Revising and diagraming the melting pot myth.

This project started back in 2006, when I first became interested in Ugly Betty. I am currently re-writing an essay that looks at Ugly Betty as a story of undocumented immigration. My main contention is that the stories about immigrants to the United States are usually shaped by the myth of the melting pot. Namely, immigrants are the huddled masses, who come to the U.S.A. in search of opportunity. However, before they can reap the full benefits that the U.S.A. has to offer, they must undergo a rite of passage (see Van Gennep and/or Turner). Ideally, the passage leads to gradual assimilation, as immigrants adopt American ways and shed their own customs. If they assimilate fully, immigrants incorporated into the receiving community and granted rights. If they fail, they are doomed to an eternity in liminality. I came up with this diagram to explain the narrative structure of the melting pot myth.

original mP

Click to enlarge.

Since I’m dealing with undocumented immigration, though, this structure doesn’t fit. Undocumented immigrants cannot be fully incorporated into the receiving community because they have committed a transgression against the receiving community. Territory, once settled and demarcated, is considered sacred (see Van Gennep). Therefore, I came up with a different diagram that offers two alternatives, one leading to incorporation, and the other one leading back to a status that I am calling liminal residence (you reside in the receiving country, but lack the rights of the native born or naturalized).

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Thoughts? please leave a comment.


Los Links: Bing wants you Latino(a) people…

I couldn’t help myself after watching Bing’s latest commercial. It’s a play on telenovelas.

Or is it? in terms of audience appeal, I’ve spent the last three years looking at the appeal of Latinos(as) as a demographic. This argument is one of the cornerstones of my dissertation. However, Ugly Betty is now off the air, and it is a loss in terms of representations of Latinos(as). The one leading character we had is now gone (and I don’t count Sofia Vergara’s character in Modern Family because she’s part of an ensemble show). But I digress. This is more about Bing.

According to Sharon Chan, of the Seattle Sun Times, telenovela spoofs are not new. Ugly Betty, and 30 Rock have done it before. In Ugly Betty, though, the spoofs were always depicted to the public as part of the Latino(a) appeal of the show. The logic for it was that Latinos(as) watch telenovelas, they love them, and they’ll relate to them. Since Ugly Betty was based on a telenovela, the mini-episodes merely accentuated the marketing of the show.

As for 30 Rock, there was no overarching strategy that required the spoof. At least, not in the same way as Ugly Betty. However, 30 Rock is a show within a show, a commentary on the television industry that often uses its NBC-Universal, its parent company, for plot points. NBC-U is also the parent company of Telemundo. The Generalissimo explicitly refers to Telemundo in the episode, and there’s a glimpse of the Telemundo logo at the beginning of the scene. However, Generalissimo also talks about what appeals to Latino(a) women. He is sure that he can “become everything that every Hispanic woman desires.” Apparently it’s an over-the-top guy in a fake military uniform.

Bing has crafted its new advertising campaign out of spoofing popular culture. It has already done the Shining, and now we move on to Latino(a) culture. It’s a funny parody, I’ll admit, but not very original, and not just because two other shows did it. Telenovelas, along with tacos, have become shorthand in attempts to reach out to Latinos(as). Here’s something that Voto Latino did to get the Latino(a) vote out:

So, now we have a Latino non-profit, two television shows, and a major corporation using the same themes? Don’t tell me this isn’t about the Latino(a) audience, at least up to a certain extent. Besides, spoofing telenovelas is fairly safe. Even Latinos(as) do it, so we’re not exactly talking Frito Bandito here.

Or are we? Bing’s parody brings forth three common stereotypes about Latinos(as). The Bandit is this really violent guy, that will erupt without provocation. Alongside this stereotype, theres  the Latin Lover, and the Dark Lady, both of which speak to the hypersexuality of Latino(a) culture (Berg, 2002). These images are recurrent, and have become so familiar as to go unnoticed. Should we expect a fall-out?

Honestly, I don’t think so. The focus of the commercial works in two levels. The first is the obvious references to the telenovela, which, as I said before, even Latinos(as) have mocked. The second is the stereotypes, and I think that will go under the radar, especially in the current climate. Subtly disguised under the telenovela, it can go unnoticed. We’re not talking South Park and Prophet Mohammed here, folks.

As for me… I’m not upset. I may point out the things I noticed in the commercial, but I still got a good laugh out of it. I think this new campaign is working a lot better for me than the “information overload” theme of last year. What I’m really interested in seeing, though, is whether or not they’ll do a part two of this telenovela. If they do so, then I think we would have a better argument for Bing targeting Latinos(as). Plus, since the spot is in Spanish with subtitles, you can use it over at Univision and Telemundo.

