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Real Women Have Curves: a feminist narrative of upward mobility.

The film Real Women Have Curves, directed by Patricia Cardoso and starring America Ferrera, was generally well-reviewed and achieved modest box-office success for HBO Films in 2002. What many may not know is that the film is based on Mexican-American playwright Josefina Lopez's play by the same name. Set in the year 1987, and first performed in 1990, this two-act autobiographical play features a character named Ana, who works temporarily in her sister Estela's tiny sewing factory with three other women: Pancha, Rosali, and Ana's mother Carmen, all of whom are described as being more or less overweight. The factory is the sole setting, and the action takes place across one week of work in September, from Monday to Friday, during which time the five women struggle to complete an order of one hundred dresses. There is an extreme urgency to complete the order; Estela desperately needs to submit the finished dresses to the manufacturer so she can get paid, pay her workers, and catch up on the loan she took out to purchase the sewing equipment. Also hanging over Estela's head is the fact that, unlike the other women at the factory who have recently become documented, she is still in the country illegally.

At the beginning of the play, we learn that Ana is biding her time until she is able to go to college; she must wait a year before becoming eligible for financial aid. Ana self-identifies as a feminist, and her desire to achieve class mobility via education is inextricably tied to her critiques and rejection of the traditional gender norms and roles for women in both mainstream, Anglo culture and in her Mexican-American working-class community. Though the play opens with Ana expressing resentment at having to work in her sister's factory, and though there is significant conflict and disagreement among the women, by the end of the play, both Ana and the other women are changed by their experience of working together to meet their deadline. Through their work, and the conversations they have while doing it--about beauty, body image, domestic violence, sexuality, marriage, motherhood, and work--the women learn from Ana and Ana learns from them. The play concludes with Ana revealing that while she was away at college, the other women opened a designer boutique specializing in plus-sized clothing for women.

Lopez's play tackles issues of oppression based on class, gender, race, and ethnicity as well as immigration status through its representation of the characters' identities and experiences with one another in the workplace. Moreover, Lopez often shows the interconnected and simultaneous nature of these oppressions by emphasizing, for example, the ethnic dimensions of their gender oppression, and the way that their class position is impacted by their immigrant status. However, this play not only documents oppression but also dramatizes the developing political consciousness of its characters; through their conversations while at work, the women are arguably engaged in a process of consciousness-raising. If it is the case that all of the women are changed by their experience of working and talking together over the course of the workweek, the question arises of what that change consists of, from whence it comes, and its ramifications. While the play demonstrates the simultaneity of oppression, the discourses utilized to name and counter those oppressions do not always converge; more specifically, the discourses of feminist consciousness and class consciousness both merge and diverge, coming together and conflicting in the text in both thematic and structural ways.

To foreground the convergence and divergence of the discourses of feminism and class consciousness in the play, Real Women Have Curves can and should be read as a working-class text. In "Under Construction: Working-Class Writing," Paul Lauter pinpoints some of the textual features in which are inscribed "class sensibility" (67). He focuses on "the details one chooses; the priority or emphasis one gives them; and the particular terms, the language, in which one registers the details and thus responds to them" (66). With its working-class characters, setting, and action, it is hardly controversial to name Real Women Have Curves a working-class play, but while critics of the play invariably use "working class" as a descriptor of the play's characters and setting, the overall analytical focus has been on issues of gender and ethnicity. For example, in "Resisting 'Beauty' and Real Women Have Curves," Maria Figueroa focuses on the ways in which Lopez's play reveals "a paradoxically persistent desire for and resistant critique of the American Dream" (271); her analysis, however, downplays that Dream's classed dimensions. She ultimately concludes that "at particular and recurrent moments in the play, oscillation between the desire to embrace and the consciousness to resist the American Dream destabilizes the dominant imaginary of the Dream and as a result reveals its inability to function as an incontestable ideology and cultural practice" (271). Significantly, however, this argument is predicated upon construing the American Dream primarily in terms of the beauty and body standards of mainstream Anglo-America. This reading of the play is based on the gendered aspects of the American Dream; desire for the dream means adopting the beauty and body standards of Anglo-America, and critique of the dream means being resistant to those standards.

