Monday, November 20, 2006

Giving Thanks for Ugly Betty

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

803 words

Thursday nights I join my girlfriend's Mom in front of the tube, and we watch plain jane Betty Suarez outwit the beautiful people with her arsenal of orange braces, goofy grin, and immigrant optimism as perpetually startling as her blinding wardrobe that combines psychedelic pinks and oranges with high style secretary couture circa 1982.

I never got into the Colombian original. So what if making Betty the butt of jokes was supposed to uncover the stupidity of other characters, or that she was revealed as the swan at the very end? It was torture. All that degradation.

If I want humiliation, I can go home for Thanksgiving and have a double helping served up with cranberry sauce.

Sure, some of the other characters at Betty's Mode magazine job still try their best to bring her down, but in America, she just rolls her eyes at their stupidity and moves on. It's New York, Baby.

Part of Betty's strength is her family in Queens. She lives at home in one of those little semi-detached houses in Archie Bunker territory with her father Ignacio, sister Hilda, and nephew Justin who is a glorious twelve-year old queen that would have had old Archie sneering in his armchair. What's the neighborhood coming to?

It was him that won me over to the show. What queer wouldn't rejoice to see Justin twirl across the screen?

I caught him in that episode where he lied about a school project so he could bask in Betty's high fashion job. Hilda, his mom, was furious when she found out. Which is par for the matronly course. In general, she's upset, distressed, annoyed when Justin wants to sing show tunes instead of doing his homework.

I think it's okay Hilda struggles with having an artsy, effeminate son. You can see she still loves him. The whole family does. Even the macho, ex-boxer Ignacio who's been known to watch a telenovela or two.

Ambivalence would be an improvement for a lot of us. I was home from college once, and having a cup of coffee with my own mother when she suddenly screamed, "You're holding the cup like a man." She went berserk, like I'd deflowered her coffee cup.

Imagine when I finally came out. She decided not to have anything to do with me until I was the girl God wanted me to be. We talk on the phone once a year, but she hasn't stopped praying since.

I get the idea that executive producer Salma Hayek knows very well what happens to queers, especially young ones, the torrents of verbal abuse, beatings, sexual attacks, homelessness.

That first episode I watched, when Justin was hanging out at Mode magazine, he had a tete-a-tete with the out adult character, Marc, who took a few minutes out from his attacks on Betty to admire Justin's suit and ask if the other kids at school gave him a hard time for it.

When Justin said, yes, Marc didn't go into a whole gay solidarity thing, just advised him not to question his own fashion sense, and learn how to run fast. It's not politically correct, but as advice to a kid it works for me. Avoid the closet. But do what you must to survive.

I was glad Marc didn't ask twelve-year old Justin if he was gay, and was surprised to see the Advocate had an article focusing on that, and hinting that the network was somehow keeping Justin in the closet by refusing to say.

Does everything really have to be spelled out?

Silence only bothers me when there's a lie at the center of it. Like this guy I know who embraces words like "man" and "Hispanic," but when it comes to who he sleeps with suddenly hates labels and clams right up.

Justin is fine as he is, a great role model even. And Hayak uses his joyful femininity to send up macho pigs like his mostly absent father, the quintessential masculine homeboy that hangs out on the street corner all tough in his buzzed head as he plays the numbers and ignores the fact that he has a son.

When the man actually turns up for Thanksgiving, bringing Justin a gift-wrapped present of a football, helmet, and athletic cup, the joke was on him. Justin stuck the white plastic thing on his face, swirled off and declared himself the Phantom of the Opera.

Hayak has assembled a diverse cast, but she seems to believe that if you get the details right, characters and situations can speak for themselves, and be funny, too, without self-conscious Hispanic jokes about the Suarez family, or constant queer jokes about Marc. There certainly are no black jokes about Mode diva Wilhelmina Slater played formidably by Vanessa Williams. Nobody would dare.

For that, I give thanks.

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