Portrayal of Latinas in HIT MAN and ATLAS – Commentary by Jennifer Green

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Two new, high-profile streaming releases are offering up very different representations of Latinas in starring roles played by Jennifer Lopez and Adria Arjona.

In the new sci-fi action film, Atlas, Jennifer Lopez saves the world. As the titular character, she fights off robots intent on destroying humanity, battling them from inside an AI mech suit and outwitting both them and her male colleagues. She’s buff and smart but also vulnerable, grappling with trust issues leftover from childhood trauma.

Compare this portrayal to the role scripted for Adria Arjona in the new Richard Linklater-Glen Powell comedy Hit Man. As Madison, Arjona plays a woman who considers hiring a hit man to kill off her abusive husband, but the man, “Ron” – actually Gary, an undercover police contractor played by Powell – convinces her not to. Instead, Madison leaves her husband and embarks on a steamy affair with Ron.

Most of what we learn about Madison’s past, her personality, jobs and interests is briefly summarized in a scene before we meet her where Gary scrolls through her Instagram. For the rest of the film, her character’s actions and reactions revolve entirely around the men in her life – the abusive ex and the hot, mysterious new beau.

She is purposefully fulfilling a fantasy for Gary, not unlike his own fantasy creation of the slick Ron (male and female colleagues alike fantasize about “Ron”). The problem is that the fantasy Arjona is asked to fulfil as Madison fits squarely into a traditional and long-disputed stereotype of Latinas on screen.

A 2023 USC Annenberg study on Hispanic/Latino representation in film found that only 4.4% of leads or co-leads in 1,600 popular movies were Hispanic/Latino, and of those, almost half of the top-billed Hispanic/Latina girls and women were “sexualized.” As tvtropes.org explains: “Latina women in media (particularly American media) are usually portrayed as sultry temptresses with fierce tempers.” They’re “hot-blooded and confrontational.”

Citing the potential negative impact of this stereotype on those who identify as Latina as well as others who may base their perceptions, and possibly their actions, on what they see on screen, a writer for the Women’s Media Center critiques the “highly misleading and ultimately harmful” yet “extensively normalized trope: the hyper-sexualized and oftentimes degraded/humiliated ‘spicy Latina.'”

Arjona is a talented actress and certainly seems to be doing as much as she can with the role she’s been given in Hit Man. But the character scripted for her feels unidimensional and fits into a long history of Hispanic/Latina actresses pigeonholed into roles as voluptuous, hot-tempered sirens, from Dolores del Rio and Carmen Miranda to Salma Hayek, Sofia Vergara, Penelope Cruz and Lopez.

Just to be clear, Atlas is no masterpiece; Hit Man is an objectively better and more complex film. But its limitations on Arjona are notable, maybe especially in the wake of America Ferrera’s celebrated turn last year in Greta Gerwig’s feminist Barbie as the put-upon representative of all women, not just Latinas.

Add that to other recent three-dimensional Latina characters in films and series like Jane the Virgin (Gina Rodriguez), Ugly Betty (Ferrera), Música (Camila Mendes) and revamps like Father of the Bride (Arjona, Isabela Merced and Gloria Estefan) and One Day at a Time (Justina Machado, Rita Moreno and Isabela Gomez).

In the USC Annenberg study, only five leading roles out of the 1,600 surveyed films starred Hispanic/Latina women over age 45, and three of those roles were filled by Lopez. The busy actress-musician, who turns 55 this summer, has already put out two other very personal feature-length projects this year. Hayek (57) produces as much as she acts these days, and Cruz (50) has increasingly taken on multifaceted roles in European films.

In Atlas, a robot trying to get inside her head tells Lopez’s character she looks “old.” Turns out, “old” might mean greater creative freedom and more complex characters to choose from than “spicy Latina.”

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Jennifer Green

Jennifer Green is a regular contributor to Common Sense Media, The Hollywood Reporter, The Seattle Times and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was Screen International's correspondent in Spain for ten years. She launched the newspaper column and website Films from Afar to curate international films available for home streaming. She has served on film festival juries across Spain and North Africa and teaches journalism and film to university students.