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Television

Teen Gang Members on TV: “On My Block” and “Riverdale”

I don’t normally watch, let alone recommend, shows about gang members. Characters like that are over-represented, giving the false impression that people of color are all cholos. Yet, I found Netflix’s On My Block to be the rare show that manages to depict gangs without romanticizing or pathologizing them. And I particularly like how the show contrasts with the CW’s Riverdale, a similarly structured teen drama, where the main character who joins a gang is white.

Both shows feature a mixed group of four high school friends, navigating coming of age in their troubled communities. On My Block’s main characters are all people of color with the Afro-Latina Monse as the group’s lone girl, Cesar and Ruby representing diverse Latino experiences, and Black Jamal rounding out the group. They’re in Freeridge, a fictional South Central neighborhood of Los Angeles plagued by gang violence. In Riverdale, the central group is much paler with White Archie, Jughead, and Betty getting a bit of color with Latina Veronica. These four inhabit the titular small, picturesque town losing its innocence.

These shows have A LOT in common

On both shows, one member of the central quartet joins a gang — with vastly different results. On On My Block, Cesar’s gang membership is an obstacle, a blatant tragedy. His friends’ attempts to save him propels much of the plot. By the end of season two, he’s negotiating with his brother and gang leader Spooky to be excused from the gang’s violent duties. Meanwhile, on Riverdale, being a Southside Serpent gives Jughead power and purpose. He ends up the leader of the group, keeping his fellow gang members from dealing drugs and protecting them from gentrifiers along the way.

Take for example the initiation process. We learn that Cesar has joined the Santos gang by seeing the bruises on his abdomen, an ugly, painful sign of getting jumped in. He’s not proud of his wounds and the show doesn’t dramatize the process, letting the injury speak for itself. Meanwhile, we see each step of Jughead’s initiation, some of it silly (taking care of a cute dog, being stung by a venom-less snake), some reminiscent of joining a frat (reciting memorized group rules), and some classic hypermasculine “heroics” (surviving a punching line of fellow Snakes). In Jughead’s initiation, he stands defiant and strong, taking his punches while looking his peers in the eyes. This portrayal glamorizes the process, making the violence a chance for Jughead to show his strength of character.

Against all likelihood, Jughead becomes the leader of the Southside Serpents

In fact, violence generally is a way for the teens of Riverdale to prove themselves. They solve the murder of their classmate Jason Blossom and expose a drug kingpin in the process. They catch not one but two suspected serial killers. They cover up murders, attack people, and still run for student council. They may grapple with their “darkness” but the show portrays all this violence with the same seriousness as it does wrestling tryouts, keeping us from having to consider what it’s like to be a teenager facing violence.

On My Block has no such delusions. Its black and brown characters inhabit a place much closer to reality, where murder is not something a normal teen should have to think about. After Cesar and Monse are rolled up on by rival gang member Latrelle, Spooky tasks Cesar with killing this new threat. Cesar attempts it but in the end, balks. You see Latrelle may be a rival gang member but it wasn’t too long ago that they were classmates, peers. Not wanting to become a killer, Cesar tells Latrelle to leave Freeridge and never come back. The threat works for a while but (spoiler) Latrelle returns in the season one finale, shooting two of our principal characters, killing one.

This violence — the death of an innocent fifteen-year-old and near-death of another — does not take a single episode or arc to resolve. The horror of it gives Ruby PTSD and leaves all of our characters in mourning for the entire second season. Meanwhile, Cesar is further punished for his good deed, exiled from the gang and forced to sleep on the street between staying with friends. The adults here respond not by being impressed by the young teen’s action (like they are with Jughead’s) but rather dismayed by the circumstance. For a few episodes there, it felt like everyone was just repeating the sentiment that “no child should be in this situation.”

Cesar is literally the smallest member of the Santos

On My Block illustrates a fact — gang violence hurts the children in its wake. It does not lift them up a la Jughead becoming the leader of the Serpents. And the violence is shown for what it is — ugly, irreversible, and de-humanizing. It’s not the mystery of the week. And it’s not the defining characteristic for any of our young heroines. Monse, Cesar, Ruby, and Jamal may live in a violent world but they’re typical teens, as worried about their latest crush and parent problems as they are about the state of their neighborhood. You see in addition to gang violence, On My Block portrays a slapstick treasure hunt (with gnomes no less), the double standard around hooking up (boys get points, girls a reputation), and an on-going bit about masturbation (socks figure in heavily).

Cesar is not “The Gang Member” to his friends or the audience and neither is Jughead (whose whiteness makes this trick much easier). In fact, they’re both the only gang members in their group of friends, ensuring we see other parts of their identity. With its brown and black point of view, On My Block takes the responsibility of righting the traditional gang narrative. Meanwhile, Riverdale hyper sensationalizes and promotes harmful myths but avoids any major offenses, mostly by keeping its of-color characters out of the Serpents and positioning the group as a response to Riverdale’s classist Northside/Southside conflict. Together, these shows ask viewers to see gangs not as brown or black menaces but rather the result of structural inequality. And for that, I commend them.

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Only 1 Latinx Person Won an Emmy — That’s Just Not Enough

There were many beautiful moments at the 2019 Emmy’s. Michelle Williams demanding fair treatment at work for women and particularly women of color. Billy Porter becoming the first black gay man to win an Emmy and quoting James Baldwin in his acceptance speech. Alex Borsteinurging women to “step out of line” like her grandmother did to survive the Holocaust.

The best of these was certainly Jharrel Jerome winning best actor in a limited series for When They See Us. The first Afro-Latino to win an acting Emmy, Jerome is also the youngest person to win this category at just 21. In his acceptance speech, he dedicated his award to the Exonerated Five, spoke Spanish, and, of course, thanked writer/director/producer Ava Duvernay, who definitely deserved to win her own Emmy.

“I hope this is a step forward for Dominicans, for Latinos, for Afro-Latinos. It’s about time we are here” said Jerome and we agree. The Dominican, Latinx, Afro-Latinx communities have been passed over for too long, talents not given the opportunity to shine on the main stage. These words were Jerome’s response to a question from Remezcla reporter Manuel Betancourt, the first time the Latinx publication was credentialed for the Emmys. When Latinx are both at the podium and asking the questions, great stuff happens.

