Sunday, May 24, 2009

The New Black?

There's no denying it: the exploration of same-sex attraction is soap opera's new black. All My Children, As The World Turns, and Passions have all gone there. Ratings leader The Young and the Restless is slated to launch a same-sex triangle (more about the casting/politics of this in a later blog - it's too big a story to tuck in here) involving a major character and a well-loved blast-from-the-past. And, of course, there's Otalia which, in my opinion, is the most adult and realistic portrayal of same-sex attraction and love on television to date. 

The fact that Ellen Wheeler has chosen to go the "no labels" route with Otalia has been discussed and written about ad infinitum. It's not a lesbian story, or a bisexual story. It's not even a story about sexuality, which is not to say that our heroines' chemistry isn't sexually charged, or that Olivia and Natalia will never have a sexual relationship, but that, in the spirit of classic soap story-telling (which is an endangered species) , theirs is a story about love, pure and true. When I use those words I am not implying that there is anything impure or untrue about same-sex attraction, or about a sexual relationship. What I mean by pure and true is this: Olivia and Natalia have made an organic - if unlikely -  transition from being adversaries and rivals, to friends and confidantes, to lovers. Their journey is based on getting to know and understand one another, each discovering that the other has strengths that complement her own, Olivia learning that Natalia has a strong, solid inner core, and Natalia learning that, at heart, Olivia is a fragile and guarded woman  who longs for simple pleasures. If they've learned to appreciate their differences, they've come to love and respect one another for that which they share: strong, protective maternal instincts. Both Natalia and Olivia would do anything to protect their children, and heaven help anyone who poses a threat to Emma, Ava or Rafe.  The evolution of their relationship is pure and true because it is, quite simply, a case of two people coming together, getting to know one another, and finding love without ever having looked for it. If Otalia has its own mantra, its: "The heart wants what the heart wants."  The human heart doesn't necessarily want a man or a woman, a penis or a vagina. It wants love and happiness, which can come in any variety of packages. No labels. 

It's true that Otalia has been presented as a label-free story line as far as sexual identity is concerned. However, there's another area where there have been no labels, an area that has received little if any attention: ethnicity and race.  For all intents and purposes, Natalia and Olivia are involved in what used to regularly be referred to as a "mixed" relationship.  Lots of attention has been paid to the fact that they're both women. A fair amount of attention has been paid to the fact that there are marked differences in their social/socio-economic status: Olivia is a wealthy business woman of independent means, Natalia is a working class woman who, until recently, made her living at "unskilled" labor: waiting tables, cleaning up other people's messes. Almost no attention has been paid to the fact that Olivia is a white woman, while Natalia is Hispanic. 

Some viewers may be less than pleased about the lack of attention being paid to the ethnic diversity angle of the Otalia story line. Personally, I'm thrilled. 

Some Background History

It wasn't all that long ago that the very idea of two people from different ethnic groups - even religions - pairing up as a couple on film or television was considered controversial or cutting edge. I'm old enough to remember the furor surrounding a harmless, little sitcom called Bridget Loves Bernie, which starred Meredith Baxter and David Birney playing an Irish-American-Catholic woman and Jewish-American man who fall in love and marry. If you're under 30 years old, you're probably waiting for the punchline....and wondering when I'll explain the reason for the controversy. Believe it or not, I already have. 

In 1972, the idea of a Catholic and a Jew getting married was so over-the-top, so outrageous, so edgy that the sitcom was pulled after one season, in part because of the flood of hate mail the network received in response to their "mixed marriage"-themed show. If the viewing audience wasn't ready for this all-American-looking couple on account of how controversial their pairing up was, did a truly inter-racial couple stand a

