We close week five of our series of movies that pass the Bechdel Test with the first star-making vehicle for a lead actress. Honduran American novice America Ferrera charmed audiences with her feature debut in director Patricia Cardosa’s 2002 indie sleeper Real Women Have Curves, which was distributed by HBO Films.
In hindsight, Ferrera was fairly lucky to capture public imagination so quickly, given her relative onscreen inexperience. Detractors may point out that Ferrera was also typecast as a result of her performance as Ana Garcia, a Mexican American teenager who attends a Beverly Hills private school on scholarship and gets accepted to Columbia University to the anxiety of her working-class family. Her “real girl” characters in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series and the American version of Ugly Betty are variations on a theme. Those critics may also note that Ferrera visibly lost weight since Real Women, which undercuts its mission for women and girls to embrace the bodies that they have as beautiful.
(Note: For an essential guide to understanding fat politics in contemporary popular culture, please pore over Tasha Fierce’s Size Matters blog series for Bitch that went live earlier this year)
Nonetheless, I’m happy Ferrera has a place in the spotlight. She seems to be a smart, likable young woman who finds respectable work, sidesteps the gutter press to maintain her private life, and concerns herself with reasonable causes like backing Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. She also demonstrates what made her a worthy “casting gamble” by bringing a light touch to Real Women’s loaded dialogue. While noble in intent, the female members of the Garcia family and the employees of Ana’s sister’s dress factory in Real Women fixate on their weight, make dresses for department stores they can’t fit into or afford, and debate the gender dynamics of their domestic duties with little nuance.
Appropriately, the last time I saw this movie was while I was an undergrad. I was 19 and, even though I insisted on trumpeting the 19th Amendment at my 5th grade open house, was still coming into my own as a feminist. Like many young women, I was also trying to accept my body. I was a chubby kid who slimmed down considerably during high school, which I accomplished primarily by subsisting on vending machine fare. A year later, I’d participate in a college production of The Vagina Monologues, which shares Real Women’s call to female empowerment and an insistence on hammering its message. It also suggests the theatrical origins of George LaVoo and Josephina Lopez’s script, which was previously Lopez’s play. Thus, the movie’s keystone scene where Ana prompts the factory workers to boast about cellulite in their underwear to the ire of her traditional, fat-shaming mother Carmen (veteran character actress Lupe Ontiveros) felt like a call to arms.
Upon revisiting, though, I’m less charmed. Real Women is remarkably dated. It plays as a relic of American indie cinema’s dalliances with politically-correct story lines in the 1990s, despite still being relevant in an era where the actresses in the 90210 reboot are considerably skinnier than the young women in the original ensemble. Again, I think the intentions of it are good. However, like many play adaptations, it suffers from dialogue that articulates too clearly what the actors are supposed to be thinking.
But I hope this doesn’t eclipse the director, screenwriters, and actors’ efforts (credit should extend to Ingrid Oliu’s underplayed performance as Estela, Ana’s older sister who dreams of opening a dress shop with pieces she can wear). Unfortunately, few movies get made with a core of prominent Latina talent, even after Real Women proved successful. While more titles consider a teenage girl’s feelings about sex, her body, and her future goals as a college student and young woman, few of them address those concern from the unique perspective of a fat, working-class Latina honor student. Though I fault Real Women’s clumsy execution, its message will continue to resonate until scenes where women clutch their thick midsections in celebration are no longer exceptional.