Unpacking Betty’s Knapsack

This past spring, “Ugly Betty” ended its four-year run.  I had stopped watching the show after its (not very good) second season, but when I heard it was over, I headed over to abc.com to see how it ended — and the final episodes were so well-done that I joined Netflix for the sole purpose of catching up on seasons three and four (and cancelled my account immediately thereafter).  I’ve been thinking about the show quite a bit since then, and I’ve meant to write about it for a while; what finally spurred me to organizing my thoughts, however, was nothing other than this seminal essay on white privilege. 

Now, I know there are those who dismiss critical interrogation of popular culture as a waste of time, a frivolity, a distraction from more serious systemic battles to be won — but such an attitude is, to my mind, perilous; pop culture is our common discourse, and just as I do not believe in trickle-down economics neither do I buy into trickle-down intellectualism.  Progress must operate on all levels to be real, which is why, in the year 2010, with a black man in the White House, it is still a newsworthy even that ABC will, this fall, premiere a new show with two African-American leads.  How newsworthy is it?  Google, as I just did, “abc tv two black leads,” and most of the hits come back for the same series, the upcoming “Undercovers.”  (Conversely, a search of “abc tv two white leads” brings up “Boston Legal,” “Castle,” Betty White, and the Emmy awards.)  We’ve overcome whiteness in the most powerful position in the country, which has huge symbolic value, but that has yet to filter down to a more everyday, normalized level.

Which brings me back to “Ugly Betty.”  What was so remarkable about the show, and about Betty, was that it broke all the rules of who television audiences tend to relate to, at least demographically: Betty was female, Mexican, working-class, not stick-thin, and unabashedly nerdy.  Betty was, in short, unlike anything we’d ever seen before on television, but even more significantly than that, Betty was not the show’s wallpaper.  Betty was the protagonist

This is a key difference between “Ugly Betty” and so many other shows that are celebrated for their diversity.  I enjoy both “Glee” and “Community” very much, and both shows have been praised for the diversity of their primary cast: nearly evenly split between men and women, with people of all ethnic backgrounds; why, “Glee” even has a kid in a wheelchair!  But what’s striking is that, in each of these shows as in so many others that purport to be diverse, the narratives are still, fundamentally, about straight, white, men.  The main cast of “Community” might feature an Asian-American, an Indian-American, and two African-Americans, but the story undeniably centers upon Caucasian-American Jeff.  Similarly, “Glee” has earned kudos for its portrayal of Kurt, coming to terms with his identity as a gay teen; but watching the much-hyped Lady Gaga episode, one can’t help but feel as though Kurt’s sexuality is as much a prop for leading-straight-man Finn to learn a valuable lesson as it is something independently worthwhile. 

On the other hand… Betty.  “Ugly Betty” was never about what white people thought of the immigrant experience, unless in jokes demonstrating their ignorance; it was the immigrant experience as experienced by immigrants, and the children of immigrants.  In a remarkable episode in the show’s third season, the show even addressed white perceptions of minority privilege head-on: Betty applies for a prestigious internship program, where she competes for a spot against her co-worker, white male Marc.  When Betty wins the spot, Marc openly accuses her of being an affirmative action baby, demolishing all of her (considerable) accomplishments with the (commonly spoken) suggestion that someone non-normative can only succeed via such exceptionalism.  For anyone who has ever experienced such denigration, it is devastating to watch.  Despite Marc’s villainy in this particular instance, he becomes the show’s secondary hero, mentoring Betty’s young nephew — for Marc, you see, is also non-normative on the basis of his sexuality.  Late in the show’s fourth season, when Betty’s nephew Justin acquires his first boyfriend and his family inadvertently discovers his identity (something they have long suspected), they invite Marc to a coming-out party they are throwing for Justin.  In a truly rare scene that succeeds as both comedy and social instruction, Marc arrives in time to avert the party and deliver an important message: Justin’s sexuality isn’t something for all the straight people in his life to accept or reject or celebrate or otherwise accord value; Justin’s sexuality is only for Justin to accept. 

This, then, is why “Ugly Betty” was so rare for a primetime, network television show: its minority characters were not background to the important (read: white) storylines, and whatever struggles arose from the characters’ non-normative experiences were not there for the straight/white/male leads to operate upon or learn from.  They were the characters’ lives, pure and simple, and these characters had the agency to deal with their own lives, without assistance from some benevolent intervenor.  What’s astonishing is that, in the twenty-first century, such a thing remains so astoundingly rare.  After its first season, “Ugly Betty” won Golden Globes and Emmys for itself and its lead actress, America Ferrara.  It was a top-twenty show in its first season with the bulk of its audience drawn from non-minority groups.  The last time a show about a minority family achieved such widespread success was “The Cosby Show.”  With “Ugly Betty” off the air, there’s nothing similar on network television. 

The show was imperfect, and the poorly plotted second season, in particular, turned off many fans (myself included).  But the truth is, it’s not just television that’s a little more impoverished for the lack of “Ugly Betty.”  It’s the culture at large, at least until another show comes along that’s willing to explore the intersection of class, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, and body issues/beauty standards as boldly — and as entertainingly — as Betty did.

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