Of course, American television audiences had, by 1972, already proven that they could, in fact, accept a sitcom couple of different ethnicities.  When the concept for I Love Lucy was first pitched to television executives, there were serious reservations around casting Desi Arnaz as Ricky - even though Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball were real-life husband and wife.  Network brass was unsure the American viewing audience would be able to accept such a controversial pairing. That obstacle was overcome via reliance on Arnaz' character to provide comic relief in the way of ethnic stereotyping. Since Lucille Ball refused to do the show without Desi Arnaz, I Love Lucy became a sweeping success about a lovable redhead and her husband: a Cuban bandleader with a hot temper and a penchant for butchering the English language. Those wacky Hispanics! They're apt to break into that ridiculous little Spanish "language" of theirs at any time, they can't pronounce even the simplest of English words, and they lose their Latin  tempers on a dime. They're so dumb and goofy - in Spanish, Ricky is actually short for Ricardo, which means his name is Ricardo Ricardo...silly Latinos! They're not terribly bright, are they?  And the fact that they're so musical is so quaint! Just hearing the first few bars of that silly BabaLu is enough to crack me up!

Here is where I confess: I do love Lucy, but hearing the first few bars of Babalu has always been enough to make me want to stick knitting needles in my eardrums. Ricky Ricardo isn't like any Hispanic guy I've ever met. He's not like a real person...he's a caricature.  And, yes - this is in part the way television works....characters aren't necessarily like real people. But Ricky Ricardo's two-dimensional qualities go far beyond the suspension of disbelief we make when we watch sitcoms. He's a walking, talking stereotype. He's not a Hispanic character - he's a fucking punch line.  And that's how they did it, back in the day, when they wanted to have two tv characters who looked different from one another, and came from different worlds pair up as a couple: they made the differences into punchlines, magnified and exaggerated traits, and presented cartoonish, stereotypical characters.  

In the 1970s, sitcom genius Norman Lear turned television on its ear by creating All In The Family, Maude, Good Times and The Jeffersons. With All in the Family, Lear presented the bigot - Archie Bunker - as the punchline. Archie Bunker was an equal opportunity bigot. He had something to say about anything and everything that was even slightly different than his own experience.  He was dumb. Really dumb. We laughed at his stupidity, and took note that bigotry really is all about ignorance.  Still and all, Archie was presented as a lovable bigot. Sure, he used the word "colored", he berated his son-in-law for being a "Polack", and he hated the "mixed" couple who lived down the street (An Irish woman married to an Italian man - that's some edgy shit!) But, really, Archie wasn't any worse than George Jefferson - the affluent black guy down the street who hated Whitey as much as Archie hated Blackie.  When George Jefferson and family were spun off onto their own successful sitcom, viewers were treated to an all-new "mixed" couple: Tom and Helen Willis. This time, it wasn't the minority half of a mixed couple who was the punchline, but the white guy. Tom Willis made me cringe. Oafish and a goofy. He had no rhythm. He had no sense of style. In stark contrast to the stereotype about black men and their sexual prowess, Tom seemed to be a castrato.  If Ricky Ricardo's English pronounciation was funny, Tom Willis trying to dance was a laugh riot. Look at the silly white guy trying to shake his butt!  Tom Willis was a buffoon. 

An admirable effort on Norman Lear's part - an effort to turn the tables and make viewers take note. But, still, not anywhere near a reflection of what real people are all about...and not a depiction of mixed marriage that normalized it in any way. In fairness to Lear, for whom I have the utmost respect, he wasn't trying to do anything but deliberately use exaggeration and stereotyping as vehicles for promoting social change. Where Ricky Ricardo was all about laughing at the ridiculous Hispanic, Tom Willis was all about flipping the tables and saying to white America: See? This is what it feels like to be stereotyped, laughed at and devalued. This is what it looks and feels like when your race or ethnicity, alone, make you the punchline.


Where does this all place Otalia in the grand scheme of things? No one seems to mention Natalia's race or ethnicity. We've heard the occasional reference to her grandmother ("Abuelita") and we know her name is Rivera. We know that, like so many Hispanics, she's staunchly Catholic.  We know that she has fallen in love with a woman of (I think it's fair to assume) European origin. The fact that race and ethnicity don't enter into the discussion lets us know something else. It lets us know that race and ethnicity just don't matter

Breathe deeply. Don't faint. It's strange, but true.

