The Misrepresented and Hypersexualized Latina

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Growing up, I always struggled with finding a stable identity of my own. I knew I was Latina, but I felt like I could only relate to Latina women in my family and never the ones on television and film who show how an “actual” Latina was supposed to be and act. In television programs, terms like “exotic” became the norm when describing tanned skinned, seemingly typical Latinas. Yet, it wasn’t until adolescence, when I began religiously immersing myself in pop culture, that I started to realize just how pervasive and damaging this one idea of what a Latina is actually was. I was inundated with images of women who sometimes phenotypically resembled me under the labels of “hot” and “sexy.” They were all different women, but they shared many of the same features: full lips, tan skin, and voluptuous bodies. Posing in tight-fitted clothes and looking seductively into cameras, they were…beautiful, it seemed. Desired. The beauty ideal towards which all Latinas were expected to aspire to.

All of sudden, it made sense. Even though I could only relate my darker features to these women, I began to see why that was enough for me to be labeled Latina. All of the Martinez and Gomez female characters had, after all, beautifully uniform, golden tans coupled with dark hair and eyes. However, because of the perpetuation of this one view of a Latina, portraits of Latinidad — or Latino identity — are misrepresenting or rather entirely excluding Afro-Latinas as well as any blue-eyed or blonde Latinas. In fact, they have been consistently ignored and written off as never having a place in the depiction of Latinas and of the greater Latino culture. Even with the context of racial ambiguity, it seems like media limits Latinas to differ only generationally by juxtaposing broken-English mothers with articulate American daughters; both of which are displayed in Adam Sandler’s Spanglish. However, you will rarely see dark-skinned Latinas go up for those Latina roles in the first place and the same goes for Latinas who are naturally blonde or hold other physical characteristics that don’t “fit” Hollywood’s preconceived notions of what a Latina looks like. In a short documentary on being Afro-Latino in the United States, experienced Afro-Latina celebrities like Gina Torres and Soledad O’Brien openly recount the frustration and challenges they face when combating an industry that constantly demands justifications for their claims to their Latina identities.

Despite this gross generalization of the Latina image in most media avenues, I was, for a time, initially appreciative of at least some inclusion and visibility of Latinas in the music and television scenes. Watching television, I saw Latina women embodying “spicy,” “fiery,” Latin bombshells whose tiny waists and big breasts were met with societal adoration and praises for flaunting the body of a “real” woman. And so, I was proud of the women on magazine covers like Eva Longoria, Sofia Vergara, and Jennifer Lopez whose mere presence I saw as being a great advance for Latino saliency in the public eye and for overall diversity among celebrity women. It wasn’t until my junior year in high school when, out of a growing personal interest in my heritage, I started becoming more invested in how Latino life was represented in American society. I then began to recognize the mass stereotypes that the media naturally assigns to Latinas. More often than not, Hollywood’s beloved Latina stars obtained their fame by, in one way or another, enhancing their ethnic stereotypes.

  • Gabrielle Solís in Desperate Housewives is the “loud,” “divisive,” housewife whose promotional ads show off more skin than plot foundation for the show.
  • Gloria from Modern Family is the “curvaceous,” sun-kissed trophy wife whose accented English is understood as the natural voice of many Latinas: inarticulate yet filled with attractive passion.

Even Latina music stars like Jennifer Lopez, who rose through hip/hop and pop arenas, are constantly photographed showcasing their bodacious behinds and flaunting their plunging necklines and toned curves at awards shows. Although this obsession with sex and the female body can describe the greater disservice media performs against women in general, the lack of Latina role models outside of an industry that constantly critiques appearance results in the widespread dissemination of this single image of what a Latina should look like in order to be successful. The effect on Latina youth is a further damaging consequence, as they make the connection that their value is entirely dependent upon the achievement of that stereotypical and entirely unattainable Latina physicality.