Like Figueroa, I see both a "persistent desire for and resistant critique of the American Dream" in Lopez's play, but my reading of the play emphasizes a different manifestation of that tension. I am keenly interested in Ana's desire for and critique of the American Dream as a working-class Mexican woman who wants to be a writer; the desire for the American Dream manifests in her drive to achieve upward mobility through education. Narratives of upward mobility obtained via education are not uncommon in 20th century American working-class writing, and Lopez's play contains many of the same kinds of tensions and ambivalences over the American Dream that mark those texts, such as Anzia Yezierska's autobiographical novel Bread Givers and Richard Rodriguez's memoir Hunger of Memory, to name just a few. Real Women Have Curves, then, is an autobiographical play by a feminist writer from a working-class background about the experiences leading up to her departure from her class of origin. Reading the play as a narrative of upward mobility also sheds light on how and why the discourses of feminist consciousness and working-class consciousness eventually diverge at the play's ending.

The first point of convergence appears at the end of Act I, Scene One; Rosali admires the dresses that the women are sewing, saying, "Que bonito. How I would like to wear a dress like that," to which Pancha replies, "But first you have to turn into a stick to wear something like that" (22). Ana then inquires how much the Glitz Company pays Estela per dress. After finding out that they are paid thirteen dollars per dress, Ana then follows up by asking how much the stores turn around and charge for them. When Estela informs the women that Bloomingdale's charges around two hundred dollars, and the women are suitably shocked. This exchange marks the end of the first scene, and the notes say that the lights fade immediately after the women express their shock; the audience, then, has a moment to sit in the dark and let this fact sink in. The dresses not only represent the exploitation of their labor, but also the normative ideal of slender beauty, which none of the women has achieved though Rosali in particular desires it. The dresses, as well as the conversation that the women have about them, are a catalyst for raising their class consciousness and feminist consciousness.

Later, in Act II, Scene One, there is a follow-up to this earlier moment. When Estela urges Ana to iron the finished dresses more quickly, Ana turns to Pancha and says,
 It's not that I don't iron fast enough, it's that whenever
 I finish ironing a dress I stop for a minute to
 really look at it. I never realized just how much
 work, puro lomo, as my mother would say, went
 into making it. Then I imagine the dress at
 Bloomingdale's and I see a tall and skinny woman
 looking at it. She instantly gets it and with no second
 thoughts she says, "charge it!" She doesn't think
 of the life of the dress before the rack, of the labor
 put into it. I shake the dress a little and try to forget
 it's not for me. I place a plastic bag over it then I
 put it on the rack and push it away. It happens to
 me with every dress. (50)

The woman Ana imagines buying the dress at Bloomingdale's is doubly different than Ana, both affluent and thin; she has class privilege that allows her to be oblivious to the material conditions under which the dress was made, and she embodies the cultural ideal of slenderness. In an aside earlier in the play, the women noted that the sizes of this particular dress only run up to size 12; this dress then, is not for Ana both because she cannot afford it and because she cannot fit into it. Ana's reference to "puro lomo," the English translation of which is "all back," also reminds us of the physical labor that goes into making the dresses and invokes the physical effects on the laborer sewing the dresses. Here again we see the class-based critique of the sweatshop system of labor coming together with the feminist critique of normative beauty and body size; as at the end of Act I, Scene One, the dresses themselves, in their material presence, are what prompt this consciousness raising.

These two scenes also represent a potential consciousness-raising moment for the viewers and readers, and in this regard, Lopez joins such working-class women writers as Tillie Olsen, who in "I Want You Women Up North to Know" directly addresses her audience to force them to make the connection between their lives and the lives of the seamstresses who sew their clothes. Working in the factory has brought these issues to Ana's attention. As viewers we watch both Ana's growing realizations about the women's work and their connection to the sweatshop system and how her co-workers begin to recognize their own work and workplace through new eyes.

In terms of the arc of the narrative, this scene is also significant in that it represents a resolution to an earlier conflict between Ana and the other women, particularly Pancha. The conflict begins as the women discuss the talk show they are listening to on the radio while they work; the topic is "abusive spouses." Pancha gets up to change the station, and Carmen, Ana's mother, remarks: "Pobre mujer, I'm lucky mi viejo doesn't hit me" (33). Here is the exchange that follows:

ANA: Lucky? Why lucky? It should be expected that he doesn't. That woman should leave her husband. Women have the right to say "no."