So while we take this moment to celebrate Jerome’s win (and Betancourt’s reporting), we are far from satisfied. It was great seeing Latinx multi-hyphenates Jimmy Smits and Lin-Manuel Miranda presenting but that was the extent of our representation. Not a single Latina graced the Emmy stage. Not as a winner, not as a presenter, not even as a nominee. This in the year that saw the final seasons of Jane the Virgin and Orange Is The New Black, original EGOT winner Rita Moreno in ODAAT, AND Vida. Latinas were not just absent but ignored.

This erasure happened despite the fact that we certainly know how to do awards shows. I mean JLo literally caused the invention of Google Images with her green Versace dress, now celebrating its 20th anniversary and still breaking the internet. The women of Pose(not nominated, not brought on stage, seated in the back) arguably won the red carpet. We know how to bring it.

Perhaps the Television Academy is scared of us. Remember the debacle they got in a few years ago when they literally put Sofia Vergara on a pedestal? Or perhaps they’re worried they’ll repeat the mistake the Globes made in confusing Latina actresses for each other. But maybe I’m being too generous. It could be they just don’t know what to do with women of color in general. I mean Sandra Oh’s never won despite all those years as the formidable Dr. Cristina Yang (not to mention her current role as the titular Eve on Killing Eve). They didn’t give Ava Duvernay the statues she deserved last night. In fact, they didn’t give any WOC awards. No black women won, no Latinas were nominated, see the note about Sandra Oh above.

And while white women won all of the acting categories, Phoebe Waller-Bridge was the only woman to win a non-acting category, thanks to her writing for Fleabag (which went on to win Best Comedy). It was a rough night for women in general, and particularly for women of color.

The Emmys have to do better. TV is more diverse than film and the Television Academy shows should celebrate, rather than shun that fact. At a moment where activism around media representation continues to make headlines, we should be further than this. Didn’t we learn anything from #OscarsSoWhite? What about all those studies from Annenberg? Yet, here we are, thrilled to be celebrating some firsts while huge proportions of our community get shut out. Again. It’s past time to make Latinas visible.

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“Los Espookys” is the Perfect Show for this Ironic, Faux Start of Fall

It may not be officially fall, but unofficially, “Hot Girl Summer” has ended and everyone is looking for the next track. In honor of the changing season, let me recommend HBO’s Los Espookys. It came out in June and while it takes place in Los Angeles and some sunny, Pan Latin American country, it’s the perfect show for the ironic faux start of fall.

Created by Fred Armisen and Ana Fabrega, Los Espookys follows a group of friends who are trying to turn their love of horror into a business by staging spooks, like a monster-sighting and an exorcism, for hire. The show is delightfully odd with absurdist gags ranging from the random (a demon demanding to see The King’s Speech before cooperating) to the insightful (a group of LA-based valets doesn’t understand what “to snowball” means, having never seen snow).

It also happens to be very Latinx. In case you forgot, there’s not a lot of media featuring or made by Latinxs (did you see that Annenberg study? Its findings were dismal). And when Latinxs do make it on the screen, we’re generally gang members and drug runners — just like what the man currently occupying the White House thinks.

Fred Armisen is one of ours and a co-creator of the very Latinx Los Espookys

To have a show like Los Espookys on HBO is a pretty big deal. It’s in English and Spanish. The Latinx cast are different generations, skin tones, social classes, and personalities. It’s created by Latinxs (did you know Fred Armisen was one of ours? I didn’t! But it turns out his mother is Venezuelan). And it’s really good.

It’s also not about being Latinx, in the way, say Vida (the other prestige show we’ve got) is. The characters on Vida are dealing with identity in heavy ways, trying to figure out how race and class and color intersect within and outside their communities.

Not so on Los Espookys. Renaldo, Úrsula, Andrés, Tati, and Tico are just living their lives, figuring out who they are and how to get by without questions of racial identity playing a major role. That’s not to say Los Espookys is racially or ethnically agnostic. It’s not. It’s very Latinx. It just portrays our identities as the default, refusing to contrast our experiences with Anglo ones.

This centering of the Latinx experience starts with subtle nods. The series opens with an elaborate quinceañera. There’s a whole bit about how Renaldo spells his name, which while explained, works much better if you’re familiar with actual Reynaldos. The Catholic church makes appearances in the form of nun and priest characters but instead of being saints or pedophiles, these clergy members are regular, petty people motivated not by good or evil but rather by jealousy or simply the desire to finish their favorite telenovela. It’s the stuff of Latinx life, told with HBO dollars and a silly, experimental point of view.

In Los Espookys, the US government is ignorant, superficial, and ridiculous — like Latinx have known it to be for generations

This centering of the Latinx experience is not just in the details of the show but the politics too. Take the one white American character: US Ambassador Gibbons. She’s a sort of evil Elle Woods with platinum blond hair, pink everything, and a blasé colonist attitude. Superficial and willfully ignorant, she couldn’t care less about her powerful job as evidenced by her disdain for the language (she gets an invitation and declares that it’s in “code” before her one Latinx aid tells her it’s in Spanish) to deciding randomly who gets a visa and who does not. This understanding of Los Estados Unidos as irrational, mercurial, and careless is about as Latinx as it gets. And it’s particularly funny and cutting in the Trump era.

Which is not to say Los Espookys takes itself seriously or leans in politically (although it does take pains to hilariously decimate the Herbalife pyramid schemes that prey on our communities). No, the show is all about the laughs, the absurd, and the spooks, using the Latinx point of view as its building blocks.

On HBO, series are divided into “All,” “Latino,” “International,” and “Family” but don’t let that “All” fool you — most of the “Latino” programs are not listed there. Los Espookys is. The show is claiming space in the mainstream HBO platform and I love it. The idea that a bilingual, silly, fun Latinx show is as much for everyone as Insecure and Sex and the City is just powerful. So before the days get too short and your TV options too vast, spend a few hours enjoying Los Espookys.

