Sexy, Sassy, Spicy: The Portrayal of Latina Women in American Television

Sexy, sassy and spicy are the three s’s commonly used to describe Latinas portrayed in film, television, and sometimes even daily life. However, there is often another s-word that is often forgotten when describing portrayals of Latinas: stereotyped. Latina characters have been a part of American media since the beginning of the film industry, with the beautiful Dolores del Río playing the exotic and passionate lover in the 1920s, and Carmen Miranda playing sexy and bombshell characters in the 1930s and 1940s.

Those same limiting roles of promiscuous, fiery and exotic women they had back then still prevail to this day. Josefina Lopez, the writer of Real Women Have Curves, agrees by affirming that “most of the time when we see Latinas, we see male fantasies in an exoticized, eroticized Latina. This whole hot señorita thing has always been around, since the beginning of time” (Latinos Beyond Reel). These “hot señorita” roles can also be seen in many recent television shows. This is becoming a real problem because Latino/as make up about 17 percent of the US population, making them the largest ethnic group in the country with over 53 million people and counting (Negrón-Muntaner 1). Despite the glaring fact that Latino/as have a fast growing presence in American culture, television has yet to fully embrace the idea of positive, non-stereotypical Latina characters in its contemporary shows of Modern Family, Orange is the New Black and Jane the Virgin.

The spicy Latina stereotype is emulated in the television show Modern Family created by Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd in 2009. The stereotype is seen though the character Gloria Delgado-Pritchett played by Sophia Vergara. Gloria is portrayed as a sexy trophy wife that wears a lot of provocative, skin-tight clothing and high-heeled shoes. She often also has trouble pronouncing English words. Nearly every episode of the show incorporates an argument between Gloria and another member of her blended family, but more often than not it’s with her much older husband, Jay. These arguments are often for comedic effect, but they constantly reinforce the stereotype that Latinas are spicy and hot-headed.

In the episode “Disneyland,” Gloria is criticized by Jay for not bringing practical shoes to wear on the vacation, as she only brought heels, and that offends her. Near the end of the episode the conflict is resolved when Jay brings Gloria slippers for her to wear, which is sweet until he tells her to calm down and not “go all Latin on him,” insinuating that she would yell at him loudly in incomprehensible Spanish. That remark can very easily be taken offensively by Latinas because not all of them behave like that. The identity of Latina incorporates people of more than 20 Spanish speaking countries, so generalizing all of them in such a way is hurtful.

Link to the “Disneyland” episode where Jay tells Gloria to not “go all Latin” on him:

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Even Sofia Vergara has faced criticism from the Latino community for her portrayal of Latina women. Lifestyle and popular culture blogger Tanisha Love Ramirez criticizes Vergara’s support of her character Gloria and points out that, “The problem here is that the idea of the curvy, sexy and sultry Latina denies many Latinas their cultural identification based on their physical appearances and sexual attractiveness, alone.” Not only does the portrayal deny Latinas of their cultural identification, but it perpetuates a stereotype that has long been engrained in American media.

Four years after the creation of Modern Family, Orange is the New Black (OITNB) premiered on Netflix, featuring a plethora of supporting characters from different cultural backgrounds, including Latinas. While technically not a “television show” in the traditional broadcasting sense, OITNB still has episodes and seasons and is available for purchase from cable providers like Xfinity On Demand. OITNB features seven reoccurring Latina characters of Gloria Mendoza, Dayanara Diaz, Marisol “Flaca” Gonzales, Blanca Flores, Maria Ruiz, Aleida Diaz, and Maritza Ramos. These characters perpetuate Latina stereotypes of sexy, sassy and spicy women as Flaca and Maritza are often shown being insubordinate to the prison guards and Dayanara is impregnated by one of the guards. Gloria, Maria and Aledia embody spiciness as they are often quick to temper and aren’t shy about it. The portrayal of these women can be considered offensive to Latinas because of how they are in prison and how they behave in it.

