Last year Supergirl hit CBS with a splash raking in a whopping 13 million viewers in its pilot episode and while the shows viewership dropped after its premiere, and eventually moved to smaller network The CW to join other DCTV shows, it is still a show that’s proving to be a positive investment for the network.
Two on-going criticisms of the show, however, was the overall lack of women of color in what was supposedly a feminist superhero show, and the usage of coming out metaphors within the show’s narrative. Both criticisms were addressed during the season two promotional tour. The showrunners revealed that there would be an introduction — or rather a coming out — of a major LGBTIQA character on the show, along with the inclusion of Maggie Sawyer (a known lesbian in the DCU) and Sharon Leal as Miss Martian.
These two casting choices were made specifically due to showrunner Greg Berlanti’s desire to make the DCTV universe more inclusive. Berlanti detailed his desire to diversify Supergirl and the DCTV in an interview with Hollywood Reporter stating, “I [have always] wanted to contemporize these comics that I loved growing up and have them reflect the society that we live in now.”
Andrew Kreisberg, Supergirl’s other showrunner, also stated in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, “[Maggie Sawyer] says in her introductory episode that growing up gay and Latina in Nebraska made her ideally sympathetic to people who are different and people who don’t quite fit in.”
The inclusion of another black woman as a cast member, along with Maggie Sawyer’s racebend as a queer Latina, made it appear as though the minds behind Supergirl were trying to address some of the shows earlier criticisms.
However, the attempt on both fronts — specifically the racial one — would prove to be riddled with problems. First, casting a black woman as Miss Martian — a green alien — to be your only black female character has racist implications, especially given her overall lack of screentime. The downgrading of James Olsen — originally the romantic male lead, now seemingly replaced by the white actor who plays Mon-El — doesn’t help.
In the case of Maggie Sawyer, however, there lies an especially frustrating aspect to her character and promotion that contributes to an on-going and pervasive history of racism against Latinx people within Hollywood. As previously stated, Kreisberg promoted Maggie specifically as a Latina woman and that her story on Supergirl would be connected to that identity as a queer Latina. On the show, Maggie confides in Alex Danvers telling her the following:
This moment was to specifically establish that Maggie Sawyer was a dual-sided outsider in the world, having faced two different types of prejudices, and as such could relate and endear herself to Supergirl (and the DEO’s) cause. The narrative gave us this scene to showcase how real world discrimination still exists within a world that also discriminates against the fictional and fantastical alien characters on Supergirl.
This moment with Maggie Sawyer should be a powerful moment for queer Latinx youth and adults watching the show. Showing a Latina woman being open about the struggles she faces with her dual identities as both a Latina woman and a lesbian would be something powerful to witness. Even more so given the backdrop of Supergirl being a genre show — as people of color and LGBTIQA people are so rarely included in science fiction or fantasy settings — and would have made Maggie’s inclusion that much more powerful.
There would have been a lot of positivity gained by having Maggie Sawyer be a lesbian Latina woman fighting aliens and evil corporate masterminds on Supergirl alongside Alex Danvers and the other Supergirl characters. She would have acted as a much needed addition to positive depictions of queer Latinx characters in our media.
But she isn’t.
Unfortunately, Maggie Sawyer is not Latina, or rather, the actress who plays her, Floriana Lima, is not Latina but Italian, English, Irish, and German. Lima has even spoken passionately about her Italian-American upbringing and identity, stating, “I was able to pull from my family’s passion. Italians tend to be so big and loud and passionate,” in an interview with the The Cincinnati Enquirer in 2012.
This all stands opposite of what Kreisberg stated and what was reported up until Supergirl aired its second season; that Maggie Sawyer was a Latina female character. These statements combined with in-show statements and subtextual coding were used to make audiences believe Maggie was Latina.
There are currently only a handful of LGBTIQA Latinx characters on either television, film, books, animation, and comics. Even fewer in more mainstream and easier to access channels. Making it all the more difficult to find the representation so many Latinx people are seeking.
