the first episode, her Catholicism helps inform her feelings about possibly getting an abortion. On Telenovela, Ana deals with not knowing Spanish all that well and how that factors into dating the network’s white president, who definitely knows how to speak the language better than she does. While the show’s style may be over-the-top, it makes an insightful point about identity: Ana is Latina and reads Spanish lines while acting, but the language isn’t necessarily essential to her sense of self. There are intricacies to Jane and Ana that help show that while their ethnicity is important to them, it’s also not the only thing that defines them.
Both Jane the Virgin and Telenovela are odes to telenovela tropes that many Spanish-speaking families are familiar with—and whose moms and tías are probably obsessed with. Jane the Virgin is only a loose adaptation of the Venezuelan telenovela Juana la Virgen, but it keeps the original’s soapiness. Seriously, the entire premise is about a virgin who becomes pregnant through accidental artificial insemination. And whenever Jane’s hunky baby daddy Rafael strolls up, a classically melodramatic guitar melody plays. Telenovela mainly follows characters when they’re not producing scenes of Las Leyes de Pasión (think of it as a 30 Rock situation), but these outrageous tropes snake into the actors’ real lives too—like when an evil twin of one of the actors’ most despised coworkers shows up, or when Ana pretends to have amnesia after a set light falls on her head so she can evade an uncomfortable conversation with her best friend. The fictional Las Leyes de Pasión, meanwhile, evokes the actual aesthetic of these telenovelas, with fuzzy camera work, lots of sparkly sequins and, of course, air blowing through Longoria’s perpetually perfect hair.
Elsewhere, Superstore represents diversity in a different way. Ferrera’s character Amy is a wife and an employee at Cloud 9, who just so happens to also be Latina. Her heritage plays less integral a role in her character than it does for Jane or Ana. Part of this is because, as with the rest of Superstore’s cast, her role was written without any predetermined ethnicities in mind.
“This is the first time that I had been offered a role that wasn’t written specifically for a Latino actor,” Ferrera told NPR last month. “And all of these characters were written with no specified ethnicity. And usually what that means is, you cast white actors, because that’s the default. But what they were doing with this casting was so new and interesting. And they went out and found the actors that were right for the roles. And they happened to be Latino, black, Asian, Jewish. I thought that was really revolutionary for television casting.”
Amy is pretty different from Ferrera’s other most famous role as Betty Suarez on ABC’s Ugly Betty, for which the actress earned a 2007 Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy. Betty was the type to roll into work at a fashion magazine in a poncho from Guadalajara (though she was damn good at what she did). Amy, on the other hand, works at a megastore in middle America and spends more time dealing with the antics of her co-workers—who get proposals via flashmob from their baby daddies, or misprice all the electronics as 25 cents, causing an in-store stampede—than she does grappling with what it means to be Latina. But that doesn’t keep her from calling out casual workplace racism, like when she’s randomly selected to help give out salsa samples. This may be the first role Ferrera has taken that wasn’t explicitly written for a Latino, but thankfully that hasn’t kept the show’s writers from acknowledging their characters’ ethnicities.
Rodriguez, Longoria, and Ferrera’s characters are what many hope diversity will best look like on television. What’s also inspiring is that these women are using their platform to speak up about the racism that minorities still face or the lack of opportunities for them in entertainment, whether it’s by making a poignant joke, issuing a call for change in an acceptance speech, or launching a hashtag to do so.
Jane, Ana, and Amy are all their own individuals and show there’s more than just one way to be Latina. Finally, there are opportunities for several talented Latina women to lead their own comedies and represent a sampling of different experiences. Seeing these women front shows on TV has a twofold effect: the Latino and Hispanic communities are getting to see characters and plots they can identify with culturally and they can also see people who look like them simply living their lives—just as real people of all ethnicities do every day.
For both the Hispanics of the United States—who now number over 55 million people—and the rest of this country’s diverse population, that kind of representation can only be a good thing.