Thinking about Latinas in Popular Culture

August 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

The fearless progressive crusaders at Latina Fatale, have had their hands full.

Their post, “Shame on Latina Magazine” struck a cord with people in cyberspace, and Latina Fatale is now dealing with a firestorm of site traffic in solidarity with the sentiments in the post, which called for protest against Latina Magazine‘s trumpeting of all the memorable times Latinas have played maids in Hollywood (in honor of the movie, The Help). 

Latina Fatale wrote:

It’s already bad enough that women of color, Latinas included, are relegated to stereotypical roles such as a maid. Now we have a magazine that is supposed to be targeting the Latina population acting like it’s a great thing that one actress played a maid role over 300 times?

How many lead roles have Latinas played? How often do hit movies feature Latinas in strong roles, as opposed to roles such as maids, gangsters, and other stereotypical roles? I can bet that Latinas play maid roles more often than not, because other roles are not offered to them.

I do believe it is problematic that Latinas are overwhelmingly shown in such stereotypical roles as maids and housekeepers in Hollywood and other media. What is problematic is that by and large, Hollywood and other outlets of popular culture simply cannot imagine Latinas in any other roles.

If it is not the maid or housekeeper role that we so often see in mass media, it is the sexy Latina– She is all breasts and hips, long dark hair and boy does she get fired up. Muy caliente. One of my favorite actresses, Salma Hayek, recently spoke about this image in her September Allure magazine interview. She said, “When I first started, I found that I had to play the part of something they could swallow in Hollywood, which was the sexy Latin girl, I was not dressing like that in Mexico.”

But can we re-imagine the Latina in popular culture? Can she be something more diverse, less stereotypical? More empowered?

In response to this clear problem in mainstream popular culture, I am beginning a new series on my blog called Imagínate, where we will do just this– encourage the re-imagining of the Latina image in American culture and media. We will begin by highlighting the work of female writers and artists who are breaking the mold. I want to raise the profile of women who are doing things that current popular culture rarely imagines they are doing.

We already have enough depictions of hard-working Latinas and women of color as domestic workers (could this be because there are so few women directors/writers in Hollywood?) So let’s turn the spotlight on other women working hard in other kinds careers. I welcome your suggestions as to who to profile, and encourage you to spread the word.

Follow-up to ‘On the Backs of The Help?’

August 18, 2011 § 2 Comments

I would like to thank Val B. Russell for her insightful comments to my last post. It sparked a great discussion about the goals of feminism, and our assumptions about women and work. As a follow-on to my last post, I will post an excerpt from my response to Val, which will serve as a clarification to the previous post.

What I mainly wanted to call attention to, was the fact that by and large (at least here in the U.S.) house cleaners are not those with their own businesses, they work for referral agencies which often take a significant cut of their earnings. A large percentage of cleaners (difficult to know how large because of the underground nature), at least here in the Southwest U.S., are undocumented women, because this is one of the only types of employment they can get without papers.

I used to represent many women as survivors of domestic violence in immigration petitions under the Violence Against Women Act, and the vast majority of them worked as house cleaners and nannies. These women are exploited every day. Those who employ them regularly “forget” or postpone paying them, pay them diminished amounts, refuse to pay by claiming they did something wrong and more.

I should have clarified that the women I was thinking of that seem to be outside of feminism’s goals are those who do not do this work as their own, profitable and rewarding business, they are those in the underground economy that are being exploited, as well as those in the above-board economy who wish to do other work but have not been afforded other opportunities. I should have been more specific that women who work in domestic positions are not a “class” of people, and the work is certainly not meant to be construed as menial and ghetto, they may simply be a group of women whose rights may not be respected. All too often the work is very low paid, and these women do not make a good living with their own businesses as you do…

Feminism first and foremost should be about choice, and about respecting the rights of women, and freeing women from violence and exploitation. But also included in feminism is the chance to live balanced lives professionally and personally, as men have been doing for years. This is where, those of us who can do that, can be seen to be achieving this type of success on the backs of other women, assuming those women are not completely fulfilled doing the work that they do, and that they cannot have balanced lives themselves. I believe the unfortunate truth, Val, is that at least here, too many of these women are still exploited, and cannot rise above the poverty line.

On the Backs of The Help?

August 17, 2011 § 6 Comments

Before I started my daily meditation this morning (my shower) I read Rilke. I happened to read the introduction to his Sonnets to Orpheus this morning, which described how Rilke wrote this collection in “absolute solitude” at the Chateau de Muzot, a tiny medieval castle-tower near Sierre in the Swiss Valais. He was in solitude to write these poems, except for “one wondrously efficient housekeeper.”

The blogosphere and Twitterverse and airwaves are abuzz as we speak with talk of the new movie The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel. The film adaptation of this novel about black maids in the American South, and a white woman who writes their stories, has been much-awaited by book clubs nationwide.

But there is much criticism of the book and the movie as well, for glossing over deep issues of racism and making it seem so easily remedied.  It has also called attention to the plight of domestic workers, and caused some to question the stereotypical (and blithely celebrated) portrayal of certain races, especially women of those races, in Hollywood.

I have been thinking about domestic workers in the United States such as house cleaners, nannies and babysitters. I have been thinking about feminism’s goals, and the glass ceiling, and the manner in which so many women of the privileged class- we who have advanced degrees and professional careers- are getting ahead.  It is not just Rilke and a class of men who rely on women to get ahead.

We, too, are getting ahead on the backs of our sisters.

We are working towards equal pay and equal respect in jobs our grandmothers could not necessarily have pursued. But how can we work long hours away from the home (or, like me, in a home office) and keep a tidy house, and spend time with the kids, and have date nights with our husbands without ‘the Help’? Many of our mothers and mothers-in-law are likely still working and/or do not live near us. We rely on women (many of them women of color, only some of them documented citizens) to help us get it all done–  to live the dream of balanced, productive, successful lives, the kind of lives men have been able to live for centuries

It makes me wonder, is feminism only for the privileged few?

I know this question has been asked many times before. I am not sure what the answers are. If we do not want to be, or cannot be stay-at-home moms, we will have to rely on someone to take care of our children. Perhaps a better world is one in which this most important responsibility is shared by men, and is a fairly-paid, respected position, with benefits. This better world would, of course, also carry more opportunities for more women to work in other non-traditional realms if they so chose.

Wow, does it sound like I’m dreaming, or what? What a testament to how far from that world we are now. For now, I will call attention this disparity of goals for women, and welcome your thoughts.

** Please see my follow-up to this post here for clarification of the ideas expressed here **

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