‘When Brown Girl Glory Gets Dressed Up in White’ by Ruby Pivet

CARMEN: You would look beautiful without all that fat!

For all the films I’ve watched, it took me twenty-six years to find myself in one.

I am lying down, belly flat, on my bed, watching a scene from Real Women Have Curves (2002) unfold across the screen of my laptop. It’s the middle of summer, partway through the work-day, when Ana and her mother Carmen engage in a confrontation that feels all too familiar. Carmen gestures between Ana and her older sister, Estela in frustration. She asks, why are they not ashamed of the weight they carry on their hips and thighs and faces? It is between the steamer and the sewing machines that Ana makes her stand: she tells her mother that there is more to her than her appearance. We know, those watching, that Ana got accepted into good colleges, that she is a loving, smart person, that she works hard.

I watch Carmen tell her daughter that she would be better off thin. This scene feels so familiar that it burns hot and all over me. I mentally run through every time my mother has said something similar to me. The list of criticism is long, creative and unintentionally cruel.

Originally premiering in the 1990s as a play, the film Real Women Have Curves is iconic for its commentary on the immigrant experience, body positivity, intersections of class and colour, and explorations of family – particularly, relationships between mothers and daughters. The Patricia Cardoso–directed film was written by Josefina López and introduced America Ferrera into her first of many epochal roles. Having just turned eighteen and finished high school, Ana Garcia (America Ferrera) works in her sister’s dress factory in Los Angeles. Despite her family’s wishes, she is preparing to leave for Columbia University in New York. She butts heads with her mother Carmen (Lupe Ontiveros) constantly about her weight, her body and her ambition. It is the film’s focus on Ana’s body positivity, despite her mother’s constant commentary on her weight, that stayed with me.

Real Women Have Curves takes place during the transitional period between finishing high school and leaving for university. Its visual qualities are as purposeful as they are warm and beautiful: Patricia Cardoso interviewed a number of cinematographers who presented her with the typical industry approach to Latinx stories: grey, grit and downtrodden. The eventual choice for the position, Jim Denault, instead chose to show everything that was beautiful about Ana’s life, culture and surroundings. The film’s focus on Ana’s first job, her first love, her first acts of reclaiming her body for herself and her first acts of defiance, exemplify adolescent Latinx beauty.

While Real Women Have Curves has been heralded as an important piece of Latinx feminist popular culture, it received little recognition in Hollywood when released and remains niche to date. This sentiment is fresh in my mind as I watched Greta Gerwig’s Oscar-nominated solo directorial debut, Lady Bird (2017). Some Latinx film critics and fans have suggested Lady Bird is a whitewashed, perhaps even plagiarised, version of Real Women Have Curves. I myself can find at least three scenes from Lady Bird which appeared to be lifted from Real Women Have Curves and rewritten for white characters.

Pausing to consider the fact that Lady Bird, both film and character, traverses similar territory, it is evident that Real Women Have Curves has been overlooked for almost two decades not due to lack of universality but due to the brown, Latinx frame within which the narrative is presented.

As Yolanda Machado argues in her Marie Claire article: ‘It’s almost the exact storyline, beat by beat, as Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, with only one glaringly obvious difference: Lady Bird – its director, its writer, and most of its cast – is white’. Machado goes on to say Lady Bird was influenced by Real Women Have Curves, but no one outside the Latinx community is talking about it. She is dismayed at the industry’s and audiences’ inability to correct the narrative:

Movies which are told from the perspective of a woman of color—even with today's social movements top of mind—are a rarity. Yet 15 years ago and against all odds, Real Women Have Curves made its debut with a Latina director at the helm (Patricia Cardoso), a Latina writer (Josefina López, whose stage play was the basis for the film), a black woman producer (Effie Brown), and a cast of almost entirely Latin actors (save for the boy who played Jimmy, Ana’s love interest, who was white). And not one white critic or pundit could even cite the movie when discussing Lady Bird. Not a single one.

While the case for plagiarism appears stronger than some might be willing to recognise, the purpose of the discussion, for some, has focused more on why such similar films received such differing treatment. Despite their similarities, only one film was considered worthy of an Oscar nomination. Why are the stories of young women from culturally diverse backgrounds boxed into a niche only to be forgotten, while the same stories told with thin, white women are considered universally relatable, earning them great mainstream success?

When discussing the similarities between the 2002 and 2017 fims, entertainment writer Mathew Rodriguez wrote:

Although Lady Bird boasts Gerwig’s strong directorial choices, writing and acting to its credit, there’s no denying that the film’s whiteness is part of its appeal … Just as Lady Bird’s parade of white woman talent is a part of its success, I’m inclined to think that Real Women Have Curves’ Latinx-centric world hinders it.

Real Women Have Curves remains niche not because it isn’t relatable to a wide audience, but, because, as Rodriguez points out:

Whiteness, in Hollywood and in our collective conscious, often means relatability, while latinidad does not.