In 2009, in Springfield, where Rick and Mel enjoyed a longer marriage than most soap couples, and had a child together.....where Michelle and Danny were granted the rare happy ending as a couple.....where Buzz Cooper enjoyed a brief moment of happiness with Jenna.....and where Remy has had relationships with Tammy and Ava and this this place, the fact that Natalia and Olivia are a "mixed" couple just doesn't matter.  

The New Normal

If same-sex love is the new black on daytime, then mixed-race/mixed-ethnicity coupling is the new normal. I like that just fine. It means the days of ethnicity and race as punchlines are over - at least on Guiding Light. It reinforces the assertion that the story line between Olivia and Natalia is, above all else, a love story.  It is not a lesbian story, or story about different races or ethnicities. It is a story about human  beings finding one another and making a connection based on things simpler, and yet more profound than gender or race or ethnicity: chemistry, friendship, trust, humor, and desire. 

So What?

Natalia and Olivia's stance on the difference in their ethnicities seems to be "so what?" It's a stance that's a world away from that which was the norm on television a mere 35 years ago.  More than that, because nothing exists in a vacuum, and every action causes a reaction. The normalization of "mixed" couplings makes possible other shifts about other issues. If same-sex pairings are the new black on daytime television, the next logical step for such pairings is normalcy. If soap opera continues to exist as a genre - which is questionable - it is reasonable to expect that what has happened regarding race and ethnicity will happen regarding same-sex relationships. As I've written elsewhere, soap opera has always been a tool for social change...a vehicle by which the masses have learned to take the controversial and turn it into the normal. While the proud Puerto Rican in me is psyched that one half of Otalia is a strong, fiesty, positive Hispanic female, I'm also thrilled that Natalia's race and ethnicity are non-issues.  I look forward to a future where, just as Guiding Light no longer stresses ethnic or racial differences,  soap operas don't have gay characters or characters involved in same-sex relationships, but just characters. Whether or not the genre will survive to see this day is anybody's guess. 

© 2009 Lana M. Nieves

Limited Licensing: I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the Creative Commons Attribution license, granting distribution of my copyrighted work without making changes, with mandatory attribution to Lana M. Nieves and for non-commercial purposes only. - Lana M. Nieves


Angela M said...

This reminded me of a book I read where the question was raised whether representation of minority groups on television should be about quantity or quality - in other words, to take the example of ethnicity, is it better to have the number of non-white characters on TV to accurately reflect census proportion, or is it better to have non-white characters integrated into the story as important CHARACTERS and not, as Ms. Jennings would say, TOKEN DIFFERENCES?
One would think those two shouldn't be mutually exclusive, but I guess quite often they are, as evident by the increased presence of "bisexuality" on TV and an equal increase in the vapidity of it. Besides, I think, people still look for quantity as the defining factor for representation. Wasn't Shonda Rhimes lauded for having "color-blind" casting requirements? The cast of Grey's Anatomy are definitely more "colorful" than that of your average primetime TV show, but the very fact that this thing is reiterated again and again (and again, especially when GA was rife with offscreen controversy) just goes to show how far we still have to go with regards to minority representation in media. The "gay" storyline was introduced (and fell flat) with equal hype on that show.
I thank you for your post because I think it highlights another reason why Otalia is (so far) a successful attempt at genuine storytelling and good drama, rather than sensationalism just for the sake of ratings/hype. Even if the writers woke up one day and realized they should "diversify" the characters, they had the sense not to scribble down something filled with stereotypes and bang-and-fizzle cliches.

Anonymous said...