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What “Pose” Taught Me About Womanhood

“God may have blessed you with Barbies, a backyard with a pony, a boyfriend named Jake, and an unwanted pregnancy that your father paid to terminate so you could go to college and major in being a basic bitch. None of these things make you a woman.”

Elektra Abundance

“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

Simone De Beauvoir

As a straight, cis woman, I don’t do too much thinking about my womanhood. No one misgenders me. I’ve never been clocked. Yes, I joke about how terrible I am at stereotypical lady stuff. My hair/make up/nail game leaves much to be desired. This is not a source of pride for me, but rather mild embarrassment. I’m 35 — shouldn’t I be able to blow dry my hair by now? Yet my lack of both inclination and skill in this department doesn’t make me less of a “real” woman. I’m not endangered because of it, the consequences are minimal. In fact, the only one joking about my inability to perform these aspects of femininity is me.

In addition to being dedicated to looking a certain way, society also expects women to be naturally nurturing. We’re the mothers, the people-people, the ones with emotions. But I’m not what you’d call a “warm, fuzzy.” I always get analytical instead of emotional on those personality tests. My husband once insinuated that I let our baby cry too long before picking her up. I wouldn’t describe myself as cruel by any means but quick-to-the-hug, I am not. Yet again, no one doubts the actual fact of my womanhood, even if I sometimes get comments about acting “more like a man.”

So if I don’t meet the expectations around looks or personality, I have to wonder, why is my womanhood never questioned? Is it the fact that I have a vagina? That seems highly unlikely. Everywhere I go, people treat me as a woman and 99.9% of them have no knowledge of my reproductive organs. They couldn’t vouch for my vagina’s existence. I certainly don’t go around imagining strangers’ genitalia. Do you?

So, the question remains: what makes a person a woman?

. . .

 
The women of Pose: Judge them not, lest you be judged!

Watching Pose, I never doubted the femaleness of Blanca, Elektra, Angel, Lulu, Candy, and crew. Sometimes, I got confused when other characters would perceive them as male — what were they seeing that I wasn’t? It’s like when other shows pretend someone is regular looking (say because they’re wearing glasses and a cardigan) and we’re not supposed to notice that there’s a weirdly attractive person under there.

The thing is, the women of Pose are so skilled at performing womanhood. The clothes. The nails. The hair. The makeup. The shoes. They understand the trappings of femaleness and are committed to executing it each and every day. I imagine for them, as activist and show writer/producer/director Janet Mock wrote, “Femininity was more than just adornments; they were extensions of me, enabling me to express myself and my identity. My body, my clothes, and my makeup are on purpose, just as I am on purpose.” And this purposefulness is key — it is not enough to simply dress a part, that part has to be integral to your identity.

Think of the season two finale — in it, we see the male characters walk the ball in drag. They’ve practiced strutting (or stumbling) in heels. They’ve got on wigs and dresses and jewelry. But as Elektra says, “Don’t get it twisted. These men are not trying to be women. These linebackers are tapping into their inner femininity and letting their inner queen come out to play.” In Pose and in real life, dressing up as a woman (whether you “pass” or not) does not make you a woman, no matter how feminine.

. . .

 
There’s more than one way to mother on Pose

There’s this idea that “masculine” and “feminine” are polls, two complementary forces that a person is between. We all know this script — the “masculine” is rationale, stoic, violent even while the “feminine” is emotional, nurturing, expressive. In this framework, to be “feminine” is to be vulnerable, less than. We see this play out in Pose as characters are continually punished for showing “feminine” traits, gay and trans kids kicked out of their homes, beaten, or worse. The consequences for being outside the norm are real from women who wear less makeup getting paid less all the way to the extreme violence perpetrated against the trans community. It’s a culture of violence, of regulation, of suppression.

As a feminist, I don’t believe there’s a correlation between someone’s sex and how “masculine” or “feminine” they are. Yes, women are socialized to be “feminine” and men, “masculine.” But people are primarily people and the expectations we put on them around gender are extremely limiting and unhealthy. As activist and author Jacob Tobia told Paper Magazine, “there’s this idea that there’s only cis people and trans people, and trans people have the complicated genders and cis people have the simple genders. That could not be further from the truth — gender is simple for nobody. Even people who think that they’ve experienced gender ‘simply’ have a nuanced, complicated, and multidimensional gender experience.” None of us are just or even primarily our gender.

Pose demonstrates this complexity so well. Think of how different the women’s personalities are, how each of them is a complex mix of traits. I particularly like how the show portrays motherhood in Blanca and Elektra. Blanca is the good, “feminine” mother we are used to seeing — she loves her children, nurtures them, and fights for them. She’s descended from Clair Huxtable and Tami Taylor, strong women who use both tough and unconditional love to raise their children. Elektra, on the other hand, could be seen as the “bad” mother — she starts the show putting down her family members in an attempt to make herself feel more superior. And while she grows over the two seasons (think of the beach trip as an example of how she takes care of her daughters), she’s not who you’d go to for a self-esteem boost. No, Elektra mostly provides for her children monetarily — her house is swanky, her ball costumes and props luxurious. This may be the more “masculine” way to care for people, but it never threatens Elektra’s womanhood. Indeed, it’s Blanca who worries more about getting clocked while Elektra passes with greater ease. Where their personalities fall on the socially-constructed spectrum of “masculine” and “feminine” does not determine their womanhood, either for themselves or the society that judges them.

. . .

 
The dress doesn’t make the woman on Pose or IRL

Gender is also not defined genitalia. That’s just silly. We categorize every person we meet quickly and easily into a gendered category with no knowledge of what’s between their legs. And it’s not about hormones or other biological processes either (see the backlash against women’s running for trying to define womanhood by testosterone level). We just don’t know those things about other people (or ourselves) and yet we’re all out here using gendered pronouns as a matter of course.

. . .

 
On Pose, the women must assert their womanhood over and over again

So, again, what does make a woman? If it’s not how you look, not who you are, not your biology, what’s left? Part of me wants to say it’s a performance. It’s certainly something I do every day, consciously or not. It’s in how I dress, how I walk, even how I speak. But you choose to perform and I never chose to be a woman, I never chose to be straight, and no one else does either.

