For years now audiences all over the world have not been able to get enough of the Latin American telenova known as Yo Soy Betty La Fea. The soap opera, which was originally aired in Colombia, told the story of Betty, an ugly duckling. Thanks to Betty’s brains and her friends, she rose to the top of a fashion magazine and won the heart of the company’s boss. The show has been translated and aired in the Netherlands, India, Israel, Germany, and Russia, and in doing so it has garnered millions of new fans.
Last fall, Betty came to the United States by way of ABC and Salma Hayek (who is one of the producers and stars of the show) and it was an immediate hit. This month, the show Ugly Betty took home a Golden Globe award for Best Television Series and the show’s star America Ferrera took home the award for Best Actress.
But what’s the worldwide obsession over an “ugly” woman named Betty?
It’s hard to understand Betty’s appeal in other countries without appreciating the history of soap operas. The short of it is that no woman is ugly on a telenovela in Latin America (and probably not in the Philippines, India, or Russia for that matter). The heroine is always beautiful and chaste while constantly having the secret envy of other women.
But not Betty.
Betty’s smart but she’s not wearing the right clothes. Her friends are not the cool women at the office. She doesn’t use mascara. She’s not slender and to top it all off, she’s pining over a guy who doesn’t notice her. She’s just ordinary. It’s like Bridget Jones but with a better diary and darker hair.
Hayek, whose own career began with Spanish language telenovelas, decided to include the United States in the long list of Betty fans. But she did make some changes for an American audience.
The American Betty works as a personal assistant to Daniel Meade, an Anglo who runs a fashion magazine. She lives in Queens with her sister, nephew, and her father, who turns out to be an undocumented immigrant.
While Hayek gets some kudos for delivering a Betty that has to struggle with zits, an Anglo boss AND her dad’s legal status, the show stumbles on race.
The original show in Colombia was set with a predominantly white cast. There wasn’t a power difference between Betty and her boss other than gender. In translating the show for Americanos, however, will Hayek soon have Betty from Queens pining for her boss, an Anglo? Why would we cheer for that?
More distressingly is Hayek’s choice of Vanessa Williams as the character of Wilhelmina Slater, otherwise known as the evil witch of the show. To make a Black woman the nemesis of the Latina-in-Queens Betty is a huge failure of the show. To boot, Williams’ character isn’t the truly evil one. She’s apparently carrying out the order of the white villain Fey Sommors, who wants to undermine Betty’s boss.
Something that isn’t being translated for American audiences is the definition of beauty and being fea, or ugly. What doesn’t come across to American audiences is the defiance and inspiration of what the original Betty La Fea meant to young women—in her boldness to proudly call herself “La Fea.” It was like reclaiming the word queer. For American audiences though, the notion of Betty’s ugliness is a running joke. The same self-confidence is not invoked from watching the show.
Another import of American culture is Betty’s lack of “La Feas,” her friends. In the original show, much of the comedy and inspiration came from Betty’s friends. The show has a Sex in the City flavor to it, but the Queens Betty merely has her co-workers but not a posse of pals. And it seems to suggest an American dynamic: that to be successful there must be alienation and a lack of comrades.
The show’s biggest disappointment might be Betty’s sister, Hilda Suarez. Betty’s sister is your typical American stereotype of a Latina: she wears tight clothing, has long acrylic nails, is soaked in jewelry, and loves shopping. She wasn’t in the original show but is in this American one and we wonder why. What does a character like Hilda represent, and how necessary was her character in order for American audiences to accept the show?
Lastly, Queens Betty has an Anglo boyfriend. If her boyfriend is a contrast to the original idea of her falling for her boss, why does he have to be Anglo?
At the end of the day, the drive of the show’s producers to even bring a show of its type to Americanos is valued. We can only hope the show continues to push the boundaries by allowing Betty to persevere and show people what real ugly is all about.