Dear Sofia Vergara, Now Is a Bad Time for More Latina Stereotype Jokes
Early in Sunday night’s Golden Globe Awards telecast, black-ish star Tracee Ellis Ross delivered a jubilant, rousing acceptance speech she dedicated to a specific, undervalued audience: “This is for all the women, women of color, and colorful people whose stories, ideas, thoughts are not always considered worthy and valid and important. But I want you to know that I see you. We see you.”
She had just become the first black woman to win the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy in 34 years. The last was Debbie Allen, who won for Fame in 1983.
Later in the night, after the Goliath jokes died down and La La Land had begun steamrolling its way to supremacy, Rogue One star Diego Luna took the stage to present another award alongside his Star Wars co-star Felicity Jones. The first words from his mouth: “¡Silencio, por favor!” Silence, please!
Luna, who is Mexican and who chose to keep his accent for his groundbreaking journey to a galaxy far, far away, had just good-naturedly ordered a room of white celebrities to shut up so he could speak. Cranking up the boyish charm that helped make him famous, Luna finished his speech, winked at the audience, and delivered the award (to, yeah, La La Land) in both English and Spanish. “En tu cara, Donald Trump!” tweeted one elated viewer.
Sometime in between Ross’s speech and Luna’s wink, Modern Family star Sofia Vergara also stepped onstage, glittering in an exquisitely sequined Zuhair Murad gown. In her signature Colombian accent, she explained the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s annual tradition of crowning some celebrity offspring Miss Golden Globe.
“The Hollywood Foreign Press Association has an anal tradition,” she began before cutting herself off, chuckling nervously then starting again.
“I didn’t mean anal. They have an anus tradition…” Again Vergara flinched, seemingly abashed, as giggles washed over the audience.
“They have a tradition that they do every year of choosing a second-generation performer to assist in the presentation of the award,” she finished, breaking into a wry smile and finally introducing Sylvester Stallone’s three daughters. The bit was done.
And once again, Sofia Vergara’s sexy foreign accent had become the butt of an awards show telecast’s corny joke. Get it, guys? She said “anus” instead of “annual” because big English words (come on, it’s three syllables) are tough for funny foreigners to say!
Nevermind that saying “anal” is about as edgy as Ricky Ricardo singing “Babalu.” The accent bit, sandwiched between Ross’s and Luna’s triumphs, felt wince-inducingly dated. And the whole thing's timing, mere days before an American president-elect eager to malign Latino immigrants and designate them as “other” takes office, was practically grotesque.
But it is, at this point, part of an almost anal—sorry, annual! Spanish was my first language—tradition.
Vergara reciting jokes at the expense of some sexy Latina caricature, as Slate’s Heather Schwedel writes, is this decade’s awards show equivalent of “the shot of Jack Nicholson impishly wearing his sunglasses in the audience.” It’s old hat.
The gag hit its low in 2014 when Vergara was asked to stand mute on a rotating pedestal at the Emmys, while the president of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences waxed earnest about how the organization had become “more diverse than ever before.” Lines about “giving the viewer something compelling to watch,” both in front of “and behind” the camera, slyly coincided with shots of Vergara’s ass.
“If that’s how you do it in American television, OK!” Vergara said, beaming.
That was a year after a bit at the 2013 Screen Actors Guild Awards in which Vergara somberly recounted an anecdote from her traditional Catholic upbringing in Barranquilla, Colombia. It ended with her saying her breasts made her look “like a hooker.”
In 2016, Emmys host Jimmy Kimmel introduced Television Academy CEO and chairman Bruce Rosenblum as having “one last shot at hitting on Sofía Vergara”—a mocking reference to the pedestal of two years before.
Vergara has gone on record defending the pedestal gag, insisting it simply meant “that somebody can be hot and also be funny and make fun of herself.” That’s all true. Vergara is hot and funny (not to mention wildly successful, and deservedly so) but we seemingly would only have her make fun of herself the same way again and again, mocking her foreign-ness and her sexuality.
There’s the way she pronounces her favorite football team, trotted out for laughs on Ellen. In 2013, when she was named an official CoverGirl, the joke was that she couldn’t pronounce it.
To be fair, this isn’t entirely Vergara’s fault.
The stereotyping and fetishizing of Latina actresses predates Vergara to the earliest days of showbiz. So does our silly fascination with how well they speak English. (“It’s rather surprising to hear this pretty, black-haired Latin beauty rattle off the dialog [sic] like some doll who had been raised in Manhattan all her life,” wrote a Los Angeles Daily News writer after meeting Puerto Rican icon Rita Moreno in 1952.)
Onstage at the Globes, Vergara looked every bit the sexy, bodacious Latina that both American and foreign media have always craved. Playing into the stereotype has allowed Vergara, a Colombian immigrant and former Univision hostess, to leverage a career in Hollywood that has made her the highest-paid actress in television—five years in a row. Good for her.
But we’re far from a point where there are enough Latinas in leading roles on TV to offset the stereotypes Vergara happily perpetuates. (“I don’t know why people think stereotypes are so terrible,” she told The Wrap in 2013, presumably mid-joy ride to the bank after that year’s haul of $19 million.) The CW soap Jane the Virgin and Netflix’s wonderful new sitcom One Day at a Time aside, the women who look like me on TV are still nannies, housekeepers, and homewreckers more often than not.
Moreno wields a Cuban accent in One Day at a Time that, in its thickness and in her antics, helps highlight the gaping cultural differences between first-, second-, and third-generation Latinos. A Mexican accent like Luna’s, as a viral heartwarming story proved last week, is a staggering and inspiring thing to hear in a hero’s role in a multibillion-dollar franchise.
With a soon-to-be president whose political platform, from its literal first day, has been defined by the demonization of Latino immigrants (you’d be a fool to think his association ends with a particular nationality), positive representation in wide-reaching American media is beyond critical. It normalizes. It fosters empathy. And it is still lacking.
Out of over 11,000 speaking film and TV characters surveyed in the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism’s 2016 study, only 5.8 percent were Hispanic or Latino—despite the demographic making up 17.4 percent of the U.S. population. Even fewer of those characters are women.
Vergara has found a way to make a skewed Hollywood system work for her—and work, and work, and work, for years. I don’t begrudge her that. But I also don’t begrudge the people, especially the women, who do. They deserve better than to have onscreen caricatures influence the way everyday people interact with them. (Please don’t be like this lady.)
In her Trump-defiant speech last night, Meryl Streep reminded the actors, writers, directors, and producers in the audience of the “privilege and the responsibility of the act of empathy.” I do hope Vergara—and the Hollywood joke writers enamored of her sexy, sexy accent—were listening.