Class act

A silly, sudsy soap opera? Sure, but ABC's hit show "Ugly Betty" -- with its bracing look at class, ethnicity and economic disparity -- is also seriously subversive TV.

Rebecca Traister
November 4, 2006 7:00PM (UTC)

You've probably heard a lot about "Ugly Betty," ABC's new hourlong comedy-soap opera about a supposedly hideous young woman who scores a job as assistant to a foxy male fashion magazine editor. The show's tidily uplifting premise -- she is a beast in the beauty industry who in fact brings beauty to a beastly world -- along with its crack cast, cuspidate humor and sudsy plot, has helped turn "Ugly Betty" into a rare bona fide hit on fall's television slate. It garners around 16 million viewers a night and is one of only a few new shows to have received orders for a full season.

"Ugly Betty's" mostly laudatory notices have covered the wan irony of its unlovely title and winning appeal: "Ugly Betty Is a Beauty" and all that. Many critics have also pointed out that Betty, played by America Ferrera, is not ugly. She is merely encumbered by a mouth full of blue metal, one hellacious poncho and a wonky eye for color coordination. The show should be called "Badly Styled Betty." (And naturally, within a month of "Ugly Betty's" premiere, newspaper style sections fell predictably in line, touting a new "ugly chic" inspired by the program.)


But those who have taken the title's bait and examined only the aesthetics of the show have missed the point. "Ugly Betty" is not about being unattractive, or at least not simply about being unattractive. It's about class. And ethnicity. Its smart take on cultural and economic differences, enmeshed as it is in a fresh, funny package, makes it positively subversive television.

Betty Suarez is the 22-year-old daughter of Mexican immigrants. She lives in Queens with her widowed father; older sister, Hilda; and Hilda's son, Justin, a fashion-obsessed preteen. But when we first meet Betty, it's in the marble lobby of Meade Publications, where she's awaiting a job interview with an H.R.-bot who needs only an eyeful of her metal-mouthed grin to shut the door in her face. But Betty catches the eye of company founder Bradford Meade, who hires her to assist his son, Daniel (Eric Mabius), recently installed as editor in chief at fashion-bible Mode after the untimely departure of Mode's legendary nuclear winter of an editor, Fey Summers. Daniel is the family fuck-up, a playboy who generally prefers his assistants under his desk, administering fellatio.

Bradford hires Betty because he assumes his son will never look twice at a not-anorexic Mexican woman in braces, red spectacles and polymer-fabric cardigans. As far as the lily-white Meades are concerned, Betty might as well not have secondary sexual characteristics: She's so "ugly" that she's not even female. But she is capable and smart, and as it turns out, that's what Daniel needs most in an assistant. He's under siege from Mode's creative director, Wilhelmina (Vanessa Williams), who was passed over for the editor-in-chief post. If this seems convoluted remember, folks, it's a soap.

"Ugly Betty's" debut so soon after this summer's "The Devil Wears Prada" makes it easy to assume that it was inspired by Lauren Weisberger's epic lament of fashion servitude. (The pilot even nodded to the movie by ending with its catchy theme song, "Suddenly I See.") In fact, "Ugly Betty" is the American adaptation of the Colombian telenovela "Yo soy Betty, la fea," which began airing in 1999 and has since been translated and remade around the world.

Unlike "Prada," "Ugly Betty" is not driven by the traumas of the boss-lackey dynamic. This heroine doesn't flinch when she has to put cream cheese on her boss's bagel or get him tickets to the Harvard-Yale game. Betty has serious professional ambitions, but she's sanguine about starting at the bottom of the ladder, happy to be working at a major magazine straight out of college. When compared to her tasks at home -- like trying unsuccessfully to persuade the HMO to refill her ailing father's heart medication -- ordering a town car doesn't seem quite such an affront to anyone's sensibilities.

"Betty la fea's" creator, Fernando Gaitán, who is also a producer on "Ugly Betty," told the Guardian in 2000 that telenovelas "are all about the class struggle. They're made for poor people in countries where it's hard to get ahead in life. Usually the characters succeed through love. In mine, they get ahead through work." The U.S. version of "Betty" offers a bracing look at how those class struggles are further fraught by cultural diversity and intolerance, thanks to "Betty" producers Salma Hayek and Silvio Horta, who insisted that it retain a Latina heroine.


