‘Ugly Betty’ not a sight for sore eyes

Try as they might, the producers of ABC’s new show, Ugly Betty, can’t make toothy, ragamuffin protagonist Betty Suarez (America Ferrera) very likeable. They are likewise unable to fix the show’s all-too-familiar plotline, despite the blasé, big-hearted theme.

Betty is an oddball, to say the least, who is thrown into the fashion world when she lands a job at Mode magazine. At her new job, she finds herself surrounded by beautiful idiots: Betty’s boss, Daniel Meade (Eric Mabius) is a dithering playboy, and Betty’s svelte, swanky co-workers chide her for her flagrant fashion faux pas. In fact, Betty is hired exactly because she’s a mess – Bradford Meade (Alan Dale), the owner of Mode magazine and Meade publications, thinks his bumbling son can’t completely botch the magazine so long as he doesn’t mess around with his secretary.

Meanwhile, Wilhelmina Slater (Vanessa Williams), the woman snubbed for Daniel’s editorial position, foments distrust between Daniel and his father. Wilhelmina works with a mysterious, veiled villainess. Loose dialogue abounds regarding the woman’s identity and intent. Rather than foster suspense, however, this move seems to signify a certain laziness on the part of the show’s writers, as it is dragged out with near abandon.

In each of the episodes aired so far, the characters’ relationships have interacted to create several static themes. In Episodes 1, 2 and 3, Betty overcomes social aversion with a drab one-liner. In Episodes 2 and 4, Betty makes a stupid mistake that nearly costs both her and Daniel their jobs, but all ends well because she launches into a melodramatic monologue about the value of being honest. And in the first five episodes, the high schoolish love problems surrounding Betty and her unfaithful boyfriend continue to be the subject of the young protagonist’s discontent.

To the actors’ credit, their performances are convincing and engaging despite the show’s shoddy workmanship. Still, no measure of willing suspension of disbelief can mute the fallibilities.

First, Ugly Betty is laden with poorly wrought ethnic and socioeconomic stereotypes. Betty comes from a working-class Hispanic family in Queens, N.Y. ABC goes out of its way to prove that Betty really is Hispanic to garner kinship with its viewers and does so in the only way it knows how: food. Betty’s father, Ignacio (Tony Plana), prepares recognizable dishes such as flan and tamales. As though that wasn’t bigoted enough, the family’s recreational activities are based upon the watching of telenovelas.

These overarching cultural generalizations add to Betty’s inability to fit in – she brings pungent empanadas to work and becomes surprised, even disgruntled, that others react to the smell. To further reinforce the already tacky ethnic element, Betty’s sister, Hilda, says sientate (sit down) to Betty when giving advice, although the family doesn’t really speak Spanish at any other juncture. Later, in Episode 5, the socioeconomic tension is emphasized when Betty, mistakenly dressed for Halloween, says, “Where I come from, people dress up for Halloween.” Funny, I thought Queens was just a stone’s throw across the bridge.

In addition to the drab, almost knee-jerk predictability that makes Ugly Betty so painful to watch, the show’s contradictory ideological tenets are equally ridiculous. Betty’s unattractiveness is juxtaposed with gumption and capability, conveying the correct idea that looks do not reflect internal characteristics. However, the show’s treatment of “beautiful people” nonetheless purports that physical looks determine internal characteristics – beauty, in the producer’s mind, is causally related to idiocy and malice.

If you’re a physically beautiful character on Ugly Betty, chances are you’re shallow, cruel and a bit ditzy. If you’re altogether homely, you’re likely to be intelligent, witty and gregarious.

In a similar vein, the show does not choose to exude a healthy view of physical beauty, such as the notion that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes. Instead, the show wants to convey that previous norms of physical beauty are altogether wrong, and that shapeless women such as Betty should comprise the new standard.

When Betty seeks some much-needed fashion advice from her friend Christina (Ashley Jensen), for example, she doesn’t properly say that beauty should, to some degree, be resigned to the eye of the beholder, but rather that women considered beautiful according to Mode’s standards aren’t “real.”

“But you don’t want to look like them, they’re not even real,” she said. “Real women snort when they laugh. They’ve got fat arses, wobbly arms and PMS.”

Oddly, Betty’s dissatisfaction had long been attributed to the fact that people didn’t think she was real or valid because of her looks. But now, because her notion of beauty is tempered to favor those previously neglected, it’s OK to describe people as “unreal” because of how they look. In Betty’s view, it’s not that one shouldn’t make judgments about people based upon appearance, but instead that all should be exempt from judgment except the thin and well groomed. In short, having a judgmental attitude is OK, as long as it works to the benefit of the physically mediocre.

When preparing for an important business lunch, for instance, Betty does not seek to improve herself (and yes, a hairless upper lip constitutes objective improvement), but instead, she seeks to tear down others because she isn’t like them, bemoaning her perfectly waxed “glamazonian” co-workers.Betty’s frustrations thus prove her to be petty as well as naively hypocritical, despite the fact that her appeal stems from her purported big-heart.

Christina then adds, “I thought you wanted to run a magazine one day, not run around 12 hours a day worrying about how your hair is doing.”

Again, Ugly Betty engages in the same line-drawing fallacy favored by feminists and puritans alike: A person either has brains or beauty, but never both. And because brains are rightfully considered more important, beauty falls to the wayside.

The attitude purveyed is that a woman must choose between her physical upkeep and career. As it’s obvious that a career is the more satisfying choice, the validity of beauty as a positive value, even if only a minimal one, is once again negated.

Yet this psychological approach lends itself to personal dissatisfaction rather than empowerment. Like it or not, it does feel good to look good, and humans do derive enjoyment from beauty, be it in the form of an emotive portrait or the devastating glance of a potential mate.

Sadly, though, the show’s enduring popularity – it rivals Survivor in Thursday’s ratings – leads to the conclusion that many Americans aren’t asking “Why not?” when presented with Ugly Betty‘s either-ors.