Editor Roundtable: Real Women Have Curves

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This week we stitch up the Status genre with 2002’s Real Women Have Curves, written by Josefina Lopez and George LaVoo, and directed by Patricia Cardoso.

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The Story

Here’s a quick summary of the story adapated from IMDB.

Real Women Have Curves is the story of Ana, a first generation Mexican-American teenager on the verge of becoming a woman. She lives in the predominantly Latino community of East Los Angeles. Freshly graduated from high school, Ana receives a full scholarship to Columbia University. Her very traditional, old-world parents feel that now is the time for Ana to help provide for the family, not the time for college.

Torn between her mainstream ambitions and her cultural heritage, she agrees to work with her mother at her sister’s downtown LA sewing factory. Over the summer, she learns to admire the hardworking team of women who teach her solidarity and teamwork.

Still at odds with what her mother expects of her, Ana realizes that leaving home to continue her education is essential to finding her place proudly in the world as an American and a Chicana.

The Editor’s Six Core Questions

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1.  What’s the Global Genre? STATUS > Sentimental- Anne

Status stories concern a single main protagonist’s attempts to rise in society, and the price they have to pay to get there. The Status genre runs along a value range of Failure to Success.

As Rachelle Ramirez wrote in her excellent Fundamental Fridays blog post Secrets of the Status Genre, the status story that ends in success is a prescriptive tale that shows us how to maintain our place in society or advance up the ladder. The cautionary version shows us what not to do, by showing us a protagonist falling from a stable place in society, down through compromise, failure, and finally selling out–which is another way of saying “failure masquerading as success.”

Real Women Have Curves is a success story. The protagonist, Ana, starts in a working-class immigrant family that places a low value on education, and ends up at an Ivy League university. When a weak protagonist succeeds against the odds, we’re in the Sentimental subgenre.

Ana starts out very weak—she’s belligerent, passive, and resentful. Her rise in social standing is mostly prevented by her mother, who wants to preserve tradition. It’s a little weak, because though Ana learns to value the hard work her family does, that realization has very little to do with her going off to college. The success here is more about winning her father’s respect than about her social rise.

Additional Comments

Kim: It’s interesting because the external genre as Society-Domestic comes from the same Human Needs Tank as the internal Status-Sentimental genre. Her mother is the reigning power and the reason she doesn’t just go off to college immediately. The revolution scene when they strip off their clothes is so satisfying. Also the convention of “the vanquished are doomed to exile” is played out here by her mother who chooses to exile herself, by leaving the room as well as by staying in her room when it’s time for Ana to leave. Ana’s mother chooses estrangement rather than give her blessing.

In our research into internal genres, Leslie and I have noticed that when you have internal genre as global, often there is more than one external genre that supports it, and often each individual external genre is less robust than we’re used to seeing. They become the setting so to speak, and the avenue for the internal change. So here we have society-domestic and a small love story subplot.

Jarie: This movie has a great premise that lots of different immigrant groups can relate to. The Status genre is a powerful one for “not falling into the same old groove.”

What was kinda a let down was the mini-plots that did not pay off, especially with the sister. Maybe that was by design since the rest of the story is all Ana, all the time.

Valerie: I had to do a bit of research on the status story for this film. I was tempted at first to call it a maturation plot, but that doesn’t fit the bill; Ana’s worldview doesn’t change (much). Her status within the family does shift (from the one who is only fit for sweeping floors for free, to the only one who rising above her socio-economic standing). I think the problem I have with the film, and why it doesn’t feel very satisfying to me, is that the value shift goes from compromise to success.

The shift in Ana is so small, it’s nearly flat and that’s not what you want in an internally-driven story. When the genre isn’t clear, the audience notices. Obviously they don’t articulate it that way, but they’ll feel it and could become ambivalent towards the story.

Leslie: I think the shift in Ana seems small in part because of the specific genre. According to Norman Friedman, Status Sentimental protagonists don’t change a great deal, but remain steadfast and are acted upon as opposed to acting. In essence, the change is what’s needed for the protagonist to rise in society.

It’s not enough that Ana wants to and has the grades to attend Columbia. If she is going to make it, she has to remain steadfast in who she is and learn to stand on her own two feet, or she risks compromising her moral code as she attempts to rise within society. A good example of the way the artists demonstrate her subtle the shift: Contrast Ana’s walking style at different points in the movie: on the way to school, when her mother tells her to walk like a lady, and then at the end she’s walking confidently in New York.

