Latinx representation has been problematic in television since it first became of interest to the general media. As Molina-Guzman and Valdivia explain, it has been plagued by racialized and gendered representations of Latinx transnational identities and hybrid bodies. Historically, media centered around Latinx identities is one-dimensional and stereotypical. Narratives including Latinx characters involve scandals, drug runs, or romantic pursuits and their defining characteristics are largely negative – having a heavy accent, being hypersexual, asexual, or hypermasculine. Recently, there has been a call from Latinx audiences for “more inclusive programming” and a deviation from these characterizations in popular media (Molina-Guzman and Valdivia, 2004). As a result, we’ve seen only so-called progressive responses in the form of Latinx people as secondary characters in primarily white narratives or Latinx centered stories that are still plagued by stereotypes.
The 2017 sitcom, One Day at a Time has been deemed as highly progressive by numerous sources and viewers for its transcendence of these minimalistic efforts. One Day at a Time is a refreshing take on a sitcom as the genre usually focuses on the importance of familial relationships but only told through a white, middle-class, heterosexual lens. The acclaimed “progressiveness” in One Day at a Time is that the series addresses normal topics such as divorce, marriage, mental health and familial expectations through a Latinx lens. Although it is a very important story to tell, the topics are ones the sitcom genre is very familiar with.
For example, in the popular series Gilmore Girls, the story is centered around the theme of single-motherhood depicted through Lorelai and her daughter, Rory, who’ve managed to create a good and stable life without the help of a father-figure. However, as the series progresses, Rory’s father- Christopher, is introduced when he decides to be less absent, reconnect with his daughter and hopefully rekindle a relationship with Lorelai. In Season 3, Episode 2 (“Haunted Log”), Christopher breaks the promises he makes to Rory and Lorelai and decides to leave Stars Hollow to be with the woman he got pregnant and is now going to marry. As is typical in the role of a single-mother, Lorelai is left to help Rory cope with, and simultaneously help rebuild, the fragmented relationship she has with her father.
Following the theme, One Day at a Time, is centered around Penelope, a Cuban-American veteran who has raised her children without a dominant father figure present for fifteen years when Victor, her ex-husband, decides to return and reconnect with his children, Alex and Elena. In Season 1, Episode 13 (“Quinces”), Victor returns in time to dance with Elena at her Quinces – a traditional latinx coming of age ceremony. However, after Elena comes out to him during their practice of the father-daughter dance and she decides to wear a suit instead of a dress to the event, Victor rejects her and leaves her before the father-daughter dance. Just like in Gilmore Girls, Penelope is left to pick up the pieces and fill in as the father figure once again.
Another example of a white sitcom engaging with traditional themes, like mother-daughter relationships and marital preservation, is Reba. The early 2000’s sitcom follows Reba Hart, a recent divorcee who’s struggling to deal with her children, her ex-husband Brock, and his pregnant girlfriend Barbra Jean. In Season 1, Episode 11 (“Meet the Parents”), Reba’s parents are in town for the first time since her divorce. Throughout the entirety of this episode, Reba’s mom shares how blessed she is for having a long and happy marriage with her partner. Particularly, she shares that marriage is “the greatest achievement in life.” This comment and others lead Reba to believe that it was her fault her marriage fell apart and that her parents see her as a failure for not being able to hold down a marriage despite her other successes in her work and family. Despite their rough relationship throughout the episode, Reba and her mother reconcile after she compliments her for being so in control of her life and apologizes for making her feel less than.
In the same way, One Day at a Time showcases these same themes in Season 3, Episode 8 (“She Drives Me Crazy”). The episode revolves around Lydia, Penelope’s mother, wanting to teach her how to cook the family recipes because she finally feels Penelope is deserving of them. However, it’s later revealed that she does it because it’s her way of “fixing” her and ensuring she can “keep” a man and get remarried. Penelope is extremely hurt by the revelation that her mother feels she needs fixing and that despite being healthy, having a good relationship, and wonderful kids she still isn’t good enough for her mother. In the end, they reconcile after realizing that they need to accept one another for who they are and Lydia tells Penelope that she’s more than enough.
Reba also engages with the concepts of divorce and remarrying throughout the series. In Season 1, Episode 15 (“You May Kick the Bride”), Reba’s patience is tested as Brock and Barbra Jean prepare for their marriage in which her kids are all involved. After a long conversation with Barbra Jean over their individual relationships with Brock and a threat of postponing the wedding, Reba is coerced into giving her blessing. Also, after thoroughly persisting, Reba winds up unconventionally attending the wedding and, this time genuinely, accepting the union.
Similarly, in Season 3, Episode 11 (“A Penny and a Nicole”) and Season 3, Episode 13 (“Ghosts”) of One Day at a Time, Penelope is struck by the news that her ex-husband not only has a girlfriend but is also in the process of marrying her. After bonding with her doppleganger, Nicole, over their respective relationships with Victor, Penelope shares that she’s happy for their new relationship but struggling to understand why her ex-husband has found someone so great and she hasn’t. Penelope, too, ends up attending the wedding where, despite her own emotions, shares her approval of the couple.
Lastly, the themes of post-traumatic stress disorder and mental health form the basis of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The story follows Kimmy Schmidt who, after being trapped in a bunker for fifteen years, struggles to navigate her way around New York City. In Season 2, Episode 10 (“Kimmy Goes To Her Happy Place”), Kimmy makes the decision to go to therapy after realizing she needs to confront her repressed emotions and learn to put herself before others. Once at therapy, Kimmy makes great progress by sharing how she diffuses her anger and unwelcome thoughts by going to her happy place where she’s a princess and also reaches a breakthrough by realizing she blames her mother for ending up in the bunker.
Correspondingly, One Day at a Time, also engages with PTSD and mental health through Penelope’s character. A military veteran, mother of a gay teenager and another experimenting with drugs, and a mother who recently had a stroke, Penelope struggles with PTSD, depression, and newfound anxiety. During her group therapy, she shares that her anxiety, which she knows she gets from her mother, is getting worse. But, with Schneider’s help, she’s learned to ground herself by looking at pictures of dogs in wigs. Later on in the episode, she helps Elena out of an anxiety attack using the same methods that work for her and as a family they discuss the normalcy of mental health and the importance of caring for themselves and one another.
Although most sitcom topics are easily relatable to families of all backgrounds, they’re usually produced by, starring, and made for white people. Furthermore, usually when there are Latinx representations, they “speak to non-Latino audiences in ways that are ethnically and racially… regressive” (Molina-Guzman, 2018). Due to the lack of diversity in sitcoms and scarcity of non-stereotypical portrayals of Latinx identities, content that deviates from those standards has been deemed ‘progressive’. However, in comparing One Day at a Time to white-centered sitcoms, it’s evident that the series is not progressive as much as it is simply a non-stereotypical portrayal of Latinx identities and a show discussing normal topics and themes through a Latinx lens. Although not truly progressive, it’s still important to analyze shows like One Day at a Time because of the “practices surrounding the production of the [media], and the social context within with the [media] is produced and received” (Molina-Guzman and Valdivia, 2004). It’s also equally important to acknowledge the work the creators and actors of these shows are putting towards creating a new and non-stereotypical representation of Latinx in the media.
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
Molina-Guzmán, I. (2018). Latinas and Latinos on TV colorblind comedy in the post-racial network era. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press.