Language as Race & Gender Protest in STARZ Vida (2018)

An interesting show to consider for its atypical and intersectional gendered communication is Tanya Saracho’s Vida (2018), a series that debuted last year on the premium cable channel STARZ. As Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw (1991) illuminated, “Although racism and sexism readily intersect in the lives of real people, they seldom do in feminist and antiracist practices” (p. 1242) and those isolating practices extend to entertainment media explorations of these subjects. Not so in this short series centering on two sisters, one self-identified as queer, who return to the predominantly Latinx neighborhood of their childhood in East L.A. when their mother unexpectedly dies. The family of three is fairly estranged from one another with oldest sister Emma (Mishel Prada) working as a corporate consultant in Chicago and Lyn (Melissa Barerra) living a paradoxical “rich hobo” existence among the affluenza-plagued moneyed 20-somethings of San Francisco. Their return for their mother’s funeral is both a familial and philosophical as they confront each other and their former community of nosey and opinionated Hispanic (mostly of Mexican dissent) neighbors.

The prominent use of Spanish adds to the complexity of gender expression in the show as the language is itself immensely gendered. The use of a language that involves grammatical gender makes ideas of masculinity and femininity subtly ever-present. The characters move between English and Spanish in their exchanges in a somewhat forced, but knowingly familiar, way. As someone who was raised in a bilingual Spanish/English home, I affirm this sort of language interchange happens, though much more fluidly and pointedly (i.e., often for private discourse in public) than the show might lead one to believe. I found this choice quite a political one, intersectionally feministic as it makes the show discernibly more difficult to watch if one is not fluent in both Spanish and English. The sprinkling of words from each language is so often done, so interlaced, that it would be hard to attend to subtitles so sporadically needed. Furthermore, these subtitles are intentionally not provided according to the showrunner, Tanya Saracho (Osegueda‍, 2018). This decenters the affluent white viewer, who regardless of the real target audience, is the largest share of people with access to this premium cable/subscription network. Non-Spanish speakers are treated as the second-class citizens by the show, turning the tables on the class of people who dominate most American spaces. This puts the viewer virtually on the streets of the Hernandez sisters’ neighborhood where signs are mostly in Spanish.

The authenticity of the Hernandez sisters as Latinas is constantly questioned because of their lack of adherence to traditional roles and communication practices. Lyn is sexually assertive and expressive. Her embrace of herself as a sexual being is made explicit by her reveling in the male gaze. Her reputation in the community as a sexual aggressor (and disruptor) condemns her as “corrupted” by Anglo-American culture, not “Hispanic enough” to be proper. While her variety of femininity is questioned by neighbors, it stands diametrically opposed to that of her elder sister, Emma. Emma is respectable to most in the community for all the reasons Lyn is not, however, her masculine communication style and definition of personal success in the financial rather than interpersonal terms characteristic of the white male colonial-capitalist make Lyn slightly more acceptable to their Mexican-American community. Emma’s brusque responses to even highly-emotionally charged communication makes her alien both to her gender and to a heritage that prizes familial and communal bonds. Nevertheless, creator and showrunner Tanya Saracho elevates Emma to the role of main character and audience avatar. Aligned toward the character of Emma, the audience is primed to push back on those questioning Emma’s authenticity. In this way, the masculinity of a woman is normalized, challenging rote notions of the feminine.

These complex gendered sexualities are further complicated by the surprise fact of their mothers’ lesbian sexual identity that is only learned after her death. Upon meeting their mother’s wife, the daughters are forced to reevaluate their childhood impression of their mother as the kind of desexualized “acceptable” parent championed by Dr. Spock that June Jordan (1992) problematizes in her “A New Politics of Sexuality.” While Catholicism is the religion of the colonizer, it has nevertheless attained a central position in Hispanic culture. Seen throughout in candles, rosaries, and speech petitioning God, this kind of “ethnically Catholic” identity—similar to that seen in the Irish and Italian diasporas—is seamlessly interwoven into daily life to the point that one might not follow the tenets of the religion but still self-identify with it. It is also important to consider the powerful role of shame that this ethno-Catholicism maintains in otherwise non-practitioners. Unlike other forms of Christianity, Catholicism maintains both strict condemnation of homosexuality and hierarchical subjugation of women (in the gender restrictions on priesthood). We see this the former aspect of the intersectional oppression in the titular Vida (the girl’s mother’s name and the Spanish word for “life”) as a harsh condemner of homosexuality when responding to Emma’s nascent lesbianism. The affront is both the lie by omission of their mother as well as her hypocritical parenting of her lesbian daughter. Perhaps like Jordan (1992), the irony of living by the patriarchal dictates of the Catholic Church only became apparent later in life:

Years would have to pass before I could recognize the familiar, by then, absurdity of a man setting himself up as the expert on a subject that pre-supposed women as the primary objects for his patriarchal discourse—on motherhood, no less! Years passed before I came to perceive the perversity of dominant power assumed by men, and the perversity of self-determining power ceded to men by women. (Jordan, p. 438)

In the case of Vida, this enlightenment has come too late, after too much damage was done to reconstruct the maternal relationship. Rather than assume the Catholic shame of homosexuality in herself, Vida chose to exorcise it on the young Emma, who she excoriated and excommunicated to live with extended family in Chicago. Could this also be an expression of Jordan’s (1992) concept of the “politics of sexuality” (p. 438) engendering self-annihilation?

Sure enough, we have plenty of exposure to white everything so why would we opt to remain our African/Asian/Mexican selves? The answer is that suicide is absolute, and if you think you will survive by hiding who you really are, you are sadly misled: there is no such thing as partial or intermittent suicide. You can only survive if you—who you really are—do survive. (Jordan, p. 440)

In this scheme, we might see Saracho’s choice to have Vida, a richly developed yet almost entirely off-screen character, dead on (the show’s) arrival as a confirmation of this logic: we can only live if we are free, we can only be free if everyone is free.

While viewers are inclined to regard Emma’s actions with a compassionate eye, the character is still allowed to exhibit the antihero tendencies necessarily birthed from this deeply conflicted, ambivalent upbringing. The female antihero is rarely sanctioned in mass media portrayals of women, where the docile, beautiful, saintly, nurturing, relationship-focused female is dominant. Internet streaming over-the-top subscription services are more structurally inclined toward a democratic content strategy because of their use of machine learning, which makes clear that there is, in fact, a sizeable audience for female-led dramas and comedies. Personally, Netflix often recommends to me “dark workplace dramas featuring a strong female lead.” It is perhaps not surprising that such distribution apparatuses have taken the lead in investing in film and television projects featuring complex female characters, often antiheroes, for example: Netflix’s Workin’ Moms (2019), Alias Grace (2017), The Fall (2015),Orange is the New Black (2013); Amazon’s Lorena (2019),Homecoming (2018),Picnic at Hanging Rock (2018), Vanity Fair (2018),I Love Dick (2017),One Mississippi (2016), Transparent (2014). Starz continues that trend and extends it in Vida to an intersectional drama where racial identities intermingle with gender expression and sexuality to complicate and rebel against the female archetype.

 

 

References

Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241-1299. doi:10.2307/1229039

Jordan, June. (1992). A new politics of sexuality. Technical Difficulties. New York: Pantheon, 187-93.

Osegueda, E. (10 June 2018). ‘Vida’ is Tanya Saracho’s love letter to ‘brown queerness’ and Latinx community (exclusive). ET Online. Retrieved from https://www.etonline.com/vida-is-tanya-sarachos-love-letter-to-brown-queerness-and-latinx-community-exclusive-103923‍

 

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