Also, this is a mini-plot, so we’re not anticipating epic change in the protagonist. Mini-plots are focused on the internal and sometimes called slice of life stories with a very specific character and setting. In the mini-plot stories, multiple characters express opinions on the controlling idea or theme of the story.

  • Ana wants to pursue her dream, but she wants her mother’s blessing. She must choose one or the other because she can’t have both.
  • Ana’s mother defines family responsibility liberally, and believes that this is more important than personal dreams/purpose (of course she would, otherwise she might conclude that she wasted her life or was less than for not having different ambitions—which is not the case, but we don’t always see our own lives clearly). Success is about having a husband and children.
  • Ana’s father has a more nuanced position and believes in pursuing dreams if you can be successful, meaning if it’s a pretty safe bet. (He’ll loan Estela the money to keep her shop open if he thinks she’ll be successful. Ana convinces him. He supports Ana’s going to school when he knows she’s earned a full scholarship and is taking it seriously.) Success, to him, is about keeping the definition realistic to avoid selling out.
  • Ana’s sister, Estela, also has a nuanced position. She pursues her dream, but her challenge is that she sets her sights low, believing she can’t ask for fair pay for the excellent work she and her employees do. She also believes a woman can’t have both a loving partner and pursue her dreams.
  • Ana’s teacher, Mr. Guzman, thinks Ana should pursue her dreams; it would be a waste for her not to.
  • The women in the factory also have different positions on what success means. For example, Carlota wants to return to her village in Mexico.

2. What are the Obligatory Scenes and Conventions of the Status story?

Conventions – Jarie

Strong Mentor Figure: Ana’s teacher, Mr. Guzman, really wants her to go to college and tells her that she can. Ana’s grandfather also only wants what is best for her but also tells her that “he has found his gold in Ana.”

Big Social Problem as subtext (Class): The big social problem that Ana has to deal with is class but not other races bringing her down but her own family holding her back, especially her mother, Carmen, who wants Ana to work in the factory to help her sister Estela. Her mother also complains that she is “too fat” and should help her family

Shapeshifters as Hypocrites (secondary characters say one thing and do another): Carmen is a major shapeshifter in that she says she wants what is best for her daughter but in reality, she wants what is best for Carmen. It’s pretty on the nose and obvious.

The Herald or Threshold Guardian is a fellow striver who sold out: This could be Mr. Guzman or Ana’s sister, Estela, since she is running a sweatshop. It’s also the female executive that Estela asks for an advance but tells her she won’t get one and “took a chance on someone like you.” The stronger one is Estela since she got sucked into the family business and had dreams of a better life.

A clear Point of No Return/Truth Will Out moment, when Protagonist knows they can never go back to the way things used to be: Ana is becoming a women and on her own terms. When she and Jimmy get intimate and he accepts her for “what I look like”, Ana then drops her self-loathing or at least stops hearing what her mother tells her. The other Point of No Return is when Ana is going to leave for Columbia and her mom does not say goodbye. At that point Ana knows that if she goes, she will never want to come back.

Ironic or Paradoxical Win-But-Lose, Lose-But-Win bittersweet ending: Ana wins her independence but “loses” her family. It’s a tough call for her but she realizes that in order to break out of the East LA cycle, she needs to sacrifice something. The ending scene says it all that when she is strutting in NYC a confidence women ready to take on the world!

Obligatory Scenes – Leslie

The conventional Obligatory Scenes for a Status Story follow the Hero’s Journey, but in this particular story, Ana’s journey  fits within the Virgin’s Promise better. (See The Virgin’s Promise by Kim Hudson)

The VP and HJ are similar, as Hudson explains, they are two halves of the same relationship with the self: self-fulfillment and self-sacrifice. In the Virgin’s Promise, the protagonist’s journey is to redefine her values and bring her true self into being. In the Hero’s Journey, the protagonist faces fears and moves out into the larger world to help his community.

Dependent World: The Protagonist is dependent on others and suppresses—or isn’t yet aware of—her true self. Ana lives at home with her parents and is dependent on them financially and socially. She can’t make a living wage with the skills she has and can’t attend college without their permission and support.  

Price of Conformity: What the Protagonist loses when she is deprived of her true self. Ana tells her English teacher, Mr. Guzman, she’s not going to college and that he should help someone else. She will have to start work at her sister’s dress factory. Her mother wants her to work in her sister’s business, find a husband, and have children.

Opportunity to Shine: This is the first real expression of the Protagonist’s talent or true nature, but it’s not a threat to the dependent world. Mr. Guzman drops by the Garcia family home and tells her parents that he’d like to see Ana continue her education and that she has great potential. Her parents aren’t worried because they can tell Mr. Guzman and Ana no.

