Mujeres de Acción: Latina Representation in Action Films

Regardless of the genre, Latinas have been subject to gross underrepresentation and have been symbolically annihilated within film. The Hollywood Diversity Report indicates that only 2.7% of the roles in the top movies of the year were played by Latino actors and of this percentage, women are further underrepresented, particularly within the action genre.

“In 2016, Latino actors played only 2.7% of roles in the top movies of the year (Betancourt).”

When film genres do include Latinas, they are often relegated to a stereotypical and, for women in particular, supporting role. The action genre often falls into this limited and destructive form of representation for Latinas due to the typical Hollywood action genre being geared toward young white men. Latina stereotypes in many genres are as sexual objects, an emphasis on the body, and a view as an exotic “Other,” and these stereotypes are strongly manifested in the action genre (Guzman). Latinas in action films are, in contrast to white femininity, presented as strong, powerful, aggressive, sexual, and conventionally attractive. In addition to this, roles for Latinas are limited to that of the “Sexpot, Criminal, or Immigrant” (Nittle) and the “Spy, Maid, or Bodyguard” (Acuña). Although Latinas are presented as highly capable and dangerous characters, their capability is always in subject to the male protagonist’s, illustrated through the need for saving or protection. The films analyzed below illustrate the stagnant nature of the above tropes and characteristics as well as how these limited roles and expectations for Latinas hinders the stories the action genre can tell to an increasingly LatinX audience.

Image: IMDB.com

The film Machete (2010) stars a variety of LatinX actors and actresses, a rarity within the action genre. Sartana, played by actress Jessica Alba, is the supporting female character to Machete, the protagonist. Sartana is an ICE agent in charge of surveillance of a group of migrant workers when she notices Machete as a former agent. Within the poster above, Sartana is staring directly at the camera with a fierce gaze in her eyes. In one hand she holds a gun and she holds the other hand to her side as a physical representation of confidence and ease. Sartana is dressed in form fitting clothing, her shirt is low cut and tucked into her pants which shows her belt and the officer badge indicating her position and role in the film. The background is darkened with small flecks of fire falling around her and her bra strap is partially visible along with the rosary beads around her neck.

Sartana is dressed and presented in the poster as a means of showing an air of confidence and capability in her position. She holds a gun in one hand and stares at the camera, portraying her ability to be a danger as well as her badge representing that she may abide by a certain code of law or justice. She wears a white tank top and jeans, not typical clothing for a police officer, indicating that she is casually dressed to blend in and also foreshadowing her eventual alliance with Machete and his illegal actions. Sartana is also represented as curvaceous with form fitting clothing, her hair is messy and natural and her pose in a side standing position illustrates an emphasis on her figure along with the medium long shot to her hips, representing the characteristic of Latinas as sexual objects and her eyes indicating an underlying aggression or seduction.

Overall, Sartana’s role fits the typical role a Latina is limited to in action films, she has a position in the criminal justice system, she is presented as sexual with an emphasis on her body and figure, she is capable and dangerous, but she is entirely malleable by the male protagonist. Sartana represents the patriarchal need for dominance over women, she is presented as having worth through her body, she is submissive to Machete and in the end dismisses both the law and her profession to commit murder. Culturally, even though the story of Machete is geared toward the LatinX community, it still holds to many of the conventions the action genre has established in regards to gender and sexuality but with a spin on the race of the characters. Sartana is an example of one such role often limited to Latinas in the action genre; that of the police officer or law enforcement agent as the next image and film further presents.

Image: IMDB.com

In Predator 2 (1990), Leona Cantrell is a supporting character and a police officer that aids in tracking the Predator during the gang wars of 1997. Although Leona’s role is brief, she is presented as a capable, strong-willed police officer with a temper and an aggressive way of speaking. In the image above, Leona is sweating and pointing her gun at the camera to the unseen predator. She is dressed in a trenchcoat, her hair is disheveled, she wears minimal jewelry and makeup, and her gun’s tracking red light is visible. The background shows the train she is on and some passengers she has huddled into the back to protect them from the predator.

