Friday, November 14, 2014

Strong Female Character Friday: Amy Santiago (Brooklyn 99)


Sometimes, I have to admit, my life feels an awful lot like a sitcom. Yesterday, for example, featured a day of missed calls and sitcom level misunderstandings, complete with some physical comedy in the form of a chiropractor adjusting my rib injury and making me scream in the middle of his office while surrounded by children getting face-painted, and then followed by a great youth group session, after which I got loudly and violently ill all over the back steps for literally no reason. I'm just saying. Sometimes my life feels kind of sitcom-ish.

Of course, it's not hard to tell that my life isn't a sitcom most of the time. My problems are rarely solved by the end of the day, there are no improbably attractive men who bicker with me at work (because I work alone, but that's beside the point), and I don't live in an alarmingly nice apartment in a big city. I live in a perfectly reasonable apartment, with roommates, outside a big city. Because money.

The point I'm making is that when it comes to sitcoms we all have expectations of what they're supposed to be like. A lot of those expectations have to do with the humor, the physical comedy, and the ridiculous situations that come up. But some of the things we think of actually have very little to do with the form itself, and more to do with the stereotypes and character archetypes that have grown in around the form.

Take, for example, the stereotype of the "sexy Latina" in a sitcom. I can think of plenty of examples of this, but let's go with Gloria (Sofia Vergara) from Modern Family as our first and really best example. Gloria is an absolutely gorgeous woman and a very very smart one, but her character on the show is mostly toned down to a series of jokes about how sexy she is, and how she can't really speak English very well. 

Aside from one memorable and amazing scene where she talks about how she hates everyone discriminating against her for not speaking her second language perfectly, the show largely allows these stereotypes to stay in place. Gloria's part in the show is to provide the sex appeal, to be the messy, passionate, intense, non-English fluent love interest.

Which is pretty par for the course for Latinas in sitcoms. Not always, but a lot. There are a lot of frankly racist stereotypes built up around the idea of Latinas in comedy. The idea that they must be sexy and interested in sex, that they must be loud and "firey" and prone to fits of rage. The idea that they are more intuitive and in touch with their emotions. All that crap that has somehow gotten tacked on to representations of Latinas in American pop culture.

And that brings me to why we're talking about Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero) from Brooklyn 99 today. Because Amy is none of those things. At all. I didn't notice it at first, mostly because Rosa Diaz, one of the other detectives, is more my cup of tea, but Amy's characterization on the show actually really manages avoid almost all of the stereotypical problematic representations of Latinas. How? 

They made her boring.

So, Brooklyn 99 is a sitcom set in a police station, mostly about the detectives and support staff working in Brooklyn's fictional 99th precinct. The nominal main character is Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg), an immature manchild who works as a lead character because no one is amused by his immaturity. This most recent season has featured a few changes to the basic setup, mostly based around how Jake has actually progressed as a character (yay!), but it's overall the same.

You've also got a full set of other awesome characters, from Captain Ray Holt (Andre Braugher), the amazingly deadpan and wry man in charge, to Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio), a detective who openly calls himself a foodie and has no issues about his lack of stereotypical masculinity. There's even Gina (Chelsea Peretti), a narcissistic administrative assistant who struggles to balance her life between school and her passion for dance. Weirdly, working a full time job doesn't really come into it at all.

My point is that all of the characters on Brooklyn 99 are awesome, but some of them are more awesome than others. Which brings us back to Amy Santiago. Amy is a classic sitcom character, albeit with a twist. She's a hardcore type-A personality, a woman who dreams someday of being a police captain (so much so that she dresses up in the captain's hat sometimes), and who proudly brags that "in high school I was voted Most Appropriate."

She's nerdy and intense and an overachieving brown-noser. She's so obsessed with getting Captain Holt to be her mentor that she'll go to ridiculous lengths to get his attention. She'll offer to adopt one of his puppies, even though she is literally deathly allergic to dogs. She'll read an eight page, single-spaced ode to his greatness over Thanksgiving dinner. She'll call him "beautiful", and say things like, "Raymond, those slacks are a knockout!" Heck, she'll even snoop through his kitchen to see whether or not he makes hummus from scratch.

