9 Moments When “Selena” Proves It’s a Feminist Film — Especially for Women of Color
The 1997 biopic of legendary Latina singer Selena is a cult-freakin-classic. I lose my damn mind every time I see this film. Yes, it has its corny moments, and parts where it turns into a blurry ’90s montage, but I always knew there was a progressiveness in the story and in the values that Selena embodies.
But it wasn’t until a recent viewing that I realized why I loved this film so much: many of its moments were very influential to me as a woman of color, and to anyone who’s ever had a dream.
Here are nine of those moments:
1. “We Belong Together”
The film flashes back to 1961 in Corpus Christi, Texas. Selena’s father, Abraham (played Edward James Olmos) and his doo-wop trio, The Dinos, head to an audition. When the club owner finds out they’re “a bunch of Mexicans,” he cancels the audition because the club is “whites only.” Later, after deciding to perform for other Tejanos at a Mexican club, they get kicked out for singing “We Belong Together.” The entire flashback was a perfectly honest, yet somber, way to start off the film.
2. “Girls Don’t Play the Drums!”
When Abraham forces the Quintanilla siblings into family bonding time by way of starting a band, they all protest, but not as much as Suzette, Selena’s sister. While Selena is perfectly comfortable being the lead singer, Suzette resists being the band’s drummer. She thinks it’s “sick, sick, sick!” What young Suzette didn’t realize is that she’d become a badass drummer and break all kinds of gender stereotypes along the way.
3. “I like Donna Summer.”
After young Selena realizes that she can touch people through her music, her and Abe have a touching conversation while he teaches her how to sing in Spanish. At first, Selena refuses to sing an old Spanish ballad, expressing her exclusive fondness for popular music like Donna Summer. This is where Abe gives her (and all of us) a lesson on intersectionality and music:
“You’re an American, and so am I. You like Donna Summer, I like Doo-Wop. But you’re also Mexican, deep inside. You can’t be anything if you don’t know who you are.”
4. “It’s a bustier!”
Selena Y Los Dinos is touring the Texas county fair scene. Teenage Selena (Jennifer Lopez) is working the crowd when she takes off her jacket mid-song, revealing what Abe bitterly calls “A bra with little sprinkly things on it!” He tells her she couldn’t wear such a thing because “there are men out here!”
Later, after he cools down, Selena explains that what she wore “wasn’t bad. No one thought it was bad. It’s just the style, on stage. And we don’t wanna be old-fashioned.” Selena, in all her gentleness and finesse, shows how clothing stage costume can be self-expression that doesn’t have to be sexualized or scandalous.
Abe questions a county fair’s show promoter over their less-than-expected $620 payout. Abe tells him most of the patrons came out just to see Selena. The promoter replies, “Tejano music is all men. Women are not successful. What can I say? She’s just a woman.” Spoiler alert, sheisty fair promoter, Selena becomes a freakin’ music icon!
6. “Nobody knows how tough it is to be Mexican American!”
As Selena Y Los Dinos gain cult popularity, they are invited to Mexico to tour. While Selena and her brother/songwriter/producer is all for it, Abe is hesitant. His response is, by far, one of the greatest monologues about intersectionality, especially about being Mexican-American, I have ever seen in cinema:
7. “¡Selena es aqui!”
Everyone talks about the scene in Pretty Woman when Julia Roberts tells the prejudiced sales clerks, “Big mistake! Huge!” It’s often compared to this scene, which takes place during Selena’s trip to Los Angeles for the Grammy Awards. However, this version is not only much more loaded and better written than Pretty Woman — It’s incredibly satisfying! The scene is a bold statement on the phenomenon of celebrity, subculture and how assumption really can make an ass out of you.
8. “How’s married life?”
In Selena’s third act, you probably didn’t notice all the nifty little nods to gender role-reversals. (At least, you didn’t notice back in 1997). Selena was the one who asks Chris to marry her, and in the scene where she’s getting interviewed about about her fashion line, she isn’t asked any non-business-related questions. Even the question about married life is directed at her husband. Right at the beginning of the third act, Chris comes home with groceries to Selena mowing the lawn. A woman is mowing a lawn in a film — and not about to have some sort of mental breakdown. It’s subtle, but a great way to visually bolster the feminism in this film.
All of the important moments in this film happen in conversations between Selena and her father. Her father, though he’s not first-generation Mexican, is a first-generation musician. Throughout the film, he passes his knowledge off to her, but the most memorable lessons are when he’s not mansplaining life to her. They’re when he’s simply sharing his experiences. During this scene, he says he has experienced firsthand what his daughter and the rest of his family have accomplished. He tells her:
“You remember. All those barriers people have been trying to get past. You went right through them as if they didn’t exist. Maybe for you they don’t exist. I love you. And I’m very proud of you.”
As a whole, the film is about Selena as a Mexican-American woman fighting to overcome obstacles and achieve her dream. Selena’s legacy lives on in the film’s straightforward storytelling and rich characters, inspiring others to keep dreaming — no matter what.