Ugly Betty was one of the highlights of my early teens. I remember going to the market to buy new seasons with my then best friend. Back then, I was so consumed with the fact that I look like Betty and trying to live vicariously through her experiences. Watching it again almost ten years later, I am amazed at the wealth of information that flew past me- especially Marc and Amanda’s surprisingly witty insults- and inspired by America Ferrera’s phenomenal acting. Asides her cringe-worthy flops and fashion choices and falling in loving with her close-knit family, watching Betty navigate the tricky and superficial fashion world as a writer hits different now that I am trying to break into the writing industry myself. So for your reading pleasure, here are 12 lessons I learned from Ugly Betty.
1. Your Identity Is Your Superpower
Not only was this (in my opinion) the central message of the series, it was also the title of America’s inspiring TEDx talk. Most times, we bemoan our fate, fixate on things we don’t have, and how life would be better if we didn’t have our flaws. Betty Suarez is not a conventional beauty. She is 22 at the start of the series, slightly overweight, wears blue train-track braces and heavy-rimmed glasses, has large pores, a painful sense of fashion, and no business working at a fashion magazine but somehow she finds herself there. She maneuvers herself- sometimes inelegantly- through the fashion ecosystem at Mode and never really belives she has no right to be there. She doesn’t believe her dream of one day becoming a magazine editor one day is too big for someone like her. There are many writers and assistants at Mode but Betty is different. She distills the essence of who she is into her work.
2. Rich People are Human Beings Too
I know this seems like a no-brainer but most times as we network and navigate society, we stop seeing the rich as people and start seeing them as money bags, business opportunities, and power connections. We see it when Betty’s family and co-workers discover her new boyfriend, Matt is the son of the multibillionaire businessman and philanthropist, Cal Hartley. At that point, Matt stopped being just Matt and became Cal Hartley’s son. Matt had seen this trend before and he hated it. To him, Cal Hartley was just “Dad” but to the rest of the world, he was billionaire Hartley; the man every president wanted to meet and every start-up wanted to sell a “radical idea” to. The older Mr. Hartley was aware of this too and made it known when he said, “I love babies. Maybe it is because they can’t ask me for money…”
3. No Family is Perfect…
…what matters is you love and look out for each other. The Meades are not your ideal, gift-card-worthy family. They have a very disturbing family dynamic. However, as we can see from Bradford being willing to go to jail for his wife’s crime and his fugitive wife being willing to risk arrest just to see him before he gives up the ghost, it is obvious they love each other in a very troubled, upper-crust way. Betty’s family, on the other hand, despite being warm and close-knit, still have issues and clashes- which they always try to resolve as maturely as possible. Hilda’s chequered micro family with her son, Justin, and her baby daddy, Santos is by no means perfect. Nevertheless, they make an effort to be together and though Santos doesn’t understand his son’s love for Broadway and Haute Couture, he stands up for him when a man tries to shame the boy for re-enacting a dance routine from his favorite musical. While her life seems magazine-worthy, Wilhelmina’s relationship with her father, Senator Slater, her sister, Renee, and her daughter, Nicco, makes the Meade look like a family circus. There is a whole lot of anger and emotional tit-for-tat that a point you start wondering if these people are a family or warring factions in the Punic war. However, Wilhelmina and her father always rise to the occasion when there is a problem.
4. Love is Weird
Movies often make love seem like this amazing thing where the prince carries off the princess into the prefect tangerine sunset and they all live happily in this warm, blissful emotion-induced hangover.
One of the many things I love about this series is how it gives you a reality check on love. Love can be sweet, twisted, angry, insane, fleeting, intense, irrational, passive, and vengeful. Betty has a very topsy-turvy relationship with love. The series begins with her drab and frankly, annoying relationship with Walter. The relationship was just like the relationship you have with your old college sweatshirt; you don’t like it but it’s comfortable so you don’t throw it out. She later transitions into a relationship with Henry Grubstick, who is all shoulders and dorky good looks. The sad thing is their relationship was fated to end right from the start as Henry would be moving back to Tucson with his pregnant ex-girlfriend after five months. Betty gets into a messy emotional coleslaw with Henry and Gio Rossi, an interesting caterer/restaurateur she met at work. Things crash and burn as you can expect and she ends up with Matt. Things get weirder from there.
On the other hand is Daniel Meade, notorious manwhore and the king of entanglements. Daniel’s playboy lifestyle grinds to a temporary halt when he meets and falls hard for the sultry Sofia Reyes. This takes a turn into heartbreak hotel as it turns out she used Daniel and their engagement as a publicity stunt for her book, “From Fling to Ring in 60 Days”. Daniel gets back on the whoring horse after a dry spell spent mourning the end of his relationship with Sofia. A couple of episodes later, he meets and becomes enamored with Renee Slater, the younger sister of his archenemy and Mode’s Creative Director, Wilhelmina Slater. Renee’s love for Daniel tends towards the obsessive and this leads to her almost burning down Daniel’s apartment in a jealous rage. Daniel giddy ups yet again into the dating scene and finally ends up with Molly, a charming schoolmarm who happens to be the girlfriend of his bud, Connor Owens. Things go swimmingly till Molly gets cancer. She dies and Daniel once again becomes an emotional mess in a ten thousand dollar Armani suit.