While those stereotypes are active and present in OITNB, the show is actually a step in the right direction for portrayals of Latinas because the characters show development, which is unlike Gloria Delgado-Pritchett from Modern Family who after all this time is still the sexy trophy wife. At least with OITNB characters like Flaca, who adores Depeche Mode and the Smiths, have interests outside of their cultural norm.

Blogger Alex Abad-Santos expresses that “It might be hard to understand why Flaca’s musical taste matters unless you’ve grown up watching television shows where no one looks like or behaves like you,” which is a reality for Latinas because they hardly see positive, accurate representations of themselves on television. OITNB has set somewhat of an example in creating Latina characters that are relatable and humanistic; therefore, paving the way for television shows like Jane the Virgin.

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Jane the Virgin premiered on the CW in October 2014. The show features an almost all Latino cast, which has only been seen a few times in the new millennium with the George Lopez Show, Ugly Betty and Devious Maids. The main Latina characters are Jane, Xiomara and Alba Gloriana Villanueva, and out of the three, Xio is the most stereotypical. This is due to the fact that she embodies the sexy Latina trope, wearing tight, revealing clothing and often flirting with many men, which is seen throughout the show and through flashbacks. The other two women are less stereotypical, making them more believable in the melodramatic, farcical world they belong to.

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Jane (left) and her mother Xiomara (right).
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The show itself is one of the most progressive and nuanced shows featuring Latina characters. Ivonne Coll, who plays Alba Villanueva describes it as “not a Hispanic show, but it is a show about a Hispanic family,” which tells the audience that the show is meant to appeal to viewers of all ethnicities rather than it being a token show focused solely on Latinos and their culture (Ryan). This in part is do to the show’s writers who welcome suggestions from the actors to make it seem more authentic than over the top. Avid watcher, Amy Zimmerman, praises the show and believes that “by making Jane an actual human, as opposed to a stereotype or the butt of a joke, the series begins to normalize the notion of a female, Hispanic lead on a mainstream television program,” which is accurate. The only real stereotype is Xiomara, and she isn’t even the title character.

Though snubbed by the Emmy’s, Jane the Virgin was recognized at the 2015 Golden Globes when Gina Rodriguez, the actress that plays Jane, won for Best Actress in a TV Comedy. In her acceptance speech, Rodriguez emotionally announced that the award “represents a culture that wants to see themselves as heroes,” which shows that maybe Jane the Virgin can truly enlighten television producers and set a precedent for including more Latina heroes and less stereotypes in future shows (Entertainment Tonight). Granted, Jane the Virgin is not completely free of stereotypes, but perhaps the leaps and bounds it has made will spawn more progress.

There is no denying the fact that Latinos account for a fairly big percentage of US population, yet it is clear that American television has been having a hard time accepting it. It continues to portray Latina women using the tried and true s’s of sexy, sassy and spicy, even though it puts Latinas in a bad light. The perfect example of that is Sofia Vergara’s role of Gloria Delgado-Pritchett, who is still the same sexy, spicy character she was six seasons ago. Thankfully there has been a smidgen of progress with shows like Orange is the New Black and Jane the Virgin that have given their characters depth and development among the stereotypes they still perpetuate. Hopefully some day in the near future young Latina women will be able to turn on the television to see positive and accurate representations of themselves that can be described with three different s’s: smart, successful, and strong.

—-Learning Moments—-

Being a Latina in the United States can be hard, especially when you are constantly surrounded by stereotypes that tell you you have to act and look a certain way or you don’t exist. Researching how my identity of being Latina is portrayed in television shows that I, along with my peers, are familiar with was a real learning experience. I was most influenced to write about my Latina identity though the first blog assignment that I had for this Popular Culture class where we had to read the article “The Evolution of the Doltish Dad” by Hannah Rosin. I was inspired because Rosin describes how fathers have been portrayed in the same goofy way for decades and that only “until very recently, a guy who wanted to stay at home or be earnest about fatherhood could not see his image reflected on TV, which essentially meant he did not exist” (Rosin). That quote really struck me as I could relate to feeling like I didn’t exist in the eyes of the society I live in because I wasn’t a stereotypical Latina with Sofia Vergara’s body. I appreciated that Rosin draws attention to the portrayal of dads because of how the stereotypes have “become a genuine block to social progress,” which is my reasoning for writing my blog post as well. If Latinas are a part of the largest growing ethnic group in America, then that needs to be represented in television. Unfortunately, our stereotypes are in the way of that, among other things.

