Written by Ariane Stier.
Graphic by Peyton Cabaniss.
We have all met her, in some form or fashion: the media’s mythical Latina. She has a bombshell hourglass figure, light tan skin, long dark hair, and a thick accent from an unspecified foreign country. She might be a maid, and most likely she is an immigrant. Whether she is portrayed as the spicy sex object, or the degraded foreigner, the media’s Latina is equal parts glorified and dehumanized; the problem with this image, besides being rooted in racism and sexism, is that she simply does not exist.
Popular culture’s current portrayal of Latinas does not reflect who we are. Not only are Latinas underrepresented on screen, they are concurrently misrepresented in mainstream media images of Latinas, which relegate Latina personhood to certain toxic tropes and stereotypes. The media must shift away from these stereotypical images and strive for more authentic portrayals of Latina identity that both represent and empower real Latinas. In this way, this group is able to resist and re-construct these dominant stereotypical narratives, and thus gain a sense of agency when it comes to the perception, representations and cultural discourse surrounding Latinas.
Mainstream media portrayals about Latinas are lacking in both quantity and quality. According to recent research at the University of Southern California, Latinx people are the most underrepresented demographic across U.S. TV and film. Although Latinxs represent a quarter of frequent moviegoers, they rarely see themselves reflected on screen; Latinxs made up a mere 5.8 percent of characters in entertainment, despite comprising 17 percent of the U.S. population (Smith). However, existing portrayals of Latinas in popular media do not authentically represent the complex and diverse identities of Latinas either. On the contrary, these media depictions skew Latina identity into a caricature by recycling common tropes. These stereotypical images are commonplace in TV and film: the hot-blooded seductress, the maid, the foreigner, the single mother of many children, or the low-income immigrant who only speaks Spanish.
It is especially integral to recognize the scope of this issue – these stereotypical portrayals are not inconsequential, but rather they have damaging sociological, psychological, and political effects. For Latinas, this stereotyping stigmatizes their experiences by reinforcing the idea of being “the other” in society. When the media equates Latina identity to surface-level and often degrading characters, it sends a message that American society does not have an interest in supporting authentic Latina stories. Lastly, the media effectively strips Latinas of their political agency when they fail to portray Latina characters who are in positions of power and influence. As these more powerful roles are usually dominated by white people, a young girl of color will grow up watching film and TV that reflects society’s stereotypical expectations of a Latina – a life of drugs and gang violence in el barrio, teen pregnancy, just to name a few – but she probably will not see a Latina being sworn in as President.
Granted, there are certainly Latinas that are maids, or speak Spanish as their first language. However, by making these stereotypes the dominant discourse of Latina personhood, the media fails to authentically represent all Latinas – a group of people that represents a wide range of experiences, body types, skin tones, nationalities, occupations, and language backgrounds that goes far beyond the limits of the media’s stereotypical mold. It is essential to move the perception of Latinas away from a contrived narrative that is rooted in oppressive ideology, and towards an inclusive, honest, and empowering portrayal of Latinas in the media.
We have all met her, or perhaps we haven’t: the Latina. She is thin, she is curvy, she is somewhere right in between, she is every skin tone, and all the others in between, all at once. Her hair shines like silk. She laughs explosively, like dinner plates shattering on the kitchen tile. She wants to be a singer, sí, como Selena, mamá. She speaks English. She does not. She is a mother. She is not. She still lives in Colombia but she will visit when she can, she promises. Her hands are always soft from making empanada dough. She is taking night classes. She is the CEO of her own company. She took care of your nephew that one time. Or maybe she didn’t. Maybe that was someone else. But she is kind. She is brave. She is empowering. She has a fire behind her eyes, like embers igniting. She is writing her own screenplay. Something about the first Latina President, she says.
Smith, Stacy L., Marc Choueiti, and Katherine Pieper. Inclusion or Invisibility? Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment. Rep. USC Institute for Diversity and Empowerment at Annenberg, 22 Feb. 2016. Web. 9 Apr. 2018.