According to GLAAD’s “Where Are We On TV” 2015-2016 report, the amount of LGBTIQA Latinx characters amounted to about five total characters (out of 70 characters total) on broadcast networks, and on cable primetime networks 11 (out of 142). Popular Latinx website Remezcla created a list of 20 Latinx LGBTIQA characters dating back as far as 1994 with Enrique “Rickie” Vasquez starring on My So-Called Life.
However, some characters included on the list such as: Inara Serra (Firefly), Renee Montoya (Gotham), Jesús Velásquez (True Blood), José “Joey” Gutierrez (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), and Dani (Glee) were all either under utilized (Dani, Renee, José), murdered violently (Jesús), fetishized (Inara), or forgotten (Renee, José, Dani). Hardly the best offerings in terms of positive representation.
And entirely separate article could be used to argue the lack of positive LGBTIQA representation for the Latinx community, or how FOX’s Gotham dropped the ball majorly on DC Comics arguably most well known Latinx character and one of their more well known LGBTIQA characters. However this article isn’t about those particular problems (maybe next time), rather, this is about Maggie Sawyer and the history Hollywood has of locking Latinx performers out of Hollywood by casting Italian-Americans and other white performers to portray Latinxs on screen.
This makes the casting of Lima on Supergirl as a supposedly Latina Maggie Sawyer not only frustrating, but also a bit heartbreaking given the overall history of both the lack of positive Latinx LGBTIQA characters and the history of Italian-Americans playing Latinx characters in western media.
In the 1993 film Alive — based on the true story of the Uruguayan rugby team that crashed in the Andes Mountains — Ethan Hawke, Josh Hamilton, and Illeana Douglas all play the roles of real Uruguayan men. Hawke is the only Italian-American of the three, but that hardly makes it better. Two years later, Marisa Tomei (aka the new Aunt May) was cast as Cuban character Dorita Evita Perez in the 1995 film, The Perez Family.
In the Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Crash, Jennifer Esposito plays Latina Detective Ria, the on-and-off girlfriend of Don Cheadle’s character. Esposito’s casting is especially ironic given the films subject matter is racism, and yet, she is actually an Italian woman playing a Latina character. A character whom specifically discusses the racism she faces as a Latina woman in the film. The irony is almost painful.
Jesse Metcalfe played Mexican character Miguel Lopez-Fitzgerald on Passions, even though he is Italian American. Antonio Sabato Jr. is another Italian man who played Pablo Alesandro the Argentinean Latin lover in the indie film Testosterone.
Vanessa Ferlito, another Italian-American actress, has a history of playing Latina characters, let’s run down the list: Gridiron Gang as Lisa Gonzales, Nothing like the Holidays as Roxanna Rodriguez, and Claudia Hernandez on 24. Another actress who has taken multiple Latina roles is Lindsay Hartley on Passions, Days of Our Lives, and All My Children. Hartley is is part Greek and Italian.
A more memorable and prevalent addition to the history of Italians playing Latinx characters is Al Pacino portraying the iconic role of Tony Montana in the classic Scarface. Pacino is Italian-American, yet one of his most well-known, and iconic roles is that of a Cuban immigrant. A decade later, Pacino played a Puerto Rican gangster in Carlito’s Way.
Something closer to comics and more recent pop culture is actor Lorenzo James Henrie who played biracial (Maori/Latino) Chris Manawa on Fear of the Walking Dead, and Gabe Reyes the younger brother of Robbie Reyes on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Henrie is neither Maori or Latino, but rather Italian, English, German, and Swiss.
By now, you can probably see the pattern that continues on, and on and on. This overall history includes not just Italian-Americans playing Latinx characters, but showcases the on-going and continuing presence of whitewashing of Latinx characters. Along with the barring of actual roles for Latinx actors and actresses. But Hollywood seems to have an apparent affinity with Italian-Americans playing Latinx characters over actual Latinx performers.
