Jennifer Lopez is reconnecting with her action film roots, starring in the new Netflix film “The Mother.” In it, she plays the titular character, a veteran and expert sniper who gives up her daughter at birth in an effort to protect her. When forces later threaten 12-year-old Zoe, Lopez jumps into action, doing everything she can to keep her daughter safe.
Dr. Frances Negrón-Muntaner, a professor at the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race and of Latino media studies at Columbia University, positions “The Mother” as part of how Lopez is evolving her image. Dr. Negrón-Muntaner identified to POPSUGAR the three stages of J Lo. In the first, “[Lopez] was doing the fight over the body beautiful, [insisting that] a woman with these proportions, a woman that’s Latina, and who’s racialized that way, and seen that way, can be beautiful.” Think action films like “Out of Sight,” Lopez’s breakthrough role in the “Selena” biopic, and of course, all that dialogue about her butt.
“Later, she has a period where she’s really making an argument about her intelligence. And this would be the J Lo mogul, the businesswoman, entrepreneur, who is a cultural force beyond her performance,” Dr. Negrón-Muntaner says about the second stage.
But since Lopez’s 2020 Super Bowl Halftime performance, she’s been somewhere new: “Jennifer Lopez fighter for Latino justice,” Dr. Negrón-Muntaner says of Lopez’s third stage. “The fighter for Latino justice uses some elements of her prior persona, which include her acting in action movies [that] allows her to communicate that she’s not only that girl that falls in love but that she’s also someone who is going to fight. And she’s going to fight till the end against all odds.” This is exactly what Lopez does in “The Mother.”
“The physicality of the role becomes part of the narrative,” agrees Angharad N. Valdivia, Research Professor at the Institute of Communications Research and Professor in the Department of Latina/Latino Studies at the University of Illinois, Champaign Urbana and author of The Gender of Latinidad, tells POPSUGAR. “You would not have that physicality in a white lead, for example, that kind of focus on the muscle and the building of it.”
“The Mother” celebrates Lopez’s physical ability and hyper fitness. “She is definitely performing a very physical role in a revenge action film [and] she’s bringing it to the next level. As an actress, that’s an incredibly difficult move to make, the jumps [and other action sequences],” adds Dr. Valdivia. Lopez has shared that she trained extensively for “The Mother,” sharing with the women of “The View” that she found the process “empowering.”
The Protagonist of “The Mother,” played by Lopez is physically tough, but she’s also incredibly street smart, a fact that doesn’t surprise Mary Beltrán, Associate Professor of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Latina/o Stars in U.S. Eyes. “Latinas have sometimes been more likely depicted as more able to handle themselves and be tough,” she tells POPSUGAR, “It’s almost like white women were not seen as viable action protagonists unless they transformed and became more masculine in some ways, whereas Latinas typically didn’t go through any transformation at all.”
In “The Mother,” we do see Lopez’s character hone her shooting skills in the armed forces through a flashback, but Dr. Beltrán’s pattern holds — The Mother is a “pre-tough” character who actualizes her strength rather than being forced to adapt. And that can be a double-edged sword. Dr. Beltrán noted how Hollywood often reinforces “notions of Latinas as more violent and potentially as more intelligent with their bodies than with their minds in a way in our real life, worlds, [we] usually don’t reward or see as moral . . . They’re not necessarily the traits that we ascribe to our political leaders or business leaders [even if] these are admired traits within the story worlds.”
And that’s not the only pitfall Latina action heroes have to contend with. Professor in the Department of Sociology at Virginia Tech and author of Gender in Film and Video Neal King told POPSUGAR that women in action films generally have just two options in terms of their plots. “Women are much more likely than the male heroes to find out the hard way that the bad guy is their boyfriend, or boss, or otherwise good friend. He’s right under her nose,” King says. “And that’s not to say it never happens with guys, but it just doesn’t happen very often with the guys, where it happens all the time with the women.”
In addition to this oversampling of the close-bad-guy plot, women action heroes tend to also share a motivation: “There’s a history of women who are good at doing violence for a living, playing cops and adjacent, and they tend historically in these roles to protect kids, whether their own or others,” Dr. King adds. In ‘The Mother,’ Lopez does both. She’s fighting off two of her exes to protect her daughter, and she’s flirting with stereotypes while also subverting them. She’s essentially playing within the established structure to carve out a niche for herself and her community — and it hasn’t been easy.
Dr. Beltrán remembers a time in the late 1990s when Michelle Rodriguez and Lopez were starring in films like “Enough” and “Anaconda” and “it seemed like there were almost more Latina action heroes than Anglo female action heroes.” But that “upswing” didn’t last with Dr. Beltrán’s upcoming research showing how casting moved away from Latinas in the 2010s.
Of course, it’s notable that Lopez has taken more creative control of her films with her Nuyorican Productions, effectively allowing her to pick her roles rather than wait for Hollywood to pick her. “The Mother” is under her company’s umbrella and she’s a producer of it, as she has been with many of her recent films, including her critically acclaimed “Hustlers” and the rom-coms “Marry Me” and “Shotgun Wedding.”
Lopez is at the height of her power, making her own opportunities and crafting her own narrative. And she’s portraying herself in her fifties as a strong, beautiful, competent force. “The age component [is] one of those discourses and frameworks that gets all women and puts them away. [It says], you cannot be visible anymore [after a certain age],” reminds Dr. Negrón-Muntaner. She read all of the 1,300+ complaints people lodged against Lopez’s halftime show and noticed how the basis of many of them was the belief that someone of Lopez’s age was “inherently ugly,” despite all evidence to the contrary.
All of this makes Lopez’s career and longevity even more exceptional. “If you look at Hollywood history, for Latinas, throughout the 20th century, you will see that every generation produces a Latina star or two [who] were on top for a few years, seven years, max,” says Dr. Negrón-Muntaner. “Jennifer Lopez has been an A-List star for almost three decades at this point. That had never happened before.” J Lo is making history in front of us.
And having amassed this long history of prominence, she’s using her power for good, showing that Latinas can be as badass, beautiful, and powerful as anyone else. “The Mother” is an important part of this third J Lo era, showing us how’s she incorporating being a fierce maternal figure, a “strong female lead,” into her understanding of herself. And since she’s the most famous Latina in the world, that also informs how the rest of us see ourselves. Long live “Jennifer Lopez fighter for Latino justice!”