Badass Women Archive: Elena Alvarez (One Day at a Time, Netflix)

NB: This was written before season two.

I thought it should be about time to have a Badass Women Archive. Sure, there’s the half-arsed “WCW” and whatever the male version is (have I even abbreviated that correctly?) that essentially praises a woman for being hot, or a man for being hot. I’m not declaring this category of posts as anything special, but women are pretty darn cool, and often aren’t celebrated enough–unless you’re Meryl–on television. So why the hell not, huh?

I also recognise that I won’t cover everyone that should be covered, quite simply because I don’t watch every television show on the planet. Hey, if that was my job, I totally would, but then I’d be incredibly obese.

So instead I’ll post periodic updates. If you do have any suggestions though, just hit me up on Twitter. Today, it’s Elena Alvarez’s turn.

If you are not watching One Day at a Time, go and binge it. They are half-hour episodes, and they are fucking hysterical.

One of the breakout stars of 2017 has been Isabella Gomez’s neurotic, geeky, well-intentioned, headstrong and fondly irritating daughter of the Alvarez family: Elena. She is not a cool kid. She gets brilliant grades, and she enjoys it; even worse, she enjoys working towards those grades and creating a bio-friendly environment for her school (see: the compost speech). Politically over-correct, it’s an odd mix of stubbornness and sheer naivety that makes her so incredibly appealing.

One Day at a Time is, of course, inherently a comedy. Marcel Ruiz and Justine Machado make excellent foils for Gomez’s frankly bonkers character. Where her younger brother (Ruiz) routinely mocks her for her enthusiasm, often backed by their grandmother (the excellent Rita Moreno), Penelope (Machado) tries her best to placate the harmless antagonism.

It works.

Gomez’s Elena so ardently believes in what she says that you really cannot argue with her. Even when she is exploring her sexuality–which isn’t seen as a big thing, except it is in Cuban culture–something we find ourselves eagerly getting educated about (I hadn’t even heard of a quinces before ODAAT) it’s not the typical eye-roll worthy reaction.

Yes, her grandmother freaks out–but not because she “doesn’t like boys”. In fact, comedically, she freaks out because she is the one supposed to be designing the quinces dress, and Elena really just wants to wear a smart, gorgeous white blazer with some lovely fitting trousers.

Her brother–well, there’s not much to say, other than he really does not give much of a shit.

To say that this article is hugely LGBTQ-orientated (because that’s the nature of Elena’s growth in the first season) is an understatement. Unlike Alycia Debnam-Carey’s Commander, she does not engage in a duel with bulky Prince Roan (Zach McGowan) and nor is she a kickass, will-literally-kick-your-ass-until-you-have-no-ass-left Alex Danvers (Chyler Leigh, who I’m sure is an absolute sweetheart in real-life).

We’ll have a separate section for Penelope, because it is the mother-daughter bond in ODAAT that really separates this programme from everything else on television. We should also probably mention Todd Grinnell’s Schneider, who is the Alvarezes’ landlord. He’s essentially a tall man-child, who rather hysterically wears a Che Guevara T-shirt and strolls into the family apartment, absolutely clueless as to what it implies.

As for the way ODAAT beautifully handled Elena’s coming out–and I truly believe it was one of the most genuine, raw scenes I’ve seen on television–you can judge for yourself by watching the scene below:

This wasn’t just a moment out-of-the-blue. Elena’s antics and her worries (especially with such a traditional grandmother) has been prevalent to us, the viewers, but not so much to her family. However, none of it is overdramatised. Elena still performs well in school; she’s still passionate about what she loves; nothing about her has changed except her acknowledgement of her sexuality. And that’s how it should be. Not only is Penelope’s reaction heartwarming, but it’s real. Penelope does have reservations. Penelope isn’t sure she’s the right person for this–and she admits it. She acts on it, and tries to improve; she tries to understand, because she loves her daughter so fucking much that she will not disown her because of her sexuality. And that hits home much harder than if a parent blew her off completely and kicked her out; conversely, it’s much more realistic than if Penelope accepted it without issue (though I’m sure some parents do). Penelope is as honest with Elena as she is herself, and that is the beauty of their relationship. Maybe Penelope tries to be brave for Elena in her acceptance, but even braver, she goes out of her way to try and understand something she doesn’t necessarily get at all.