Leona’s understated appearance and non-adherence to the more sexualized attired of Latina roles represents a stricter code of appearing professional for her job as a police officer. She is sweaty and disheveled in the act of protecting people, but nonetheless she holds her ground and points her gun at the unseen predator, viewed through the camera, and holds her gaze on the camera and the audience. The understated clothing choices and colors Leona wears indicates her status as a supporting character with a smaller role in the overall film. The film is indicating Leona’s panic within the situation, but also her resolve to protect the citizens on the train by all means necessary.

Without these physical indicators of Leona’s characterization, it would seem that she does not fall into the Latina stereotypes in action films; however, her dialogue and manner of speech is very much geared toward the perspective that Latinas are hot-tempered and aggressive. She routinely yells and injures or threatens her male co-workers and fellow police officers as well as running into situations headlong. Although Leona does not overtly conform to the physical and sexual characteristics of Latinas in action films, she still represents the subjugation of Latinas in a supporting role to the male protagonist. Action films have a history of targeting a male audience, for which Leona plays into this genre trope by submitting to the protagonist’s authority and power. Latinas are not only restricted to roles as the police officer or within a criminal justice position, they are also presented as an undercover agent or a spy.

Image: IMDB.com

Although the Spy Kids (2001) is an action film geared toward children, many of the tropes associated with Latinas are still present. Carla Gugino plays the mother and former spy, Ingrid Cortez. Her and her husband reestablish their spy careers when previous spies go missing, forcing them out of their domestic situation as parents and back into dangerous situations. In the above still, Ingrid has suited up in her spy clothing and rests against the pillar as her husband looks at her. Ingrid is dressed in all black clothing, her hair is slicked back and she holds the sunglasses she had been wearing in her hands. She smiles slightly at her husband and her clothing is both form fitting and low cut. She wears a choker and minimal makeup with her clothing and figure more on display as she rests on the pillar.

Ingrid is represented as sexual and seductive in regards to her husband, who at first did not want to let her come on the mission with him but relented when she began whispering in his ear. Ingrid is presented as extremely capable, dangerous, and seductive. She is sexually presented in an understated, more subtle way and her tight fitting clothing both highlights her figure and plays into the trope of female spies needing to be sexualized to do their job well. Ingrid in flashbacks as a full-fledged spy is often dressed in scantily clad or low cut clothing and she recalls through narration that the only time she failed a mission was when she had to kill her husband, also a former spy, and fell in love with him instead.

Although Ingrid is the mother in this film, she is presented as highly capable and dangerous. Even with these more positive traits; however, she still requires her husband and children to rescue her. She is less sexually presented due to the audience being children, but even then her body is more on display than her character or personality. Ingrid also does not play into the hot-tempered or aggressive characterizations, but nonetheless she falls into the stereotypes inherent in the spy action genre, using her body to get what she wants and needing to be rescued by a man regardless of how capable she may appear to be. In addition to the spy genre having both spies who are working within and outside of the law, another typical role for Latinas in action films is that of a criminal.

Miss Bala (2019) is the most recent action film that attempts to subvert the stereotypes and tropes associated with the action genre. Outright, the poster above presents Gloria Fuentes, played by Gina Rodriguez, as a Latina and the protagonist of the film, one who is neither the supporting character nor an afterthought. The poster above presents Gloria’s face and neck, not showing her body or physical characteristics, which is already a departure from typical representations of Latinas. Gloria is wearing heavy makeup, red lipstick and mascara as she stares directly into the camera. Her hair is done and she holds a gun in her hand near the lower right corner of the poster. The tagline says “Who would you become to save your family?” followed by the title, Miss Bala, which means Miss Bullet.

