By Sasha S.
A few months ago, Netflix started the hashtag “#TheFirstTimeISawMe” to create a dialogue about diversity and representation in the media. Thousands of people across social media shared the first time they encountered a character on television that they felt was a solid representation of themselves. As I scrolled through the hashtag, I began to think: when was the first time I saw me? As I started to create a mental list of Latina TV characters, I realized that I really couldn’t think of many at all- and the ones I could think of were not people I felt connected with outside of our shared ethnicity.
This brings us to a problem within representation and diversity in American media- particularly television; that is, that “diversity” is not simply enough to make a positive and lasting effect on audiences. Diversity in media is not helpful if the characters are stereotypes and caricatures rather than three-dimensional, unique people. This simple hashtag made me realize that Latinx people on television were largely part of the same, tired TV tropes- and when I analyzed the Latina characters that I had seen on television growing up, one particular trope involving Latinas stood out to me: The “Spicy Latina.”
The “Spicy Latina” trope is an incredibly common Latinx stereotype pushed heavily throughout multiple popular American television shows. This character is always Latina, hot-headed, and sultry/sexual. (3)Some particularly well-known “Spicy Latina” television characters include Gloria (Sofia Vergara) from Modern Family, Angie (Constance Marie) from George Lopez, and Gabrielle (Eva Longoria) from Desperate Housewives. Despite the importance of diversity and these women being featured in prominent roles in primetime television, the lasting impact of these characters can be harmful due to the negative stereotypes these “diverse” roles entail. The use of tropes such as the “Spicy Latina” affect how members of other ethnic groups view Latin women, as well as how Latinas view themselves.
Some might ask, “Who cares if Latinas are portrayed using tropes? These women are fictional characters.” However, media is something that greatly affects how we view the world and those around us. Seeing the same stereotype surrounding a group of people portrayed over and over again throughout multiple TV shows will influence how certain people view said the group. An example of this is seen in the way that a large portion of men views Latin women. Often times, when a Latina is angry or upset it is simply brushed off by these men as her being “feisty” and/or is seen as “sexy”, therefore invalidating Latinas’ emotions and having them be perceived in a way that is different than that of women outside of their ethnic group. This harmful perception of Latin women is influenced heavily by the “Spicy Latina” that is seen repeatedly in American television. (1)
Stereotypes such as this also affect the self-esteem and self-image of Latin women who have little to no other representation outside of the “Spicy Latina” trope (besides, of course, tropes such as the “Maid” and “Criminal”). Seeing the people on television who look like you being portrayed as a homogenous caricature rather than unique and complex individuals can have negative effects on one’s identity. Latinas may feel that these stereotypes are what is natural and expected of them and change themselves to fit inside that narrow box, or even become self-conscious due to the fact that they are so different than the countless number of women who look like them on their favorite TV shows. Additionally, if the viewer sees these tropes as undesirable character aspects, it can negatively influence how they view their personal and cultural identity as a whole. (2)
As an introverted and down-to-earth Latina, I very rarely come across characters in American television that both look like and act as I do. I have found several characters that I resemble closely to in appearance due to our shared Latin background and characters that embody the intelligent, inquisitive, and soft-spoken personality that I have but unfortunately, these physical and internal traits seem to be mutually exclusive in the world of American TV. This is why it is crucial that the creators of TV shows not only focus on racial diversity within their productions but also creating a diverse representation of each ethnic group.
So, until that is prioritized, I will still be patiently waiting for the day that I can turn on my television and see a Latina and think, “That is me.”
- Mastro, Dana, Riva Tukachinsky, and Moran Yarchi. "The Effect of Prime Time Television Ethnic/ Racial Stereotypes on Latino and Black Americans: A Longitudinal National Level Study." Broadcast Education Association, 2017. Web. 22 Oct. 2017.
- Mastro, Dana E., and Elizabeth A. Morawitz. "Latino Representation on Primetime Television: A Content Analysis ." International Communication Association, n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2017.
- Merskin, Debra. "Three Faces of Eva: Perpetuation of The Hot-Latina Stereotype in Desperate Housewives." The Howard Journal of Communications, 2007. Web. 22 Oct. 2017.