Protagonist Dresses the Part: This is not a literal dress but the first hint that the Protagonist’s dreams might come true. It represents a tool she can use to grow into her true nature. Ana shows her application to Mr. Guzman. He tells her he knows the dean of admissions at Columbia and can put in a good word for her, but she needs to write the personal essay.

Secret World: The Protagonist creates a secret world or existence where her dream can grow—outside the scrutiny of the dependent world. She thinks she can juggle both worlds. Ana works on her personal essay and takes it to Mr. Guzman, but she also starts seeing Jimmy as she continues to work at her sister’s dress factory.

Protagonist No Longer Fits in the Dependent World: As the Protagonist spends more time in her secret world, she recognizes she won’t be able to do this long term. Ana asks her mother why a young woman’s virginity is all that matters. She tells her that women have thoughts and ideas. Ana insults the woman who pays Estela for the dresses. Mom thinks she’s pregnant.

Protagonist Is Caught Shining: The Dependent and Secret Worlds collide. Mr. Guzman comes to the family home and lets Ana know she’s been accepted to Columbia with a full scholarship. Her mother and father refuse permission again.

Protagonist Gives Up What Has Kept Her Stuck: The Protagonist sacrifices some part of her past to move into the future. This is related to the Price of Conformity. Ana challenges her mother’s values and owns her own by stripping down to her undergarments in the heat in the factory. She declares that she likes herself and her body. “There is so much more to me than just my weight.”  

Kingdom in Chaos: The Dependent world begins to change as a result of the Protagonist’s choice to begin to express herself. The other women in the factory take off their clothes too and declare that they are beautiful. They dance as they finish the dress order. Ana’s mother leaves because she can’t take this experience on board.

Protagonist Wanders in the Wilderness: This is a test of the Protagonist’s conviction. She must separate from the Dependent World and stand on her own. Ana asks her father for his blessing (not permission) to attend Columbia, and he gives it freely. They tell her mother at dinner.

Protagonist Chooses the Light: The Protagonist decides to trust herself and pursue her dream no matter what. Ana has packed and is leaving for the airport. At the end, we see Ana walking confidently in NYC.  

Re-ordering: The Protagonist recognizes her value and she reconnects with her community. Ana’s mother stays in her room and won’t speak to Ana (Ana is effectively banished from her mother’s presence), but she leaves for college anyway. Ana has reconnected with the women at the factory, her father, grandfather, and cousins.

The Kingdom is Brighter: Members of the community realize they are better off for the Protagonist’s expressing her gifts. This is not explicitly shown beyond the scene in the factory, but it’s clear that those women have a new appreciation for their value as women.

Additional Comments

Valerie: The obligatory scenes and conventions of the global genre need to be on the page (or on the screen in this case) and they exist to satisfy audience expectations. Whenever a writer/filmmaker sets the audience up to expect certain scenes, then those scenes are, by default, obligatory. As such, I think Real Women Have Curves misses key obligatory scenes; namely the middle build crisis (where Ana thinks for herself: a clear point of no return) and resolution (where Ana stands up to her mother). These scenes don’t have to be on the nose, or overt (in fact, they’re often better when they’re not). However, they do have to be there. The audience is expecting to see them.

For example, Ana’s crisis could simply have been moment tagged on to the end of the underwear scene; something to clue the audience into the fact that she’s rethinking her early decision to comply with her mother’s wishes. In terms of the resolution scene, well, the whole film has been building up to a showdown between Ana and her mother. Unfortunately, the filmmakers rob us of it.

Jarie: I was not too thrilled with the love story but I can see it as part of the overall Maturation internal genre. The lovers kiss scene was cute as well as her buying condoms and them eventually having sex. That whole resolution was not that great.

Leslie: To me the resolution of Ana’s relationship with Jimmy was about her not wanting to set a goal that is unrealistic. She recognizes that they will both meet people while in college.

Anne: I wondered if the red dress could represent the Virgin’s Promise step of Dressing the Part. It was a specifically missing scene–there in absentia, you might say. Estela makes the dress to fit Ana’s body, and shows it to her, but we never see Ana wearing it—because that red dress really doesn’t represent the role or part Ana will play in her world.

On the other hand, I thought there was a terrific UNdressing the part, which would also be the revolution scene in a society story, where in a small act of rebellion Ana leads the other workers to take off their outer clothes and be comfortable.