Gloria is represented as a dangerous, beautiful woman. She stares directly into the camera and wears full makeup with her hair done and holding a gun, indicating that although she is a beautiful Latina, she is also apparently dangerous, as evidenced by the gun being slightly out of frame in the poster. As with many of the Latina actresses in the action genre, she stares directly at the camera and the viewer, indicating a sense of fear or aggression and confidence in her abilities to get what she wants, particularly with the added threat of her gun.

Miss Bala tells the story of a woman who, trying to find her friend, ends up becoming used by an organization masquerading as the DEA to complete illegal activities. Gloria uses both her intelligence and ability to use her appearance as someone without intention or ability to find out where her friend is and kill the man who has lied to her. Miss Bala indicates a Hollywood attempt at going against the stereotypical roles Latinas have been subjected to, even with this attempt; however, Gloria still conforms to being conventionally attractive, curvacious, and with an agency that is molded by the men that are using her. Even when she attempts to assert her own agency, she still commits illegal crimes and murder. Although subverting the genre expectations and making progress in going against the roles Latinas are limited to, Miss Bala still conforms to many Hollywood expectations that serve to limit diversity and representation in film. Miss Bala, as a Latina representation, demonstrates a trope of Latinas as involved in criminal actions and behavior, a familiar trope in the action genre, in particular one of the most famous series, The Fast and the Furious.

Image: Variety.com

The Fast and Furious franchise has long been lauded for its dedication to an inclusive cast throughout the eight films. One of the most notable example of the series’ dedication towards inclusion is Michelle Rodriguez’s character “Letty.” Letty has been a part of the films from the very start, and has been celebrated as a strong female character. She is tough, independent, and often takes matters into her own hands. However, for a while, the character was often outshone by the male-dominated ensemble, as seen in the photo above. While Letty often has solo, action-packed scenes, her accomplishments are shadowed by those of her male counterparts.

In the photo above, she is in the very back of all four characters, who appear to be speaking with someone important. Thus, visually, her voice and opinion matter the least. It is clear from this photo that the white male lead, Paul Walker, is in charge. We can than look more closely at Rodriquez in this photo, who is dressed more or less the same way throughout the series—tight fighting clothes, usually a dark tank and jeans, dressed like Lara Croft. She’s meant to blend in, to be in the background. This again reinforces the attempt at female inclusion in this series. She’s there, but she is not the star, and is not making the calls. In this photo, we see how this type of inclusion of the Latina is important, but still cast Rodriguez’s character to the side. Especially in the earlier films, her character is a part of the action solely for a brief bit, where her tough, badass, Latina persona benefits the overall male-dominated story, and she is never granted a moment of her own agency. Another female character represented in the Fast and the Furious series indicates how the action genre limits and sexualizes Latinas.

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Image: Hotflick.net

Now, consider Eva Mendes in the film 2 Fast 2 Furious. While her character starts off as a positive representation, acting as an undercover agent for a drug lord, she almost immediately falls for Paul Walker’s character, as seen in the photo, and loses all sense of agency. Here, we see Mendes’ character after sleeping with Walker’s character. She has abandoned her mission completely for the sake of Walker.

As the story goes on, Mendes’ character essentially becomes a damsel in distress. As seen in the photo, her appearance differs from Rodriguez’s drastically. She is wearing a tied, up tight t-shirt, showing off her skin. In this scene, they are clearly in distress, and the strong, masculine hegemonic male stands guard to protect the vulnerable woman. Mendes’ characters represented another stereotype of Latina women in action films. She appears tough at first, but drops her guard at the sight of a white man. By the end of the film, she is captured by her bosses and Walker and his team are forced to rescue her. Mendes’ character falls into the trope of the sexy damsel in distress. Her character is thin and has little agency, and her actions and fate are controlled by the men around her. The sexualization of Eva Mendes’ character in 2 Fast, 2 Furious represents the most common characteristic of Latinas in action films, as sexual objects.

