UGLY BETTY: the anti-fashion or the model to follow?
My analysis will focus on the concept of identity and on how it is formed. In other words, the issue of representation that appears frequently in media systems and particularly in TV shows. The media product that I have chosen to analyse is ‘Ugly Betty’, an American TV show created by Silvio Horta in 2006 on the ABC network. It is based on the Colombian ‘telenovela Yo soy Betty, la Fea , created by Fernando Gaitan.
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Representation refers to the way people and places are portrayed, especially in the media context and on how they are viewed by audiences namely, by us. Since they are representations, this therefore means that characters and people on TV and films are branded, shaped, dressed and shown as they are on screen by the producers. In studying these representations, we are decoding them and then drawing on a range of meanings: are they fictional or real; implicit or explicit? By viewing media representations of certain characters and people, we decide afterwards whether these representations either challenge notions of identity and how certain social and minority groups in society behave, talk and act in real life. Or whether they seek to highlight and reflect those cultures, lifestyles and trends or perhaps portray a much maligned and distorted idea of these characters and their situations.
We have to take into consideration when analysing and critiquing the media that every TV show is a representation of how the producer or creator of the show for example, sees that particular world. Therefore, that world may not be entirely true in real life and yet media producers want to show us their view of that world through the use of images and through the roles played by actors in shows. However this is dangerous because media has a big influence on the real world and especially on teenagers who are the group most influenced by what is shown on TV and who most of all misinterprets what is being represented in TV. In fact, within representations, stereotypes are commonly covered in TV and films. Stereotypes are not actual people but widely circulated ideas or assumptions about particular groups. In other words, they are exaggerated versions of what people tend to believe are how certain sets of individuals behave, dress and talk in real life. Depending on how that actor or actress portrays a stereotype, particularly if it belongs to a minority group: women, gay/lesbian, black, Asian and disabled, then audiences can see for themselves how they are represented and portrayed.
The use of stereotypes in TV shows, particularly in ‘Ugly Betty’ is evident. The male characters are outnumbered by the female ones and yet they are all either stereotypes or display stereotypical traits in their personalities. Daniel, one of the main characters, is represented as a sex addict especially in the first two seasons; Marc, the assistant to Wilhelmina, is the flamboyant, effeminate gay male; teenager Justin, the nephew of Betty, has shown signs of coming out of the closet later on in the series and Ignacio, the father of Betty, Hilda and Justin, is an illegal immigrant from Mexico settling in Queens, New York in the first season. As for the women: Amanda, is the bitchy blonde receptionist, who later finds out that she was adopted as a child; Christina, is the Scottish seamstress, Claire Meade, Daniel’s mother is a former alcoholic and Hilda, is a single mother and ex-high school drop-out. Finally there is Betty, a courageous, good-hearted, and slightly naive girl from Queens who is sorely lacking in terms of fashion and beauty.
In my opinion, one of the reasons why ‘Ugly Betty’ has been such a worldwide success is due to the script and to the characters who respond to the current cultural concerns held regarding women and their role in the workplace.
Women’s role in society has always been viewed historically in terms of the husband going to work and earning the money to provide for the family whilst the wife cooks, cleans and looks after the children at home. And yet, shows such as ‘Ugly Betty’ have exemplified that women can be successful in the world of work. And that the likes of Betty Suarez can become a valuable asset, not just to the company but also to her co-workers, through the friendships that she makes and forges along the way whilst at Mode. The very notion that in order to be successful and to do well, one has to be physically attractive and appealing in the work place, is proven wrong by making Betty an example of someone, who in spite of her appearances is a reliable and hard worker who concentrates on her job, irrespective of what other people may think of her. On the other hand, the other female characters in ‘Ugly Betty’, Hilda, Wilhelmina, Claire, Christina, Amanda and Alexis, are more attractive and appealing than Betty. But what makes Betty a role model to thousands of young fans, is the fact that she is young, intelligent and a living proof that in order to succeed in your career and to have a good life, you do not necessarily have to be good-looking.; as a Latina, it is her upbringing, her culture and the environment she was raised in that keeps Betty grounded at Mode and that prevents her from turning into a different type of person.
