Sunday, March 29, 2009

Real Women Have Curves

Real Women Have Curves posterReal Women Have Curves (2002) challenges the cultural stereotypes which are thrust upon a generation of young Chicanos growing up in America but still living in the shadow of Mexican tradition. It is clear from the first scene that Ana García (America Ferrera), a graduating high school student, does not get along well with her mother, Carmen (Lupe Ontiveros), who appears to be constantly complaining about some bodily ailment so that she can persuade Ana, out of guilt, to listen to her woes and care for her. This time Ana steadfastly refuses to play her mom’s warped game, and instead leaves to catch a series of buses to head out of her Mexican neighbourhood and into Beverly Hills where she attends high school. In class, the students excitedly talk about what they will do to continue their education. At Ana’s turn, she exclaims that she’s looking forward to backpacking in Europe. This prompts her teacher Mr. Guzman (George Lopez) to approach her after class and inquire as to why she hasn’t handed in any college applications. Ana quickly replies that her family can’t afford it, and then ironically heads to a greasy fast food place to quit her job. Upon returning home that evening, her family surprises her with an intimate graduation celebration. Here her mother’s character begins the first of many jokes throughout the film regarding Ana’s weight. Ana simply rolls her eyes, as if she’s heard it a thousand times before. Carmen then interrogates Ana about quitting her job before finally deciding for her that she will work at her sister, Estela’s, clothing factory to earn money. Ana is clearly an intelligent girl and is reluctant to work at such a mindless job. Suddenly, as if in answer to Ana’s aversion to the factory, Mr. Guzman appears at her party to talk to Ana’s parents about Ana attending university; but is quickly informed that they need Ana to contribute to the family’s income.

The following day, Ana begins her employment of ironing the dresses that are produced at her sister’s factory. Here she is introduced to her co-workers, a handful of Mexican-American women, who are also barraged by Carmen with unappreciated insults about being overweight. Ana insists to her mother, a seamstress in the factory, that she’s only going to work there until she can find another job. Meanwhile, as she questions her sister about the cost and profit of the beautiful dresses she irons, Ana realizes that Bloomingdales sells the dresses for $600 while the factory is only paid $18 per dress; thus giving the factory the status of ‘sweatshop’, a term which Estela refuses to acknowledge. The seamstresses enjoy their gossip, but when the focus of the conversation drifts, on account of Carmen, to Ana’s weight, Ana intentionally burns a dress with the iron and storms off down the street, only to be coaxed back after another round of guilt from her influential mother.

Ana then secretly hands in university applications to Mr. Guzman, and as she leaves his office she runs into her classmate Jimmy (Brian Sites) who gives her his number, causing the introverted Ana to become embarrassed and hastily flee. Ana finally gathers the courage to plan a date with Jimmy, of which her understanding Grandpa keeps a secret in order to not alarm Carmen. When the young couple is finally unaccompanied in a Mexican restaurant, Jimmy can’t stop staring at Ana’s large breasts, and it is apparent that, due to his teenage hormones, he finds them to be two of Ana’s more stunning features. The two have an awkward yet enjoyable date which ends with a first kiss and a shower of self-esteem and optimism for Ana. On a following date, Ana confides to Jimmy that she is always at odds with her mother, especially concerning her physical appearance, to which Jimmy replies with sincere complements as well as the upsetting news that he will be leaving to go to college in 2 weeks. Back at the factory, Estela is in a panic because she has lost half of her employees (who all belong to the same family) as one of them is getting married and so they have all decided to move back to Mexico. At this news, the remaining workers must work twice as hard, with no immediate pay, in order to finish the dresses before the deadline. Ana manages to gain a loan for Estela through their father after the dress manufacturing corporation refuses their request for a cash advance. A few days later, Mr. Guzman appears at Ana’s house once again, but this time with the news that she has been accepted to the prestigious Columbia University in New York City on a full scholarship. Ana is elated and holds her ground in order to see her educational dreams through when her parents express that they are disinclined to have their family break apart by having her move to New York.

This new bout of audacity motivates Ana to buy condoms and reveal to Jimmy that she is ready to have sex, which is extremely against the family tradition of waiting until marriage to have sexual intercourse. Before they begin, Ana turns on the light and stands in front of a mirror so that they can both see what she really looks like. This act gives her a sense of worth which leads to the most memorable scene in the movie when, back at the factory, the summer’s heat is so intense in the work room that Ana removes her t-shirt to work instead in her bra. Her mother is appalled but Ana quickly recruits an entourage of Chicana workers to remove their clothes as she exclaims that they are all women with the same bodies. Then, much to Carmen’s disgust, the women begin to lightheartedly compare their bodies’ imperfections and Ana announces that her weight says, “Fuck you!” to anyone obsessed with appearances because she would rather be respected for what she thinks, rather than how she looks. Carmen leaves in disgust and Ana flicks on some Spanish music as the women contentedly finish working on the order in their underpants. Ana has gracefully allowed her relationship with Jimmy to be seen for what it is as they both head off to different schools and are forced to keep only the memory of their experiences together. All of Ana’s family has given her their blessing to chase her dreams in the big city; all except her mother who is so distraught at Ana’s departure that she doesn’t even swallow her pride enough to say good-bye. And so Ana leaves her family life behind and enters into an exhilarating life change. The last scene shows her walking the busy streets of New York with an air of confidence and a sense of self which permeates every part of her being.

The film highlights the differences between Mexican and American culture and how Chicanos, in particular, deal with this daily disparity. The neighbourhood around the factory is teeming with Mexican customs, from the busy outdoor markets to mariachi bands for-hire, which is in direct contrast to the Beverly Hills community, representing the successful American dream which Ana aspires to be a part of. However, the movie places these dreams in direct correlation to the confidence in one’s appearance. North America has long been known for its obsession with the ‘perfect female figure’, generally represented by a body as thin as a plank of wood, which is difficult to attain for someone like Ana who was born with a curvy, Latin body type. Ana’s appearance is accepted by the male figures in her life, but is seen by her own gender as being undesirable. This contrast in turn portrays an upside-down perspective on the normally joyous family life of Latinos, which has now been poisoned by Carmen’s longing for Ana to be thin in order to obtain a husband. The divergence between mother and daughter becomes clear when Carmen reveals to her husband that she finds it unfair for Ana to be able to go off to university while Carmen has had to work hard labour for close to forty years; thus illustrating the difference in traditions of the older Mexican generations and the younger Chicano generations.

The dresses from the factory offer a different insight into the Chicana mentality when Ana notes that she only irons the beautiful dresses but will never wear them. Such a statement corresponds to the Chicano community as the foundation of an economy which many Chicanos can’t truly enjoy due to financial struggles. This issue of cheap foreign labour is emphasized in the ‘sweatshop-like’ environment of the factory. The dresses also symbolize the transformation of Ana’s self-confidence. Upon first arriving at the factory, Ana wistfully studies a size 7 dress on a mannequin, until her mother comments that she will never be able to fit into it and that she is too big for her own good. After Ana’s self-esteem increases over the course of the movie, her sister gives her a sexy red dress as a present. At first, Ana refuses saying it will never fit her, but Estela insists that she made it exclusively for Ana so that it would fit her body perfectly. The message here to Chicanas is clear: Do not try to fit someone else’s expectations, whether they are the expectations of your country or of your family, because there is always a way to fit into your own unique persona without any adjustments; just as when Ana proudly declares to her mother, “This is who we are. Real women.” With curves.

Labels: ,