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Eulogy for Ugly Betty, Feminist Show and International Phenomenon

April 18, 2010

The first piece I ever wrote for a feminist publication was an analysis of the first season of Ugly Betty, so the show holds a special place in my heart as one of my favorite works of pop culture and as a part of my feminist writing career. So now please excuse my sentimental desire to mark the untimely demise of the show this week with a retrospective. After four hilarious, heartbreaking, culturally progressive seasons, ABC’s dramedy Ugly Betty came to an end last Wednesday. I haven’t watched the finale yet because I am sadly six episodes behind this season, and rushing to catch up would be like hurrying through a goodbye to an old friend. (Plus, I have no time to watch!) So even though the show’s conclusion is crucial to a discussion of its feminist themes (as fans know and the uninitiated will soon learn in this post), I can’t comment on it now but will return with my thoughts once I’ve seen it.

Ugly Betty was (oh, how it hurts to write this in past tense!) a unique show in many ways, but two stand out: it covered a myriad of progressive themes, delivering positive messages with humor and absurdity; and it was part of an international television phenomenon of sorts, one of many shows adapted from a Colombian telenovela that addressed beauty standards, Yo soy Betty la fea (I am Betty the ugly).

Yo soy Betty la fea was a popular soap opera that aired in Colombia from 1999-2001. The show’s protagonist is a plain, brilliant young woman who struggles to find a job and soon finds herself working as an assistant to the president of a fashion company. It’s a fish-out-of-water story driven by Betty’s efforts to thrive in a superficial company culture, and her eventual success at winning the respect of her colleagues and the affections of her boss. The show seemed to strike a nerve in Colombia, where such a premium is placed on beauty that cosmetic surgery is becoming very common among the middle and upper classes. In fact the show’s themes reverberated around the world, as 19 countries soon had their own version of it on the airwaves.

Ugly Betty is one of these adaptations. It premiered in 2006 with America Ferrera playing the title character, a new college grad from Queens, New York who dreams of breaking into magazine editing at a literary publication. Instead she finds herself accepting a position as assistant to the newly instated editor of a fashion magazine, Daniel (Eric Mabius). The show at first focuses on Betty’s attempts to cope with her superficial coworkers and her immature, womanizing boss. Over time Betty begins to earn the respect of her colleagues and develops a strong friendship with Daniel, wherein they essentially help each other grow up. Betty helps her boss defeat the plans of the magazine’s creative director, the conniving Wilhelmina (Vanessa Williams) to take over the company. Through it all Betty is supported by her family, which includes her widower father Ignacio (Tony Plana), her sister Hilda (Ana Ortiz) and her nephew Justin (Mark Indelicato).

The show tackles such feminist issues as: body image, race and ethnicity, immigration, homosexuality, transsexuality, working women, single motherhood, single fatherhood, ageism…and I’m probably missing a few here. Here are some highlights:

Body Image: In addition to Betty’s personal struggle with fitting into a beauty-oriented world, episodes address the fashion world’s ultrathin standards and egregious celebrity photo-shopping. Later episodes explore how the beauty myth affects even the beautiful themselves, as blonde bombshell receptionist Amanda (Becki Newton) worries what will happen to her career when her looks start to fade.

Race/ethnicity: By featuring a second-generation Mexican immigrant protagonist, Ugly Betty has a unique cross-cultural dynamic. It highlights cultural and class differences in beauty standards, racial stereotypes, and even the process of immigration itself.

Justin bonds with his dad

Sexuality and gender: Throughout the show it’s implied that Betty’s young nephew Justin is gay, but his sexuality is not explicitly defined until Justin comes to terms with his own identity in the last few episodes (or so I’ve heard). Wilhelmina’s assistant Marc (Michael Urie) is also gay and becomes a mentor to Justin. Meanwhile the first two seasons feature a storyline in which Daniel’s supposedly dead brother returns as a transwoman, Alexis (Rebecca Romijn).

Betty meets Alexis

While all these subplots and the often wildly soap-operatic twists and turns of Ugly Betty kept us fans enthralled, the biggest mystery of the show has always been how the writers will handle Betty’s makeover. In the original Colombian series, Betty’s happy ending includes a dramatic makeover and the winning of her boss’s heart. Many fans such as myself, however, have thought that this type of ending would be too traditional for the progressive American version, reducing it to a Cinderella story and reinforcing the idea that despite her brains and personality, our heroine must in the end be validated by beauty and attractiveness.

So far, I like how the show handled Betty’s “makeover” this season. It started subtly with Betty straightening her hair and dressing more fashionably, changes which seem more a reflection of her newfound appreciation of fashion as an art form rather than attempts to conform to her peer’s expectations. I know that in one of the episodes I haven’t seen yet Betty’s braces are removed and she imagines what life would have been like if she was born beautiful.  How the writers wrap up this theme will certainly provide an interesting point of discussion in the fashion and feminism debate.

Betty and Daniel Talk Fashion

So how did the show end? For those of you who already know, feel free to discuss in the comments. I’ll be in the corner with my fingers in my ears until I finally watch the finale, and then I’ll be back to join the discussion.  And if you’ve never watched the show but your interest is piqued, I highly recommend adding the DVDs to your must-watch list!

4 Comments
  1. Leah permalink
    April 18, 2010 10:04 am

    You are so right! Ugly betty was so progressive in so many ways!

    I hope you liked the finale! i thought it was very well done (even if my shallow heart was yearning for a Daniel/Betty kiss!)

  2. April 18, 2010 7:40 pm

    We loved Betty at Feminist Fatale, as well!! So glad you posted in her honor 🙂 http://feministfatale.com/2010/04/for-the-love-of-betty/

  3. April 18, 2010 10:36 pm

    Probably the fact that Betty is assimilating, for better or worse, should be addressed here.

  4. April 18, 2010 11:28 pm

    I’m sorry, Erin, I just can’t get behind Ugly Betty as a feminist show. The first two clips you provide are excellent examples of how gender and sexuality is portrayed so superficially to the point of being detrimental. The son who loves Beyonce and musicals and is therefore obviously gay is not subversive and just reinforces a frankly tired stereotype of queer men. And the portrayal of a trans woman as hypersexualized and feminine is an equally one-dimensional view of what it means to be a transsexual. The fact that she immediately runs down all her physical transformations, including sexual anatomy just reinforces the idea that the larger public has a right to know about transsexuals’ bodies and that being trans requires a physical transformation.

    In the end, with Ugly Betty, I think that just having a gay, trans, latina, or a slightly(!) bigger than a size 2 character is not enough to make a show subversive. Representing them with the same tired stereotypes we always see only reinforces them. God forbid we ever see a gay man who is masculine, or a trans woman who hasn’t had sex reassignment surgery or anyone who identifies as queer on TV.

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