How very cost effective indeed. (Microsoft… you sneaky bastard!)


Betty notes: The final countdown approaches, and other notes on lit reviews.

Last week, I visited Trinity University and had the opportunity to share some of my dissertation findings with their Media Audiences class. I talked about Ugly Betty, and how illegal immigration was handled during the first and second seasons of the show. Sadly, ABC will be airing the very last episode on Wednesday.

Here are the slides for the presentation.

I had planned to say a few words on the art and craft of the literature review, but ended up not doing so. Instead, I unearthed a short lit review that I wrote in 2006, when I first began my doctoral program at Ohio University. I did a few minor revisions, and added some lessons I’ve learned in the past four years. Here’s the full document.



And now for something completely different.

Since I started this blog, I’ve been mostly focused on writing as class preparation. Hence, if I was teaching about global media, all posts shifted to that subject. Now, I’m stoked about what lies ahead for Pop Matters. I will not be teaching this quarter, so I’m basically free to write about anything I want.

Still, there should be a point. In the next few weeks, there will be more about my research on Ugly Betty. For example, what’s up with Justin? now that the show is coming to an end, will Silvio Horta be able to develop the character as he said he wanted? Horta, the show runner, has always been ambiguous about Justin’s sexuality. During the first season of the show, every interview he gave regarding Justin was an opportunity to state that the character was too young to come out. Horta himself didn’t until he was 18, so it was fairly obvious to anyone that followed the behind the scenes working of Ugly Betty, that Justin is like a miniature Silvio Horta.

As a fan, I’m stoked about Justin, and I can’t help feeling sad because the show, which finally started to get interesting again, is heading to its end. As a media critic, on the other hand, I see characters like Justin, and Glee’s Kurt as complex departures from  typical gay representations. I’m actually reminded of a course I took, a couple of years, ago, and of a classmate who tried to argue that Will & Grace had done wonders for the representation of gays on television. Beg to differ! just because GLBT characters are there, it doesn’t mean an improvement. And don’t get me started on the L-Word! The alternate lesbo-only universe never satisfied me. Quite the opposite. It told me that you couldn’t have gay characters that could live in the real world like normal people. Instead, they happily thrived in these “separate but equal” spaces, and had lots and lots of sex and drama.

You can’t do that with teenagers, though. Not on network television. If you were to plunge Kurt and Justin into homoland, you’d have to deal  directly with their sexual experiences. It’s fine when you have someone like 13, on House, in a steamy scene. Jack McPhee? no way! characters like him get to go out on dates, and to kiss boys very awkwardly. Justin, btw, just got kissed by a boy, but his suitor freaked out and ran away. If Ugly Betty doesn’t bring him back, it will be a huge disappointment.


Telenovelas, queens of the airwaves

He is a wealthy, but spoiled dilettante; she is a poor, hard-working and demure virgin. They meet when she becomes a maid in his mansion, and fall in love, but class differences will keep them apart. However, she is not poor; she is the illegitimate child of a wealthy tycoon, who regrets abandoning her, dies, and leaves her a fortune. Now the lovers can be together. But wait… scheming villains and lustful temptresses still conspire to keep them apart, until the final chapter when the schemers are punished, the good rewarded, and the title characters wed.

In a nutshell, that is the typical storyline of a telenovela. Growing up, I remember watching these over-the-top melodramas, these stories about upward mobility, good and evil, crime and ultimate punishments and rewards. There was always something comforting about them, but as I grew older, there was also something annoying and predictable about the genre. The male leads were always addressed by first and middle name; they were always a Luis Alfredo, Juan Carlos, or Jose Armando, which would certainly sound more aristocratic than just plain Luis, Juan, or Jose. As for the lead women, Maria is a popular name, for obvious reasons. Telenovelas have a Manichean bent; they’re about the struggle of good versus evil, and what spells good more clearly than being named after Jesus’ mother? However, some writers, like the famous Delia Fiallo,  go through phases in which they have a penchant for certain types of names. In Fiallo’s case, what I remember most is her precious stones phase, when her heroines were all named after a precious stone. Hence, Topacio, Rubi, and Esmeralda.