Betty is the show’s main character and also the only ‘real’ character of the show; the one with whom one most easily identifies with. Of course, even her role has been exaggerated but in the end, she represents a reality, the kind of girl with typical and common problems, hopes and expectations. Indeed she is not the most beautiful girl in the world and she does not know much about fashion, nonetheless she is a model to follow because of her passion, her kind-heartiness and her open-mind. The text of the TV show is somewhat contradictory because, apart from the entertainment aspect, the TV show follows modern society’s standards, showing beauty as the only winning card but at the same time in creating a character such as Betty, it gives you hope and also by moving away from the stereotype it points the finger to the fashion world and to the world that surrounds it. Betty brings a human aspect to the show. She is also the only person who knows what it means to live in a difficult world where nothing comes free and where to obtain results you need to work hard, using your skills and your determination rather than just your good-looks. In fact, the show portrays the world of fashion as a cut-throat business where everyone is on his own trying to survive and not to be wiped out by competitors.
But all along the series we can tell that Betty has had an evolution, a change. The viewers will see that at the beginning Betty is completely cut out from the fashion world and then little by little she begins to be part of it. The show is all structured around Mode, a fashion magazine, whose main focus is to showcase beauty, the only important aspect. In fact, Betty will have to struggle a lot, to find her own place amongst people who dislike her for who she is, for how she looks and for the way she dresses.
In the last season, when she finally becomes editor in chief and has her own office together with Marc, she decides to hang up her favourite poncho on the wall as if it were a picture. The great and famous poncho, that she wears on the first episode of the show on her first day at Mode. That poncho had been made fun of by everyone for a long time. Her decision to hang up that poncho in particular and not something else is done on purpose to remind herself and the viewers of her origins and of her accomplishments for the past 5 years. At first, Betty was discriminated by most of her colleagues due to her lack of fashion sense, but then when she proved what she was capable of then the jokes diminished and they even treated her in a ” kind” way.
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But we see also that no matter what, there is a change of image as she conforms little by little with the standards set by the fashion world, unknown to her at the beginning. She does this for herself but I think that the show portrays perfectly well that it was almost a must if she wanted to fit in with the others. If she really wanted to work for a fashion magazine she needed all the elements and that meant changing her style. She had to experiment herself through a personal experience, on what is beauty and fashion in order to do a good job. She needed not only to dress in a fashionable way but also to appreciate her new style. And she does. She feels better, and she starts to think that fashion is not so bad after all. Her ideas and style change but this does not change her character, it actually helps to enrich it with new experiences and values. She has always dreamt of becoming a journalist and this dream continues until it becomes a reality for her.
Her kind spirit is instrumental in changing and helping out many characters, if not all, within the series. The most important of these is Daniel who at first is seen as a ‘daddy’s boy’, a sex addict with no positive attributes. It is thanks to Betty that Daniel grows as a person becoming a reliable person with values and with desires for a family. Another character is Marc who had always made fun of Betty and who had tried to ruin her career at first but who then finally learns to like Betty and to confide in her in more than one occasion: seeking her advice on the right move to make. In the “Tornado Girl ” episode from season 3, there is a scene where Marc tells Betty how he had cheated on his boyfriend Cliff, with another guy. He admits what he has done and he feels guilty about what has happened but until he speaks to Betty he does not have the strength to confess the fact to Cliff. This is an example of how a personality such as Betty can change the life of everyone upon her arrival at Mode. Despite their differences in identity both Marc and Betty have numerous similarities: age-wise they are both in their early-mid 20s and they both hail from different minority groups. Marc is gay, whilst Betty is from the Latin American community; both are assistants who are developing their careers at Mode and YETI respectively. Marc is the assistant to the co editor-in-chief, Wilhelmina Slater and Betty is the assistant to the editor-in chief, Daniel Meade. Betty does what she is told by Daniel while Marc does what he is being told by Willie. Willie’s and Daniel’s views on Marc and Betty are very much dependent on how they see themselves in them, the similarities they seem to share and how their actions and behaviours impact on them. Betty is a working class Latina, who has had no previous experience working in a fashion magazine but having landed this position, she intends to make the most of it by working hard and remaining loyal to the likes of Daniel. In fact soon Betty became one of Daniel’s most trusted friends, constantly keeping him away from trouble, jail, and even once saving his life when his girlfriend, Grace, proved to be a sociopath. She was also most supportive of him whenever he was battling against Wilhelmina or with his father Bradford.
