America Ferrera: Analyzing stigma in the public eye

America Ferrera: Analyzing stigma in the public eye

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

One may have heard the word stigma before, but may not know the meaning and the origin of this term. A stigma was originally defined as a burn or cut in the skin of certain people who were known to be “blemished” or “morally polluted persons” (“Stigma” source as cited in Wikipedia). In today’s definition, stigma is more of a discrimination against someone because of their differences or their “otherness.” The Sociology Book defines stigmas as “A mark of disgrace or an undesirable characteristic, physical or social, that disqualifies an individual from being fully accepted by society.”  In the TED talk YouTube video, “Your Identity is your superpower | America Ferrera,” America Ferrera is characterized as different by casting directors, producers, family, friends, and many more, due to her culture, gender, race, class, and even her body type. She explains her realization of this system of beliefs and comes to the conclusion that she would not let her identity be an obstacle but rather a superpower that she could use to her advantage.

America Ferrera’s first memory of her otherness being an obstacle for herself was during her first professional audition for a commercial. The casting director asked her, “Could you do that again? But just this time, sound more Latina” (Ferrera, TED YouTube). She later found out that he wanted her to speak broken English like the stereotypical characteristic of a Latina girl. America Ferrera ended up not getting the job because she couldn’t fit the casting director’s description of a stereotypical Latina girl. This core memory for Ferrera shows the stigma of her ethnicity that was originally an obstacle for her when she was starting as a young, 15-year-old actor. This early sense of who she was shaped how she went through life and what decisions she made in the future of her acting career.

Other roles that Ferrera was recommended for due to her ethnicity were the gangbanger’s girlfriend, a sassy shoplifter, and pregnant Chola number two. In her TED Talk, America Ferrera explained these roles by saying, “These were the kinds of roles that existed for someone like me, someone they looked at and saw as too brown, too fat, too poor, too unsophisticated” (Ferrera, TED YouTube). Ferrera uses powerful word choice in this statement with the words “someone like me” because she saw her otherness at this point and realized how casting directors and producers were perceiving her for being different. With these situations appearing over and over, America Ferrera was starting to understand that her identity had become an obstacle to herself and her career.

With this realization that her identity was the obstacle between her and her dream roles as an actor, she began to do everything in her power to not be considered “too brown, too fat, too poor, too unsophisticated” anymore. Ferrera thought that she’d be given a chance at these roles if she were to stay out of the sun to lighten her skin, straighten her curls into submission, try to lose weight constantly, and if she bought fancier and more expensive clothing for herself. She tried to hide her identity due to the overwhelming stigmatization that she faced day to day by everyone around her. What upset her the most was that she knew people talked about her as if she were a person of less value because of her ethnicity and how she was perceived on screen. America Ferrera knew that she couldn’t change this stigmatized system of beliefs if she still believed in these beliefs herself and was working to not be different. In her TED Talk, she claimed, “It is possible to be the person who genuinely wants to see change, while also being the person whose actions keep things the way they are.” Ferrera knew that she couldn’t keep putting herself down and changing herself just to fit in with the acting standards, so she did the complete opposite.

Ultimately, America Ferrera is characterized as different by casting directors, producers, family, friends, and many more, due to her culture, gender, race, class, and even her body type. Ferrera recognized her otherness and the stigma that she faced, and she started to be her authentic self, rather than feeding into the system that was surrounding her. Ferrera concluded her TED Talk by saying that “change will come when each of us has the courage to question our own fundamental values and beliefs, and then see to it that our actions lead to our best intentions.” As the audience is left with this thoughtful quote on stigma, the audience is also left with a sense of responsibility to help stop this system in one’s everyday life, even if they are not the ones being stigmatized.

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