Ugly Betty, the global drama-comedy franchise, hammers a familiar message: it's the inside that counts.
Ugly Betty, originally the lead character of Colombian telenovela Betty la Fuea, is an unlikely bespectacled heroine who has charmed television viewers across the globe and has even inspired the formation of a ‘pro-social movement’, Be Ugly in 07, which wants to tell America that ‘ugly is the new beautiful’. The Colombian soap has been syndicated in 70 countries and though the Betty character varies slightly in the different versions, the basic concept is that she has no sense of style and works as a secretary amongst super gorgeous fashionistas.
From India to Germany to Russia, buck-teethed, chubby and tragically un-chic Betties have topped viewer ratings, and the American version, produced by the beautiful Mexican actress Salma Hayek, has now landed the Friday 9.30 slot on Channel 4 in the UK.
The American Betty has all the characteristics of a super nerd – she is bushy-haired, chubby and short, with braces, wide rimmed glasses and garishly patterned bulky clothes. But she is nice, caring and ambitious. The comedy of Ugly Betty is similar to Prêt-à-Porter, Zoolander and other films that make fun of the superficial world of fashion and airhead models. And like many such films, it relies on a cast of attractive people to keep the audience interested.
Ugly Betty also feels unoriginal because the plot is very similar to the 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada, starring Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep – but with an American dream thrown in. Betty Suarez is a motherless Latina who makes the symbolically long journey from Queens to Manhattan when she realises her goal of working in publishing. She lives with her sickly father, who struggles with getting decent health care, her camp nephew and older sister, who sells ‘Herbalux’ (a reference to Herbalife, the weight-loss supplement).
Just like Hathaway in Prada, Betty is often the laughing stock of her bitchy and shallow colleagues and is on call 24/7 to wait on the whims of her boss, who, unlike Streep’s Miranda Priestly, is spineless and daft. Though her highfaluting, airhead Manhattanite colleagues often put her down, Betty’s naïveté and impulsiveness stop her from giving in to her father’s occasional defeatism – ‘people like us don’t belong in places like that’, he tells her.
Betty soon finds out the real reason she landed the job as personal assistant to Daniel Meade, the newly installed editor-in-chief of Mode fashion magazine. Daniel’s father wants to put a stop to his ladies-man son’s high turnover of secretaries and he is certain Betty is the one girl Daniel will not try to seduce. We can expect that to change if the moral of the story – inner beauty counts more than good looks – is taken further or if Betty, the ugly duckling, ever turns into a swan. In Colombia, Betty has flat hair and a moustache, but the actress who plays her is a former beauty queen, leaving open the possibility of a metamorphosis.
Despite the sneers and insults of her colleagues (when Betty goes through a makeover, barrio-style, Mode’s conniving creative director Wilhelmina says ‘it looks as if Queens threw up’), Betty makes a few non-glamorous friends at work, including the seamstress Christina, played by British actress Ashley Jensen (Maggie from comedy series Extras). She also wins her jerky boss over after coming to his aid with an extremely cheesy idea for an advertising campaign. Daniel and Betty soon become ‘a team’ and it looks like she will continue saving the day for her incompetent boss. In a sub plot, Wilhelmina, whose camp assistant gives her botox shots and foot massages in her office, conspires with a former editor to bring down Daniel, but they have, of course, not counted on the power of Betty’s awkward charms.
Usually, ‘the nerd’ is a character whose misfortunes we laugh at or whose luck is envied when their swan-moment finally arrives. But Ugly Betty only really works as long as the duckling remains ugly. And so far, it does work. It was a smash hit in the US, where it has been especially popular with Latinos, who are familiar with the melodramatic style of the telenovelas that Betty’s family watches and the interiors of their simple Queens home. Executive producer Salma Hayek is able to bridge the two worlds, having started her own career in telenovelas before making it in Hollywood – even taking a cameo role as the star of a telenovela playing in the background in the Suarez home.
In Colombia, Betty La Fuea (Betty the Ugly) has become a huge sensation. When Betty was offered a bribe, newspapers ran headlines such as ‘We need your example, Betty’ and ‘You still have time to save our country’. And when Betty slept with her boss, newspapers declared: ‘Betty the Ugly is not a virgin!’ Church leaders called for a boycott.
Though it seems unlikely that Betty will make such a headline grabbing impact here in the UK, Brits are not unfamiliar with respected media outlets reporting on the fate of TV characters. Who can forget the campaign to Free Deirdre from Coronation Street (the ‘Weatherfield One’) that even Tony Blair lent support to (1)? Beyond the soap operas, news from the Big Brother house and the results of Strictly Come Dancing, for instance, are reported in the mainstream press. Stars of reality shows and a range of lifestyle experts daily exert their moral agendas on the television screen and beyond, and they are often urged to lead by example.
Though these reality TV stars and hosts are not actors, they go beyond their remit as TV personalities and, like Betty, gain respect for being ordinary and plain. Ugly Betty should be taken for what it is – a silly primetime TV show with a simple feel-good moral message: it’s the inside that counts. So despite what the founders of the Be Ugly in 07 campaign say, don’t pin your hopes on Ugly Betty getting rid of the Queens-Manhattan divide or emancipating the fashion-challenged.
(1) PM supports Weatherfield One, BBC News, 31 March 1998
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