The show is relevant, sassy, hysterical and subtly educational (as seen above). And it’s easy to write all of that out, but to put it into practice and to make an appealing, addictive sitcom is not easy. Yet One Day at a Time make it seem effortless. But for now, let’s talk about who I think is the breakout star of the series–and that’s amongst a hugely talented cast already!

Img1.pngElena Alvarez’s coming out story is possibly one of the best coming out stories I’ve ever seen on television.

One of the best parts about this admission–apart from Penelope’s hysterical relief that Elena’s not having sex yet–is how normal it all seems. We’re in a day and age where coming out to our parents is okay. It’s part of society–especially the Western society. However, when you live in a house with a Pope-obsessed grandmother and your faith belongs to Catholicism, you can feel the angst and the worry Isabella Gomez radiates as she confesses to her mother she is attracted to girls.

Not only is it really well-written, the performance Gomez and Machado give (and they bounce off each other amazingly–you can truly believe they are mother and daughter) is remarkable.

‘Badass’, by definition, manifests in many ways. Supergirl is a badass because she can smash a fifty-storey building with her finger. Xena is a badass because–hey, if you’re reading and you’re expecting me to explain why Xena is a badass, you’re reading the wrong article. Shaw and Root from Person of Interest. Clarke Griffin from The 100. Badassery can be defined in many ways, and Elena is no different.

In high school, you’re respected if you’re attractive, a cheerleader, or a jock. Elena is a complete nerd, but she doesn’t care. She knows her sense of self. That, to me, is badass. At home, she lives with a bunch of Catholics (and a shit-stirring brother). Coming out as gay to a Catholic family (bearing in mind Moreno’s grandmother is basically in love with the Pope) is a huge step. Even Rita Moreno’s Lydia comes up with a rather hysterical way of justifying how okay she is with Elena’s sexuality. After pondering if this is going against God, she then rationalises in about thirty seconds:

Lydia: ““Am I going to go against the Pope and God? Who the hell do I think I am? Okay! Okay! I’m good.”

Brilliant. Yes, ODAAT is a comedy. Rita Moreno is a comedic genius. But it just goes to show that if you rationalise this properly, think it through, and wonder what you truly mean by being devout to God…then why can’t everyone come to the same conclusion as Lydia? Lydia, who is arguably the most traditional Catholic of them all?

Elena is clever enough to read the news. Some people get thrown out of their houses because of this exact same issue. The fact that Elena follows her heart and tells the truth not only to herself but to her family is bad-freakin’-ass.

img3.pngNothing about Elena’s sexuality changes the way she behaves: she’s still a full-on nerd.

She takes Carmen in almost immediately. Rather hysterically, it sets Penelope off into thinking Carmen and Elena are engaged in some sort of relationship. Carmen’s around her house every single night; they work on nearly every project together. One Day at a Time may be at fault for depicting Carmen as the stereotypical, monotone goth of sorts–but it really works, especially in contrast to Elena. The reason why is because surely Elena would not befriend someone with such vastly different interests.

The thing is, aside from Penelope’s internal panic, nothing changes. It makes for a good comedic sentence or two whenever Elena says something utterly innocent and Penelope’s mind falls into the gutter, but that’s it.

The only thing Elena’s acceptance of Carmen tells us is that she is far too generous for her own good, and it is something that Penelope decides to be proud of in the end. With Carmen essentially homeless, Elena offers her a place to stay. None of this has anything to do with her sexuality. In fact, it’s just an indicator of Elena’s big heart–and that is remarkably sweet of her to do so.

Img2Her relationship with Penelope, her mother, makes for some of the most touching, emotive scenes of 2017.