The other blog assignment that I learned a lot from was in the third week when we read a transcript of the radio program The American Life featuring journalist Sarah Vowell. In the piece Vowell discusses an incident where Al Gore was misquoted during his political campaign and how it snowballed, causing him unnecessary negative attention. At one point, Vowell poses the question, “If it’s not accurate, is it not true?” (Glass). I was struck by Vowell’s question because it really make me think about not only journalism, but other forms of media portrayals. I formulated my own answer to that question in this blog post about Latinas and how the portrayals of them in television are not accurate and therefore not true. Unfortunately most writers write what they know to be true, which in my case happens to be stereotypes. If there were more enlightened or authentic Latino writers on those television shows, then maybe the portrayals would e more accurate and ultimately true.

These assignments and this class really taught me a lot. They taught me to question the media outlets and their purposes, and they taught me to question and analyze how I am portrayed in them. And that I did.

By April Hernandez

Bibliography

Abad-Santos, Alex. “Orange Is the New Black’s Latina Characters Are Women We Hardly Ever See on Television.” Vox. Vox Media, Inc., 12 June 2015. Web. 27 July 2015.

“Chapter One.” Jane the Virgin. Writ. Jennie Snyder Urman. Dir. Brad Silberling. 13 Oct. 2014. Xfinity On Demand. 10 July 2015.

“Chapter Seven.” Jane the Virgin. Writ. David Rosenthal. Dir. Janice Cooke. 24 Nov. 2014. Xfinity On Demand. 10 July 2015.

“Chapter Ten.” Jane the Virgin. Writ. Meredith Averill and Christopher Oscar Peña. Dir. Elodie Keene. 19 Jan. 2015. Xfinity On Demand. 10 July 2015.

“Disneyland.” Modern Family. Writ. Cindy Chupak. Dir. James Bagdonas. 9 May 2012. Television. 11 July 2015.

“Do Not Push.” Modern Family. Writ. Megan Ganz. Dir. Gail Mancuso. 1 Oct. 2014. Xfinity On Demand. 11 July 2015.

“Dude Ranch.” Modern Family. Writ. Paul Corrigan, Brad Walsh and Dan O’Shannon. Dir. Jason Winder. 21 Sept. 2011. Television. 9 July 2015.

Entertainment Tonight. “2015 Golden Globes: Gina Rodriguez Made Us All Cry With Her Incredible Acceptance Speech.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 12 Jan. 2015. Web. 24 July 2015.

Glass, Ira, and Sarah Vowell. “Transcript: 151: Primary.” This American Life. Chicago Public Media. Chicago, Illinois, 28 Jan. 2000. Transcript: 151: Primary. Web. 6 July 2015. Transcript.

Latinos Beyond Reel. Dir. Miguel Picker and Chyng Sun. Perf. Yancey Arias, Josefina Lopez, Luis Antonio Ramos, and Lisa Vidal. Open Lens Media, 2012. DVD.

“The Long Honeymoon.” Modern Family. Writ. Danny Zucker. Dir. Beth McCarthy-Miller. 24 Sept. 2014. Xfinity On Demand. 11 July 2015.

“Low Self Esteem City.” Orange is the New Black. Writ. Nick Jones. Dir. Andrew McCarthy. 6 Jun. 2014. Netflix. Web. 6 July 2015.

“Mother’s Day.” Orange is the New Black. Writ. Jenji Kohan. Dir. Andrew McCarthy. 11 Jun. 2015. Netflix. Web. 9 July 2015.

Negrón-Muntaner, Frances. “The Latino Media Gap a Report on the State of Latinos in the U.S. Media.” Columbia University, 19 Jun. 2014. Web. 19 July 2015. PDF file.

