When Ugly Betty wrapped up its four season-run in 2010, it was the only show on network television to have centered around a Latina woman. The cult-like popularity and critical praises for Ugly Betty (lead star America Ferrera collected an Emmy, a Golden Globe and a SAG Award) could have spawned more lead roles for Latina actresses, similar to what ABC’s Scandal arguably did for black actresses. But it didn’t.
Since Scandal premiered in 2013, there has been a demand to increase the quantity as well as to improve the quality of representation for black women on network TV. Now, there’s How to Get Away with Murder, Empire and Shots Fired, an upcoming series about a police shooting starring Sanaa Lathan, to name a few. But it seems that the interest in recent years to diversify the television landscape has had a ripple effect for other actresses of color. Post-Ugly Betty, there are four Latina actresses currently playing lead roles on network TV with three of them on NBC: Ferrera on Superstore, Jennifer Lopez on Shades of Blue and Eva Longoria on Telenovela. Each show is on its freshman season. The fourth actress is Gina Rodriguez on Jane the Virgin airing its second season on the CW.
Ferrera, Longoria, Lopez and Rodriguez are not only playing lead roles; they are deconstructing Latina stereotypes, including the spicy, loud sexpot with a heavy accent or the sassy, obnoxious female clown (also with a heavy accent). Even a sitcom called Telenovela avoided pigeonholing Longoria’s character Ana who is Pasión in the fictional soap Las Leyes de Pasión (The Laws of Passion). On the telenovela, Pasión is glamourous with smoldering stares, flowy dresses and fan-swept hair. Outside of the telenovela, Ana is Ana—a neurotic actress who loves her Cheeto Puffs, doesn’t speak a word of Spanish and is awkward on first dates. And when Ferrera saw the pilot script for Superstore, she has said that she was surprised it didn’t mention characters’ ethnicities. During a Television Critics Association panel in January, Ferrera revealed her Superstore character was the first time she has been offered a role that wasn’t written for a Latino. Imagine that. An award-winning actress once named on TIME’s “Most Influential People In The World” list finally received similar casting treatment as her white counterparts.
Behind the scenes, these women are also taking lead roles, along with fellow Latinas. Ferrera and Sierra Teller Ornelas (Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Happy Endings) are producers on Superstore, and Ornelas also wrote the eighth episode of the series, “Wedding Day Sale.” Shades of Blue would not have been made if Lopez didn’t agree to star, and now she serves as one of the executive producers, along with Priscilla Porianda (The Fosters). Ever the multi-hyphened superstar, it wouldn’t be surprising if Lopez decided to helm an episode or two in the future.
And she can look to Longoria as an example. Longoria isn’t new to being an executive producer on the small screen. Aside from Telenovela, she is the executive producer on Lifetime’s Devious Maids—the first show to ever feature an all-Latina cast. Longoria also already directed an episode on Telenovela, which isn’t her first time directing too. Rodriguez doesn’t have producing credits on Jane the Virgin (yet), but there are still Latinas present behind the cameras. Carolina Rivera and Emmylou Diaz wrote for the first season and Zetna Fuentes (Pretty Little Liars and Switched at Birth) was on board as a director. The trio can also be seen in the second season credits.
And while it’s important to note the Latina representation behind the scenes, there’s definitely far more work to be done in an effort to close the gap. A major criticism of TV shows starring people of color about experiences for people of color is the lack of people of color in the writing room and on the directing and producing credits. Jane the Virgin, Superstore, Shades of Blue and Telenovela are not immune to those criticisms. Jane the Virgin has touched on real-life issues relevant to the Latino community like immigration, but the staff is predominantly white and/or male—a similar make-up that exists on Telenovela (and most American TV shows in existence, for that matter). Both Diaz and Rivera shared writing credits for their episodes with other male writers. Millicent Shelton, a black woman, is the sole woman to have directed an episode of Shades of Blue, though more women are credited with writing episodes (though they were all paired with a male writer). Only Superstore’s Ornelas, who is of Naakaii Dine’e ancestry, has written an episode on her own.
In Hollywood, there still exists the notion (perhaps most explicitly and problematically stated by Matt Damon) that race and gender issues can be resolved with more on-camera representation. To truly strive for authentic depiction for people of color, that representation must trickle down in the areas of writing, producing and directing. And even that’s just a start.