The scorn with which Betty is treated at Mode has less to do with her looks than with her place of economic and cultural origin. "Are you DE-LIV-ER-ING something?" enunciates receptionist Amanda when Betty first arrives, assuming that a brown girl in a bad outfit could only be a messenger. "Sale at the 99-cent store?" she later remarks when Betty misses a party. When Daniel frets because Betty has taken the "book" home to Queens, Amanda purrs, "You're going to get it back and there's going to be chimichurri sauce all over it."

Most egregious is the treatment of the stuffed bunny on Betty's desk, a gift to mark her graduation from Queens College. "One of America's best value colleges!" sneers Wilhelmina's assistant Mark. Betty, like most people in the United States, probably considered value when choosing a college. And the bunny, which endures a toilet-bowl odyssey after being swiped by Betty's colleagues, isn't a Tiffany tennis bracelet or a car or whatever Ross or Rachel probably received when they graduated from college.

With the chimichurri sauce and the stuffed rabbit, "Ugly Betty" has joined shows like "All in the Family," "Roseanne," "The George Lopez Show," "Everybody Hates Chris" and the prematurely axed "Lucky Louie" in the very narrow pantheon of television that has explored what it's like not to be rich and/or white in America.

What makes it extra electric is that unlike those other shows, "Betty" also explores the forbidding traverse to the other side of the class spectrum. The Bunkers didn't leave Queens any more frequently than Roseanne and Dan's brood left their cramped home. But Betty crosses the class ravine daily, hopping from the skyscraping heights of Manhattan to the spicier climes of her home turf.


In this, she shows us a New York City we haven't seen for a while. The myth of shows like "Sex and the City" or "Friends" was that simply living in Gotham put you in close proximity to some glama-glama heartbeat: Cross a bridge and you'll promptly be waxed, liposuctioned and handed a cosmopolitan. It's a fantasy that still propels the bus tours to Tao and Magnolia Bakery.

Betty lives in New York, but for her familiarity with pink drinks, she might as well be from Cleveland. Her neighborhood isn't made of high-rises or brownstones, but of aluminum-sided row homes. Betty's Queens is a Latina version of Woody Allen's Brooklyn; the Manhattan skyline gleams just across the river like Gatsby's green light, but it is a world away. Where Allen's childhood homes were shaken by roller coasters and populated by relatives glued to radio plays, the Suarez house is engrossed in never-ending telenovelas and shaken by the beat of the Dance-Dance-Revolution video game.

Betty's life at home, where she is stuffed with food and frets about her family's health, plays out in sharp contrast to her life at Mode, where no one eats and colleagues fret about wearing 2-year-old Manolo Blahniks. "Sometimes I feel like the E train dropped me off on Mars," Betty confesses in a recent episode.


But part of what's biting is just how true some of even the most outlandish send-ups of the fashion world ring. In one episode, the Mode team proposes a fiery-car-crash photo spread to a diva designer with grotesquely inflated lips, forgetting that she recently backed her SUV into 12 pedestrians in front of a club. The whole thing looks like a Brenda Starr strip until you remember: The lips exist; the violent fashion spreads exist; the celebrity pedestrian-mangler exists. The cartoon that is Mode is not, in fact, much of a cartoon.

Then there are the comparative preoccupations of the wealthy in contrast to the far less wealthy. Wilhelmina dresses to impress her senator father, who arrives late and sneers, "So you're still just a creative director?" Daniel complains to Betty about his dad's favoritism toward his dead brother, while Mama Meade, played with scenery-chewing zeal by Judith Light, is in rehab, where her perfume has been confiscated, forcing her "to smell like people." They're all keeping secrets about extramarital affairs and probably murder.

