Most Latinos can agree that we all want more Latinos on TV. Seeing ourselves represented in popular media can do a lot to uplift our collective view of Latinos and alter the misconceptions of others—not to mention entertain us.
But do we want Latinos on TV at any cost? Many have responded with a resounding ‘no’. A few weeks ago, the ABC comedy Work It got in hot water with the Latino community because one of the characters said, “I’m Puerto Rican. I’d be great at selling drugs.” The show met with harsh criticism from several different groups and was eventually cancelled.
In terms of the actual “joke,” was it in good taste? No. Was it funny? Not really. Offensive? Meh. There are so many other issues in our communities to worry about; if we throw a fit about the little things, but do nothing about what actually matters, I’m not sure the umbrage is worth anything beyond our own superior sense of indignation.
And what stereotypes are okay? Do we mind being called drug dealers but not humble, hard working dish washers? Do we mind being portrayed as prostitutes but not as hyper sexy, overly passionate women? Aren’t certain “positive” stereotypes just as limiting as the negative ones?
Sofia Vergara on Modern Family, for example, though absolutely lovely, serves as merely a caricature of the loud, crazy Latina with the thick accent and tight clothing (Vergara has subsequently become her character full-time. Case in point: check out the way her accent seems to have evolved into a thicker one) Sometimes, Gloria Pritchett’s character works because the show itself is so well written and performed…and sometimes it’s just plain disappointing that that’s the only mainstream depiction of a Latina on TV.
And what about CBS’s new show ¡Rob!, a show based on the preposterous premise that Rob Schneider would be married to modelesque Claudia Bassols? After checking it out, I was surprised more by the reaction than the show itself. Again, the blogosphere cried out: “Offensive!” “Culturally insensitive!” I didn’t find it offensive; I found it something worse….unfunny. And that’s too bad, because it employs a number of Latino actors including the Mexican comedian Eugenio Derbez and the delightful Cheech Marin, the saving grace of the pilot. But being unfunny is not a crime on TV. In fact, it’s par for the course in the land of sitcom. But it’s disappointing to think the show might be cancelled prematurely because some people somewhere find it offensive.
Perhaps we wouldn’t be bothered by bad immigration jokes, or Vergara’s dramatized persona, or dumb writing on Work It, if TV offered us real depictions of Latinos (played by actual Latinos rather than people who “look” Latino). You know, the kind of roles that go to white actors: the nerdy forensic detective, the hot vampire, the charming serial killer.
The one show with Latino characters that strikes me as having achieved that balance was the George Lopez show. The fairly sterile sitcom didn’t make Latino-ness inconsequential and used it to set up plenty of punch lines, but the characters were also kind of just regular – funny and flawed and multidimensional – in other words, human.