Dangerous Curves: Latina Bodies in the Media. By Isabel Molina-Guzmán.
New York: New York University Press, February 2010. Paper: ISBN 978-0814757369. $22. 256 pages.
Review by Natchee Blu Barnd, California College of the Arts
It seems fitting that I began writing this review on the release date of Jennifer Lopez’s latest and widely berated film The Back-Up Plan. Just as her nickname “J-Lo” suggests a shorthand familiarity, her high-profile celebrity life most readily “embodies” the contradictions of dominant discourses about Latinas in the media. While we have become accustomed to public discussions about Lopez’s career, love life, and body parts, her construction also symbolizes the broader colonized production of Latina subjectivities.
Dangerous Curves balances Molina-Guzmán’s confessed status as a fan and consumer of popular culture (she briefly shares her family’s keen interest in Jennifer Lopez’s appearances) with her critical eye toward the racial, gender, and nation-building projects that shape and limit representational possibilities for Latinas in US media and the larger cultural sphere. She tackles a broad spectrum of the “mediascape,” tracking dominant discourses of Latinas (re)produced through “newspapers, television news broadcasts, ethnic and racial minority newspapers, tabloids, magazines, film, television programs” as well as considering audience reception and disruption of such discourse through “blogs, Web sites, online discussion boards, and letters to editor.” Molina-Guzmán organizes this array of sources around five case studies, each centered on one or more important Latina media figures.
The first chapter revisits the enormous attention given to the repatriation of one-time Cuban refugee Elián González, focusing on the representational transformation of Cuban Americans from privileged “white ethnics” to marginalized “brown immigrants” through the figures of González’s late mother Elisabet Brottons and his media darling-turned-target cousin, Marisleysis. Chapter two examines Jennifer Lopez’s widely-observed maneuver from dangerous urban blackness toward safe middle-class whiteness most noticeably signaled by her successive marriage/love partner choices, and actively shaped by raced and gendered tabloid narratives. Next, Molina-Guzmán reads complex transnational discourses between the US and Mexico around Latinidad and “authenticity” generated by Salma Hayek’s berated/celebrated portrayal of Frida Kahlo. The fourth chapter takes aim at the “sublimation” of ethnoracial identity in ABC’s popular series Ugly Betty, turning critical attention to the construction of its main character, played by America Ferrera. The final study situates two fictional films – Maid in Manhattan (2002) and Spanglish (2004) – that narrate domestic workers as romantic comedy love interests, against the real world context of the gendered and racialized global circulation of immigrant labor.
The strength of Dangerous Curves lies in its attention to multiple forms of media which (re)produce dominant colonizing discourses about Latinas and Latinidad. In addition, Molina-Guzmán provides an excellent reading of popular culture productions such as Ugly Betty and Frida (2002) which can too easily be read as completely progressive and outside the scope of racialized and gendered discourse. These cases studies in particular also attend to heteronormativity through a highly productive queer reading of constructions of Latinidad. The author’s efforts to incorporate audience engagement with these media texts presents an important reminder that viewers do not simply consume media, but maintain complex and contradictory relationships that both reinforce hegemonic projects and subvert them, yet always reflect the fluidity and instability of meaning-making practices.
For teachers, Dangerous Curves provides a solid discursive analysis that can be immediately put to use for course lectures and class discussions on popular culture and the politics of representation. More advanced undergraduate students and those interested in Latina representation will be excited to have a resource that treats recent media productions and still-popular media figures, especially compared to the now “distant” media and figures featured in Rosa Linda Fregoso’s Bronze Screen (1993) or Clara Rodriguez’s Heroes, Lovers, and Others (2008). Within the larger scholarship of media and Latina/os, Dangerous Curves will effectively supplement works like Arlene Davila’s Latino Spin (2008) and Latinos, Inc. (2001), Leo Chavez’s The Latino Threat (2008), and Otto Santa Ana’s Brown Tide Rising (2002).
There were a couple points of limitation that should be noted. For me, the first chapter feels somewhat out of place in relation to the other four case studies examined, all of which focus on Latina superstars in popular media. Although the Elián González story occurred within reasonable temporal proximity to the popular media case studies, its “pure” news media standing makes it less recycled and therefore seem more distant and isolated. There are numerous moments in this chapter, and others, where news media representations are too quickly passed over without providing the reader a thorough look at the actual discourse being deployed in the articles and television news coverage. In the rush to structure her critiques/examination, Molina-Guzmán tends to quickly paraphrase what ought to be thoroughly demonstrated. Too often, I found myself wanting for a more sustained examination of the concrete examples in the production of these discursive regimes, something slightly more akin to Santa Ana’s analysis of the Los Angeles Times. To be fair, the treatment fared better in chapters 3-5, where the focus remained on single popular culture “sites.” To this point, I found the final two chapters to be the strongest and the most engaging.
I also found the audience reception angle somewhat overemphasized as a methodology, or else underutilized in practice. The biggest concern here is that Molina-Guzmán’s excellent analysis is too open to criticism by those not easily convinced of the validity of her arguments. While I fully support the work and trust her findings, the data for audience reception seemed sparse, sometimes incorporating only a handful of statements from blog or discussion-board writers. While the small number of writers does not and cannot dismiss their agency in generating “symbolic ruptures” in the dominant discourse, it does leave the force of their often powerful critiques feeling less substantial.