The Radical Self-Love of Penelope Alvarez
The Radical Self-Love of Penelope Alvarez
By: Shaunna Quin
When CreateBeing asked me to write about self-love, I had to do it with nothing but authenticity. I mulled my options but, for me, everything comes down to where I might see myself in pop culture. With news of Netflix prematurely cancelling the heartwarming sitcom, One Day at a Time, many of us will be losing reflections of our experiences.
One Day at a Time’s lead character, Penelope Alvarez (played by the incomparable Justina Machado), has resonated with me deeply. For me, the most resonant thing about Lupe (as she’s called by those closest to her) is her radical self-love. Here’s just a few examples of where we’ve seen it throughout the series.
Being One’s Authentic Self
The Alvarez family is extremely proud of their Cuban heritage, and loudly so. When the family goes out for ice cream after a long discussion of overt and covert racism, they have fun singing and ribbing one another in the shop. They’re confronted by a white guy who condescendingly tells the family to “keep it down” at their “little fiesta.” Penelope asks him if he’s the manager, tells him it isn’t the library and that she’s an American, too. Penelope loves herself enough to know when to stand up against racist microaggressions on behalf of herself, and her family.
Attending a Support Group
As an Iraq war veteran, Penelope lives with PTSD. To help treat living with PTSD, she attends an all-women’s veteran support group (lead by recovery shero and OG One Day at a Time daughter, Mackenzie Phillips!). It takes guts, self-care and discipline to attend support groups. Support groups are a great resource for finding a community of people who’ve gone through experiences similar to yours that you’ve struggled with. Seeking this form of support is a great form of self-love.
Knowing When She’s Given All She Can
Penelope’s ex-husband, Victor, is a fellow veteran. Unfortunately, Victor’s way of coping with his PTSD was with alcohol. Divorce is a very tough decision, and further complicated when children are involved. Lupe had the self-love to make the decision to split from her husband in order to give her kids a better life. She knew she’d struggle more as a working-class single mother, but her self-love gave her the strength to forge ahead.
Mental Health Lessons
In my favorite episode of One Day at a Time, Penelope decides to go off her anti-depressants cold-turkey and falls into a major depressive episode. When her family and friends help pull her out from under, Lupe has the self-love and self-awareness to accept help, admit to her mistake and go to the doctor.
In another top-tier episode, we see how Penelope’s anxiety manifests itself. Since she learned from her last depressive episode—and because her daughter, Elena, was going through an anxiety spiral of her own—she had an open conversation with her kids about anxiety and practised breathing exercises with them. Her self-love transferred to her kids, letting them
know they’re not alone in dealing with anxiety.
Romance Can Wait
A point of contention between Penelope and her mother is Abuela’s insistence that Lupe find a man. And Penelope does date a few handsome suitors! But when one boyfriend wants babies, she calls it off. She's already done that. When she finds herself enjoying another boyfriend’s company, but doesn’t feel a spark, she breaks it off. She has enough self-love to recognize that she doesn’t need to settle or compromise.
Finding Her American Dream
And if the end of season three turns out to be the end of the road for One Day at a Time, Penelope’s Happy Ending is her obtaining Registered Nurse certification. This upgrade in her education means a chance to do more at work, and to earn more money. Studying while working full-time, raising two kids, her mother and—let’s be honest—Schneider and Dr. Leslie, attending support groups and working through anxiety takes discipline, strength and… you guessed it! Self-love.
Self-love can look like a lot of different things. To me, self-love encompasses being resilient, showing oneself compassion, prioritizing self-care and, most importantly, being one’s authentic self. Watching One Day at a Time is a form of my own self-love. It’s comforting in the throwback sitcom way, but also comforting to see struggles similar to mine – the struggles of
making ends meet, depression, anxiety and more.
Beyond self-love, me and Lupe have other things common; we’ve got curly hair, big smiles and cleavage for the gawds! We sneak our own snacks into the movies. We’re passionately opinionated and don’t tolerate bullshit!
But with One Day at a Time being cancelled, people who’ve seen themselves on a deeper level will be losing out. People looking for Cuban and Latinx representation and who saw themselves reflected in Penelope, Papito, Abuela and—especially—queer feminist daughter, Elena. Single moms and those living in multi-generational households will have one less show with people like them. So will immigrants and army veterans.
Hopefully One Day at a Time finds a new home if Netflix doesn’t change its mind. The multi-layered representations ODAAT provides is important to today’s TV landscape. Here’s hoping that if this is truly the end of One Day at a Time, this is just the beginning of expanded representations of families—and of self-love—on TV.
Shaunna Quin is a woman who lives for pop culture while living with mental illness. She’s a Toronto-based writer and you can find her work at dietcoke4breakfast.com. She talks about pop culture with people who’ve experienced mental illness, mental health issues, addiction and trauma on her podcast, Pop& Down, available wherever you listen to your faves!