She's nuts. But in a very good and refreshing way. Amy is focused on her career, stable, steady, and really awesome. Most of the jokes about Amy are about how obsessive and crazy she can. But not crazy in the way that we're used to seeing Latinas on sitcoms be crazy. Amy's insanity stems from her pathological need for her boss' approval, and her need to be the best cop she can be, dammit. 

She's not passionate or firey, unless she hasn't eaten enough that day, in which case she's kind of terrifying. She's not sexy. In fact one of the running jokes of the show has Jake taking things Amy says and repurposing them as the title of her sex tape. Like, "Kind, Sober, and Fully Dressed." Or, "I'm Sorry About Tonight." Or, "Not Even Gonna Touch That: The Amy Santiago Story." The running gag is that Amy just isn't sexy.

But what's actually great about this is that Amy doesn't mind. She doesn't really care that she doesn't come off as sexy, because she doesn't want to come off as sexy. Sexy is not a thing she's aiming for. She's a fuddy duddy, and she likes it. She had to call her thirteen year old niece for makeup tips, and then disregarded them for being "too sexual". She wears pantsuits, and has no problems with that. Her apartment is full of doilies and collectable tea spoons. She's a boring person inside.

And that's great! I mean, when was the last time you saw a Latina on a sitcom who was characterized as a teacher's pet? Or as a woman so dull that she fakes a root canal to get out of doing extra work she originally volunteered for, just so she can go to a bed and breakfast with her boyfriend. Who is named Teddy. For the record.

Amy Santiago is a deeply boring person inside, and that makes for freaking excellent comedy.

It's easy when you're writing jokes to go for the most obvious one. It's easy to think that stereotypes add value to your humor because they create a shorthand that your audience probably already knows. It's easy, but it's not better. The best jokes, the best humor, comes from comedy that makes an effort. That thinks, "You know what would be really funny? If we have this detective who's really ambitious and intense, but also loves little old lady things, and isn't ashamed of that." Good comedy comes when you step outside the stereotypes and try something different.

Because women, and I hate to break this to you buddy, are people too. And people are infinitely weird and strange and hilarious. We are all just bundles of neuroses and sitcoms waiting to happen. A bad sitcom writer writing my life might make me out into a typical clumsy nerd stereotype. That's not the whole picture. Yeah, I get hurt a lot. But I get hurt because I tackled someone playing mud rugby or because I bumped into a wall in the underground missile silo because I lost my flashlight or because I got headbutted by a toddler and somehow that hurt my ribs enough for me to have to go get them fixed.

What I'm saying is that there are easy jokes you can make, and then there are good ones. Frankly, I love that the writers of Brooklyn 99 gave us good jokes. They gave us Amy Santiago, an unapologetically dorky, unsexy, practical Latina character who can't dance on a network sitcom. I can appreciate that.*

Also I love how much this show does with female friendships.
*Title of her sex tape!

8 comments:

  1. Y'know, I go through life enjoying things because I enjoy them and then I read one of your articles and think "Hnh. So that's why." and then I enjoy it more.

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    1. Except when I ruin things you love... But I'm glad I could make Brooklyn 99 just that bit more appealing. :)

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  2. It's also worth noting that her boss is black. So, Amy seeking Holt's approval doesn't have the undertones of "woc desperately seeking approval of white man"

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  3. And I think it helps that the A type woman isn't the butt of every joke. Her colleagues respect her, even if they tease her. They want her around and genuinely like her, even if it's easy to rib her sometimes. None of the jokes at her (or really anyone else's) expense read malicious and man, it's not to see the women of this show not get treated nasty by everyone else.

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    1. I think for me what really sold it is how she gives as good as she gets, and she even laughs at some of Jake's jokes. Heck, she even helps him make them. This makes her different from almost all other women like her in sitcoms: she's in on the joke! I just love it so much.

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  4. I agree with everything you said, but what's more, Amy could easily have been a stick in the mud, the type of no-nonsense, no fun female character you sometimes see on TV and movies. But here, her boringness is endearing. She's fun to watch because she embraces how boring she is. She actually celebrates being given more work to do, because she's such a teacher's pet. But that's what makes me love the character. Fumero gives such a great performance, and that's really saying something because this is a show filled with great performances.

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    1. Yes! Thank you! She's totally into and owning her weirdness, which makes me love her even more but by no means makes her less funny. Fumero needs an Emmy. Stat.

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