I never realized just how much I craved a Latina character on TV until the first time I watched Eva Longoria take on the role of Gabrielle Solis on “Desperate Housewives.” Unlike the few Latina characters I’d seen on TV before her, those relegated to the role of house-cleaners and maids, Gabrielle Solis was elegant, rich, beautiful, and witty. All while being Brown. My mother and I became obsessed with the show and Gabrielle in particular. When I went off to college, I would watch the show in my dorm’s common room while my mom watched at home, and we’d call each other during the commercials to compare notes on our favorite character.
It’s easy for me to understand that Gabrielle’s character captured my attention so much growing up because most TV characters tended to be as white as they come.
CREDIT: “Desperate Housewives” / ABC
At the time, white female characters dominated the channels I watched like The WB and ABC. Shows like “Sabrina The Teenage Witch,” “Boy Meets World” and even the animated series “Doug” had female leads that all had blonde locks and storylines that never tackled issues I dealt with at home or in school. I can only imagine how a character like Gabrielle could have vindicated me as a young girl, wrestling with insecurities about my identity as a mixed kid, teased by my white cousins for speaking Spanish.
While eventually, Gabrielle Solis became a Latina leading lady for me to admire and relate to, there was still something missing from her character and the shows that soon started to feature more actresses from Latin American countries.TV’s under-representation of Latinas had extreme effects on my identity growing up, but its lack of queer visibility also hurt my sexual identity, though in a far more subtle and passive way. The former made me feel less than; the latter left me feeling as if I did not belong. Queerness never showed up on the screen, so there was no validity for the ways in which I was feeling.
My queerness didn’t even dawn on me until senior year of college, and even then, I didn’t open up about it.
CREDIT: “Sex & the City” / HBO
In hindsight, the absence of LGBTQ folks on TV, especially Latina ones, had quite an impact on my shaky and prolonged coming-out. No doubt I would have come to terms with my sexuality sooner had I seen examples of it in the media I was consuming. Maybe those niggling questions in the back of my mind would have found a resolution sooner. Maybe I would felt more comfortable in understanding what type of relationships I deserved even faster.
Of course, TV wasn’t totally devoid of queer characters in the 90s and early 2000s but the pickings were slim in terms of positive and unique portrayals. The tired trope of the sassy, gay male sidekick would pop up on shows on occasion. During its fourth season, “Sex and The City” featured a Brazilian lesbian for three episodes. She played the part of the stereotypical “crazy” Latina, the “overly attached” lesbian and, to really drive her character’s Latinidad home, her name was Maria. She begged for love and threw plates when she was angry. She was hardly a positive depiction of how I wanted to be seen, and as a character on show that aired on cable TV and after my bedtime, she was also pretty much out of my reach of access.
It wasn’t until 2009, while watching the FOX hit “Glee” that I saw a same-sex female relationship unfolding for the first time.
CREDIT: “Glee” / FOX
Santana was an Afro-Latina falling in love with her co-cheerleader and their love excited and reassured me— especially because Santana was a Latina like me. As important and revolutionary for many viewers as that was, one might view their relationship with a teeny bit of skepticism. Two hot, skinny, cheerleaders hooking up seems oddly intended for the male gaze. It would have been cool to see an androgynous girl, or a butch girl, or literally anyone other than a hot, skinny, cheerleader. But you can’t win ‘em all, I suppose.
The good news is that you’ll currently find a record high number of LGBTQ people, people of color, and LGBTQ people of color on TV. There are a few shows that even feature a Latina lead, like “Jane The Virgin”, and “One Day At A Time”. These are vital for young Latinas watching TV– seeing themselves at center stage demonstrates that they are just as deserving of the spotlight as their white counterparts. Most exciting for me, many characters are now more diverse in their queerness than ever. Instead of placating the male gaze and simply featuring heteronormative “Hollywood sexy” lesbians, there are now characters that portray the wide range of identities in the queer community– from bois, like Daddy (portrayed by Vicci Martinez) on “Orange is The New Black”, to studs, like Denise (played by Lena Waithe) on “Master of None”, and finally, finally, finally, actual bisexual characters, a phenomenon long overdue.
While more gay characters have cropped up on TV shows over the past couple of years, bi-erasure has held it’s grip tightly and only now does it seem to be loosening it. For a while, it seemed that the only bones thrown to bi women were the cheap moments of two “hot” girls kissing solely to titillate the audience– I’m looking at you Betty and Veronica of “Riverdale.”
The character of Rosa played by Stephanie Beatriz on “Brooklyn 99” was a huge step forward for me and the world of TV.
CREDIT: “Brooklyn 99” / FOX
Not only did Rosa come out as bisexual on the show, but she also played the part of a Latina character with a storyline that spotlighted her relationship with her family and how they handled– or didn’t handle– her coming out. Young Latinas can look to Rosa’s character and feel less alone. Valencia (played by the talented triple-threat Gabrielle Ruiz) on “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” was also incredibly refreshing to watch— they sort of skimmed over her discovery of her bisexuality, but in a way, that was even better. Her sexuality doesn’t define her and her character didn’t change drastically after coming out. When Valencia was finally given a storyline that allowed her to romantically get together with her female business partner, I found myself having that same warm moment of wonder and connection that I felt when I first saw Gabrielle Solis.
I’m relieved that network executives are slowly starting to wake up to their responsibility to depict brown and queer folks. Still, we still have a long way to go. Despite the progress they’ve made with shows like “Brooklyn 99” and “Jane The Virgin” it’s clear studios and production houses are still struggling to understand how easy and beneficial to them it would be to introduce more queer characters into their main cast of characters.
In the next few years, I hope all little girls can watch TV and see themselves on it– brown girls, queer girls, trans girls, fat girls, disabled girls. After all, there’s so much room to include us all.