If you count Betty’s whirlwind romances with attractive men, Daniel’s bad luck with relationships, Hilda actively dating a married man and later a local politician who is so not her type, Marc bungling his relationship with the amazing Cliff and finally Trey, Ignacio finally finding love in his nurse and Amanda being…well, Amanda, it is clear that this show really handled all the different facets of the most confusing emotion on the face of the earth.
5. Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder versus Out of Sight, Out of Mind
For the longest time, I have always wondered which is true with love: out of sight, out of mind or absence makes the heart fonder. I believe it is all about balance. It is natural to want to always be with the one you love especially when the relationship is in its infancy. You want to breathe in their essence each day and be a critical part of their quotidian existence. The few times, the both of you are apart y’all are on the phone giggling about “no, you hang up!” after being on the phone for the better part of six hours. This can get old faster than you can say flapjacks. As we can see from the case of Betty and Matt, being attached at the hip kills novelty and makes you have fewer things to talk about. There is a need for each party in the relationship to have a life that is independent of the other person. Have some fun. Invest and work on yourself. Sometimes, do things you are passionate about alone. This would make the times you both spend together rich and full of wonderful conversations.
6. Pursue Your Dreams Relentlessly…
…Only then will success come. One resounding lesson I learned from following the interesting life of Betty Suarez is the importance of finding something you are passionate about and pursuing it tirelessly and doggedly. On the journey of life, we have detours and temporary stops where we bench our dreams and work on the dreams of others just to survive. In those times, you must not lose sight of what is important.
Taste is having the courage of your own convictions
To quote Aldous Huxley, “The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age which means never losing your enthusiasm.” Pursue your dreams with the same intensity, happiness, and determination that a child pursues a Frisbee in the park. Do one thing daily that brings you closer to that dream because success, like Paulo Coelho puts it, enters the house of the person who says, “I will do my best” every day; success is not an end in itself, but a consequence.
For Betty, working at Mode, taking classes at the young editor’s internship program, and later opening a blog helped bring her closer to her dreams of being an editor at a magazine. It took four years of enduring scathing jokes, navigating the intrigues, conspiracies, and backbiting of the fashion industry and some failed relationships but Betty finally got the break she wanted. So what are those actions that would bring you closer to your big picture?
7. Pretty (Really) Hurts
It might sound cliché and très obvi but pretty really does hurt. And not because of the arthritis-inducing heels or impossible beauty standards. Anyone who is anyone at Mode- and by extension, the fashion world- had to make some sacrifices to get where they are. For some, like Tavares, the sacrifice is hiding who you really are. For others, like Wilhelmina, you have to not only reinvent yourself but also part with a critical and defining aspect of your humanity. However, what strikes me is the case of the fun-loving, uber superficial receptionist, Amanda Tanen.
When you first meet Amanda, it is easy to assume there is nothing behind the ditzy and flirtatious image she presents. She is the queen of no-strings-attached, the first to throw herself at the nearest eligible bachelor and a part of the trinity that specializes in making “Betty Jokes”. However, as the series progresses, we discover there is more to Amanda than we initially thought and that she cares for Betty in her scatterbrained and self-absorbed way. In one of the episodes when Betty was having a “love crisis” Amanda, in a backhanded way reminds Betty of how lucky she is. “At least when someone likes you, you know they like you for you and not only for what you look like and can offer.” It is often very easy to dislike pretty people especially when feel they are abusing the pretty privilege. However, when we walk a mile in their shoes, you realize how painful it is to be written off and boxed as just a pretty girl; how annoying it is when people are surprised there is more to you than perfect skin, nice hair, a glamorous face, and perky twins
8. Change Shouldn’t Be Forced
A few episodes into the first season, Betty’s elder sister, Hilda gives her a makeover- more like a make under or a “make worse-r” but let’s just go with makeover. As expected, Mode’s fashion vultures tore her apart leaving her feeling deflated and cleaning smudged eyeliner in the bathroom. She later goes back to her normal kitschy fashion and exists in colorful fashion insignificance until the final season. The color blind blinds over her eyes lift, she grows out her bangs and starts dressing tastefully. This taught me two things:
One, when too many changes are implemented at once, things fall apart. Change should be eased into naturally and gradually. Betty’s life changed enormously and quickly in the first season. She got a big shot job, got dumped for the neighborhood sleaze by her chump of a boyfriend, and is still navigating mode’s unique work environment. A change to her personal style was not right at that moment.