I come from a point a view that is common to Olivia and Natalia. I am the whitey, and I fell for the love of my life, a brownie over 21 years ago. She is a Puerto Rican,(with dimples!) I am Scottish. Seeing Otalia for me is seeing me and my relationship to a degree on screen. I am not sure I like the low key aspect of the racial differance. I love my partners Peurto Rican culture. It adds soooo much to who we are as a couple. However, I do understand why it's a backburner issue for GL. This story is about two women, religion and family. I get that, I just think that it would be nice to work the racial stuff in. A lot of people have negitive stereotypes towards hispanics. I think they could do a lot to help with deminishing them with this storyline. I get that they are not. The bigger story is the love between two women, the religion aspect and the family impact of being gay. So given that, I can handle them not playing up the racial aspect. If there is time, I hope they can down the road. I know in my relationship that the racial aspect is not backburner at all. It's always front and center. Each day I hear my partner calling her Mama on the phone and speaking spanish, I know there is a deeper cultural connection that I am grateful to be able to share. I get that they don't have to explore it, but I wish they would. It's a wonderful thing in my life and I know it would bring just one more dimension to these two women that would be wonderful to see.

Anonymous said...

We prefer the name latino, but I guess you're not hung up on labels, but really if you're going to use one, try to use the right one. It's not hispanic.

And just because a soap isn't showing the issues, doesn't mean the issues don't exist in real life. I would like more of Natalia's culture to show up, like the early days of Gus/Natalia. This is not color blindness on the part of GL, it's white washing. There are difference and they are cultural and most latinos like those differences and are proud of those differences. I wish GL would show that more.

People aren't afraid of a color, racism is about culture as much as color. Removing that culture is in part, racism.

Snapper said...

Do "we" really prefer the term "latino"? As a Puerto Rican person I certainly don't, and I don't need to be schooled on the correct use of language.

annahgrrl said...

Wow, does life imitate art...or the other way around. I think we can follow the cultural evolution in our society, by the evolution of our pop culture. So which evolution came first...the culture, the entertainment, or a mix of both? Are the changes in our culture a product of new generations, or are the changes in new generations a reflection of what they are watching on TV?
I guess this is another chicken/egg question that could be pondered at length, which I would love to do. But since we don't have that much space....I simply say that I love, love, loved this article. Well done. I love reading your stuff.

Anonymous said...

I meant no dis-respect for my using the term hispanic. My bad if I did upset you with my use of the term. As a whitey, I guess I should be more careful. I did run this by my partner (of 21 years) after your post "anon". She said for the purposes of this board, it is like tomatoe, tamatoe to her. Although she does prefer Hispanic. So there ya go...
Thanks Snapper, I love your site!!!
Keep up the great work!

Snapper said...

Redblaz - no offense taken. I prefer the term "Hispanic", myself, and think it's somewhat arrogant for anyone to tell me what I *should* like to be called. The Anonymous poster who spoke about what "we" prefer to be called seems to have appointed him or herself a spokesperson for all people of Hispanic (or Latino) origin. As an HISPANIC woman, I don't seem to remember voting that person to such an exalted office.

BTW - talk about small long-term gf is a New Zealander of Scottish origin. I wonder how many PR/Scot lesbian couples there are?

Anonymous said...

Whaaaa...JL is Hispanic???!! (said in a sarcastic tone) :) But in all seriousness, it's funny that her ethnicity never even entered my mind in this whole story...maybe cause it's so irrelevant for me personally. All in all, what is race/ethnicity? Is is about skin color? If so, other than when she came back from her honeymoon all tanned, JL is actually almost 'whiter' than CC. But does that really matter? Is it about cultural backround? Is it about societal percepetion? Maybe I'm just a child of my generation and I'm color blind and kinda oblivious to the whole race/ethinicity issue. I'm glad that it is also a non-issue in TV these days...well, almost. Someday, thanks to shows like GL hopefully same-sex love might also become a non-issue!

Snapper said...