3. What is the POV? What is the Narrative device? – Anne

POV: The story is entirely in Ana’s POV: she’s in virtually every scene and we experience the whole story through her eyes. An adult audience can see how bad Ana’s attitude is at first while it’s possible that she doesn’t see it herself, and making Ana’s need clear to us before it’s clear to her. This lends a touch of dramatic irony, thought that’s not the primary narrative drive. I’d say the primary drive is a modest suspense–will she or won’t she convince her parents to let her go to college in New York?

Narrative Device: This is a straightforward, linear story, very simply told. Although Leslie makes a great case for it being a mini-plot story, with opinions about Ana’s situation expressed by a range of different characters, the single POV and linear structure retain the feeling of a simple arch-plot, or single, clear arc from failure to success.

Additional Comment

Jarie: I love the 1st person, man on the street camera work along with the grit and grime of East LA. The scenes in the dress shop are even better with the best being the painted over sign. How many other sweatshops have been in the same place only to go out of business? I know this all too well via my ex-wife, whose parents came from the eastern bloc and worked in a machine shop. Just the fact that they made it here, via a labor camp, was a win for them. The expectations of better were, why do you want more? This tension is perfectly captured in this movie.

4. What are the Objects of Desire, AKA wants and needs? – Anne

Wants: Ana wants respect from her family, especially her mother, for her mind and ideas.

Needs: Ana needs to respect her family first, and respect herself, before she can earn her father’s full support. Ultimately, she needs to let go of her desire to win her mother’s respect, because their worldviews are too different.

5. What is the Controlling Idea / Theme? – Anne

The baseline controlling idea of the positive status story is “Success results when a person is true to their values whether or not it leads to social betterment.” Here we have a protagonist whose own inner values are unformed at the beginning, and she has to learn to respect her family’s values before she can earn their respect. The Maturation plot is so strongly woven in with the Status plot that you really can’t tease them apart. So here’s what I came up with.

A young woman wins permission to leave her family roots for a better life when she earns their respect by learning to respect them.

6. What’s the Beginning Hook, the Middle Build, and the Ending Payoff? –  Valerie

Beginning Hook – When Ana graduates from high school, Ana must decide whether she will go against her family’s wishes and apply for post-secondary school, or get a job to earn money for the family. She decides to work and takes a job at her sister’s factory.

  1. Inciting incident: It’s the last day of high school and Ana’s teacher asks her about her college application.  
  2. Progressive Complication/Turning Point: When Ana storms out of the factory, Carmen follows her and launches into another pity story; this time with tears.
  3. Crisis Question: Will Ana stay and work in the factory, or will she leave?
  4. Climax: Ana stays to work in the factory.
  5. Resolution: Ana helps her mother (who is feigning illness again) back to the factory.

Middle Build –  When offered a scholarship for college, Ana must again decide whether she’ll attend, or whether she’ll continue to help her family by working at the factory. She opts for college and all but her mother support her.

  1. Inciting incident: Ana applies for college in defiance of her family’s (especially her mother’s) wishes.
  2. Midpoint Shift: Halfway through the film, Ana goes on her date with Jimmy. It’s a subtle shift, but marks the first time Ana openly disobeys her mother. (The college application was done in secret, but here, she’s enlisted the help of her Grandfather in order to deceive her mother.)
  3. Progressive Complication/Turning Point: Overcome with heat in the factory, Ana strips down to bra and underwear, and gets the other women to do the same. This is a blatant contradiction to what Carmen thinks is acceptable behaviour for a woman. The tide has turned against Carmen and the other characters are no longer following her.
  4. Crisis Question: I don’t think there is a crisis question as such. The issues wrt Ana’s employment and education have been dealt with and don’t come up again. However, after the factory scene turning point (where Ana liberates the workers), she now liberates herself by making up her own mind about her future. In the space between the scenes Ana has asked herself if she’ll continue to allow her mother to run her life, or if she’ll step out on her own.
  5. Climax: Ana decides to take control of her life and go to college.
  6. Resolution: Ana tells her family about her decision; all but her mother, support her. (Although we don’t actually see Ana telling her mother, or Carmen’s reaction; another missing scene.)

Ending Payoff – When Ana’s mother refuses to speak to her, Ana must decide whether she’ll leave for New York without a maternal blessing, or stay home. She leaves for New York and lives happily ever after anyway.

  1. Inciting incident: Ana leaves for the airport.
  2. Progressive Complication/Turning Point: Ana’s mother will not come out of her room to say goodbye.
  3. Crisis Question [Carmen’s crisis]: Will Carmen leave her room to say goodbye to Ana?
  4. Climax [Carmen’s climax]: Carmen decides to stay in her room, and doesn’t even speak to her daughter.
  5. Resolution: Ana is a vibrant young women, thriving in NYC. (Finally walking like a woman the way her mother wanted her to.)