Next, consider Penelope Cruz’s character in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. In a way, she is almost a blend of the stereotypes from the two characters before. She is sultry, beautiful, dangerous and strong. Yet, once more, she falls for the male protagonist, and her fate is left to him. As seen in the photo, Jack Sparrow grabs her from behind, as she looks into his eyes with a sexual passion. This plays off the genre trope that occurs often in action films between the male protagonist and his female counterpart: a will-they-won’t-they game that persists throughout the film to engage the audience in a romantic tease, as hinted strongly at in the photo.

Although not completely seen in this photo, Cruz’s appearance emphasizes her femininity. As she gets in brutal swords fights with pirates, she wears form fitting outfits, and never seems to have a mark or blemish on her face, despite her status as a legendary pirate who has been sailing the seas for years. Her appearance plays into the fun, sexual-tension subtext that is used as a device throughout the film. Cruz’s character reinforces a sort of femme fatale figure, her uses her sexual energy to trick the male protagonist. However, in this film, she falls right back into his arms after her apparent “betrayal.” Thus, the character loses all sense of agency, and is merely there for sex appeal and mystery—to add texture and flair with her Latina femininity as the “Other.” The femme fatale role and sexuality is one of the most common tropes for Latinas in the action genre and it is still widely used in contemporary films today.

Lastly, we have Salma Hayek’s character in From Dusk Till Dawn. In the film, Hayek’s character is Queen of the Vampires. She is supposed to be lethal and dangerous, and poses a threat to the main male protagonists. In the photo, we see her regal nature, with the headdress and lavish, sparse clothing. She stands above an audience and performs an erotic dance to seemingly assert her sexual prowess and dominance.

In the photo, we see Hayek wearing next to nothing. The focus in on her body and her body her only. Her form and figure are her main weapons. She lures the men with her exotic energy and attacks them with her femininity.. Salma Hayek’s character largely plays into the trope of the exotic “Other,” an unspecified foreign figure who is sexy and mysterious and poses a looming threat to the, often, male protagonist. She has little character traits beyond her appearance, and poses no real danger to the leads beyond a brief moment of hypnotic lust.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Latinas in action films have a history of under representation or misrepresentation that has limited the kinds of stories the action genre tells. With only 2.7% of the top films in 2016 having a lead role played by a Latino actor, Latinas in particular have been erased by contemporary Hollywood, particularly within the action genre. The roles Latinas have been given include criminals, police officers, secret agents and spies, or the sexual object. Throughout these roles, Latinas are expected to utilize their bodies and sex appeal to get what they want, seduce men, and cater to the male gaze as the exotic other. Action films have the potential to tell stories that inspire people and provide characters of inspiration and admiration, but when all of these stories are geared to white men about white men, the genre cannot adapt to and encompass diverse characterization for the LatinX community that has called for it. According to the Hollywood Diversity Report, “Movies with casts that were 20% minority or less made up a majority of all movies in 2016 and had the lowest global box office” (Betancourt). In 2016, this statistic is both appalling and unacceptable; changing how Latinas and other women of color are represented in various genres is the first step to changing this statistic and ensuring a globalization of diverse expression.

References:

Acuña, B. P. (2010). Latinos in U.S. Film Industry. Journal of Alternative Perspectives in the Social Sciences, 2(1), 399–414. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=51502714&site=ehost-live

Betancourt, M. (2018, March 1). This Diversity Report Is all the Proof Latinos Need to Start Boycotting Hollywood. Retrieved March 9, 2019, from http://remezcla.com/lists/film/ucla-hollywood-diversity-report-2018/

Guzmán, I. M., & Valdivia, A. N. (2004). Brain, Brow, and Booty: Latina Iconicity in U.S. Popular Culture. The Communication Review, 7(2), 205-221. doi:10.1080/10714420490448723

Nittle, N. K. (2019, January 10). Five Common Latino Stereotypes in Television and Film. Retrieved March 9, 2019, from https://www.thoughtco.com/latino-stereotypes-in-television-and-film-2834654

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