Sometimes a realization is slow, like waking up in the morning as the light starts filtering in through the window. Other times, everything comes together so quickly, it feels like you’ve drowned in the clarity of the truth in front of you.
The film wraps with its heroine, 18-year-old Californian Ana Garcia (America Ferrera, five years away from her historic Emmy win for her role in Ugly Betty), wandering around her new home of New York City. Ana’s loose curls bounce as she begins to strut through one of the city’s most recognizable locales, Times Square. First-generation Mexican-American Ana has left behind her overbearing mother Camen (played to heartbroken, begrudging perfection by Lupe Ontiveros), the expectations of her working-class roots, and her adolescent insecurities to start her life as a student at Ivy League school Columbia. Ana’s brown jacket easily skims her body as she considers all of the possibilities ahead of her.
I had seen this closing scene before. If you’ve seen 2017’s Lady Bird, you too have witnessed it. Lady Bird ends in almost the exact same manner, down to the brown outerwear sported by its leading lady (Oscar-nominee Saoirse Ronan). However, Latinx cinema classic Real Women — which arrived on HBO Max at the beginning of the summer — and Greta Gerwig’s white performer-led Lady Bird don’t simply share a few measly shots. Their similarities go down to their very DNA. Their painfully different receptions say much more about Hollywood’s broken understanding of what’s “worthy,” than the films themselves.
Real Women Have Curves — co-written by Josefina Lopez, who penned the play the film is based on, and George LaVoo — is an intimate portrait of what can be the most tender time in someone’s life: the two months between graduating high school and starting college. If it was up to Ana’s mother Carmen, her daughter would only experience one of those milestones. We meet East L.A. resident Ana on the last day of high school. While her richer, whiter Beverly Hills High School classmates rattle off their years of upcoming higher education plans, Ana — one of the smartest girls in her class — must lie about college. Her teacher is devastated and viewers are meant to be as well. Carmen, however, resents anyone who believes Ana deserves a world that’s less punishing than the one her parents have gritted their teeth through.
Over the next 80-something minutes, Ana smiles and struggles through her sexual awakening and a body confidence reckoning, all while questioning whether her mother’s imposed limitations are something she is willing to accept.
Ana’s summertime adventure brought me immense grief. Not because of the emotional turmoil of Ana’s story, but because I experienced it 18 years after it debuted. When Real Women Have Curves was released, I was just a few years too young to enjoy an indie darling like this one. By the time I was the proper age to appreciate it, I had already dedicated myself to watching the kinds of touchstones that typically end up on white teens’ dorm room walls: your Fight Clubs, Pulp Fictions, and Boondock Saints. The romance novel-esque DVD cover of Real Women would have felt foreign to me, despite the fact that the face on the cover looked so much more like my own.
Real Women should have become an instant coming-of age-classic. The kind of film that generations watch to shepherd them through the moments of internal chaos too painful to speak out loud. Despite critical success — Real Women is deemed 84% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes — it was never given the zeitgeist-y fanfare of, say, cult classic Thirteen, which premiered a year later in 2003 and boasts an Oscar nomination for star Holly Hunter. Thirteen, like Lady Bird, is about white children.
Like those films — and predecessors 10 Things I Hate About You or The Breakfast Club — Real Women Have Curves should have been deemed a much-watch when I was 16. Lady Bird instantly became one of those films when it introduced us to Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, a California teenager who feels so much tension with her mom that she prefers falling out of a moving vehicle and breaking her arm to talking to her. The relationship between Lady Bird and her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), reaches its saddest peak when the latter refuses to say goodbye to the former when she leaves California for college in New York. Much like Carmen, Marion didn’t support her daughter’s decision to seek a new life on the East Coast.
Eighteen years earlier, Real Women has an identical scene. “I enjoyed it and at times I kept thinking, Wow, the mother is like the mother in my movie. Wow, they won't let her go to college like Ana,” Real Women writer Josefina López told Hoy Los Angeles in 2018 about watching Lady Bird. While López’s film did win three Sundance Film Festival awards, it never cracked a single major awards show; Lady Bird won two Golden Globes and was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Original Screenplay for Gerwig. “I co-wrote a better version of Lady Bird that defies the 'status quo'. I wish my film had been appreciated like that,” López, who was an undocumented immigrant for over 10 years, continued.
Lady Bird — with its unforgettable scenes and tour de force performances — doesn’t deserve less love. Its predecessor Real Women Have Curves just deserves as much recognition — if not more for everything it accomplishes. Real Women Have Curves also captures the singular pain of having a brown, “curvy” body in a sea of angular white frames. As someone who was raised in New York’s whitest borough, that’s a stress I know intimately — and never saw discussed on-screen in aughts pop culture. At that time, Latinx teens were usually nonexistent in YA programming or pushed to the margins (and forced to adhere to the same fair, thin beauty standards as their leads). I cannot imagine the effect seeing one of Real’s best scenes — when Ana encourages her fellow Latinx women factory workers to strip down to their underwear in the L.A. heat — would have had on my own self-image. Even today it is a revelation to witness four Latinx women’s full arms and soft bellies shot in the kind of lovely soft lighting traditionally saved for perfume ads.
“Ladies, look how beautiful we are,” says Pancha (Soledad St. Hilaire), one of Ana’s co-workers, during the scene. A screenshot of the moment is now my Twitter banner. If Real Women Had Curves had been billed as the teen classic it is, maybe I would have believed Pacha’s words earlier.