But one of the lovely things about "Ugly Betty" is that, while it veers precipitously close to finding savage nobility in economic hardship, life in Queens is nearly as dysfunctional as life with the rich and moderately famous. After all, Betty's boyfriend Walter is cheating on her with trampy neighbor Gina Gambaro, who spent a year in juvy and tries to extort Betty for $4,000. Walter is a bizarro-world take on a Manhattan catch; every woman wants him because of his sweet employee discount at the local electronics store. Then there is Betty's dad's own long-kept secret, and the reason Betty's having so much trouble with the HMO: He's been using another man's Social Security number because he's in the country illegally. "Everybody's got problems," Daniel tells Betty. That's true. But "Ugly Betty" puts them in perspective.


Betty's family is not thrilled about the merging of worlds. Her supportive father grumbles that there are no Latina pictures in Mode magazine. Walter is horrified when she comes home from "networking night" to "tamale night" having had one mango margarita. Hilda is even more suspicious of her sister's gig, worried that this new world will never admit her. "Why do you do this to yourself," she scolds one night after Betty has been turned away from a work party at a hot club. "I keep telling you those places aren't for people like us."

But the show again escapes the too-good-to-be-true trap by making clear that Betty is not above wanting to belong or look good. In Episode 3, at Hilda's urging, she undergoes a makeover. "You want to fit in with these people? They're not going to change. You have to," says her sister. "The hair, the face, the clothes. You gotta look it to be it." She whisks Betty to Choli, a local beauty technician who works her magic on Betty's hair, nails and wardrobe.

Betty's transformation is dramatic. With hair piled on top of her head, an outfit of jangling jewelry, a tight skirt and heels, Betty becomes a goddess to the men who catcall her ("She's hot!" exclaims one) as she walks to the subway the next morning. But the look doesn't translate in Manhattan, and it provokes the most scathing round of jeering she's yet received. The other assistants photograph her as if she's a zoo animal, and Wilhelmina scoffs, "It looks like Queens threw up." The message is clear: Queens pretty is not Manhattan pretty. Poor pretty is not rich pretty. Latina pretty is not white pretty.

"Ugly Betty" is preoccupied with difference -- the ways we acknowledge or punish or misinterpret it. Wilhelmina mischaracterizes Betty's work friend, the seamstress Christina, as a "drunken Irish woman." When told that Christina is Scottish, Wilhelmina replies: "Don't care." But she gets ruffled during a discussion of winter holidays, incredulously asking Daniel, "Did you just gesture at me when you said Kwanzaa?" Openly gay Mark advises Betty's fashion-loving nephew Justin, who's admitted that the kids at school don't get him: "Be who you are; wear what you want. Just learn to run real fast."


In exploring the ways we negotiate chasms in status and experience, "Ugly Betty" provides a compelling counterpoint not to "The Devil Wears Prada" but to Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette." Both are campy, brightly colored candy things. If Coppola's film has politics (and that is still being debated) they are in its portrait of end-of-empire excess that looks familiar at the same time it looks contrived and mildly nauseating. "Ugly Betty's" depiction of wealth offers something similar. An early scene in which Wilhelmina reclines next to a pyramid of oranges as Mark fills her forehead with Botox might be ripped from the opening credits of "Marie Antoinette," in which the doomed queen languorously reclines into a foot massage while trawling a finger through an iced cake.

But Coppola's confection has come in for criticism for its unwillingness to visit the angry masses behind the barricades. One of those proles is actually our guide to "Ugly Betty's" urban Versailles. We see the world of underfed women, racial and economic insularity, and overconsumption of material goods through her eyes, and in counterpoint if not to the starving poor, then at least to the Queens family where you get a stuffed bunny for graduating from college.

But like "Marie Antoinette," "Betty" hides its class tensions beneath an effortlessly fun surface. It's a real romance, and Ferrera's tremendous sex appeal is so apparent that she generates sparks with every man with whom she shares the screen, whether it's Daniel or the nerd from accounting who recently introduced her to sushi.

Whatever happens in Betty's love life, for unadulterated television joy it will be hard to beat a scene from the show's fourth episode in which Walter ingratiates himself by serenading Betty with help from a discounted karaoke machine. Temporarily persuaded, she joins him outside, where they sing "Bittersweet and strange, finding you can change," from Betty's favorite movie, "Beauty and the Beast," sitting on her front stoop as Manhattan glitters in the distance.


Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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