Being a woman is more like a role that chooses you. It comes with impossible expectations, the pressure to live up to an unattainable ideal of womanhood. Sometimes as women we mold ourselves to match an ideal, trying to get as close as possible. Think of Pose’s Angel — she succeeds at portraying feminine beauty to such an extent that she gets big contracts in the modeling industry (only to see her success stalled thanks to the rumor mill). Sometimes, we rebel against those expectations, going in an opposite or third direction. Like Candy always ready to pull out her hammer, ready to defend herself physically whenever the situation called for it.

Regardless, when you’re a woman, you’re identity is in relationship to the feminine ideal in a way that a man’s or genderqueer person’s is not. Maybe that’s what makes a woman.

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Watching and Loving the White, Male “Stranger Things”

Stranger Things is a white, male show. Yes, one of the original four boys is black, and yes, there are strong female characters, and yes, for the first time in season three we got a character who is BOTH black and a girl, but the fact remains — this is a show that centers the white, male experience. I don’t normally watch shows like this. I generally prefer to hear from women and people of color — voices vastly underrepresented in media. This tendency helps me narrow down the overwhelming options that are TV today and ensures I’ll be spending my time on the most interesting shows anyway.

Yet, there I was, gobbling up the third season of Stranger Things as quickly as I could (four nights in my case). And while the show is undeniably white and male, they’ve clearly done some thinking around how to be better on diversity.

First, there’s the addition of Erica, Lucas’ 10-year-old sister, as one of our child heroes. If you haven’t watched the most recent season yet, you may remember her from season two — she had several scene-stealing appearances. In season three, she joins our adventurers in saving the world, playing a pivotal part in figuring out what’s going in Hawkins. And while actress Priah Ferguson is amazing, leaving more of an impression than many of her older colleagues, there’s something in Erica’s role as the fast-talking, “sassy” black girl that made me uncomfortable — it’s a bit too close to stereotype for comfort.

See what I mean about the sass?

Meanwhile, her brother Lucas gets to be more of a whole person (perhaps because he’s not saddled with being both a girl and a person of color). That said, there were several times when he literally faded into the shadows, his face so poorly lit in the line up of boys that I couldn’t distinguish his features. Perhaps they should hire some of the folks who do lighting for Insecure to help out… And of course, there’s also the issue that Asian and Latinx folks exist, but still, I noticed and appreciated the effort!

Not just race, the creators of Stranger Things are also working on their portrayal of gender. This season featured two episodes directed by a woman (last season had one — the Eleven bottle-episode and the first season had none). Plus, Eleven and Max finally became friends instead of rivals, a truly annoying and unnecessary plot point in season two.

It turns out girls are not natural enemies — thanks Stranger Things!

In season three, we get more girl characters and more who are two-dimensional. Eleven is no longer a genderless creature, a girl in name only. She not only presents more feminine (she’s got hair) but also is figuring out what it means to be a different “species” than her boyfriend Mike and his friends. That journey includes a totally 80’s makeover-at-the-mall sequence, which is positively delightful (although where does she get the money for all those new clothes?). And she gets to kiss her boyfriend, create a “new look,” and make a female friend all while still being the most important of the kids, the one who stands in front of the gang and fights the monster, the one who everyone must protect even as she is the only one who can hold off the forces of darkness.

On the grown-up side, Winona Ryder’s Joyce Byers is still the only woman involved in the adventure and her primary weapon remains her mom-ness. Yet, this time it’s not just her knowledge of her kids and drive to protect them that makes her important. She’s able to use those same skills outside the house (how novel!) to demand she gets what they need, whether it’s help from the government or our local Russian-speaking conspiracy theorist. Definitely progress from taping together drawings on her living-room floor.

And we meet Maya Hawke as Robin Buckley in the third season, a girl who’d have no place in previous seasons. Her hair’s a bit greasy and she’s got indie sensibilities, having played in band in high school and been invisible to her now coworker, Steve “the Hair” Harrington. But she’s down for adventure and good with languages, so much so that she breaks the Russian code and generally becomes crucial to our saga. At first, it seems like she’s just a lesson for Steve — shouldn’t he have gone for the girl who is smart and cool and right in front of him all along? But then (spoiler coming!) when he finally realizes his mistake and makes his move, Robin lets him down gently. Turns out she’s gay! And with that twist, she becomes not an object of Steve’s development but rather her own person, eventually helping our popular if pedestrian young man find employment after the mall “burns” down.

The other teenage girl (and Steve’s previous love interest), Nancy Wheeler, doesn’t do quite so well on bucking the gender stereotypes. She’s the most feminine of all our leading ladies consistently in skirts and heels. She fights misogynists at work and monsters in her free time but the way she’s shot makes her look small and fragile, despite being in a show mostly populated by actual children. Nancy’s not powerless — she’s right about her story idea and does the most damage with a gun of anyone this season, including the chief of police — but her power seems limited by femaleness (and her boyfriend always trying to save her) rather than stemming or even just free from it (like the rest of the female cast).

How many times have you seen this shot?

That’s not to say there isn’t plenty to love about Stranger Things. Of course, there’s the 80’s nostalgia (I had that radio! I’d wear that dress today!) and all the great movie references, bringing us elder Millenials and Gen X’ers back to our childhoods. But more than that, Stranger Things is primarily a story of underdogs winning and who doesn’t love that?

I’m not talking about how the kids are nerds — watching from 2019, we know that 80’s nerds become today’s power players — I’m talking about how the kids are kids. There may be superpowers involved but the young people at the center of Stranger Things are exactly where they should be developmentally. They’re learning what it means to have romantic relationships, to grow out of childhood interests (so sad that Dungeons and Dragons scene), to have first jobs, and try on new identities. And they’re not all doing it at the same pace or in the same way as each other.

Stranger Things takes childhood seriously. The friendship between Mike, Dustin, Lucas, and Will is as important as anything else on the show. In fact, they succeed only because they are children: they need Erica’s smallness, adult’s underestimation, and their own, childhood ability to believe and imagine to survive.

It’s rare to see young people taken so seriously in media and Stranger Things really does it right by letting its kids grow. These aren’t characters stuck perpetually in a single grade, they’re actual people transitioning from being children to teenagers to adults. The show lets this change breathe, seeing it as an opportunity to explore new dynamics and possibilities rather than a wrinkle in its original premise.

