Elena Alvarez is unapologetically twenty times as bad as a ‘Twitter stan’, and everyone knows it.
One Day at a Time is a revival of a classic everyone knows–except it’s not so much a reboot as it is a rebranding. At the heart is mother Penelope (Justina Machado), and often her relationships with her mother and children (Elena and Alex). It’s the earnesty of these relationships that make the show click. You don’t need to be Cuban to feel for what the Alvarezes go through.
Cleverly, they stick a white, rich guy Schneider (Todd Grinnell) in for that. A particularly humorous scene was when he, their landlord, launched into their flat wearing a ‘cool T-shirt’ that just happened to depict Che Guevara. That kind of natural ignorance is not uncommon from non-Cubans, and often unintentional. But One Day at a Time succeeds at making it comedic and educational without any pretence.
One of the real heroes, though, is Elena Alvarez (Isabella Gomez). Tomboyish, freakishly clever and frequenter of quotes like this:
Elena: “Can we all agree that if there is a God, it’s a gender-neutral, not a he or a she?”
Her frequent politically liberal rants and her coming out storyline often contrast hilariously to the family’s strong religious beliefs. But unlike many dramas that would pitch gloom and conflict there, One Day at a Time has always been about this family’s support system. Elena’s story results in proving exactly that.
So yes, those Twitter or Tumblr SJWs may be all the rage but we love Elena Alvarez, empress of all SJWs. And here’s why, as often as it’s joked about, immediately slapping the label of SJW shouldn’t be shameful in our day and age anymore.
Though coming out stories aren’t rare, Elena’s was one of the most beautiful, raw progressions and admission we’d seen.
There are many tropes complained (often rightfully so) about within the LGBTQ community regarding media and depiction of queer stereotypes. One of them is that the only queer storyline you can tell in a drama is someone coming out. It’s been done a thousand times in a thousand ways. You get the dramatic “I’ll never see you again!” kick-out, or the crowd acceptance of “we’ll love you anyway!”
So when Elena Alvarez came out, it wasn’t a surprise. One Day at a Time typically laid it on thick. Nearly every scene Elena was in involved her disgust over boys in general; her friend Carmen (Ariela Barer) was such a good friend you suspected they were romantically involved–not that she was a runaway. Even when Elena watches Buffy, eventually Alex (Marcel Ruiz) comments she’s hot and Elena goofily agrees. And when she attempts to date Josh (Froy Gutierrez) and behaves so ridiculously that it’s sweet Josh and her remain close friends. Bearing in mind he’s regarded as the most popular, handsome boy in school, she says this. To his face.
Elena: “You look…not that bad. I mean, got good lips…nice eyes–blue–your smile’s slightly uneven but it’s offset by your strong jaw.”
One Day at a Time triumphs with her story. Elena comes to this realisation of her interest in women slowly, privately, but eventually with support. Yes, the show hints at it so often it becomes a running joke. But Elena’s mishaps and plots leading up to her coming out don’t involve pining over straight best friends. And when she does come out, it’s not a matter of “you’re gay–let’s stick you in a relationship”. There’s a whole familial aspect that defines the show that occurs.
Initially, Penelope couldn’t accept it and readily admitted it. That honesty brings them closer, and it’s that honesty that makes situations like these so real.
Penelope is not like her mother, Lydia (Rita Moreno). The beauty of Penelope is that all the traditions we associate with mothers and singledom are present, and Penelope doesn’t just jump over the hurdles. She struggles but eventually she triumphs. Sometimes she falls. And in regards to Elena coming out, it’s very much the same.
Initially, Penelope’s 100% behind Elena. This is her girl. But in the next episode we see Penelope struggle with the idea of Elena’s homosexuality. And it’s a struggle because we know Penelope loves Elena unconditionally, but it just isn’t as easy for her as it is for an initially-not-okay Lydia, who hysterically rationalises Elena’s sexuality in a single section of dialogue:
Lydia: “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I have a problem with Elena being gay. It goes against God! Although God did make us in His image, and God doesn’t make mistakes. Clearly. [Gestures to self] When it comes to ‘the gays’, the Pope did say: “Who am I to judge?” and the Pope represents God! So…what…am I going to go against the Pope and God? Who the hell do I think I am? [Pause] Okay! Okay. I’m good. [Exhales deeply].”
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Throughout the episode, Penelope seeks counsel by seeing Schneider, trying to speak about it with her mother, overcompensating with Elena (by reading Autostraddle) and going to a gay bar. She readily admits: “My daughter came out to me, and I am not totally okay with it.”
