Not This Again: Depictions of Latinas in the Media
Looking specifically at Latinas and the images portrayed in the media...there have been three images at the forefront in objectifying Latinas a certain way. Latina women are stereotyped as the "cantina girl", the" suffering señorita", and/or the "vamp".
In our contemporary American society, we are inundated by controlling images from the media. These controlling images, which are defined as “stereotypes used to subordinate” (Simms 2001), result in justifying and reproducing inequality because the images are corroborated through repetition (Merskin 2007). The controlling images we see are used to disadvantage a group because the images are present in every avenue of daily life and backed up by common stereotypes. This is dangerous because the images come from a historical context rooted in tensions between different racial/ethnic groups.
What is interesting about these controlling images is that they consciously or unconsciously affect identity formation. Looking specifically at Latinas and the images portrayed in the media, whether its commercials, tv shows, movies, or music videos, there have been three images that are at the forefront. These three images use the intersection between race and gender to objectify Latinas a certain way. Latina women are stereotyped as the "cantina girl", the" suffering señorita", and/or the "vamp" (Merksin 2007). The perpetual repetition of these images can either draw Latina/os into it or not. This is a bold claim to make, but constantly seeing this images can affect identity formation.
Debra Merskin’s article on the “Three Faces of Eva: Perpetuation of The Hot-Latina Stereotype in Desperate Housewives” breaks down the three controlling images that Latinas typically face in the media. She cleverly uses Eva Longoria’s role of Gabrielle “Gaby” Solis in the ABC television series Desperate Housewives as a way to explain the three stereotypes. The categories include: the “cantina girl, who has great sexual allure often represented as a sexual object, a naughty lady of easy virtue” (Merskin 2007); the “faithful, self-sacrificing señorita, who starts out good, but goes bad by the middle of the film or television program, and once she realizes that she has gone wrong, she is willing to protect her Anglo lover” (Merskin 2007); and the “vamp, who uses her intellectual and devious sexual wiles to get what she wants” (Merskin 2007). These three categories limit roles Latinas are able to get, and usually leads to type casting based on race and gender. Additionally, these three categories can easily be perpetuated and are seen in the media today. A prime example of this is ABC's Modern Family and Sofia Vergara’s character, Gloria. In the show, Gloria is hyper-sexualized and hyper-racialized, and would be categorized as the "cantina girl", per Merskin’s analysis. This controlling image and many others depicted in the media are used to keep different racial and/or ethnic groups in a box.
However, many Latinas in the media are breaking out of the box that society has put them in. For instance, Gina Rodriguez and Cristela Alonzo are respectively challenging the stereotypes that Latinas face with their own shows. On The CW series Jane the Virgin, Gina Rodriguez’s character Jane does not fall into a single stereotype as discussed by Merskin. Jane is a complex character that has to balance familial life with budding romances and her career. Similarly, the other Latinas on the show: Xiomara, who is played by Andrea Navedo, and Alba, who is played by Ivonne Coll, lead very dynamic lives. What is also interesting about this show is that we see how differently these three characters' lives play out because of their generational gaps. Similarly, Cristela Alonzo’s television show Cristela depicts the experience of a Latinx family finding a balance between their traditional Latinx roots and the American dream. While this show uses comedy to depict this family, the show is a reflection of Cristela’s upbringing. This type of storytelling gives Latinas a platform to change the narrative that the media has often used.
It is important to have more than a single story for any racial and/or ethnic group, gender, sexuality, religious identity, political identity, socioeconomic status, or ability because of the great diversity within communities. Whether it is differing perspectives and values or differing phenotypes, the Latinx community is not homogeneous. Because of the diversity within the community, there is not one unifying image in the media that is going to encompass all members of the Latinx community. It is vital to move from ignorance to compassion when addressing all racial and/or ethnic groups. This movement will stop assumptions that are made and will hopefully promote engagement in individuality and diversity.
For Further Reading:
Merskin, Debra. 2007. “Three Faces of Eva: Perpetuation of The Hot-Latina Stereotype in Desperate Housewives.” Howard Journal of Communications 18(2): 133-151. DOI: 10.1080/10646170701309890
Simms, Rupe. 2001. “Controlling Images and the Gender Construction of Enslaved African Women.” Gender & Society 15(6): 879-897. DOI: 10.1177/089124301015006006
WORDS BY PHYLLIS TONNA
Images from TELEVISION NETWORKS ABC and The CW
Phyllis Tonna is a Chicana who believes in creating a more just and hopeful world. Through writing and being in dialogue with others, she believes that change is possible. As a recent graduate of Regis University, who majored in Sociology, she knows the power of taking action and standing in solidarity with her community. She is grounded by the power of community and is committed to creating one!
Follow her on Instagram: @phyllistonna