In the series there are two female characters, Amanda and Whilemina, with very different personalities but both beautiful women, seeking a common value. Amanda, the receptionist, who represents the typical good-looking and sexy young lady with no brains who goes through an evolution process as the series progress. She realizes that she wants something else in life and not lead a meaningless existence and so she starts to place importance in developing her internal self rather than just her external appearance. She no longer wants to feel lonely and would like to be loved for what she is and not only for her looks. She longs for the warmth of a family and for a more challenging job. Whilelmina on the other hand, is a beautiful, successful and powerful woman. A strenuous and different position for a woman in today’s society. She feels defensive towards everything and therefore she is aggressive with everyone in order to maintain the only thing she has, her work. It is however clear that in reality she is a very lonely woman who has never allowed herself to fall in love for fear of becoming vulnerable. In fact, the only man and the only person close to her is her assistant Marc, a gay person, with whom she plots her conspiracies. In the last season, she falls in love and she realizes then that she can have both things and that in the end probably love is more important than her career. She falls in love with Connor, and ther is a funny episode where they are both on the beach and she is eating hamburgers and telling him, ‘if you tell anyone, I will kill you’. She eats her hamburgers with pleasure and in that moment she breaks loose of all her fixed rules, her obsessions with keeping fit and beautiful because in the fashion world beauty is the only asset that counts. I chose to depict these two examples to demonstrate that these two women represent millions of women in the world. Many women who watched these series have identified themselves with one of the various characters portrayed in the series. These characters of course have been exaggerated but nonetheless they have a base of truth representing today’s society.
Mode is a successful fashion magazine whose intentions are to sell and promote the concept of beauty and fashion to the wider public. However, it can also be argued that having Betty Suarez, who represents the anti- fashion and who views the concept of beauty and attractiveness as something that goes deeper and that lies beyond the physical aspect of beauty, it is conveying the idea that there are beautiful people with good personalities in the world. Betty’s viewpoint is in contrast to what she finds at Mode: beautiful people with ugly personalities – rude, obnoxious and bitchy.
Unfortunately, it is something that we face everyday in the real world. The concept of beauty is related to the prevailing culture which is perpetrated by print or visual media. For example, women would like to enhance their breasts and undergo cosmetic surgery because there is an obsession to do this and for women to try to attract men for survival reasons. These popular images of beautiful women are a constant thread seen in art and are continuously changing, leaving women forever trying to keep up with the latest fashion at all costs. These images are seen by the world as the physical attributes that make a woman beautiful. This ideal image has always been depicted by the arts but this image has drastically changed throughout the centuries and, on occasion, has taken a less realistic, unnatural, and unhealthy turn. Today, many women would prefer to be thin than healthy.
‘Ugly Betty’ combines elements of comedy, drama and social commentary altogether and it is then incorporated and tied in with the storylines and script. The show engages the audience through the continuous plotline whilst emphasising themes relating to gender and identity as well as work, friendship and honesty. In terms of representation, it is fair to say that the show has been successful in highlighting and embracing these differences. Gay culture, fashion, gender, Hispanic culture, family, work, friendship- these are all themes represented in ‘Ugly Betty’ and shown on mainstream television.
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