“You’re all…articulate. And smart.”
“So are you! Wait, why does that sound like an insult?”
~ Rosa Diaz and Amy Santiago, Brooklyn Nine-Nine
A couple weeks ago I delivered a rant about how most Latina characters on TV tend to fall into a few basic stereotypes: maids, immigrants or the daughters of immigrants, from the ghetto, thickly accented even when the actresses playing them aren’t, and hypersexualized in contrast to the prim and proper WASPs around them.
Most of the Latina characters I like fall into at least one of these. Even the ones that, overall, are unique and well-rounded. I can’t overstate my love for Betty Suarez from Ugly Betty. Betty is Jess from New Girl before Zooey Deschanel made that kind of character cool. But a major plotline in that series is the discovery that Betty’s immigrant father is undocumented. Carla Espinoza Turk from Scrubs is serious, responsible, a leader in a professional career, and attractive without being overtly sexualized. But, again, immigrant backstory, though at least her family is legal. Santana Lopez, one of my favorite characters on Glee, starts out overtly hypersexual in contrast with good blonde suburban Evangelical Quinn, whose sexuality is safely hidden under a facade of chastity clubs and purity balls. Santana’s arc is somewhat salvaged when it turns out that her earlier promiscuity was her attempt to convince herself she wasn’t a lesbian. She’s actually been pretty restrained in that regard since coming out. But, even though early episodes established that her father is a well-off doctor, in later episodes Santana claims residence in seedy, violent “Lima Heights Adjacent.” Yes, even small rural towns have a ghetto, because where else are the Latin@s supposed to live? Gloria Pritchett from Modern Family is funny, likable, and to be honest, a character I identify with in some ways. But she is pretty much the embodiment of every Latina stereotype in the history of television.
I’m throwing pinches of wood and knocking on salt as I write this, because even after an awesome first season, I’m still afraid Brooklyn Nine-Nine is going to to make a liar out of me in Season Two. But so far, Detective Amy Santiago is possibly the least stereotypical Latina character I’ve ever seen on TV. Like, ever.
Amy has way more in common with “adorkable” she-nerd characters like Felicity Smoak, Jess Day, Amy Farrah Fowler, and Leslie Knope than with Latina stereotypes. She’s brainy, ambitious, and studious to a fault. She’s great at her job, but often clueless about social interactions. She spends the first half of the season striking out on dates constantly, when she gets them at all. She gets makeup tips from hookers she’s helped arrest because, although she wants to be perceived as attractive as much as any other woman, the smokey eye isn’t in her skill set. She sucks at salsa dancing and needs a Jewish guy to show her how it’s done. She’s super quiet, except when she’s seizing a legitimate opportunity for advancement or calling attention to an equally legitimate achievement. She “talks like a white girl” (and if you’ve never heard anyone say this irl, you are probably white). Her shy, staid demeanor is in direct contrast to the other Latina member of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s ensemble, Detective Rosa Diaz.
So let’s talk about Rosa.
Rosa is definitely the less surprising of Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s two Latina characters. At first glance, Rosa is as much of a stereotype as Amy is an anti-stereotype. The third episode indicates that, while Amy didn’t grow up in the inner city, Rosa did. We’ve seen the angry Latina (in space, even!), the spicy Latina (she made the TV Tropes list), the violent Latina (every Michelle Rodriguez character ever), etc.
But does this mean Rosa isn’t a distinct, well-rounded character? While Rosa’s anger management issues are comically over-the-top, she can be pretty diplomatic in dealing with sensitive situations like a co-worker’s unrequited crush. Her backstory hints at some complexity – she was a model student in Catholic school, got transferred to an elite ballet academy, then got expelled for “beating up ballerinas.” Maybe she started out not so different from Amy, and snapped under the pressure of constant microagressions from snobby rich girls. (Or maybe she’s just a bitch. Who knows.) And as for the “spicy Latina” thing, Rosa really isn’t that sexualized. Sure, she has great curves and full features. She lives in leather jackets. She carries herself with an irresistible swagger. But you never get the sense that she’s deliberately presenting herself in a sexual way, and you rarely see or hear about her being in sexual situations. Personally, I relate to Rosa almost as much as I relate to Amy.
Let’s talk about Kara Thrace.
Say what, now? What does a space opera that’s been off the air for almost a decade have to do with an SNL-alumni-led sitcom? Well, think about it. Kara and Rosa are pretty similar characters, except that Rosa’s way more functional. Kara “Starbuck” Thrace is the ultimate Space Marine archetype. She’s a brash, trigger-happy, cigar-chomping flyboy with an assault record a mile long. She can drink any of her male colleagues under the table. She doesn’t present herself in a sexualized way, and yet most of the male cast wants her. She also has an unexpected interest and aptitude in the arts. Now, imagine if Starbuck had been played by Michelle Rodriguez instead of uber-white Katee Sackhoff. M-Rod, imo, would have done at least as well with the part. But we’d be discussing whether Starbuck was a Latina stereotype to this day. As played by a white actress, Starbuck wasn’t “a white character.” She was just Starbuck.
“Well, obviously white people just aren’t as sensitive about stuff like that. Y’all should be more like us and quit overthinking everything.” Nope. Try again. Starbuck isn’t a white stereotype because there is such a wide range of white characters that it’s a lot harder to nail “white women in TV” down to a few basic stereotypes than “Latinas in TV.” According to this study, 3.8% of American prime time TV roles in 2013 were “Asian or Latina women”. Compared to 34% of characters being white women and 50% being white men.
Why does this matter? Because when characters of a certain demographic are few and far between, they become the sole representative of their demographic. Gloria Pritchett being foreign, accented, and sexualized wouldn’t be such a big deal if she weren’t the only Latina character on Modern Family. As is, she’s not “just Gloria.” She’s the way Modern Family is portraying Latinas. Same with Santana on Glee until Demi Lovato joined the cast. If Rosa Diaz were the only Latina character on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, if she were show’s sole representation of Latinas, it would be very easy to dismiss her as just another stereotype. But she isn’t, so we don’t. Rosa works because she has Amy. I can appreciate seeing some of my own traits reflected in Rosa without stereotype threat because I’m also seeing some of my completely opposite traits reflected in Amy. Traits I usually only see reflected in white characters. Traits for which girls who look like me are told they’re “acting like a white girl.” Not that there’s anything wrong with being a white girl, but it’s frustrating to be told that being yourself means you’re trying to be something you’re not.
In conclusion, it’s worth pointing out that Amy and Rosa are just part of Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s diverse representation. Captain Ray Holt and Sergeant Terry Jeffords are black. These men are both happily married, Jeffords to the mother of his adored twin daughters, and Holt to the man who’s been by his side for decades. Gina, the precinct’s administrative assistant, is even more of a goofy, quirky slacker than Andy Samberg’s Detective Jake Peralta, a rarity for women in modern TV.
Really, though, while I’m watching the show, I’m not actively thinking about any of this. I’m just having a great time watching great comedy writing brought to life by a great cast. Here’s hoping Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s second season is as much fun as its first!