The result is a unique narrative, one that expands who can be a hero, who’s worthy of our attention, and who deserves to have their story told. And this quality, this loosening of the adult-white-male hegemony over our imagination, is, as it turns out, what draws me to most of the media I consume. So I guess, that’s why I binged Stranger Things and why I’ll be one of the millions waiting for the next season. Yes, it’s white and it’s male but that’s not all it is.

Who’s ready for season four?
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Queer Eye’s Deanna Munoz is a Tearful Portrait of What it Means to Be Latina Today

Queer Eye is delightful in its ability to make life look simple. A haircut, wardrobe refresh, and a new recipe can transform someone into the best version of themself.

But we all know life outside of reality television is not so simple. Our families are complicated. Our politics are complicated. Our country is complicated. And new apparel curated by the nearly perfect human that is Tan France and his beautiful silver hair can’t change that.

When the first Latina on Queer Eye was introduced, I saw a person I knew but whose story rarely gets the spotlight. Deanna Munoz is a hard-working, intelligent, family-centered Chicana creating a community for artists and creatives in Kansas City as the founder of the Latino Arts Festival.

As a second-generation Mexican-American and a woman balancing two cultures, many of Deanna’s insecurities matched my own. I immediately resonated with her as she explained how she feels in the kitchen with her mother in law — intimidated. These are the feelings I’ve dealt with as a Latina but are rarely addressed on TV, much less to a mainstream audience on Netflix.

Likewise, I resonated with Deanna’s embarrassment as she explained that she couldn’t speak Spanish because of her father’s desire to assimilate. When I was young, I remember hiding in the bathroom as my grandparents talked with their friends because I was so embarrassed I couldn’t speak Spanish.

As I watched Deanna update her wardrobe with Tan and get a new haircut from Jonathan, it was touching to watch someone who had given so much get time for herself too. And not just time for herself, but also a new space for her community. As I watched Bobby take Deanna through her new community center, I cried to see a woman’s dreams come true.

However it was Karamo’s segment that connected me back to reality. Deanna shared with Karamo that she didn’t feel accepted by her predominantly white neighborhood so he set up one of his infamous therapeutic sessions: having her go door to door to introduce herself and talk about the Latino Arts Festival.

Before the exercise, Deanna reveals some of her neighbors have been more than just cold. She tells Karamo when her husband was landscaping their own yard, one of her neighbors sent a message to her husband, mocking him with “the Mexicans were building their own wall.”

It was a difficult episode to watch. While I was happy that Queer Eye choose Deanna as one of their heroes, watching her knock on each neighbor’s door was heartbreaking. Because this is what most Latinos have to do today to connect beyond our own community: we have to make the case for existing.

Instead of just being welcomed in her community, Deanna had to prove to her neighbors that she was worthy of being included. It was particularly difficult in this political moment. The shooting in El Paso. Donald Trump telling Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), and Ilhan Omar (D-MN) — all US citizens — to “go back” to their countries. While violent racism is no longer a surprise, it is still very, very wrong. And I am tired of all the reminders that racist acts, even at their clearest and most pointed, are ignored and excused by everyone from the President to our neighbors.

This episode perfectly showed the limits of Queer Eye. I would love it if all of our conflicts could be solved in an hour montage full of empathy, joy, and understanding. But even a Jonathan haircut and a makeover with Tan cannot hide our country’s past and increasingly polarizing dynamic.

There is a reason that Jonathan suggests dialing her hair back to be more “polished” and why Tan suggests a more “sophisticated” work look. It’s because for many Mexican Americans, our culture has been written off as “not serious” or “working-class” instead of what it is — an expression of our identity and where we come from.

As immigrants, we still have to prove our humanity. We are forced to go door to door, neighbor to neighbor to ask for acceptance because we know people will not give us the benefit of the doubt. When Deana shares her difficult experiences, one neighbor sympathetically replies “I didn’t know you were feeling that way.” It’s this reality that many of us start with, that racism and exclusion is often the last thing a white family might think about. We have to share stories of our trauma, our families, and our hard work to been seen — something most white Americans can’t even fathom.

Deanna’s experience on Queer Eye is a reflection of how far our country still has to go. I dream of a day where we won’t have to share images of children crossing the border or huddling in detention centers or gunned down at Walmart. That just the mention of children or simply people in need would be enough. A time when Deanna doesn’t have to introduce herself to every neighbor on the block, a time where her neighbors come to her and welcome her as a member of their community. This is the ultimate American makeover I hope for but I know it’ll take time and more than just a little “zhuzhing.”

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Why I’ll Miss “Jane the Virgin:”  Empathy, Representation, Sex, and More

It’s officially over: the last episode of Jane the Virgin airs tonight. The show wrapped up a lot up in the final 19 episodes (spoilers ahead!): Jane got a huge book deal ($500,000!), Elisa (finally) came through for her family, arch-villain Rose/Sin Rostro (definitively) died, Alba and Jorge found happiness together, Xo beat cancer, and Jane, of course, picked Rafael once and for all (although I imagine the Michael v. Rafael debate will continue indefinitely).

As a longtime fan of the show, I will miss the Villanuevas’ bench, Rogelio’s antics, and even Petra’s formal shorts. All that aside, what I hope the show is remembered for is treating each and every one of its characters with empathy. It turns out that the world is quite different when you apply the same level of compassion to everyone.

It’s easy, human even, to judge people who are different than you, ascribing negative motives and then writing them off. At its worst, this tendency combines with structural inequality (like how entertainment is overwhelmingly white and male), creating devasting problems like hate crimes, the mass incarceration of people of color, giant pay disparities, etc. Jane the Virgin defies this pattern, both in how its made and in what it portrays — a world filled with the problems we know but where race, gender, and class do not determine one’s value.

It’s worth remembering that Jane is lead by a white woman, Jennie Snyder Urman. Despite her lack of first-hand experience, she has managed to create one of the most meaningful portrayals of latinidad on television. She’s hired Latinx writers and centered a vision of Latinx identity that resonates with reality: Latinxs are a hardworking, diverse group of people (who are no more likely to commit crimes than the general population). All those shows about drug cartels and gang members are giving audiences the wrong impression.