In Australia, finding Latinx voices – to read, to listen to, to be inspired by – beyond your family and friends is difficult. The experience of growing up as a Latinx person in Australia is often very different to anything we may have seen of ourselves or our families in media from North America. Yet they do resonate. The representation (or lack thereof) highlights the complexities of community. Still, they are what we have and, for some, what we hold dear. I know that I am not alone in that experience. Just as I know this is not an experience unique to the Latinx community in this country, but rather a greater issue surrounding whiteness and gatekeeping in film, cultural commentary and the arts in general. So many reviews of Lady Bird didn’t recognise the influence Real Women evidently had on the film. It was frustrating – in part because I felt that they'd not even heard of the film’s inheritance.

ANA: Mama, I do want to lose weight. And part of me doesn’t because my weight says to everybody “fuck you!”!

I am eight years older — and more than a few sizes larger – than Ana when she took the words trapped behind my teeth and delivered them to her mother. They were the words I had only just begun to put together myself, and I have not use them aloud yet. To hear Ana say them – it is an out-of-body experience, at once comforting and confronting. Carmen could be my own mother – she who stares at my body, so different from her own at my age, slender and white. The mother who tests me with the cakes and biscuits she bakes, much in the way Ana’s mother tests her with flan at her own graduation party. The mother who asked me every single day, who still asks me, if I have been to the gym and when I plan to lose some weight. So preoccupied with my size and the things she believes will result from it (ill-health, loneliness, sadness), that everything else large about me – my laugh, my loyalty, my spirit – seems to be secondary, an afterthought. It feels like my size is just always there, lingering in the minds of other people. The largeness of my body is the but that counters every good thing about me.

ANA: How dare anybody tell me what I should look like … or what I should be … when there’s so much more to me than just my weight!

The characters I am interested in or empathise with in pop culture often get a raw deal. They’re either supporting characters with little screen time and even fewer lines – Julie, Miguel and Shelly in Lady Bird are prime examples – or the films themselves are not exactly considered refined pieces of art. It suggests that whiteness is not only more relatable and appealing in storytelling, but in the case of Real Women and Lady Bird, one story becomes more noteworthy than virtually the same one, originally told over a decade ago through a Latinx lens.

After viewing Lady Bird, Josefina López herself saw the similarities between Gerwig’s movie and her own. Speaking with Hoy Los Angeles, she discussed her art and experiences of the film industry, where her work was constantly disregarded due to her gender and her cultural background: ‘I also deserve a place in Hollywood and the opportunity to continue telling impactful stories.’

The reception of Lady Bird aligned with the unwillingness to recognise Real Women Have Curves as its predecessor serves to prove that this is very much still the case. The disparity between those who get to create, critique and experience art and those who do not remains. In 2017 an anniversary screening of Real Women Have Curves included a panel from the cast and creators. It took fifteen years for the Academy to catch up. Speaking on the panel, America Ferrera observed the different ways artistry is treated in the industry. Citing Lupe Ontiveros who portrayed her on-screen mother, she lamented that people (women in particular) of diverse backgrounds can go entire careers without recognition, despite the quality and prolificacy of their work. ‘Working with Lupe opened my eyes up from the very beginning about how people with enormous talent could go their whole careers and never get the real chance to express the entirety of their talent,’ she said. Josefina Lopez added, that in the year of her death, Ontiveros was not included in the Academy’s obituaries.

What does this mean for women of colour who are creating and telling stories? Women of colour (perhaps even more so, fat women of colour) are rarely afforded the opportunity to tell their own stories on screen, especially in Australia. If they do appear in ‘white’ films (and that’s a huge if), they are sidelined, or blindsided or stereotypes. Growing up in Australia, my only memory of an explicit reference made to a Latinx character of was an in-house Foxtel ad where Chilean-American actress Cote de Pablo’s NCIS character Ziva was labelled the “hot Latin chick”. To tell one's own coming-of-age story, or explore your own sexuality, in an empowered and considered manner is a privilege afforded predominantly to white, often slender, characters. It leaves very little room for people who fall outside of those terribly limiting parameters to find much of themselves at all represented, let alone engage in conversations about film and art.

I can think of one other character I might call my favourite. She too, was dealing with body image, class, culture, colour and their various intersections. She was also portrayed by America Ferrera; Carmen in Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants (2005) was as smart and vibrant as she was cynical and dealt with similar themes to Ana, albeit from a different viewpoint and life experience. Much the same way that Ana’s father reminds me of my own – a brown, hard-working Latino man who made a life in a country other than the one he was born – Carmen’s struggle to navigate the brownness of one parent and the whiteness of another was something I related to immensely.

Watching Carmen remind her step-family-to-be that she is Puerto Rican, and that trying to fit into the same bridesmaids’ dress as her thin white counterparts is an alienating and uncomfortable ordeal for her, tapped into some of the painful parts of my own experiences growing up in a mixed-household and being surrounded by a mostly white extended family here in Australia. One of the sharpest memories I have of my brother involves our family kitchen and his rapidly-escalating frustration over our mother’s blind spots when it came to raising mixed-children as a white woman. Our experiences growing up in Australia and interacting with family and friends and the wider community were so different to what she allowed us to know of hers. It was not aided by the existence of an ocean between us and the other half of our hearts.

