There are many ways in which Ugly Betty's title character is not strong, but she is resilient. Even when people make fun of her, and things don't go her way, she keeps her positive spirit, and keeps plugging along, saving the butt of her boss Daniel, the editor of Mode magazine. The people on the show who grow to respect her instead of mock her are generally "the good guys."
Betty's true strength is her values. Unlike the majority of people on the show, who do whatever it takes to succeed, Betty rarely abandons her values of honesty and loyalty. (although in this week's episode she takes credit for a story that isn't hers, because she doesn't think hers is interesting enough).
Betty: "Damn it, why do I have to be so sweet?"
Someone who doesn't have to ask this question is Betty's complete opposite, Wilhelmina Slater, the creative VP of the magazine. She has risen in the ranks at Mode, with the sole ambition of being editor of the magazine. She was passed over by the owner, Bradford, who appointed Daniel, his son.
Since then, she has done anything in her power to try to reverse that decision. She has used blackmail, tried to have people killed, and as a last resort, faked an interest in Bradford. So far she has succeeded in becoming engaged to Bradford, but her role as editor remains out of reach.
"I was a simple girl with an evil plan," she says in this episode, thwarted again. She is associated with fire, a she-devil, aka bitch. So is a bitch a Strong Female Lead?
I submit, yes. She is morally weak, but in all other ways strong. In a show about ambitious people, Whilhelmina surpasses them all. As she says in an understatement this episode, comparing herself to Bradford's first wife, who took more interest in alcohol than the business: "In case you haven't noticed, I'm a career gal."
She knows what she wants and she's going after it. When Bradford man-handles her, she pushes him away. "Uh uh, business first."
It's revealed in this ep that she transformed herself with the help of the former female editor, from mousy assistant Wanda into super-model Wilhimina: "I put my blood, sweat and old nose into this place."
The price of course has been emotional iciness. The only time she has shown emotion has been for her daughter, who she ships off to boarding school so she will not be a distraction. She does however make small gestures to two faithful underlings (saving Marc from being fired, or in this episode, offering Amanda information about her father). But she refuses to ever acknowledge that she has done something nice, and usually acts only under duress of blackmail from them).
The show is further exploring what it means to be a woman through a character who has undergone M2F sex reassignment surgery. This is Daniel's sister Alexis (formerly Alex). Unfortunately, these attempts are rather clumsy and stay on the surface of gender issues. Two episodes ago, Alexis spent a lot of time playing with her boobs. In this episode, she struggles with makeup, blouse buttons, heels and feeling inadequate.
Daniel: Are you crying?
Alexis: I'm a girl. I'm allowed to now.
Meanwhile, this is Wilhimena:
"Even if I wanted to express sympathy, I physically can't."
The first made me wince. The second made me laugh. And that's the beauty of Ugly Betty.