Well, Anonymous, I do think my ethnicity and race are about a whole lot more than just my skin tone (I'm Hispanic and had at least one great grandfather who was black, but no one would ever guess that by looking at me.) And I am definitely not color blind. But, in relation to a love relationship? IMO, the chances of finding someone you love, and get, and get along with, who also loves *you* and gets *you* are pretty slim in this big, old world. I can't imagine making race or ethnicity even play into that whole thing. If I had done that, and rallied against ever going outside of my own race an ethnicity? I wouldn't be with the life partner I've been with for 11 years. In choosing one another, race and ethnicity had no bearing.

Anonymous said...

It is interesting to see how different today's Natalia is from the Natalia that first appeared on our screens 2 years ago. She had a strong accent, wore revealing clothes, big earrings, had very dark slick hair, thick eyebrows. The actress' skin looks darker. Was she wearing darker make up on her face and skin? I'm ambivalent about the old Natalia. She was identifiably ethnic but she also bordered on being a stereotype. She was a maid and her son was in jail. On the other hand, I wish they would let Natalia speak a word or two of Spanish to someone and cook Puerto Rican foods every once in a while instead of just tuna casserole. She once mentioned that she dreamed that Rafe would be the first Puerto Rican president. Otherwise we wouldn't know that she is Puerto Rican.

Ironically, the fictional character of Olivia is from the island of San Cristobel. The San Christobel scenes were filmed in Puerto Rico. So in a way Olivia is from Puerto Rico.

Anonymous said...

Though race and skin color should NEVER be conflated; I think that skin color is more of a factor when difficulties arise. Let's face it, Natalia is extremely fair-skinned, I think that is Olivia was involved with a darker skinned person there would be more hew and cry from around the blogosphere. When both people 'look' more white and 'act' more white (whatever that means) there seems to be less concern. Yes Michelle Bauer and Danny Santos got to ride off into the sunset. I'm a relatively new viewer but from what i have seen in clips Danny Santos didn't exactly have a rich cultural heritage behind him. He was a light skinned caricature of a gangster/drug dealer. Remy was with Tammy and Ava, both for a hot two seconds. I'm glad to see issues of race diminish, but I think it's important that soaps don't pretend that issues don't still exist...they do. Think they don't? Go house hunting with a dark skinned black person then come back to me and we'll chat more. I would love to see the show address issues of Natalia's backstory, INCLUDING more information about her cultural heritage. I would love for this to be more incorporated into the day to day dealings in the FoL other than her cooking chicken and rice (Arroz con Pollo anyone). Stories, music and more Spanish language are all options. It is a given of course that not everyone of Hispanic/Latino origin likes salsa music, tamales or speaks Spanish but it's a place to start.

youmakemehappy said...

Hey Snapper, your best blog yet! As always, thought-provoking and informative.

I absolutely agree with you about GL not highlighting Natalia's ethnicity being a good thing. I've always known Natalia was Hispanic (by her surname, when she spoke Spanish to Emma the first time they met, and when she talked about her Grandmother), but I didn't even think about them being a "mixed" couple until now. I love being colour-blind like that. I hope someday that I will have the same reaction to a same-sex couple.

Meg said...

Thanks for commenting on my silly Otalia animation!

And I had NO idea of the Cartoon Art Museum! I was *just* there in March visiting my girlfriend. Rats! I'll have to make a point to stop by when I visit next year. Just another reason why SF rocks.

bl said...

In some places and with some people it is still a big deal if people from different religions fall in love. To many this may seem minor, but I've seen this with couples where people who are different Christian denominations have this conflict. I was absolutely puzzled as I grew up in NYC area and saw very different things. From early on, I was exposed to different people and relationships, so it doesn't phase me. That said there are still people out there who have issues with people falling in love who aren't of the same background.

When I see a couple on a soap, I want to see differences between the characters. That is what makes them real to me, as they should not be interchangeable cardboard cut outs. The same can be said with any other racial, cultural or age differences. It doesn't have to be "the story", but it can be a part of what is told. Even if it is as simple as different holiday traditions or clashing tastes in music. The two African-American characters (who aren't blood related) don't need to be paired based on race, the two minorities don't need to date (just because they aren't good enough for the "white" people ARGH), the two older characters shouldn't be together just because they are "old" and the two teens because they are young.