And it’s not just that the Latinx characters on Jane the Virgin aren’t criminals, they’re diverse in so many ways: in age, in how they view sex, even in their views on religion. Take our three principle women: Alba, Xiomara (Xo), and Jane. They manage to have different worldviews, make different choices, change and grow, and yet remain sympathetic throughout.

Alba starts the series in the stereotypical “good Catholic” abuelita role. A staunch believer in no sex outside of marriage, she teaches her young granddaughter that a woman’s worth is tied to her sexual purity. Alba is sometimes wrong but she is never the villain. And as the show goes on, we learn that everything is not so simple: Alba did indeed have sex before marriage and by the final season, she’s even masturbating to Barack Obama — surely a church no-no!

Xo is, in many ways, the other Latina stereotype: a teenage mom who prefers sexy clothing and whose daughter gets mad at for acting younger than her age. And again, Jane the Virgin, grants her leeway to be. Xo doesn’t link her self-worth to her sexuality but rather sees sex as a fun route to self-expression. The show pushes this message with Xiomara getting an abortion and managing to be as likable as ever.

Likewise, Jane falls somewhere in the middle and that’s okay too. She takes what she likes from both her grandmother and mother’s examples and builds her own identity, whether it’s figuring out her views on sex, religion, parenting, or even how to pursue her dream. With these three, Jane the Virgin constructs a beautiful portrayal of the many ways women and Latinas, in particular, exist. The show doesn’t pretend that these choices are solely individual — Catholicism and social expectations loom large — but the Villanueva women each create their own way of navigating these pressures. Imagine if we all exhibited the same grace as the show creators in respecting the different choices others make.

I mean really imagine it — imagine it in the context of “mommy wars” (and the never-ending debate about what’s best for “the children”). Imagine it in class-based debates (say the disdain the GOP feels compelled to exhibit about House member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s previous job as a bartender). It’s hard isn’t, to imagine the world another way? And yet, that’s what Jane the Virgin does week in and week out.

Take the evolution of the Jane-Petra relationship. The show started with them as rivals. Petra was blond, thin, and rich to Jane’s brown, curvy, and working-class. Petra was also the wife of Jane’s love-interest, Rafael. But as the show progresses, these two stop competing and start working together — all the while remaining vastly different and finding themselves in healthy, regular conflict. I still remember the exchange they had while Jane was helping Petra shop for her new babies in season two:

Jane: Raf and I have this glider. We love it because it is so comfortable, especially if you’re gonna be up long nights, feeding the baby.
Petra: I’m not worried about late nights. I have a night nurse…
Jane: Okay, got it…So, pacifiers?
Petra: Oh, yes, definitely pacifiers. Wait, how about those?
Jane: Two for $12? No, that’s ridiculous. Look it, five for ten.
Petra: Yeah, but don’t you think there’s a reason for the price difference?
Jane: Yeah, they’re trying to scam you.
Petra: Or they’re better.
Jane: Maybe.
Petra: Definitely.

This conversation is perfect. Even though at this point, we’re used to sympathizing with Jane, Petra’s point of view is presented as just as valid. Later Petra says Jane “made me feel bad for wanting the best things for our kids” and call her “a martyr — she has to do everything herself.” Meanwhile, Jane has her own version of events with Petra “buying all these overpriced impractical things just because they were more expensive” and “talking about around-the-clock nannies.”

But as the show makes clear by interspersing these two accounts, neither is “right.” These two women, these two mothers are just different! And that’s okay! In fact, it’s more than okay. By the end of the show, Petra and Jane have both become successful mothers and individuals, finding happiness inside their families and outside them. It turns out the road to fulfillment isn’t determined by your feelings towards $6 pacifiers or even night nurses. Instead, it’s about learning to be honest (Petra) and flexible (Jane).

And it’s not just the women who can grow and change. Think about the central male characters — Michael, Rafael, Rogelio, and even Jorge. They all get to be attractive, “real” men while displaying totally different versions of masculinity. Instead of conforming to a masculine type, Jane the Virgin asks its men, just like it asks its women, to be good people: to respect others, to fight fair, to be honest.

It’s rare that a show manages to do so much: to break important barriers in representation in terms of race, gender, sexuality, motherhood, while also, fundamentally, asking all of us to be better people. Even in its darkest darks (and there were some dark times — Jane’s grieving of Michael, his heart-wrenching return), Jane the Virgin was always a light. It never betrayed the fundamental approach of empathy in building its world. And for that, in particular, I will miss it.

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Four Reasons Why Charmed is Heir to Buffy’s Legacy

I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I watched it live, made sure I hadn’t missed an episode with the DVDs, and read all the think-pieces I could (and there are a lot). Not to mention science says it’s good for you — watching shows like Buffy (aka shows with kickass female leads) has a proven positive correlation to less gender bias in boys and men. In fact, with so much media out there, I’m pretty much only watching shows that fit the Buffy-mold: woman-led, woman-centered.

But can any show really pick up where Buffy left off? I mean, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a cult favorite for a reason, right? But I think it’s possible. And the show that’s doing it is the CW’s remake of Charmed.

You probably missed Charmed when it originally aired (to be clear I’m talking the 2019 reboot here). It didn’t get a lot of press. And what it did get was negative (the original stars weren’t happy, it uses cross-racial casting). Those critiques are valid and interesting and worth pondering. But it’s lack of critical acclaim (when they cover it at all) speaks much more to bias in criticism (old, white, male) than the show’s actual merit.

Charmed, now with its first season available on Netflix and a second season set to premiere later this year, is carrying on the Buffy legacy. Let me walk you through it:

1. Same Premise (and Mentor)

Both shows are about young women who suddenly find themselves in the position of needing to save the world, thanks to a set of new powers they didn’t see coming. Buffy first discovers her powers in high school (although we see her go to college+) while Charmed’s trio of Maggie, Mel, and Macy (let’s call them the 3 M’s for short) range from undergraduate to post-doc. They’re all in that figuring-out-who-you-are stage of life. It’s just that now their coming-to-age story includes defeating monsters each week and handling the season-long threats to life as we know it.

