Selena Gomez made headlines when she graced the cover of Elle‘s first-ever Latinx issue —they just weren’t what her PR team was hoping for. The image was rightfully criticized for whitewashing latinidad, thanks to Selena’s blond wig, fair skin, and Anglo-designed outfit. The image felt off for me too, especially knowing all the work indigenous and Black groups have been doing to change the dominant idea of what a Latina looks like (hint: it’s not just Selena Gomez).
But part of me was happy for her too —I want more Latinas on magazine covers! And as leads of TV shows/movies/etc.! After all, Gomez was on that cover to promote Only Murders in the Building, her Hulu series with Steve Martin and Martin Short. It’s a smart, beautifully drawn show with our Latina representative holding her own against storied men more than twice her age. I’ve loved watching the show, thankful for its weekly installments ensuring that I savor each episode.
And from the looks of my Twitter feed, I know I’m not alone. Only Murders seems to have developed a bit of cult following, with folks sharing their fan theories online even as the media is relatively quiet about the show. I’m particularly bummed Latinx media hasn’t taken Only Murders on as one of ours, probably scared off by the dust-up around Selena’s Elle cover. It’s a shame, particularly because the show gets the identity of Selena’s character Mabel just right.
In true Latina fashion, she’s an outsider, ni de aquí, ni de allá. Of the show’s main trio, she’s the only woman, the only non-WASP, and the only person under 70. The septuagenarians don’t know what to make of her at first, with Martin Short’s Oliver asking “Who are you?” at one point. He goes on to express disbelief that she could afford an apartment in the building. Both Oliver and Steve Martin’s Charles suspect her at different points of different things, from lying to murder, not knowing what to make of her standoffishness. And there’s a lot of intergenerational conflict, whether it’s simple communication methods —“I’ll call her. Or should I text?” “Calls bother them for some reason”— or bigger questions of values, adulthood, and agency.
And in the Arconia, the building where they all live and the thing that brings them together, she’s always a guest, thanks to her generous and absent aunt. That she partially grew up in the Arconia and was close to one of its defining tragedies doesn’t count for much. She’s an interloper, not part of the real residents and not part of the staff either, as is made clear when she goes looking for Oscar and is harshly rebuffed by his dad.
Being a Latina is integral to who Mabel is but it doesn’t define her. Take the sixth episode, “To Protect and Serve,” where we meet Mabel’s mom and see her hardscrabble Jersey neighborhood. It somehow manages to reinforce how Mabel both is and is not of the Arconia, how it shaped her but was never her home. And the details it reveals about Mabel’s childhood and ethnicity give her character depth and reason but never reduce her down to just a type. She’s an artist with a particular point of view, a daughter who struggles with an overprotective mom —sound familiar to anyone?— an individual.
Only Murders also doesn’t ignore her privilege; it knows why her path is different from Oscar, who spent years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. He was a convenient scapegoat for the white, rich, and connected Dimas family. Mabel may have had to deal with the tragedy of that crime and all that went with it, but she was able to escape, thanks to her gender and family.
All of which leads me to say that we should be able to hold two things in our minds at once: that Selena Gomez can’t represent our entire community, and that her Only Murders character is a positive addition to the Latinx canon. The show is a delight! It is smart about race, gender, and class! It is funny, engrossing, sexy, and surprising! And it stars one of our stars, who is playing a Latina character and had a hand in getting the show to our screens as an executive producer. No, it’s not about Latinx identity but not every Latinx show has to be. That’d be pretty boring, right?
And Only Murders in the Building is anything but boring.
A writer and activist, Cristina Escobar is the co-founder of latinamedia.co, uplifting Latina and gender non-conforming Latinx perspectives in media. She’s a member of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association and writes at the intersection of race, gender, and pop culture. Twitter: @cescobarandrade