The trend of strong female friendships has been a prevalent one. Shows like The Bold Type are completely dependent on the close trio of Kat (Aisha Dee), Jane (Katie Stevens) and Sutton (Meghann Fahy). Moreover, they have an incredible boss in Jacqueline (Melora Hardin). But One Day at a Time might just pip every other show to the post.

Perhaps the best relationship on the show goes to Penelope and Elena. As seen above in the coming out video, Penelope has always supported her daughter–no matter what. It’s a common theme with parents, and it’s the same with mine. My own mother is determined I’ll choose to love who I want because she never got the opportunity. In this case, though Elena’s interest is not in Carmen, Penelope accepts her instantly.

You can tell Elena had been absolutely bricking it, telling her mother. But the absolute best part of this is that even though Penelope tells her it’s fine–and she really dos mean it–she cannot lie to herself. She meets up with a lesbian friend at a gay bar, and truly struggles to come to terms with Elena’s sexuality.

None of this is a reflection on Elena. It’s partially because of her culture; it’s also partially because it’s the last thing she expected. But what’s important about what Penelope does is that she doesn’t kick off and voice her concerns towards Elena. She knows her daughter, and knows she’s going through a tumultuous time already. Instead, she sets off to educate herself. She will never change the way her daughter thinks about men or women–so she takes it upon herself to learn more about the gay culture.

That is the moment I realised this show was something truly special. Penelope’s love for Elena is so overwhelming that she will put herself out of her comfort zone just to make sure she understands her daughter a little better. Just like your parents may say to you, “you can tell me anything”, I suspect Penelope wants to be like that for Elena too. But she can’t just understand all the terminology without some sort of guidance. So she learns, because in life we never stop learning.

And in doing so, she cultivates a much closer relationship with Elena, and a much better idea of her desires and what she wants. Frankly, that is Parenting 101. Kudos, Penelope!

Img4.pngI feel like we should dedicate a section to school heart-throb Josh, because a.) you go, Josh, you wonderful ally; b.) Elena and Josh’s scenes are absolutely hysterical.

It would be easy to mistake One Day at a Time as a simple sitcom, without thinking of the incredibly important social layers slotted into the episodes. Of course, we have the cheeky Marcel Ruiz as the trainer-obsessed high-schooler, and Stephen Tobolowsky as the hapless general practice manager where Penelope works. One of the best and most surprising additions has been Froy Gutierrez, who plays the most popular boy in school. Handsome, with a lopsided smile, perfectly styled hair and a sweet demeanour, Josh is practically everything Alex wants to be.

But he’s not there for Alex. Granted, he came over because he was, in a teenaged hormonal way, attracted to Elena and her quirkiness. But upon realising that she wasn’t interested in him that way (for example, when they first kiss, Elena actually says🙂

Elena: [staring at him] “You look…not that bad. I mean…you’ve got good lips. And nice eyes: blue. Your mouth’s slightly uneven but it’s offset by your strong jaw.”

It is so typical of Elena. The fact that she’s a.) unsure of her sexuality–and you would assume she is with Josh, the best-looking guy in school, just to test the waters; and b.) she literally has no problem evaluating Josh’s facial features…right in front of him. It makes for comedy gold, but somehow, Josh is still inherently charmed by her.

Elena: [after pulling away] “…That wasn’t horrible.”

Josh: [laughing] “And that was not what I was hoping to hear, but I can totally do better!”

Later on, Josh pulls away and confesses that he really does like Elena. He even offers to talk to her, to which she replies with a dazed, “…nah, I’m good!” The scenes are awkward as hell, and that’s what makes it so funny. If you couldn’t tell Elena wasn’t into guys at this point, then we really do pity you.

But the absolute best thing about Josh is that despite coming to realise Elena is gay, he never retracts his friendship. Perhaps Alex was right in deeming him the coolest guy in school. Not only does he maintain his friendship with Elena, he is seemingly aware of the traditions of the quinces in which the girl must dance with a boy. And he doesn’t doing half-assed, either. Judging by the choreography in the finale–and we do see an episode where Lydia is coaching Josh and Elena on the moves–he completely masters the moves just so Elena can have a brilliant celebration.