With the fate of the world resting on their young shoulders, the shows start with them learning how to control their new gifts (while navigating romances, school, and work). Enter a helpful, white British guy, representing a secret society of guardians who say they’re there to help our young heroines. Should we trust this far away bureaucracy? Both Buffy and the 3 M’s have their doubts. But is Giles/Harry a positive, crush-worthy if stiff, figure? Yes and yes. And with that premise, we’re off and running.

2. Humor Breaks Up the Darkness

Buffy and Charmed are campy and dark. The contrast of ugly demons with of-the-moment outfits is funny, dynamic, and telling in both shows. The idea that HQ for saving the world would be your mom’s house is pretty great. And the contrast between the villains being literal demons, while the superheroes are girls worried about losing their virginity is wonderful. Add in a bunch of puns and some general enjoyable silliness (see Charmed’sTouched by a Demon” or the Buffy-bot episode), and you have humor counterbalancing the serious, literal darkness surrounding our heroines.

Charmed even goes the extra mile by loading up on feminist in-jokes with Harry’s claim to fame being how Roxane Gay retweeted him once (but you have to scroll back a lot because she’s “quite prolific”), plus jabs at incels, manic pixie dream girls, and the like. It’s the updated Buffy humor you’ve been waiting for. Plus demons. Lots of demons.

3. (Intersectional) Feminist Intentions

Of course, plot and style is just part of what made Buffy so great. The key to its rabid fandom and staying power has always been its actual feminism — its centering of a small, young woman as worthy of our attention, admiration, and consideration. Charmed does the same thing, pushing the envelope by imagining that young woman as ::gasp:: not blond. Maggie, Mel, and Macy are Latina/Afro-Latina with a range of skin colors and hair textures. Sometimes their racial identity takes center stage (say when Maggie learns the truth about her dad) and sometimes it’s just in the details (they drink coquito at Christmas). But it’s always there, just like Buffy’s whiteness. Centering women of color pushes the argument further, allowing us to see more people as worthy of the supernatural feminist destiny we all crave.

Then there’s the presentation of sexuality. Buffy won accolades for its LGBTQ representation (I’m still shipping Willow and Tara) and Charmedtakes it to the next level by having one of its three principles be queer. Mel gets two women love interests in the first season and her romances are just as steamy, important, and complicated as her hetero sisters. Neither show assumes straightness and that’s how it should be.

Also on the sexuality front, both shows deal with female virginity and Charmed comes out ahead. Buffy famously lost her V-card to Angel, causing him to turn evil and setting up a multi-season arc of brooding heartbreak. The tragic costs of Buffy’s sexuality are pretty retrograde and while she eventually gets to have sex without consequences (which male heroes seem to always enjoy), nothing ever matches up with that first romance. Macy, on the other hand, starts the show a virgin not because she’s pure or religious but rather because she’s standoffish. That said, with the help of her sisters, she comes out of her shell, makes a real connection (after overcoming some magic roadblocks), and has sex. It turns out not to be that big of a deal. Because it’s not. Pretty cool, huh?

4. Charmed Picks Up Where Buffy Leaves Off

Remember how the final season of Buffy ended with Buffy changing the rules of the universe so there’d be more than one slayer? It was just too much for one person, however strong, to bear. Score one for collectivism, zero for individualism. Charmed starts there: we’ve got the “power of three,” which requires not one, but three powerful women (sisters no less) to save the world. They have to negotiate collective decision making (do decision have to be unanimous or just two-against-one?), their competing priorities (who’s practicing witchcraft versus at their job versus with their partner?), and their different personalities (because different people have different ways of solving problems). All things Buffy could ignore when she wanted to.

Charmed’s collective approach reflects its Latinx premise nicely, moving us away from the limited, bootstrap narrative attached to so many of our (white, male) heroes. In Charmed, we have a show that builds on Buffy’ssuccesses and takes us into 2020 and hopefully beyond.

So if you miss Buffy or just finished Stranger Things and want more young people + fantasy/sci-fi, let me recommend Charmed. It’s pretty delightful.

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“Jane the Virgin” Chapter 89: Love is in the Air, Just Not for Jane

This week in Jane the Virgin, Jane’s luck in love seems to have run out while other characters finally get theirs. Chapter 89 brought us more fun times with Rogelio and we finally get some clarity on Alba and Jorge’s “will they or won’t they” relationship. The founders of Mujeres Problemáticas discuss their highs and lows of the episode and place their bets for how long Rafael can actually stay mad at Jane.

CRISTINA: I thought this episode brought the fun! Yes, things were sad for Jane but everyone else (except Raf and Mateo, still stuck in her love triangle) had a pretty interesting week. Let’s start with everyone’s favorite Rogelio. Poor guy — after all that drama with River Pheonix, his pilot gets rejected! They want someone younger and something with more edge. So who does he draft? Jane of course.

NICOLA: I love how Jane the Virgin provides such a refuge for actors of all ages. It’s so rare to see a male latino character dealing with getting older in an emotionally open and vulnerable way. And that’s what Rogelio does best. It was good to see Rogelio stick up for himself and let Jane know that she let him down by not finishing the proposal for his show. I love how real their relationship has become.

CRISTINA: Really, everything with Rogelio is the best. And speaking of fan favorites, Petra and JR also met some obstacles in Chapter 89, specifically Petra’s daughters trying to sabotage their relationship because they think JR is a “bad guy,” having seen her shot Milos last season. Turns out there wasn’t a bad man in their room, they planted the email to Milos, and, in this episode, they make Petra think JR’s about to shot.

What I loved about this plotline was seeing Petra the mom coming through. She’s raised two little mini-me’s who are tough and smart and willing to manipulate to get their way. It was great to see them both take after their mother and use their Petra-ness “against” their mom (even if they were just trying to protect her). It spoke volumes that Petra was willing to give up her new romance for the girls and I am here for it.

