What is problematic about this segment, I think, has far less to do with the manner in which it implicates women by way of being sexist, and far more to do with the way in which it traffics racist stereotypes of the sexualized Latina.
Sofia Vergara, an actress perhaps most famous for her role on ABC’s critical and popular success “Modern Family,” has come under fire for her presentation at last night’s Emmy Awards. In her presentation, Vergara herself functioned as a prop, using her body as a “pedestal” in what was intended as a light-hearted and humorous awards show segment.
Within a matter of minutes, the Twitterverse was abuzz with critics who highlighted the sexism of the segment. Journalist Katie Couric questioned whether others “[found] that schtick offensive,” and countless responders offered similar critiques of the objectification.
Meanwhile, in a follow-up interview with Entertainment Weekly, Vergara quickly fired back that her segment was “the opposite of sexist,” and proved that “somebody can be hot and also be funny and make fun of herself.”
Indeed, Sofia Vergara is “hot,” and funny, and able to make fun of herself. And it is easy to deride critics of her segment for their humorlessness—obviously this is a joke, not a reflection of systemic sexism embedded within the broader culture. And if Vergara herself is OK with holding herself out as a prop in an act of physical comedy, to use her body as the embodiment of a joke—and arguably, a commentary on sexism within the broader culture—who are we to judge?
And it’s true, on one level. Sofia Vergara is a successful actress who is capable of doing whatever she wants. When artfully deployed, humor can be used to highlight injustice of all kinds.
While I don’t think Vergara’s Emmy segment succeeds in that regard, reasonable minds could differ there. And reasonable minds could also differ on the question of whether her performance was funny, and more to the point, if Vergara subverted or reinforced the very stereotypes she claimed to dispel.
What is problematic about this segment, I think, has far less to do with the manner in which it implicates women by way of being sexist, and far more to do with the way in which it traffics racist stereotypes of the sexualized Latina. There is widespread disagreement about whether the manner in which Vergara allowed herself to be portrayed is sexist, but there is a compelling argument to be made that the performance reinforces negative perceptions of Latinos in the United States.
Indeed, in a recent article published on their website, activist organization Latino Rebels call Vergara out as Hollywood’s “Latina Minstrel.” While this is strong language, the Latino Rebels’ argument that the performance represents yet another example of “brownface,” or the stereotypical depiction of Latinos in Hollywood, is compelling.
Other media outlets assumed a different stance. In a Huffington Post article about Vergara’s performance, journalist Joanna Adams notes that Vergara “got the last laugh” in the face of those who criticized her willingness to function as a prop. And Adams might be right. For the actress, the result of this performance is additional publicity—always a good thing.
But for this viewer and many others, Vergara’s segment served to highlight the Latino media gap and reinforce invidious stereotypes about Latina women. And that isn’t a laughing matter at all.
Adina Giannelli’s writing has been featured in publications including Babble, Feministing, Salon and the forthcoming anthologies Book Lovers and Three Minus One Equals Zero.