entertainment

The bigger problem of Sofia Vergara's "ill-suited" Golden Globes joke.

As Hollywood’s highest paid actress for five years running, Modern Family star Sofia Vergara knows there’s something powerful about being a beautiful, funny, Colombian-born actress on prime time TV.

Her iconic character, Gloria, is the much younger wife of Jay, a man in his 60s, and is known for her passionate and outspoken attitude. In the show, her Latina background is very much emphasised, with frequent mispronunciations and misunderstandings of the English language serving as one of her character’s major ‘shticks.’

Image via Giphy.

Perhaps it's no surprise then, that when Vergara presents a segment at an awards show, she behaves like an extension of her character. But for many who tuned into Sunday evening's Golden Globes, one particular 'Hispanic joke' was the end of their tether.

Introducing this year’s Misses Golden Globes, Vergara played on her familiar stereotype, purposefully mispronouncing the word 'annual'.

"The Hollywood Foreign Press Association has an anal tradition," she began. "I didn’t mean … they have an anus tradition...."

Finally, she avoided that tricky 'annual' word altogether, saying, "They have a tradition that they do every year of choosing a second-generation performer to assist in the presentation of the awards."

But Twitter, as always, was quick to recognise a problem.

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It's a valid point. At an awards ceremony that saw Traycee Ellis Ross win the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy for her bold role in Black-ish, making her the first black woman to win the award in over 30 years, and which featured Diego Luna presenting an award in Spanish, to draw attention to the importance of Latina representation in Hollywood, Vergara's joke felt somewhat out of place.

According to Slatethe 2017 Golden Globes were just one more example of the "ongoing, inexplicable abuse of Sofia Vergara at the hands of awards show producers." Heather Schwedel argued that the bit felt "particularly ill-suited for our current political moment," and expressed her exhaustion with the racism and sexism implied by the joke that Vergara can’t speak English. But Hollywood is happy to let it go, because she's really, really hot.

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But evidently, Vergara herself doesn't feel this way.

In 2014, she was the centre of a similar controversy, when she stood silently on a rotating pedestal at the Emmys, while the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences president slyly announced that the organisation was "more diverse than ever before," and was really "giving the viewer something compelling to watch." At the time, Vergara called criticism of the segment "ridiculous," arguing that those who saw a problem with the joke had "no sense of humour and should lighten up a bit." Ultimately, she saw her role as empowering, saying "It means somebody can be hot and also be funny and make fun of herself and enjoy her work and make money."

Indeed, she's very cleverly used the stereotyping of Hispanic actresses to her advantage. She embraces her foreignness and sexuality, capitalising on the (albeit low-brow) fascination the public seems to have with people born in other countries not being able to speak English properly.

After all, at last night's award ceremony, people did laugh.

Sofia Vergara at the 2017 Golden Globes. Image via NBC.
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So is it patronising for us to see Vergara as a victim of racist Latina stereotypes when she willingly (and lucratively) embraces them? Is any of this a problem if the 44-year-old is entirely complicit in it?

Something that does come to mind is a story about America Ferrera and Eva Longoria's jokes from last year's Golden Globes. The two Hispanic actresses were set to present together, but the lines they were originally given were "terrible, bad jokes." So they rewrote them.

The end product was funny and subversive.

"Hi, I’m Eva Longoria, not Eva Mendes," Longoria began.

"And I’m America Ferrera, not Gina Rodriguez," continued her co-host.

"And neither one of us are Rosario Dawson."

America Ferrera and Eva Longoria at the 2016 Golden Globes. Image via NBC.

Surely, a woman who demands not to be confused with other women who come from a similar cultural background, who is a walking contradiction rather than a caricature, is more helpful than one who cashes in on playing the very stereotype that harms so many Latina women?

But maybe it's not Vergara's job to be helpful. And maybe I have no right to resent a woman from a marginalised minority who has managed to make it work in her favour.

Sofia Vergara is a wildly successful actress, who has acquired significant power and influence by playing into the assumptions people instinctively have about her. But I can't help but feel that perhaps challenging these, at the right time and in the right way, would be groundbreaking.

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