BOGOTA, Colombia (WOMENSENEWS)--Drunk and morose in a bar, Armando Mendoza, the rich playboy-businessman of Latin America's most popular soap opera, takes out a cherished photograph of his dream girl. The bartender's jaw drops when he sees the object of desire: a woman with greasy hair, glittering braces, thick glasses and a faint mustache.
"Isn't she beautiful?" asks Mendoza, heartbroken because she has left him, after realizing that he was only using her. The bartender hesitates.
This is a scene from "Betty, the Ugly," a phenomenally popular TV show seen by more than 80 million people from Argentina to the United States, and it will be seen even in Romania and Hungary. Spain has purchased it as well. There's even an "Ugly Betty" doll for less than $10--with huge glasses and ugly hair. It's all the rage and all sold out.
The soap opera, which originates in Colombia, owes its year and a half of success to an unlikely but compelling protagonist: a cruelly unattractive woman with a horsy laugh, brilliant, capable and at first unaware of her own potential. The saga of Beatriz (Betty) Pinzon Solano, who overcomes her overwhelming physical disadvantage to virtually run her boss's company, is a welcome respite in a country torn by rebel insurgencies and plagued by drug lords and right-wing paramilitaries. Finally, she herself is elevated to president of a high-end fashion house.
In a country obsessed with beauty pageants and plastic surgery, feminists have welcomed this satire of a society that places appearance above aptitude. When Betty recently had a makeover and became less unattractive--in response to viewers--feminists lamented an opportunity lost in a country that doesn't talk about much besides violence and soccer.
Feminists: Making Betty Pretty Sends the Wrong Message
"To make her pretty is sending the message that women achieve things by their looks and not by other means," said Florence Thomas, a feminist writer. "Also it's a lost opportunity to talk about different kinds of romantic relationships between women and men, based on different things than looks."
"The story of Betty is the story of a smart woman, not particularly beautiful, but who's courageous and tries to make the best of her life," says Ana Maria Orozco, the actress who plays Betty. She herself is an attractive woman who is transformed daily into an ugly duckling after a long make-up session.
Betty's creator and scriptwriter, Fernando Gaitan, says there's a calculus behind his winning formula: "Only one woman out of 10 is considered beautiful and most of them suffer because they don't comply with the stereotypes of the market." They love the show.
Despite the beauty fixation evidenced in the Miss Papaya, Miss Sugar and Miss Coal beauty pageants, Colombian women are considerably advanced, compared with the rest of Latin America. Women have achieved higher levels of education than men and more women than men graduate from high school and college. Fifty-three percent of the students who take college admissions exams are women.
Colombian women's participation in the work force is one of the highest in Latin America and their wage gap with men the lowest. By law, women must hold at least 30 percent of all the highest government offices and hold important positions in the private sector.
Strong Colombian Women Running for President
The leading candidate in next year's presidential elections is former foreign minister Noemi Sanin, just back from two years at Harvard and now traveling the country on a listening tour. Popular Senator Ingrid Betancourt recently announced she also will run for president. She won more votes than anyone in the Congress and has written a best seller about her fight to end corruption in Colombia.
Enter Betty, a frumpy secretary at the glamorous Ecomoda fashion house in Bogota, surrounded by gorgeous but superficial models and treacherous executives. She has taken a job beneath her qualifications because so many doors have been shut in her bespectacled face.
She falls in love with her boss, Mendoza, the founder's son and a failed manager who makes all the wrong decisions. Betty, a financial whiz, is constantly saving him and his business by cooking the books and coming up with brilliant, sometimes barely legal, schemes. Fans recently watched as Betty agonized over whether to take a bribe--a real life business situation in Colombia. In the end, she turned it down.
But her boss is too embarrassed to be seen with her, and on one occasion, he makes her hide in the trunk of his car while he drives to a business appointment. Uncomfortable in the realization that Betty holds the power over his money and thus, over him, Mendoza decides to seduce her in order to salve his ego and restore the "proper" man-woman relationship. He does so even though he thinks she's ugly, "a little monstrosity," as he tells a friend.
The day that Mendoza and Betty made love for the first time, the ratings soared. Eventually, he falls in love, but it's too late.
Revenge Is Sweet: Betty Tells the Stockholders the Truth
Of course, Betty finds out that he was manipulating her, and she pays him back. She finally walks out after telling the board of directors about the company's financial shambles and mismanagement. Then, in an ironic twist, Betty goes to work in the colonial port of Cartagena on the Caribbean, temping for the Miss Colombia beauty pageant.
Nowadays, with stylish clothes and improved looks, she's back at Ecomoda running the company. Armando Mendoza took leave to "think things over." He just returned, but he's no longer the boss.
"'Betty' brought to the surface a theme latent in our society, latent in the world--how we value superficial beauty," says scriptwriter Gaitan. "Initially, we thought this was something of ours, very Colombian, but now we see that it crossed frontiers."
"Gaitan (the creator) deceived us" with Betty's makeover, says Thomas, Colombia's best known feminist and the director of the Gender Program at Bogota's National University. "He made us think that he was proposing something different, that he was taking a huge risk with ugliness. That's false. He just gave us the same menu," adds Thomas.
The decision to improve Betty's looks was a difficult one, according to her creator, and was taken after long consultations among RCN network executives. Polling had showed that viewers wanted to see a makeover. They didn't want Betty to be gorgeous, just a little prettier.
As a result, Betty goes to work in tasteful suits, instead of oversize dresses. Her hair is clean and straight, the glasses are smaller and fashionable, but the braces remain. Gaitan insists that despite Betty's new look, he's still sending a message about the importance of other values.
He has introduced a new character, Patricia, another secretary who fits the typical soap opera star mold: She is slim, blonde and leggy. But instead of playing cat-and-mouse games with hordes of admirers, she is portrayed as a desperate social climber who cannot survive without a man. To her horror, and to viewers' delight, her Mercedes Benz (her ex-husband gave it to her) is impounded right outside the office.
On the other hand, with her intelligence, hard work and basic honesty, Betty has slowly gained control of the company.
"When they see the show, they say this cannot be Colombia," says creator Gaitan. "They haven't kidnapped Armando Mendoza, they haven't raped Betty, there is no drug trafficking, where are the paramilitaries? But the thing is that despite this tragedy in our country, we live our lives. We continue to work, we love, we cry when someone has left us, we catch a whiff of perfume, we love our parents, we go to the movies in the midst of this tragedy, we live."
Margarita Martinez is a free-lance writer in Colombia, writing about Colombia's civil conflict and social trends.