NICOLA: This show has so many layers and it’s incredible. Instead of just talking about gun violence they’re able to have a comprehensive conversation about trauma, violence, and mother-daughter-dating relationships. First, it’s hard being a single mom, balancing caring for your children and falling in love (arguably for the first time). But add the crazy situations that exist in Jane the Virgin including accidentally-maybe-on-purpose killing your twin sister and it gets significantly more complicated. Petra has grown and we see that in how she deals with JR and her girls. Not only is she willing to sacrifice a new love for her kids, which season one Petra would not have done, but she seeks out therapy for her girls to process the trauma. I have loved watching Petra become this strong, caring, and open woman.

CRISTINA: And I’d argue that Rafael and Jane showed some growth this episode too. Rafael gave her a very firm rejection — no means no Jane — but the two set about figuring how to co-parent as exes. I still think they’ll end up together and everyone saying Rafael is a jerk is refusing to see him as a human being rather than just a love object. I mean, what’s a person supposed to do in his situation? He’s been clear about his boundaries and wants a partner who picks him first — it’s good that he sticks up for himself. Plus, you know if Jane actually needed something (like when Xo was sick), he’d be right there. Rafael may not want to be with Jane romantically right now, but he still loves her for who she is and as the mother of his child.

NICOLA: I agree! Rafael is doing a great job in my opinion, dealing with his feelings in a mature way. When trust is lost it takes time to rebuild no matter how much you might love someone. It’s important to carve some time for yourself and to remember that your happiness does not depend on another person. Rafael is doing the work. He is investing in his relationship with Mateo and in his career goals. Honestly, Jane could take some cues from him.

CRISTINA: Agreed. The best part of the episode was certainly Alba FINALLY getting hers. She’s come a long way from the person who said a woman who has sex before marriage is like a crushed flower — never the same (or beautiful or valuable) again. Now Alba’s found a healthy relationship with sexand love within her Catholicism and that includes more acceptance of herself and Xo. It was so great to see her and Jorge acting like the couple they are and him finally admitting his love for her. They deserve all the happiness.

NICOLA: Yes, the world of Jane the Virgin is deliberately inclusive. Each character has had the opportunity to experience love, loss, joy, anger, and moments of change no matter their race, age, class, or sexual orientation. And that’s the representation we so desperately need.

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“Jane the Virgin” Chapter 88: A Miami Girl in Montana

Jane the Virgin went on a field trip to Montana this week so our heroine could focus (and resolve!) her love triangle issues. With bedazzled cowboy boots, flannels, and hats, Chapter 88 brought the fun while also revealing just how different Michael’s become through his years on the ranch. The founders of Mujeres Problemáticas discuss their highs and lows of the episode and finally pick sides between #TeamMichael and #TeamRafael.

CRISTINA: This week’s episode took place almost entirely in Montana and the city-girl-goes-country dynamic was pretty great. Yes, there were the costumes (those shoes! those hats!) but there was also the lack of technology giving Jane trouble. She couldn’t text Xo! How would her and Michael do long distance without FaceTime? So many problems being off the grid!

But the best part was seeing Jane get down and dirty. She shoveled shit, fixed a fence, and was generally the hard-working ranch hand we KNOW Latinas can be. I mean, we are the original rancheras.

NICOLA: Agreed — I definitely liked this episode. It’s one of the few episodes where we get to see Jane out of her comfort zone, and the first out of Miami. She’s away from her family, her busy schedule as a working mom, and sadly from Rafael who’s still grieving their relationship. It was fun to see. Honestly, it’s clear Jane needed this time and so did we as the audience. This whole season has mostly been us waiting to see who Jane picks and it finally came to an end. I for one was ready, regardless of who she picked.

CRISTINA: I am grateful Jane was able to sort out the love triangle — it’s been weeks of this mess! But I got a little bored without Alma, Petra, and Rogelio. Jane certainly needed the time and space to decide but I’ve got to say Michael v. Rafael is my least favorite part of the show. And a whole episode just on that — too much for me!

Of course, judging from the reactions on Twitter, I’m the only one who feels that way. Everyone was so upset — #TeamMichael because it’s time to say goodbye (again — I get it, it’s rough to have him right there and still not get that happy ending) and #TeamRafael because of all that time Jane spent “exploring it” (not to mention he’s not ready to let her back in).

NICOLA: Yeah I have to say I am also kind of annoyed and agree with you. The love triangle with Jane, Michael, and Rafael has never been my favorite storyline. I’ve always been #TeamJane and my favorite episodes are when Jane’s storyline isn’t completely driven by romance. I also think by making Michael slightly different from the goofy-loveable-crazy-about-Jane detective we loved was, forgive the pun, a total cop out. It’s clear that Jane could never have chosen between the two if Michael hadn’t changed a little.

CRISTINA: The more this season progresses (and the more reactions I read from Michael stans), the more #TeamRafael I get. He’s been such a supportive friend to Jane through everything — her marriage to Michael, her grief after he died, her ambitions to become (and grow) as a writer. I just really appreciate him. And I don’t think him having boundaries or advocating for himself is a bad thing! He’s a (fictional) person too and letting Jane walk all over him would end up being bad for both of them in the long run.

NICOLA: I agree — Rafael’s feelings are totally justified. Hey if I had just been dumped by my significant other while they try to figure out if there’s still a spark with a previously dead ex, I would also be upset and generally untrusting. I just hope once Jane wins Rafael back soon, which I’m confident will happen. Then, we can focus more time on Jane becoming the world-renowned writer we know she can be. And obviously more Rogelio. I request this every episode but it doesn’t make it any less true.

CRISTINA: You know my love for Rogelio is unending. I cannot get enough of him. Also, more swing scenes, please. The Alba-Xo-Jane matriarchial line is what Jane the Virgin should be all about. And I have no doubts Jane will win Rafael back. Gina Rodriguez is just SO hard not to love. She’s got that kind of charm that’s irresistible and if I have trouble resisting it, there’s no way Rafael will be able to. He’s just got to put up a good fight to keep the plot moving through the next few episodes!

NICOLA: Yes, we’ll see how long Rafael can resist what I’m sure will be Jane’s multi-tiered extensive, organized, and emotional strategy to win him back. And let’s face it, there’s nothing I love more than a determined confident Jane. Now that she’s made her decision, I don’t think there’s anything that can stop her from getting her telenovela-esc dream life. Or is there…(drama).

via GIPHY

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