PANCHA: You think it's that easy?

ANA: No, she's probably dependent on him financially, or the church tells her to endure, or she's doing it for the children.

PANCHA: You're so young. Did it ever occur to you that maybe she loves him?

ANA: I'm sure she does. But we can't allow ourselves to be abused anymore. We have to assert ourselves. We have to realize that we have rights! We have the right to control our bodies. The right to exercise our sexuality. And the right to take control of our destiny. But it all begins when we start saying ... (Ana quickly climbs on top of a sewing machine to continue preaching.) ... Ya basta! No more! We should learn how to say no! Come on, Ama, say it! Say it!

Pancha and Carmen refuse to say it, Rosali says it just to get Ana off her back, and Estela says, "Ya, ya, Norma Rae, get off and get back to work!" (34). Ana disgustedly says to Pancha, "It just amazes me to hear you talk the way you do. A women's liberation movement happened 20 years ago, and you act like it hasn't even happened" (34). Pancha retorts, "Mira, all those gringas shouting about liberation hasn't done a thing for me ... And if you were married you would realize it" (34). Pancha also belittles Ana's plans for college, and their confrontation ends with Pancha telling her that she hopes she does go to college so "you don't have to be here making 67 dollars a week and hearing us talk the way we do" (35).

Here we see Lopez dramatize Ana's immaturity and, in particular, how her feminism is not sensitive or attuned to the lives of her co-workers. Furthermore, the note describing Ana's remarks as "preaching" reinforces the notion that Ana's attitude is one of condescension. At the end of the work day, when Ana stays behind in the factory to write in her journal, she has this to say; "I keep having arguments with Pancha, and even though she doesn't like me, I feel sort of sorry for her. I wish I could tell her what to do, but she won't listen to me. Like the rest of the women, she won't take me seriously. They make fun of me" (36). In this section of the play, Ana perceives herself as an outsider among her co-workers. The feminist ideas that Ana gives voice to are ones she clearly believes strongly in, but these ideas seem alien, and alienating, to the other women. To Pancha, the women's liberation movement is a gringa movement, and therefore not applicable to or helpful to her life. More personally, Pancha rightly feels that Ana sees no value in their lives and thoughts, and understandably defends herself.

It is not just Ana's feminism, however, that puts her out of touch with her coworkers. The conflict is also about Ana's aspiration to achieve class mobility; she has made clear that this job is only a temporary one for her, and that she is merely biding her time until she can go to college. Pancha's insult gets at both the class and gender issues as she refers to the rate of pay and to the talk among the women, both of which Ana finds objectionable. What Ana does not realize, and what Pancha is here trying to teach her, is that in dismissing their pay and their talk, she is dismissing them, too.

This conflict or tension seems to be resolved, or at least softened, when Ana speaks to Pancha about how she responds to the dresses that she is ironing. In this moment, Pancha sees Ana as one of them, not an outsider; she is not the skinny gringa who can say "charge it!" In terms of the action of the play, the conflict between Ana and Pancha takes place on Monday, and their reconciliation occurs on Wednesday morning; that reconciliation, along with several other developments, signals a turning point in the play, the point at which the women intensify their work through Wednesday night and into Thursday afternoon in order to finish the dresses on time. The camaraderie that develops as a result of working together to finish the dresses facilitates the reconciliation between Pancha and Ana. Critic Margo Milleret asserts that the setting of the play, in Estela's factory, "is a classroom where Mexican cultural values are examined in light of feminist writing and feminist writing is questioned by Mexican working women" (117). I would add that the ground for this examination is laid by the shared work experience, which engenders mutual respect among the women.