But ultimately she realises Elena being gay takes nothing away from their bond. And it’s something she’s known all along. It’s just taken her time to realise. Penelope Alvarez has never not been okay with it: she’s just not realised she always was.
Penelope: “I’m just happy that Elena is such a strong, young woman with a clear sense of herself.”
It’s a warm, well-rounded story of hugely different reactions, yet Elena is the centre of it all–and that’s how you tell a coming-out story.
Unlike many shows, Elena’s story isn’t saddled with love interests. Usually, it’s the much-hated Social Justice Warrior aspect of life that we adore about her.
It’s easy to make fun of this character-trope of ‘SJW’. It is funny, and One Day at a Time proves it in Elena. But it’s also degrading of her as a character if you label her as just that, and the show avoids it. Elena often barges in with stupendously jaw-dropping conversation killers (“Men assert their power through micro-aggressions and mansplaining”) that could easily just be her role. It isn’t.
However, what Elena proves is that she’s a teenager who can be serious about topics like this. She has a family she loves; she’s questioning her sexuality; she’s trying to date. Three-dimensional she already is. And she can be wrong sometimes, too. The whole trope of an SJW is that they’re pigheaded millennials who refuse to be corrected. But when Elena understands why Penelope wants a quinces for her, she compromises:
Elena: “We’ll do the whole thing. The ceremony, the stupid waltz–we’re gonna show them what single mothers can pull off. I will dress like a child bride for you, mom!”
None of this stops Elena from her frequent ‘respect women! Respect the world!’ speeches, but it makes One Day at a Time very relevant. One Day at a Time respects her (often naive) campaigns for social justice. Yes, it’s a joke sometimes. But we’re shown that not only do young people want to be engaged by these topics; they’ll listen. That’s very different to just the typical block-headed representation of an edgy social justice warrior who defies convention.
Elena has all these traits young audiences can look up to. Mostly, she’s your average teen who gives and deserves love. And that’s all One Day at a Time tried–and succeeded–to do.
One Day at a Time doesn’t skip the tragedy. Elena’s father can’t accept it, and everything henceforth is soul-crushing and heartwarming at the same time.
Not everyone is accepted by their family and friends. The introduction of her father, Victor (James Martinez) is already a setup. Elena states that though Victor and Alex have the typical dad/son relationship where they can talk sports and games, she lacks that with her father. And it’s proven when Victor returns, gifts Alex with a games console and Elena with a princess doll. It’s an earnest gesture, but one that shows Victor doesn’t really know Elena anymore. When she comes out to him, Victor tries to rationalise it.
Victor: “I’m not mad. You’re fifteen. You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”
When it sets in, and Lydia’s modified Elena’s quinces dress–which traditionally should be flashy and girly–to a white tux-style outfit, Victor vanishes. He abandons Elena on the dancefloor as everyone expects to watch the father-daughter dance.
Victor isn’t set up as a villain. He doesn’t understand. It’s not in him to, and his downfall is that he doesn’t even stick around to try. But like Elena’s entire season arc of bucking trends, One Day at a Time ditches the traditional father-daughter dance by having Penelope step up to take Victor’s part. She has, after all, been the parent. And when Alex and Lydia join in, it’s indescribably emotional. Comedy sets in when Schneider and Dr. Leslie join in, but it’s an amazing visual depiction of what is happening.
Not everyone will accept you–not even your father. But others will. Elena assures them: “I’m okay, you guys”. And it’s the smallest reminder in a hugely moving scene. People will support you. But it’s your choice if you’re okay with it.
Isabella Gomez is going to be a star. Period.
One of the main and critically-acclaimed relationships has been with Machado’s Penelope. Both characters are such polar opposites you barely believe they’re mother and daughter until the season progresses.
Gomez’s ability to square up against Machado’s brilliance and Moreno’s scene-stealing one-liners is admirable. Her chemistry with everyone in the cast is undeniable, but the winning scene perhaps in everyone’s hearts is her face falling in dejection when she realises Victor’s abandoned her. If you did not cry as her family embraced her in the finale, you’re stone-cold. Gomez transitions from devastation to teary pride as she bears the weight of the dance, which contrasts so heavily from the infectious joy Elena had displayed moments before.
All season, she destroys the idea of being an irritating teen; her coming out storyline is cleverly built-up, and so naturally played. It’s heavy, balancing slapstick comedy like the majority of Elena’s scenes to carrying some of the season’s most emotional ones, but Gomez succeeds. She is likely an LGBTQ icon for many, but also a reminder that young people who want engagement now, as the population is such, especially online, is not a bad thing. Elena Alvarez is important, and Isabella Gomez shines by infusing such resonance within a teen we can probably all relate to.