Ramirez, Tanisha L. “Sofia Vergara Loves Playing Stereotypes.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 5 Mar. 2013. Web. 17 July 2015.

Rosin, Hanna. “The Evolution of the Doltish Dad.” Slate. The Slate Group LLC, 15 June 2012. Web. 29 Jun. 2015.

Ryan, Maureen. “‘Jane The Virgin’ Helped Change TV, But The Struggle Is Far From Over.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 6 Apr. 2015. Web. 28 July 2015.

Zimmerman, Amy. “‘Jane the Virgin’ is The CW’s Best Show Ever.” The Daily Beast. Newsweek/Daily Beast, 28 Oct. 2014. Web. 28 July 2015.

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8 thoughts on “Sexy, Sassy, Spicy: The Portrayal of Latina Women in American Television

  1. First of all thank you for opening my eyes towards this stereotype. I always thought Latinas were portrayed as bombshells (as you referred) and I actually never thought that could be offensive. But now I see how that tries to sum all the Spanish speaking countries into one stereotype, and that would be uncomfortable if I were you too. Anyway, the funny thing while I noticed while I was reading your essay is that I remember a lot of attractive women characters being foreign. Or I guess foreign characters are hot? They kinda go together in my mind, because they do come up in the story pretty randomly and they either look hot or gets involved in a love story. I’m only thinking of action movies so maybe that’s why they were portrayed that way. Pardon for the rambling but what I wanted to bring up is that why do foreign characters have to be exotic and different? I know each person with a different background can be different, but I think there’s a reason why we feel like we’re stereotyped.

    • Thank you for reading my post! I’ve also noticed how foreign characters are almost always attractive, no matter the race or gender. I think it could possibly be that sex sells and sex is universal. Perhaps it could be that writers write what they know, and what they know involves what has been portrayed already and the stereotypes that have prevailed. This is also why I think foreign characters are always different and exotic-it’s because they are to the people creating the characters.

  2. Good point about the irony of how despite the American population becoming more Hispanic everyday, there still lacks considerable representation of them in popular media. I suppose it is because the media is mostly controlled by old white people. I am almost certain that these media moguls like to fantasize about young exotic beauties and so have no problem misrepresenting them as long as it conforms to their creepy worldview. Soon, however, they will die off and the next generation will take their place. I hope that as the Millennial Generation grows, they can add their historically more tolerant and diverse perspectives to the table. Then perhaps we can all be represented fairly and accurately, as well with profound respect.

    • Thanks zinovio, I really hope you’re right! It will be refreshing to see more accurate representations of all cultures as more people speak out and as our societal views change and develop.

  3. Many movies and American pop culture don’t have enough Latino women with positive light. Media has a control public perception and I think that is where it gets affected. Spanglish was a great movie even though there is stereotypes. The movie didn’t have any positive effect towards the character until the end of the movie. I thought this was kind of an issue. Many foreign women characters are misrepresented in movies and films. I think that is a shame. Very rarely we see positive image that’s foreign. Fairness is a hard commodity to get when its for character equality in movies and films. Thank you for sharing this. I enjoyed reading this.

    • It’s very true that films are notorious for negatively representing Latinas, and I was pretty tempted to delve into that. You know, I’ve never actually seen Spanglish, but it doesn’t surprise me that stereotypes were used. It’s a crutch that is constantly used, even when it isn’t necessary.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and thank you for reading my post!

  4. The stereotypes of Latina women are what you just described them as. The sexy , crazy women portrayed in the media now a days can affect the latina women. Although the way that the media portrays them are some what true the multiple roles that they play in movies aren’t always the same.

  5. By adding depth to characters, does that take away the stereotype? It sounds like these stereotypes about Latina women come about because their characters aren’t developed enough. It sounds like you’re saying that there’s a correlation between stereotypes and shallow characters. A shallow character, one that has not shown any developmental depth, is one that is stereotypical? While I think that may be the case at times, other times, I think that some characters, or even people in real life, are just like that. Nonetheless, I see the points that you’re making and I agree, and I hope that they continue making strides by adding more “depth” to Latina characters.

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