The climax of the play represents the moment when the women come to feel pride in both their work and their bodies, occurring on Thursday of the work week after the women have worked for over twenty-four hours straight. Sweaty and tired, Estela counts the dresses and realizes that they have only fourteen more to make; the women quickly realize that they are going to make their deadline. Fed up with the heat, Ana strips off her blouse and continues to iron in her bra. This act jumpstarts a soul-searching conversation among the women about their bodies and their sexuality, and the women begin to shed their clothes to display their hips, their stomachs, their stretch marks, and their scars in a kind of one-up game of whose body is flatter. At this moment of revelation, Estela asks "So this is how we look without clothes?," to which Carmen replies, "Just as fat and beautiful ..." (61). The stage notes read, "They all hug in a semi-circle laughing triumphantly" (60). Maria Figueroa asserts that their action "communally liberates the women from the same garments that oppress them and enables the women to expose their 'large' bodies intimately and publicly" (280). In overcoming their shame and beginning to feel pride about their bodies and the work that they've done, the women hatch an idea for Estela to design and the other women to sew dresses for plus-sized women. Woven into this is a discussion of their newly-legal status, and Carmen's assertion that "once you get the card you can do anything you want" (61). Their empowerment as women, then, is meshed with their change in legal status, which, among other things, means they will no longer have to live in fear of "la migra."

Successfully completing the order of dresses by their deadline changes the women as they see what they can do when they work hard together. The play concludes on Friday afternoon, after the dresses are finished and the women throw an impromptu birthday party in the workplace for Estela. In an act of solidarity with Estela, the women return their paychecks to her when they realize that she will not have enough money to catch up with her debts. In a dramatic move, Estela calls up Mrs. Glitz of the Glitz Company and quits, and announces to the women that she has secured a new contract with a Senor Vasquez. When Estela calls Mrs. Glitz, she tells her off, calling her "a mean, wicked, bitter, unsympathetic, greedy, rude, awful ..." (67), and Aria quickly adds "Capitalist!" to the string of epithets Estela shouts over the phone. The women are acting together in the best interests of the group, and Estela, on their behalf, has implemented her new sense of empowerment to seek out a better contract for the women workers.

In the closing moments of the play, the women ask Ana to take their picture; as the camera flashes, they freeze; Ana steps out and the spotlight falls on her. In a somewhat lengthy closing monologue, Ana addresses the audience directly and confesses that
 I always took their work for granted, to be simple
 and unimportant. I was not proud to be working
 there at the beginning. I was only glad to know that
 because I was educated, I wasn't going to end up
 like them. I was going to be better than them. And
 I wanted to show them how much smarter and liberated
 I was. I was going to teach them about the
 women's liberation movement, about sexual liberation
 and all the things a so-called educated
 American woman knows. But in their subtle ways
 they taught me about resistance. About a battle no
 one was fighting for them except themselves. About
 the loneliness of being women in a country that
 looks down on us for being mothers and submissive
 wives. With their work that seems simple and
 unimportant, they are fighting ... Perhaps the greatest
 thing I learned from them is that women are
 powerful, especially when working together ... As
 for me, well, I settled for a secondhand typewriter
 and I wrote an essay on my experience and I was
 awarded a fellowship. So I went to New York and
 was a starving writer for some time before I went to
 New York University. When I came back the plans
 for making the boutique were no longer a dream,
 but a reality. (Ana picks up a beautiful designer jacket
 and puts it on.) Because I now wear original designs
 from Estela Garcia's boutique, "Real Women Have
 Curves." (69)

As Ana's monologue concludes, the lights come up and all of the women come back on stage wearing evening gowns of Estela's design, walking the stage as a sort of fashion show runway. They bow, and the curtain drops. It is here in this closing monologue that the text takes a marked turn; as readers/viewers, we are taken out of the present setting as Ana's final words indicate that time has passed, and the action of the play represents her recollections of the past.

By addressing the audience directly at the end of the play, Ana's voice and perspective frame the action, making it less of a collective story and more squarely Ana's individual story. This play is very clearly about the creation of community and solidarity among the women workers, so it is all the more striking that Ana's words and perspective frame the ending. Furthermore, Ana tells us in her closing lines that she wrote about her experience to get a fellowship. This admission exposes the real tension in this text between the individual and the collective. On the one hand, Ana traces her connections to the collective and acknowledges these women's contributions to the development of her political consciousness; on the other hand, she trades on her experiences with them and what she learned from them for individual gain.

