Stereotypes can be so ingrained into our culture that they start to feel like a fact. Those belonging to a marginalized group who don’t conform may instead start to think something is wrong with them.
I know that because it happened to me. I grew up with portrayals of emotional Latinas in both English and Spanish. Men weren’t exempt from these stereotypes either. One of the first portrayals of a stereotypical “hot-tempered” Latinx character I can remember was actually Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo in I Love Lucy.
I remember how he would get angry, raise his voice, and eventually say things in Spanish to Lucy. Then she’d turn around and make this into the punchline. It was ingrained into me that being calm and stoic was wrong and that outbursts made me “Latina” in the world’s eyes.
There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging one’s emotions, but I was always far more subdued than expected. For years, many of the deadpan characters I knew were men and occasionally some white women. The most famous example I can think of is Daria Morgendorffer of MTV’s Daria. Daria is iconic for women everywhere, but she’s still a white woman with relative privilege who showed signs of understanding the ramifications of her societal position.
In the late 00s and 10s, I started hearing comments about April Ludgate. I was looking for work through the Great Recession and didn’t watch much television. I kept seeing memes and hearing about Aubrey Plaza, but the grind and hustle of making ends meet meant I dismissed comments about her constantly.
I didn’t pay attention to Plaza’s work until years later when I decided to finally start subscribing to streaming services during a backpacking trip. The altitude in Bolivia had gotten to me and I realized I’d probably want to watch TV on rest days between hikes. And when I did, I finally understood why so many friends and acquaintances constantly recommended that I watch Aubrey Plaza’s work.
April Ludgate was a slacker whose mentor taught her how to do as little as possible and rewarded her for it. The show used her messy apartment as a talking point, and her sometimes mean remarks still made her all the more endearing. Latinx communities, particularly the women, are taught to be kind, nice, and clean. Anyone else’s mess is our responsibility, and here was a character who simply didn’t conform to these standards—and she was loved for it.
I later saw Safety Not Guaranteed, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Happiest Season, and of course, Ingrid Goes West. Aubrey Plaza’s list of work is much longer than that, and she’s gotten amazing reviews for her work in White Lotus. In each of these characters, she’s managed to play icy, quirky, hilarious, and sometimes unhinged characters that allowed so many Latinas to be a bit more free to be stoic.
One actor and her choices certainly won’t undo the damage of the many one-note portrayals of Latinx people. Still, Aubrey Plaza’s work has opened doors for young women such as Jenna Ortega, and real-life malcontents everywhere. That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with people who have more effusive ways to express themselves. But there is something wrong with a world saying you have to be that way to be part of our ethnic or gender group.
Thanks to Plaza, I know it’s only a matter of time before more stories and their heroines continue to pave the way for people like me, who defy stereotypes every day by our simple existence.