So whilst One Day at a Time is continually smashing tropes about single parenthood, Cuban culture, mansplaining (oh, Schneider…) we also have a gay teen in the form of Elena. It shouldn’t seem like a big deal, but in Cuban culture, it likely is. We even get the trope of the jerk who’s the boss of the school…not being a jerk.

Img5Not everyone will accept your sexuality–especially in this traditional Catholic Cuban culture. A prime example of this is Elena’s estranged father, Victor.

If anyone in this world deserves the best, it’s Elena Alvarez. Think about it. Carmen was a lot of comic relief, but she housed Carmen (secretly) in their house because Carmen had nowhere to go. She was effectively homeless. Elena was open enough to welcome her in, and that speaks volumes about the kind of person she is: generous, open-minded and caring.

Not only that, it’s clear that she can sometimes be a bit of a daddy’s girl. Or so she wants to be. The closest bond is obviously between her and Penelope, and Victor clearly still sees Elena as a child. This in itself will bring further problems along the way when Elena tells Victor about her sexuality, and it’s understandably nerve-wracking. Not all parents are like Penelope; not all parents are as open as she is. But the idea of your sexuality letting your family down and bringing disgrace to the Alvarez name should be a notion tossed back centuries ago. If even Lydia can accept it, and reduce Elena to tears by modifying her quinces outfit, then why can’t Victor?

It’s disgusting. It’s an absolute disgrace. Yes, if you squinted, you can understand where Victor is coming from. He’s clearly a macho man who believed he raised his kids to be perfect, and procreate. Have kids. Have a ‘normal’ life.

The problem is: Elena, and the rest of the family, aren’t stuck in the seventies anymore. Normality, by definition, has changed drastically. Elena Alvarez is her own woman. She is intelligent, brave, caring, gorgeous and funny. It’s no wonder her mother is proud of who she’s become. If there is anybody out there who thinks sexuality can possibly dent her exceptional behaviour and being, then they are seriously wrong. And in this case, it’s Victor.

There is no denying the sadness of this. Victor is still Elena’s father, and losing that love is not easy.

However, whilst this piece focuses mainly on Isabella Gomez’s gorgeous depiction of Elena Alvarez, I’d like to end on a more generic note. Victor may not be the best example of a dad.

But look at who else Elena has. She has her younger brother, the cheeky chappy Alex, ready to support her no matter what. She has her traditional grandmother, Lydia, who rationalises Elena’s sexuality in thirty seconds. Most importantly, she has her mother, Penelope, who confesses she doesn’t know what to think of Elena being gay. But instead of moping about, she actively goes and sets off to learn more about this.

Proud of her daughter but still taking it upon herself to try and ‘learn more about lesbian culture’, as if all lesbians are the same, this makes for a facepalm-worthy, comedic sequence in which Penelope and her lesbian friend hit up a gay bar. And that is when Penelope realises she has been scared of nothing all along. It is not a subtle message. Gay or straight, sexuality does not affect the fact that her daughter is still Elena, lesbian or not. She is proud because while she cannot empathise with how difficult it must be to come out to your parents and friends, she can be proud because she realises how hard it must’ve been for Elena to keep that cooped up inside.

I would never label One Day at a Time as a fully functional family. They’re genuinely bonkers–and it’s brilliant television. And in a way, the fact that they are not a fully functional family is exactly what makes them functional. But coming from a family that’s occasionally split and suffer misunderstandings…If I had a family support network like the Alvarezes do, I’d be extremely lucky.

For me, I watch One Day at a Time for a laugh, but also for a bit of solace. For others, I imagine it’s for different reasons. There is one thing that I truly believe makes ODAAT so successful: no matter why you watch it, it’s universally appealing. With stellar performances, entertaining storylines and the ability to tackle real-life social issues head-on, I can safely say that there is absolutely no sitcom like One Day at a Timeand while I haven’t seen it this year of course, discovering ODAAT last year was one of the BEST television decisions I’d ever made.

So thank you, cast and crew. Me llama Nico, y gracias! XD

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