In "The Complexities and Contradictions of Working-Class Women's Writings," Janet Zandy asks, "In what ways is the individual writer a conduit or witness for her tribe? How does the tribe--those hidden historic voices that haunt memory--serve as a catalyst for creative work?" (7). We can see Ana as a witness for this group of women, what they shared and learned from one another over the course of their trial-filled week. In the end, it is not the fact of mediation that gives me pause, as Zandy and other scholars of working-class literature remind us that this is inevitably going to be a common issue with working-class women's writings. However, none of the criticism of the play mentions this framing and mediation; with Zandy, who urges that we "need to trace more carefully the process of mediation from the perspective of the extraordinary individual writer to her collective identity," (7) It is important to note and reflect on the formal aspects of the way that this particular play is framed by Ana's inner thoughts and concluded with Ana's closing monologue. As Zandy notes in her introduction to Calling Home, "a collectivist rather than individualistic sensibility is a key difference between bourgeois art and working-class art" (12); the tension between the two sensibilities as manifested in this text is a hallmark of many narratives of upward class mobility.

The play culminates with Ana's statement that when she came back from college, "the plans for making the boutique were no longer a dream, but a reality" (69). The women now believe in themselves and have taken it into their own hands to leave the sweatshop system that exploits them, rather than working to improve pay and working conditions within that system. The happy ending, however, is entry into entrepreneurship, the embrace of the American Dream. Here the feminist consciousness of the play diverges from the working-class consciousness. It is empowering, in an individual way, for Estela to go into business for herself, designing clothing for plus-sized women. It is certainly a good thing for these individual women to work for Estela, rather than in another sweatshop. It is perhaps a feminist move to design and produce clothing for plus-sized women. But though real women have curves, and deserve to have clothes that fit and flatter them, the form that this feminist statement takes seems to preclude the class critique and working-class consciousness that mark the earlier parts of the text.

This closing monologue also raises the question of who buys these designer jackets and evening gowns. Newly-educated professional women like Ana? Recalling the scene where Ana wistfully looks at the dresses while ironing them, it was not just that the dresses were not designed for her body shape and size, but that they were high-priced, sold for $200 apiece at Bloomingdale's and too expensive for women who were earning $67 a week. How can these women, who are shown modeling the dresses in the closing scene of the play, afford such dresses, even in their new positions sewing for Estela's boutique? The ending of the play creates, however unrealistically, upward mobility for all. To include Real Women Have Curves in working-class literature courses also heeds the call of Constance Coiner to "expose the common working-class basis of much of the writing now identified solely on the bases of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality" (233). The challenge in doing so, of course, is to avoid reducing the text to its classed dimensions. Likewise, in this short analysis of the play, I have certainly de-emphasized the text's focus on immigration politics, something that deserves much more time to in the classroom, especially given that issue's prominence in the news in recent months.

Ultimately, this is a text rife with tensions. In the end, the feminism of the text is liberal and bourgeois, a turn that seems linked to Ana's movement into the middle class herself. Multivocal and heteroglossic, it highlights the difficulties of mediating between the individual and the collective and the issue of class mobility. This play foregrounds the complexity of the lives of working-class Mexican-American women but struggles to represent a political consciousness that is attuned to all of those aspects of identity and experience.


Coiner, Constance. "U.S. Working-Class Women's Fiction: Notes Toward an Overview." Women's Studies Quarterly 22 (1995): 248-267.

Figueroa, Maria. "Resisting 'Beauty' and Real Women Have Curves." Velvet Barrios: Popular Culture and Chicanalo Sexualities. Ed. Alicia Gaspar de Alba. New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2003. 265-282.

Lauter, Paul. "Under Construction: Working-Class Writing." New Working-Class Studies. Ed. John Russo and Sherry Lee Linkon. Ithaca: ILR Press, 2005. 63-77.

Lopez, Josefina. Real Women Have Curves. Woodstock, IL: The Dramatic Publishing Company, 1996.

Milieret, Margo. "Girls Growing Up, Cultural Norms Breaking Down in Two Plays by Josefina Lopez." Gestos 13.26 (1998): 109-125.

Zandy, Janet, ed. Calling Home: Working-Class Women's Writings. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1990.

--."The Complexities and Contradictions of Working-Class Women's Writings." Radical Teacher 46 (1995): 5-8.
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Author:Launius, Christie
Publication:American Drama
Date:Jun 22, 2007
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