The lack of Latina leaders in America results in young girls solely looking up to Latina celebrities who are appreciated only for their bodies. Without any alternative precedent to follow, impressionable youths start to develop negative body images and go to extremes to obtain these impossible standards of beauty. They see that the only example to follow for proven material success is maintaining that image of being a sex symbol, and so they attach their self-worth directly to their ability to embody sex. As Rita Moreno, one of few performers to ever win all Oscar, Grammy, Tony, and Emmy awards, puts her own struggle with fighting stereotypes in Hollywood, “I was stereotyped as a hot Latina with smoldering eyes and hips that wouldn’t quit.” Even though Moreno entered the entertainment industry at a time when Latino actors were scavenging for any available roles no matter how minor, it is important to note that little has changed since then. To this day, few programs have surfaced that publicize multi-dimensional Latino/a characters and successfully maintain their audience base or network support.

One of the few exceptions is Ugly Betty, a TV show, which follows the story of a young, vibrant Latina from Queens who seeks to find herself in the Manhattan metropolis of elite fashion and living. However, after airing only a few seasons, ABC axed the show. Ironically, one of the progressive show’s main actors, Ana Ortiz, is now starring in Lifetime’s Devious Maids; thereby trading one “sexy Latina” stereotype for the other pigeonhole of the submissive Latina housekeeper. This Latina typecasting thus classically expresses the institutionalized stereotyping of media platforms to simplify and cosmetically categorize people into racial and ethnic labels.

The “spicy Latina” ascription is also sometimes seen as innocuous: a stereotype that we Latinas should appreciate as a flattering compliment. However, people fail to see that this label leads to an equally damaging conception of Latinas being a fetish; a hot, mysterious prize to be won. We are seen as these sensual creatures, ready for courtship with any man who is willing embark on an enticing journey to the unknown. Once these modern conquistadors have had their fill and satisfy their curiosities though, we are thrown to the side and subsequently devalued and disregarded as having fulfilled our purpose of submitting to their male domination. This then feeds into the idea of how certain minority subgroups, like Latina women, are further marginalized through fetishization to the point of losing their sexual agency and feeling that their value is solely located in sexually satisfying men.

Don’t get me wrong about the media-prescribed “sexy Latina look.” It is empowering to see strong, sexy Latinas like Jennifer Lopez obtain great success through their own entrepreneurial endeavors and independent action. However, the hypersexualized archetype, virtually empty pool of Latina role models outside of entertainment, and lack of Latina diversity in the media landscape contributes to the limitation of Latina youth potential. According to a study based on Census Bureau statistics, “the dropout rate for Latinas ages 16 to 24 is 30%…compared with 8.2% for whites.” The media then maintains its position as the main distributor machine that manufactures this ideal of the Latina image and perpetuates the cycle of negative body image and self-validation through sexually pleasuring men.

The purpose of the American media establishment has been to maximize profits by providing entertainment to the public, historically at the expense and humiliation of minority groups like Latinos who are heavily stereotyped and depicted as an “other” through their representative characters’ lack of multi-dimensionality. Media’s influences are systemic and both reflect and feed into every aspect of American life and culture. Because of this, it seems futile to attempt large-scale reform on this market that lives on the propagation of racial generalizations and exploitation of already marginalized groups of people. Though it is an honorable task and perhaps even plausible if organized properly, I think it is an important individual step for people to first remain conscious of the common untruths and embellishments television and magazines put forth of Latinas and all people of color.

11 responses to “The Misrepresented and Hypersexualized Latina

  1. This is a really well written article and you made lots of great points. It is important to remember that white Americans are also “stereotyped” in American media, perhaps less so because there are just more of them. But consider the image you get from Mean Girls, or Honey Boo Boo, or American Pie–as a white American, these aren’t exactly the people I want representing my country (race aside). I am a white American woman who has lived in Ecuador for 4 years now and people legitimately assume that the fraternity party college life is what the U.S. is like and expect American women to be as “easy” as you see in the movies. On the reverse side, since I was raised somewhat like you (it seems) with a feminist mother who encouraged using my intelligence over my looks, I came to Latin America with the idea of men being machista and the poor Latina women as the victims. However, I have learned that the women do just as much, if not more to perpetuate this stereotype. Women here come to work dressed like they are going to a club and spend the day flirting away. Many go to college to find a man who will financially support them instead of getting their own education to work and provide their own income. It was really disillusioning to find this reality and makes it hard to respect Latina women here when they behave this way. I am happy to know that Latina’s in the U.S., in my opinion, are being empowered and positively influenced by American culture, but unfortunately, Latin America is decades behind and is the source of your Sofia Vergaras of the world. I hope one day, women here will take control and begin to stand up for themselves, the way you and many other American Latinas have.

