Heroic Betty. How Television’s Ugly Betty is the most Unlikely Model of Joseph Campbell’s Heroic Journey
Anybody who is from Colombia or lived there is familiar with Yo Soy Betty La Fea, the internationally successful hybrid soap opera and sitcom that aired from 1999 to 2001 and spawned many spin offs and a popular English language reboot on ABC called Ugly Betty. The protagonist, Betty, is arguably one of the most endearing and enduring television personalities of all time. Part of what made the show so successful was Betty’s relatability. Viewers could put themselves in her shoes. They could relate to her dreams, her insecurities, and her journey from ugly duckling with a good heart, to the happy, self-actualized conquering hero that she transforms into by the end of the series. If you think it is strange for me to describe a 5’ 4’’ Colombian woman in her twenties as a “conquering hero”, then you may be surprised to learn how much the overarching plot of this series follows to a T the blueprint laid out of the “Heroic Journey”; the universal common elements of all heroic characters, called the “monomyth”, and explained and popularized by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces 1. The same common threads run through virtually every heroic story or myth everywhere around the world. Campbell describes a hero as “the man or woman who has been able to battle past his personal and historic local limitations (…) The hero has died as a modern man; but as eternal man-perfected, unspecific, universal man- he has been reborn(…)…and teach the lesson he has learned of life renewed”. 2 It is nothing new or novel for contemporary storytellers to use this book, or at least the monomyth principle popularized by it, as a basis or inspiration for a new heroic figure. George Lucas cited Campbell’s concepts as vital in the conception of Luke Skywalker as a character, and for the plot of A New Hope, the first and arguably most iconic Star Wars film. If you are familiar with the eight stages of the journey (sometimes expanded into twelve, or even seventeen steps) it is easy to see how they apply to any well-known hero of film and literature from Frodo, to Harry Potter, to Neo and Spiderman. What makes Betty unique is that she does not resemble the other kinds of characters who conform to the monomyth archetype. Apart from the obvious fact that she is a woman, she is also far less physically imposing as monomyth prototypes such as Prometheus, Gilgamesh, Samson, Arthur Pendragon, Aladdin, etcetera. Betty is a shy, socially awkward nerd, and a workaholic with low self esteem. In other words, she is-at least externally- the furthest thing imaginable from a mythological hero. And yet, her story hits each and every one of the eight points along the Hero’s Journey, and exemplifies them each better than any other Colombian work of fiction I am aware of, and I have an advanced degree in Latin-American literature. Spolier alert from here on for Yo Soy Betty La Fea and the 2006 English language reboot, Ugly Betty. The eight steps roughly speaking, consist of the Call, Refusal of the Call, Passing the Threshold, Challenges, Abyss, Transformation, Atonement, and Return/Boon. The story of Ugly Betty exemplifies each of these eight steps superbly. She experiences her call to adventure when she begins to work at Ecomoda, a fashion company where she takes a job as an accountant and personal assistant to the president, Armando Mendoza, with whom she falls helplessly and instantly in love. Mendoza is for her as much of an idealized and perfect love interest, as any princess who was ever locked in a tower or chained up to be fed to a dragon has been for a male hero. The call comes in the form of a clandestine relationship that she begins to have with Mendoza. Despite that fact that he seduces her under false pretenses, she begins to believe in herself and dare to expect and believe that she deserves what she wants out of life; a multitude of things are represented collectively in the form of a fulfilling and reciprocated love life; the antithesis of the characteristic and supposed “ugliness” that holds her back. Like most heroic figures she at first refuses the call, by convincing herself that despite their affection and the time they spend together, that her relationship with Armando is little more than a fantasy, and it will be short lived and never amount to anything. It is important to clarify that tied into Betty’s ability to have a stable and permanent relationship at all is her self-worth and her willingness to pursue her dreams in general. The real reason why Mendoza courted her at first was to manipulate her into cooking their financial books and to stay on her good side so that she would sign the company back over to him after pulling off an elaborate and not entirely legal debt evasion scheme. The threshold is thrust upon Betty when she confronts Armando after learning the truth about his motivations. She can no longer live in her fantasy, and opts to leave Ecomoda altogether. Her first steps into adventure come in the form of printing and distributing the truth about the company’s debt to the board of directors, admitting her role in massaging their financial records, and quitting amid derision and disapproval. Her self-worth at an all-time low, but also separated from the source of her torment, she finds herself aided by her friend and mentor Catalina Angel, who, like her angelic namesake, provide her with inspired help and guidance. Angel offers Betty a temporary job as her assistant in Cartagena, where Betty gets away from her troubles in the big city of Bogotá, while simultaneously going on a journey of self-discovery and enlightenment. Greek heroes were aided by gods, usually the wise Athena, and supernatural aid is a common element for monomyth heroes to give them the skill, wisdom, or knowledge necessary to overcome the challenges that they face. In Betty’s case these challenges come in the form confronting her own self-loathing, her childhood traumas at being always bullied and rejected by men because of her looks, as well as her doubts about her own value and whether or not she is deserving of her personal and professional goals. That, and one heck of a good makeover. The abyss comes in the form of facing her feelings of inadequacy and fessing up to the fact that her relationship with Armando was a sham. She blames him for her feelings of depression and self-loathing, not realizing at first that these traumas pre-dated her relationship with Armando. The darkest, and most hopeless moment in a heroic story is often called the “Belly of Whale”, or the “dark before the sunrise”. Betty’s sun begins to rise when she forgives Armando and decides to be the best version of herself that she can. Following the darkness of the abyss is the transfiguring light of self-transformation. To underscore her change in attitude, Betty treats herself to a haircut, changing her hairstyle for the first time in her adult life, and revealing the first steps in her evolution from the titular “Ugly” Betty, into the self-confident and beautiful Betty that the audience by this time has long suspected her capable of growing into. When Betty returns from Cartagena she is surprised to be offered a position back at Ecomoda along with a raise. The far-fetched rationale here is that she is the only one who understands the company’s financial situation well enough to navigate them into a better standing in time to sign the company back over to its rightful shareholders and get the debt collectors off their backs. The atonement and boon, the two final stages of the Hero’s Journey, are presented in reverse order, with Betty first giving her similarly “ugly” friends the boon of makeovers and self-confidence. This arc sees its climax in the form of a fashion show in which her friends with ordinary body types walk up and down the catwalk to show off Ecomoda’s line of clothing designed for normal people. This moment represents Betty’s Apotheosis. She has not changed into a supermodel, rather, she has demonstrated that the right clothing and attitude can help reveal beauty in ordinary people. She has revealed this truth in herself, and she gives it to her friends and the whole country as a divine boon, exactly like Campbells heroes who transform their own societies and worlds after experiencing a soul-transforming adventure and conquest. Finally, Betty receives her well-earned atonement, as she reconciles with Armando who was the only man to see her and appreciate her for who she really is; not unlike the princess who falls in love with the frog who transforms into a handsome prince. The show ends with her permanently reinstated at Ecomoda, and marrying Armando with all of her friends present at the wedding. Her friends all sport the new looks that Betty benevolently bestowed on them due to her newfound enlightenment. Their presence serves as exemplars of the transformative message intended for the audience at large. Incredibly, it is the same message of the transformative power of virtue and perseverance that in one way or another has been present in every heroic myth or story since Beowulf.
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