Jumping to classic sitcoms, when I view I Love Lucy as a white chick, I see Ricky as the smart one and Lucy as the clown. While some of his behaviors are stereotypical, I knew watching in reruns how powerful the real Desi was and that Ricky/Lucy were having the last laugh mocking those who did not see the reality of the situation. Then again this point of view, I developed as an adult. My POV of All in the Family and The Jeffersons is skewed due to seeing random episodes over the years out of sequence as both began before I was born.

Back to GL: With Olivia and Natalia I don't find it bothersome as Olivia isn't from the midwest, but from San Cristobel. We don't know her ethnic make up and it is possible she has a mixed racial background that we wouldn't realize just by looking at her. Like another person posted, at first Natalia was written as a stereotype. That said down the road, if there is time I hope they do go there. Then again if GL had gone with a Frank and Natalia pairing, I was wondering how Natalia who is supposed to be a very religious Catholic could marry a Greek Orthodox man who was divorced. If religion is important to her, that should have been an issue as that was an issue as it was with Gus and Natalia.

With Michelle and Danny when they got married my first thought was is Michelle a Catholic due to her adoptive mom Maureen? When introduced the Santos clan was called the Santo clan and instead of being Spanish speaking they were Italian mob. Jesse Blue was biracial and Zach was an angel, so it isn't like this was her first mixed relationship.

I just see characters as characters, and not symbolic as anything beyond themselves. Even though I try to have an open mind, it doesn't mean I'm perfect and don't make an offensive comment on occasion.

When it comes to why I enjoy one couple over another has to do with intangibles. Just because I love couple A doesn't mean I will love couple B or whomever. For me it either works or it doesn't. Sometimes I won't like a couple just because something is lacking in my eyes. I may not see chemistry, I may not like the story, I may feel it goes against character history or how I see the character in general to the point I can't suspend belief. It doesn't have to always be about race, sex, religion or sexual orientation. Yes there are some people who may not like a couple for those reasons, but that is their issue not mine.

JCF said...

Ironically, the fictional character of Olivia is from the island of San Cristobel. The San Christobel scenes were filmed in Puerto Rico. So in a way Olivia is from Puerto Rico.And as I was just watching a clip (from 11/06, the fall-out of O's rape by Jeffrey as a teen), SHE was raised "a good Catholic girl" too!

Frankly, the whole "Olivia is from San Cristobel" is one of those things I can't really wrap my (newcomer's) head around (I understand that, in the past, there was an effort to deport her).

For my purposes (until further notice), "San Cristobel" just means Not-Springfield. ;-/


Another provocative Otalia-prompted analysis, Lana.

I, too, wonder about the Evolution of Natalia Rivera (Aitoro? Still unclear about that one). If I didn't know better, I could swear they sprayed JL w/ Pro-Tan in those earlier eps . . . but maybe, it's just the combination of a Peapack winter and pregnancy, which has lightened her up so much. As long as nothing changes those GORGEOUS deep, dark eyes (and, needless, to say the Dimples of Love), it's all good by me! ;-)

Snapper said...

I don't have a problem with Olivia having been raised on an island nation. A lot of white Europeans are. My dearest friend is 100% British, raised on the island of Nassau, in the Bahamas. Her father was raised on Bermuda.

I also don't think there's any reason to assume Olivia is of mixed raceThere are lots of white folks living on the islands that were colonized by Europeans. Most of them are NOT mixed race - class and race distinctions in the colonized world are still very strong are pretty strong.

I don't necessarily think Jessica Leccia was artificially tanned when she first started, but it's certainly possible. To me, Jessia/Natalia just looks so much like my older sister, who is VERY Puerto Rican looking, and who turns bronze at the slightest exposure to sun.