Afro-Cuban actress Gina Torres stated in NBC Universo’s documentary, Black and Latino: “When I became an actress, I quickly realized that ‘the world’ liked their Latinas to look Italian and not like me.”
This continued erasure of Afro-Latinx peoples, Indigenous Latinxs, and other mixed-raced Latinxs from roles in Hollywood perpetuates a false image of what the Latinx community looks like.
Kathleen Ecclesten-Cooper, writer for MMC The Monitor, wrote in her essay, titled “Latinx Identity in American Media:”
As a result, the Latina aesthetic is dictated by a majority of people who aren’t part of the aesthetic they are looking for. In a way it is understandable. You have to do what will generate the most sales, but it is not great enough of an excuse to exclude Latinxs from their respective roles and to white wash the ‘Latina’ look on national television and movie screens.
That’s the history that Supergirl — unwittingly or not — stepped in to, a history the erases the actual Latinx experience and identity. A history that contributes to the continued debarment of Latinx actors from getting roles and opportunity. Even Latinx actors playing Italian characters — such as Jennifer Lopez playing such in The Wedding Planner — contributes to this. It erases the identity of the Latinx community, prevents us from seeing ourselves in roles, in media, even in our history. Lima’s casting contributes to the continuing difficulty of actual Latinx actors receiving equal opportunities in Hollywood playing people within their own community.
Maggie Sawyer is canonically white in the comics. If she had been promoted as white before season two aired there’d be no problem here — other than the continued lack of prominent women of color on Supergirl that is.
However Maggie wasn’t marketed as a white female character. She was marketed specifically as a Latina woman. Maggie even states in the show she is “non-white”. So why chose a non-Latina actress for the role? Why chose an Italian-American actress for the role that was promoted as a Latina character? When their are actual Latinx actors and actresses struggling to get jobs in Hollywood? If the purpose behind Maggie’s non-white status was to diversify the majority white DCTV verse, why chose a white actress who just looks “sorta” brown to play a brown female character? How does this help diversify Supergirl let alone the DCTV universe or American media in general? Promoting a character as a Latinx character, but not casting a Latinx performer, takes away representation and opportunity instead of adding to it.
Hector Becerra stated in his article for the Los Angeles Times, “In this town, it’s as if Hollywood tries not to cast Latinos:”
A study by USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that among the 100 top-grossing movies in 2014, 73% of all speaking or named characters were white, just more than 12% were black and 5% were Asians. Latinos, who make up more than 16% of the U.S. population, were just below Asians.
How many times has Hollywood cast a white actor as a Latino protagonist? Long before Hunnam, there was Marlon Brando in “Viva Zapata!” and that famous Mexican thespian Charlton Heston in “Touch of Evil.” But we’re not even talking about getting starring roles here. If you can’t get the supporting roles, it stands to reason you won’t graduate to bigger roles.
So if only about 5% of speaking roles feature Latinx characters, it begs the question of how much of that 5% are even played by actual Latinx performers?
This isn’t to say that there aren’t brown Italians; race is of course a complex subject that is built around societal constructs. Race in Europe is different than Race in America, or Race in Brazil or Race in Japan, and so on and so forth.
However Supergirl is an American-made television show, that is set in America, whose primary audience is American. The people most affected by the content are going to be Americans — including Latinx Americans. Latinx Americans who don’t have much in the way of media representation, nor many legitimate, non-stereotypical roles being offered to them by casting directors.
Even if Lima is a woman of color (some Sicilians have Arab-backgrounds though Lima isn’t Sicilian according to any public record), she is not Latina. And the role of Maggie Sawyer was specifically advertised as a Latina role. It was advertised as such to take steps to better diversify the majority white cast on Supergirl. In the societal racial structure in America, Italian-Americans aren’t considered people of color.
