Reflections on Zoe Saldana and Popular Culture

Last week, in my dentist’s waiting room, I found a copy of People en Español. The magazine is the edition of People targeted toward the Hispanic population in the US. I was surprised to see that one of the features was an interview with Zoe Saldana about her approach to beauty and skin care.

Let me explain my surprise. Anyone who is unfamiliar with the publication might presume that it is a Spanish (as in Spain) publication or perhaps that the Spanish-speaking population of the US consists of European immigrants. To put it more bluntly, whites (people of “pure” European descent) are a minority of the Latin American population, while people of indigenous, African, Asian, and mixed heritage are the clear majority. However, the Hispanic media (print and television) consists largely of representatives of the white minority – light-skinned, European-featured, brunette- or blond-haired.  Absent the Spanish language, these media personalities are indistinguishable from their mainstream media counterparts, except lacking the diversity to which we have become accustomed.

And despite the oft-repeated claim that, unlike the US, Latin America has no racial divisions, people of African descent (who are everywhere in Latin America) are socially, economically, and politically marginalized, generally achieving success and recognition only through sports and  music. However, unlike the “one drop rule” that has characterized the definition of racial identity in the US, the hierarchy of racial statuses in Latin America is devilishly complex, based on the percent of European versus non-European ancestry, and, of equal importance, skin color. While the US gets by with a few broad gradations relating to skin color (“light,” “dark”), Latin Americans use a multileveled hierarchy of skin color with reference to social status. Thus, multigenerational mobility can be attained through the process of  blanqueamiento, the gradual whitening of the skin. So, it is perversely ironic that  People en Español features Zoe Saldana, from the Dominican Republic (whose largely mixed Afro-European population consider themselves “Spanish”) as the featured celebrity beauty and skin care expert.

Of course, the current spate of publicity surrounding Zoe Saldana is generated by her starring role the upcoming NBC four-hour miniseries “Rosemary’s Baby,” which begins on May 11. The series is based on the 1967 novel by Ira Levin. Ms Saldana plays the title role of Rosemary, a young woman whose husband and neighbors conceal from her the true facts of the baby she is carrying. In this version, the location is changed from New York to Paris. But the level of horror and suspense will likely be quite high, even if the satirical humor of the book and the original film is missing.

In addition to her co-starring roles in Avatar and the two recent Star Trek films, Ms. Saldana became the center of a controversy when she was cast in the role of Nina Simone in a biopic that was finished in 2013, but not yet released. The film’s producer and Ms. Saldana defended her casting in the role of the iconic jazz musician and civil rights activist whose features, demeanor, and style shouted “Africa!”

Ms. Saldana will be very visible on network TV for four nights starting in two weeks. I expect to watch at least the beginning of the series, curious to see how it holds up against the original.  My recollection of the story is based on Roman Polanski’s 1968 film classic starring Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes as the central characters. Mia Farrow was 23 at the time and appeared delicate and fragile as the young pregnant wife who must trust her husband and a building full of strangers as she struggles to make sense of strange and sometimes terrifying experiences. Ms Farrow gave a convincing and memorable award-nominated performance. At 35, Ms Saldana comes across as more secure, sophisticated, and stronger than the naïve innocent portrayed by Mia Farrow. Prior to seeing the TV show, it is hard to image her being easily conned and intimidated by her husband and a group of Satan worshippers.

One other thing. As is the case in most of the films in which Ms Saldana has been cast, her love interest in the miniseries is white. This means that Satan’s spawn, the Antichrist, will be biracial.

So take that, Cheerios commercial!

On the other hand, if anyone starts some crap about his birth certificate, they’ll have Hell to pay.

 

Zoe Saldana, from People en   Español, online, 4/22/2014. Photo credit Omar Cruz

Zoe Saldana, from People en Español, online, 4/22/2014. Photo credit Omar Cruz

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