Change will come when each of us dares to question our fundamental values and beliefs and prove our actions lead to our best intentions
Two, all things happen in due time. We don’t change until we are ready for it. Before then, we would refuse to change or change unnaturally just to please the people around us. We should all learn to change on our terms and at our own pace.
9. The Power of Now
Living in the present is something very few of us know how to do. Regrets make us live in the past and dreams push us to live in the future while existing in the present. There is a certain richness and fullness of life that comes with giving each present moment the sanctity and reverence it deserves.
May our eyes open so that we can see that no two days are ever the same. Each one brings with it a different miracle, which allows us to go on breathing and walking in the sun
Paulo Coelho (The Manuscript from Accra)
When Daniel’s girlfriend (and later, wife) contracts cancer, Daniel goes into his Bob the builder mode and tries to fix it all. He flies in the best oncologist and is willing to have Molly try out a procedure that has only a ten percent success rate. While I will give Daniel an A for effort and an A+ for hopefulness, Molly wasn’t having it. Molly didn’t want to spend what she had left of her life connected to tubes and beeping machines while holding on to a ten percent lifeline. She wanted to live fully and unabashedly and that she did. There is so much power and beauty to be found in the present if only we could stop to taste it, smell it, see it and feel it.
Today is the future you dreamed about some time ago and past you’ll regret if you are always hurrying through life. Learn to enjoy the now.
10. Not Everyone is Going to Like You and That’s Ok
Life is not all hugs, cuddles, and rainbow-pissing unicorns. Everyone is not going to like you. You’re not ice-cream or Jollof rice. Heck, some people don’t even like those things. Two things that stood out about Betty were her constant need to be a good person and her desire to be liked. The former can be seen in the second season where she made it her duty to prove to Gio she wasn’t a “stuck up mode girl”. In the eighteenth episode of the third season, Betty’s all-consuming need to be liked shone like a diamond. She had just met her boyfriend’s snooty mother, Mrs. Hartley and it didn’t go well. She meets Mrs. Meade in the elevator and tells her all about her meeting with Mrs. Hartley.
Betty: I keep thinking there is something I gotta do to make her like me
Mrs. Meade: Oh please Betty! You are never going to win that woman over
Betty: Maybe that’s true but I don’t understand why!
Mrs. Meade: Well, grow up because not everybody is going to like you. You just gotta suck it up and embrace it
Betty: There is nothing I can do?
Mrs. Meade: Hell, yes there is something you can do. You can throw it right back at her. When one of those silk stocking hags stares me down do you know what I do?
Betty: (shakes head) stare her down?
Mrs. Meade: You got that right
The truth is you are going to be a bad or shitty person to some people and that is ok. You can bake them cookies every day or do errands for them and they still won’t give a rat’s ass about you. It’s a dog-eat-dog world and you are sure as hell going to be lunch if you keep trying to please and make everyone like you.
11. Good People Make Mistakes…
…That doesn’t make them bad people. Mistakes don’t define us, they teach us lessons if only we are open to learning them. Betty might seem like your regular goody two shoes but the Mamacita has had some really exciting relationships, experiences, and mistakes. One of those mistakes is kissing her ex-boyfriend, Henry while she was still dating Matt. Our charming protagonist forgot the first commandment in the “How to Deal With Exes” handbook:
Thou shalt not “see them for the last time” especially if you are in a new relationship. It never ends well.
On the other hand, Betty’s hot tamale elder sister, Hilda, cheats on her boyfriend, Archie with neighborhood bad boy, the muy guapo, Bobby. While this mistake ended up giving Hilda the baby-in-the-baby-carriage arrangement and finally, the white picket fence dream, someone was hurt: Archie.
Do these mistakes and broken hearts make Hilda and Betty bad people? Not really. It just makes them humans and human beings, in blindly pursuing their interests, can hurt other people. what matters is they realize it, do all they can to remedy the situation, and move on with the lesson.
12. Ugly Betty Was Not Ugly
The title reminds me of the phenomenon called the pygmalion effect. You hear “Ugly Betty” and all your mind can pick out of Betty’s physiognomy is flaws. Her smile seems too metallic and her braces too blue, her pores too large, her brows too bushy and her paunch too obvious. But the truth is Betty is really pretty- and her smile is the most earnest thing in television history. My younger brother echoed the same sentiments few episodes into the second season. The same thing happens in real life. We limit people based on the little we know about them. We see a little extra weight and box them off as lazy and unmotivated. We see pretty and write her off as ditzy and superficial. We see poor and welfare-dependent and rule out every chance of them being successful. Stop defining people based on a pin-hole view of who they are; give people a chance to prove and define themselves.