This isn’t an attack on Supergirl as a television show, Lima as an actress, or the story featuring her and Alex. One that has received praise from many, and is important to better the representation of lesbians on television. This isn’t an argument that the storyline should not exist, but rather that it could have been inclusive.
Instead Supergirl lied to its audience. Supergirl lied to the Latinx LGBTIQA community. Supergirl lied to its fans of color and especially its Latinx fans. Supergirl promised a queer Latina character and cast an Italian-American actress instead, continuing the history of barring Latinx performers from roles and the erasure of Latinx faces in American media.
Some defenders and fans might say, “well Lima looks Latina.”
Latina looks like my Mamita teaching me how to make empanadas after years of being told by white step-relatives how ghetto, disgusting, lazy, and awful my Latinx family was. Latina looks like my familia saying a prayer in Spanish at my Papi’s funeral after years of having our language fetishized, ridiculed and used as a means to commit violence against our community. Latinx looks like Afro-Latinxs who have their identities erased repeatedly in the media and facing racist colorism from all sides. Latinx looks like the President Elect of the United States building a platform that called Mexicans “murderers” and “rapists” and said we were all “bad hombres” on national television. Latinx looks like a crippling debt crisis and a governing country that doesn’t seem to care. Latinx looks like struggle, erasure, colonialism, and oppression.
Lima doesn’t “look” Latina and thus, Maggie Sawyer doesn’t look Latina. By suggesting a non-Latinx performer can “look” Latinx erases what actual Latinxs look like and misconstrues our identities in mainstream media. It erases our struggles as a community, watering us down to a preconceived notion of what being Latinx is. An image that carefully repackages our identities and struggles to make them more appealing and profitable to majority white audiences.
Latinxs are an extremely diverse ethnic and racial community. There are Afro-Latinxs, Asian Latinxs, Indiginious Latinxs, Jewish Latinxs, and beyond. Lima doesn’t “look” Latina, she looks like the acceptable version of “brown” by Hollywood standards. She looks like an “acceptable” Latina, Hollywood’s own distorted image of what the Latinx community is.
Maggie Sawyer doesn’t represent what being Latina means, or the struggles many Latinas face in America. When Maggie told Alex she struggled being both non-white and queer, it feels like a trick. Lima is able to adopt the identity for various roles but does not have to live with the reality of being Latina in America. Or the struggle of being a Latina actress in Hollywood.
Lima, along with other previously discussed Italian-American actors, are given the opportunity to play white and Latina characters. While Latinx performers like Gina Torres, Diego Luna, Selenis Leyva, Rosie Perez, and many other Latinx performers struggle to get roles. This isn’t an attack on the actress, but rather the industry as a whole for continuing to uphold a racist status quo.
We can not argue that representation matters if only some representation matters. We can appreciate the inclusion of Alex Danvers’ coming out storyline and acknowledge its importance in our media. Just as we can acknowledge the inherent problems of an Italian-American actress playing what was advertised as a Latina character, one claiming to be non-white. We can appreciate the importance of Alex Danvers’ coming out and how it’s written. We can also discuss how Alex/Maggie as a couple aren’t inclusive towards non-white LGBTIQA fans. We can discuss and acknowledge how Lima’s casting contributes to a prevalent, on-going racist Hollywood system that works to lock out Latinx performers in American media.
We can both appreciate and acknowledge the positives and negatives of Supergirl’s storyline as fans. And we can respect the feelings of Latinx fans who feel hurt and betrayed by it. This isn’t a call to denounce the show or the storyline itself. Rather, it is to acknowledge the problem at hand, understand the history, and work harder to be better. To respect the Latinx community and understand the need for positive representation of the Latinx community in our media. And finally, to understand how the prevailing practice of casting Italian-Americans and other white performers in Latinx roles is a racist practice that needs to be stopped.
Maggie Sawyer was an opportunity blown, lost, and wasted. A let down and a lie. If the minds behind Supergirl are sincere in their desire to be more diverse, they still have a long way to go before reaching that goal.