    • Simply looking at the parenthesis you placed over stereotypes in your first sentence already tells me the sort of mindset you have. White Americans aren’t really stereotyped, and the fact that you think they are is laughable. Mean Girls? Honey Boo Boo? Seriously? First off, those are sort of outdated by the standards of the world’s quick paced society; secondly, this is just cherry picking of a few examples. Look at all the white American women who are heroes, villains, voices of reason, and so on in Hollywood films. Granted, there’s definitely a misrepresentation among them but it’s certainly much better than the minorities who constantly get pigeonholed with the same attributes over and over again.
      Also, it’s likely that these are just scumbags thinking of you as easy. The same thing happens to foreign women travelling in New York City. Does this mean all American men are pigs who see women as being easy?
      I’d also like to know where in Ecuador you’ve been living. I’ve lived in Uruguay for seven years, Chile for five, and Argentina for seven, Costa Rica for seven, and Nicaragua for one. Like any country you’ll find women who are more promiscuous and those that aren’t. It seems more like you look for the stereotype because that’s what you’re conditioned to see with all the stereotypes you’ve been exposed to.

      For Example: “Women here come to work dressed like they are going to a club and spend the day flirting away”

      And just how old were these women? They were in their young twenties. I’ve seen plenty of women in the states dressing with shorts that barely go beneath their hips. They also flirt away. Sounds like something young ladies in just about every culture do. Women in Uruguay dressed business casual for the most part and did their work. Sure, there was some flirting, but it’s nothing you won’t find in an American business environment.
      Many go to college to find a man who will financially support them instead of getting their own education to work and provide their own income.

      Wow, that’s a broad statement if I’ve ever seen one before. How exactly do you know they’re doing this? Do you talk to them or just make the assumption that this is what they’re doing? The vast majority of women in Chile looked like they were working damn hard on their studies. They would study for hours and even decline invitations to hang out so that they could catch up on studying. Yes you had those that did exactly what you described, but they definitely weren’t anywhere near the majority of women.
      Your statement of having difficulty respecting Latina women in Latin America because of those you noticed is also painting with a broad brush. I’ve seen plenty of American women in the inner cities and rural areas drop out of college or even high school because they were pregnant with some guy’s kid. And yes, quite a few of them were white. I guess this means that it’s hard to respect American women because those bad apples decided to get pregnant while in school.
      “Positively influenced and empowered by American culture.” You mean the same American culture that places great emphasis on the physical appearance of their female celebrities? The same American culture whose media pokes fun at pregnant celebrities for looking chubby? You’re right. Images of scantily clad Eva Longoria and Sofia Vergara’s promiscuous behavior are definitely good for them. Please, American culture is very similar to Latin American machismo. Just look at how people freak out when you mention wage inequality between genders (something that kind of disproves the “superiority of American culture).
      By the way, Latin America has had a total of five female heads of state and six minorities. How many has the US had? There you go. Looks like women have already been standing up for themselves over here. Perhaps smug Americans like yourself should stop being so myopic and look outside your narrow mined point of view at what’s actually being done. There’s certainly work to be done, but at the same time significant progress has also been made.

  2. I would refrain from saying Latina women are perpetuating it themselves completely. While they do have a choice to continue an education and achieve they own source of income, socialization can often have more impact on the roles people take in society and I believe its safe to say that Latin women are highly socialized to fit the traditional female role. People want to belong in a society and a society that rejects the idea that a women can be strong and independent is one that generally imposes the concept of marriage right after marriage. It may seem so easy from the US perspective to say to go outside of the norm (we are a very individualistic society), but family and acceptance is extremely important in the Latin culture, so to risk being rejected by your family and society in order to pursue a career is very daunting.

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  6. Well, i must say that I enjoyed reading this article and the comments that followed, so thank you for this. I’d love to see an article where we take the significant progress you spoke of, and uplift those who are taking action to make such changes. I believe that a lot of what everyone mentioned goes beyond regionalism. Issues such as race, feminism and social inequality on a global level are all things we should tackle together because at the end of the day, we’re all affected.

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