7. “Good Examples” special scene types, outstanding tropes, clear tie-ins to other genres?

Jarie: The scene in the sweatshop where all of the women strip down to their underwear is a powerful rise up moment that was innovative in its defiance and visuals. It also makes the point both verbally and visually, that “Real Women” like them, “have curves.” That’s a pretty great way to sum the whole movie up.

Apparently critics have said that Lady Bird ripped off Real Women Have Curves since the characters are so similar. I’m not sure about that. This is a similar story to The Joy Luck Club as well. This is just a classic conflict between mothers and daughters, especially 1st generation and 2nd generation ones. This is a story that’s been told throughout all of time. These specifics illustrate the universals that make up our collective experiences.

Anne: I feel like this movie sacrifices three big scenes that would have made it more viscerally satisfying to me, while at the same time making it feel cliched. I think we all felt the absence of a Red Dress scene—where Ana actually wears the red evening dress her sister made for her, maybe to a prom or something.

I wanted and didn’t get a scene were she helps her sister confront the rich business woman and actually get a better price for the dresses they make. I expected to learn something about what was in the miraculous college essay that got her a full free ride to the Ivy League.

As a typical white, western, American moviegoer, I had to adjust my sights quite a bit to take in the key ideas about success from the perspective of a particular culture that I’m not a member of, because those ideas are expressed more subtly than I’m used to.  

Valerie: Further to Anne’s point: I wouldn’t call the missing scenes cliche, I’d call them pay-offs. The filmmakers have planted expectations in our minds especially wrt the red dress and college essay. We see Ana working on the essay at various points, but exactly what has she written? Did she write about herself, her life, her family? If so, what did she say – especially about her manipulative mother? The red dress is pivotal to two storylines; Estella’s clothing line and fashion studio/sweatshop as well as Ana’s maturation/emancipation from her mother. I can only imagine what Carmen would have thought about her daughter wearing a sexy dress like that. There’s a theory in storytelling circles called Chekov’s Gun. Essentially it says that every element in a story must be necessary; if you set up expectations in the audience, you need to pay them off. The filmmakers didn’t pay off the red dress and college essay.

Anne: When Mr Guzman comes to Ana’s birthday party, I was struck by how very similar the scene was to the one in Billy Elliot where Mrs Wilkinson, Billy’s dance instructor, comes to Billy’s house. There’s the same uneasy class difference—marked in part by differences in language or dialect—and the same sense of forceful intrusion on behalf of a talented protagonist who’s being held back by a family unwilling to change. What constitutes a mentor? Is a marked difference in class or education important? Is the Mentor intruding into the ordinary life of the Protagonist a particular type of Mentor, best suited to, say, an Internal genre story? Something to think about.

Valerie: Surprising but inevitable ending: The ending of Real Women Have Curves is neither surprising nor inevitable. In fact it’s obvious from the get-go. We know by the end of the second scene (i.e., the first five minutes including credits) that Ana will stand up to her mother and go to college.

Force of Antagonism/Empathy: The audience must empathize with at least one character in the story; the protagonist. Furthermore, the force of antagonism needs to have a point. I’m coupling these two elements because they play off one another here. For us to have real empathy with Ana, we’ve got to believe that Carmen has a point – that she is truly needed to generate income for the family. Instead, when Estella’s financial troubles are known, Ana is  told to work for free (rather than find another job that would generate income for the family). Carmen is holding her daughter back because of jealousy and spite, not finances. It’s hard to become emotionally engaged in this situation. Yes, standing up to one’s mother is challenging, but why does Carmen have such sway over the entire family? No one dares to contradict her? Raul makes a half-hearted attempt, but backs down pretty quickly. Contrast this with Akeelah and the Bee where the audience is hoping and praying the mother will come around. We may not like her opposition to Akeelah’s aspirations, but we understand where she’s coming from. That gives the mother/daughter dynamic much more depth and elicits much greater emotion from the audience. Akeelah and the Bee is the kind of story audience members tell their friends about, Real Women Have Curves is not.

Join us again next time, when we once again touch down into Worldview genre with the 2016 science fiction drama Arrival. Why not give it a look during the week, and follow along with us?

Your Roundtable Story Grid Editors are Jarie Bolander, Valerie Francis, Anne Hawley, Kim Kessler, and Leslie Watts.

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Leslie Watts

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.