The scene where Carmen tells her three slender (white) best friends that a pair of jeans that fit all of them wouldn’t possibly fit her is one I remember, frame-for-frame. I thought about it every time I stood outside the change rooms while my friends tried clothes on, keeping safe by the accessories and lipgloss. I still do. Granted, the pants do actually fit Carmen, but she goes on to face similar instances with her father’s new (white) family, and these scenes become increasingly painful to experience with her.

Back in Estela’s dress factory. They have eighteen dresses to finish for an order and Ana has had enough. Enough of the heat and enough of her mother’s criticisms about her body and her aspirations. They can’t put the fan on because it blows dust onto the dresses and so, in an effort to cool off, Ana takes her shirt off and inspires the women around her follow suit. What follows is a confrontation with her mother that isn’t intended to belittle Carmen, but rather is an effort to make her see that what she says is hurtful. Ana’s body positivity is glorious in its subtle defiance.

CARMEN: Have you all gone mad?

PANCHA: Ladies, look, how beautiful we are!

ESTELA: And how good this feels! To be rid of all these clothes and just let it all hang out!

CARMEN: Look at all of you.

ANA: This is who we are, Mama.

Being able to relate to this feeling – is this what other (white) girls felt when they named all those skinny, white girls their favourite characters? To be seen, understood, connected, comforted. This is why the overwhelming praise for Lady Bird feels something like a slap in the face: this movie existed before, in another form, in all its brown girl glory. If a film existed almost two decades ago with a brown main character, what makes it less worthy of acclaim, recognition and attention today as practically the same story told through a white character?

Seeing and hearing about Lady Bird constantly is a reminder of the disparity of merit and validity between art created by white women and women of colour. Films, light-hearted takes on girlhood from the perspectives of a young woman of colour (or even simply featuring women of colour on screen) are dismissed as low-brow, trashy teen movies while films about white girls moving through similar times in their lives are heralded as the epitome of wit and relatability.

In an essay for BuzzFeed Reader, culture writer Bim Adewunmi observed that of all the genres of film, coming-of-age tales are some of the more diverse, particularly when the scope for what can be considered a coming-of-age tale is widened. Similar to the voyeuristic cinematographers Patricia Cardoso found so determined to portray the Latinx-immigrant experience as a one dimensional, Adewunmi finds that trauma is a constant in the black-led films considered worthy of industry and Academy note. From 12 Years a Slave to Precious, trauma and violence has long been a common thread between Academy-nominated stories centered on blackness, themes she feels are ‘woven into the fabric of black girl-led coming-of-age stories.’

Adewunmi is concerned that when exploring the connections of race, trauma (and what the industry validates as an authentic portrayal of blackness), an anthropological approach to storytelling leaves much to be desired. Narratives focused on the downtrodden, agonizing and explicit are important but she notes that they also 'ring a little one-note'. In 2015 film The Fit, Adewunmi finds a subtle reason for celebration; connecting identity, culture and coming of age impeccably and with care. This is what leads her to question, why are only some films with coming-of-age stories are considered valuable? Is there value in a young black girl coming of age if isn’t a result of extreme adversity? Not as far as the industry seems to be concerned.

In an essay for The New York Times, Molly Ringwald recounted her experiences as a pop culture icon – an actress who starred in John Hughes’ coming-of-age films – through the lens of patriarchal power. Ringwald notes how little diversity (in terms of colour, culture and sexuality) there was on the screens where she reigned supreme: ‘There is barely a person of color to be found in the films, and no characters are openly gay’. She may have considered Duckie to be gay, but it was never explicitly referenced on screen. The hugely cis heteronormative focus of these films, which Ringwald references, could certainly be explored further. Perhaps in a different essay, lest this one never ends. Looking back at those films, a pallid picture of who is and isn’t allowed to come of age was painted. White heteronormativity remained, and remains, the norm.

Hughes’ movies, and their famed ‘classic’ status, somewhat reflect Adewunmi’s discussion of teen movies as against coming-of-age films: the ways in which the audience is expected to engage with stories about people from diverse backgrounds (that is, non-white characters) in order to consider them worthy of note. In the late nineties when Real Women Have Curves was first being optioned, the film seemed to hint at the beginning of the end when it came to the on-screen exclusivity. But as America Ferrera discussed at the film’s anniversary screening, it is painful to see how little had changed for women of colour in the industry. Not necessarily for Ferrera herself, but for those coming up after her.

Would things be different had I found Real Women earlier in life? Would I be less ashamed of naming a character from Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants as my favourite? Would my relationship with my body, my self-image, and my mother’s interactions have been less volatile? Would my own understanding of the way my mother’s whiteness and father’s brownness manifest in me have been clearer? Perhaps not. But I would have felt seen and understood enough to steel me through while I tried, as I continue now, to work it all out.

Ruby Pivet is a Latinx-Australian writer, poet, creator and astrology enthusiast from Melbourne’s inner west. She’s performed for Lor Journal and written for Girls Will Be Girls, Gusher, SBS Life, VICE AU and more. She is currently a Creative Producer at the Emerging Writers’ Festival.