It would be easy to dismiss telenovelas as “high opera in low-cut clothing” (Barrientos, 2006). But that would also be wrong and an oversimplification of the genre, and of the Latin American market for these products. Telenovelas are a significant cultural and economic force within the Latin American television industry. Furthermore, not every production company churns out the same kind of melodramatic fare that has become the canon for telenovelas. As Carolina Acosta states, melodramas may be the obvious example, but that is not all there is. Here’s a link to the talk she gave at MIT on this subject (fast forward to 14:00, or so).

In Colombia RCN and Caracol have produced some of the most successful telenovelas of recent memory, without shying away from controversial subjects, like drug trafficking and Colombia’s obsession with plastic surgery.  El Cartel de los Sapos,  and Sin Tetas no hay Paraiso dealt with these  subjects. Both have had success in international syndication. However, one of the biggest success stories has been RCN’s Yo Soy Betty, la Fea (I am Betty, the Ugly One). Penned by Fernando Gaitan for RCN, this is a telenovela that has been remade 19 times. The original version was sold into syndication and broadcast all over Latin America, in Switzerland, India, Eastern Europe, and China among other countries.

Here are some clips from the intro to different Betty versions

Original Betty – RCN, 1999

Germany, 2005

China, 2008

Vietnam, 2008

I have a theory about the German version. It is the only one that I’ve found where location is important. I asked my students if, knowing anything about recent German history, the city of Berlin would have special significance. Why not Verliebt in Hamburg? One of the responses was very interesting to me. Joe, which is what I’ll call him to preserve anonymity, told me that the title sequence of Verliebt in Berlin was like the one on Frazer. “It’s just an establishing shot, so you’ll know where you are.”

Well, duh! but when you’re looking at media critically, you should take into account the subtle codes that convey other meanings. Berlin is the symbol for a unified nation. An establishing shot that includes the Fernseturm at Alexander Platz (former East Berlin), and the Brandenburger Tor, which was on the border of East and West, deserve a second look. It tells us something about glocalization of content, about how we adapt popular formats and make them relatable to a local audience.

The ease of glocalization, in my opinion, the quality that has made Yo soy Betty la Fea into such an international success. The story is generic. A young woman, who is not very good looking, struggles to find professional success, and love, in a culture that values appearances more than it cares for substance. When the American version premiered in 2006, media commentators hailed it as an underdog story, and reminded everyone that underdogs are lovable (Adalian & Schneider, 2008).


Bye Bye Betty. “So long, and thank you for the fish” (ahem, dissertation)

Today’s top story, at least until Obama takes the stage for his first State of the Union Address, is the unveiling of Apple’s iPad, an unfortunate name choice, but it’s Apple, so who cares! Still, I will remember January 27, 2010 as the day when ABC finally canceled Ugly Betty. Yup… it happened. I had been expecting it for months, ever since they moved it to Fridays and then switched it to Thursdays. And the thing is that even though I’m writing my dissertation about Ugly Betty, I’m not sad at all. I mean, maybe I should be, because Betty and I have been through a lot, but I’m not.

The show started off big. It was the most watched new comedy of the 06-07 season. I got drawn into it because it brought together topics I’m really interested in: immigration and its myths, identity construction, and the political economy of television.

By studying Betty, I’ve learned about myths. In fact, I’ve spent too much time familiarizing myself with the myths of American immigration, getting some historical perspective, and becoming, let’s say, a little more philosophical. Now, it has come to the point where, to explain my views about Betty as, essentially, a reproduction of the myth of the melting pot, I feel the need to quote Machiavelli, Barthes, Levi-Strauss, Cassirer, and even Plato. And I’ve been asked “what does any of that have to do with Ugly Betty?” All I can say is that, in my mind, it does. In my mind, I see Betty as the little immigrant girl that could because she assimilated, and isn’t that what immigrants are told to do? Isn’t that what Emma Lazarus hoped for? Even Frederick Jackson Turner, who is not someone you think about when you ponder American immigration, believed that immigrants had to assimilate, to go through a crucible of sorts, before they emerged on the other side as full-fledged Americans.

But that was only the first season. After that, the myth faded away. It was better to focus on Betty’s love life, or lack-thereof. Romance fit the schedule a lot better. After all, Betty was opening for Meredith and McDreamy, and block programming is all about keeping it consistent.

When that happened, Betty lost me as a fan. She still had me as a researcher, but my loyalties went elsewhere, to Fringe, and to NCIS, where at least I didn’t feel sold out as much. I still watched, reluctantly, until I just could not stomach it anymore.

Now ABC is saying it wants to give fans a proper send off. They’ll probably have her marry. That’s how original Betty La Fea ended, after all, and it would be fitting for the American Betty to follow suit.

So long Betty, and thank you for the dissertation.