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Jane the Virgin and Revisiting Telenovelas

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On-screen media became integral in Dina A's life after she watched Aladdin as a child. For her, the magic of watching stories continues.

When I started watching television aimed at teens and older audiences, I struggled to find a representation of my diverse community. Sure, there was Gilmore Girls, but I was unable to connect with Rory and Lorelai’s privileged background, their rather narrow inclusion of minority groups into their narratives, or even their exploration of problems that were so irrelevant to my own life. Enter Jane Glorianna Villanueva, a young Hispanic American girl who has to come to grips with her sexuality and her faith, among other conflicts revolving around her identity and culture. The show featuring all these stories is aptly called Jane the Virgin, with a diverse cast of characters and a deconstruction of the telenovela storylines and format.

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The Norms of Television Story-Lines and Casting in Media

Traditionally, my experience with television rarely included people of color. Sure, there was an occasional person of color who usually had a brief storyline. For example, Krystin Burtt writes about the lack of diversity on prime-time television. Her article, called “Let’s Talk about Diversity (Or Lack Thereof) in Daytime TV,” was written in 2017 but it still holds up, a year later. She writes, “While black people are best represented on the soaps, it’s harder to find Latinos, Asians or Indians playing any roles on America’s iconic dramas.” This definitely fit with my own struggle to find enough people of color presented in more than just stereotypical roles.

Marrying Telenovelas with a Modern Audience

Jane the Virgin brings elements of telenovelas, shows that are typically aimed at Latin American audiences, and introduces it to a wider audience. Following the basic premise of Gilmore Girls, this show connects traditionally American storylines with telenovelas. Jane’s mother, Xiomara, gets pregnant as a teen, very much like Lorelai and Rory. But, this closeness between mother and daughter is also highlighting a serious and straight-laced daughter clashing with her much more casual mother. What Jane the Virgin also does, however, is examine sexuality and faith within Jane’s family by including her grandmother in this conflict as well.

Often featuring the crumpled flower, Jane is torn between remaining chaste until marriage, a concept that is not uncommon but still unexplored in the media. The only exploration of this theme was through the character of Quinn Fabray in Glee, who ends up becoming a teen mother. Now, the really interesting twist here is that Jane is artificially inseminated by Luisa Alver, her gynecologist, who is at the time, heartbroken by her wife’s infidelity (more on that later).

Diversity

The show grabs such a wild telenovela concept behind its story and then places it in a more diverse cast of characters. There are very few Caucasian characters in Jane the Virgin. In making this conscious choice, the show then explores issues commonly faced by America’s melting pot citizens through its examination of Latino culture. Diana Martinez writes, “ At a time when getting people of color into more colorblind roles is widely viewed as the end goal for diversity on TV, the show stands out by going in the opposite direction—by fully drawing on the complexity of its characters’ Latino culture.”

Indeed, the show focuses on immigration, culture, heritage, citizenship, faith, and sexuality. We see the tug between Alba, Xiomara, and Jane who are navigating their lives as Latinas. Unlike earlier shows about Latinas, Jane the Virgin does not skirt the conflicts faced by Latinas. Martinez laments, “But unlike the short-lived ABC sitcom Cristela, Jane the Virgin doesn’t construct Latina-ness through pointed racial or ethnic humor. And unlike Ugly Betty, it doesn’t play off many of its racially loaded storylines by making them about social “awkwardness” or ‘not fitting in.’”

Identity

What is fascinating about Jane the Virgin is the fluidity of Jane’s character. A daydreamer, Jane often imagines herself in different roles within womanhood. Sometimes, she is a wrestler, an overtly sexual being, a character in her own romance novels, and so on. This fluidity makes the storyline a bit more malleable and flexible enough to help Jane find her own balance. Martinez writes, “Sometimes Jane is strikingly similar to the virtuous telenovela heroines who overcome obstacles with a little help and a lot of luck. Sometimes Jane is more proactive, relying on her own resourcefulness and gumption.”

Feminism and Inclusion

As a show that tracks the growth of a woman, Jane the Virgin is a feminist collision with telenovelas, stories that are often swaying between overly sexualized depictions of women and submissive virgins. Allison Piwowarski writes about the show’s active feminism on Bustle. Piwowarski lists the exploration of sexualities within the narrative. But, her article was written in 2015. Since then, the show has expanded even more. (Warning: spoilers ahead). We see Petra Solano, a cis-gender woman who was once sure of her sexuality, explore a relationship with her lawyer J.R. (an openly queer woman of color, played by Rosario Dawson). But, there is also a more steady relationship between Luisa and Rose throughout the seasons of this show, even though Rose is sometimes presented as the antagonist.

Later on, the show introduces Adam (played by Tyler Posey), who is Jane’s first love. An openly bisexual person of color, he leads Jane to understanding her biases and assumptions regarding relationships. It is not an immediate fix on the show. Instead it takes Jane more than one episode to come to terms with Adam’s identity.

What I found most powerful was Jane’s development as a writer, as a mother, as a daughter, and as a sexual being. She is complex and ever-growing. Going from a quiet writer, Jane creates different writing projects, each of which dealing with a facet of her life. She writes about her abuela and her sister’s storyline. Then, she honors Michael, her husband, in her published novel. Furthermore, she begins a story about her mother while also including her grandmother’s story as well. In doing so, Jane creates a celebration of the meritocracy in her upbringing.

Even more beautiful is the exploration of sexuality through Alba, who grew up with a rather limited view of sexuality and what constitutes appropriate sexual behavior. In season 4, Jane and Alba go back and forth in a discussion on sex toys and self-pleasure.

As a feminist, I know feminism is not just about women’s liberation. It’s about all marginalized groups getting their rights. The show subverts the traditional narratives’ focus on Caucasian, straight, cisgender men as figures of power. Instead, Jane the Virgin often transitions the power in the story. Within the police force, we see Michael Cordero grapple with making ethical choices in the face of bribery and manipulation. He is sometimes kicked off of the force or placed in a lower rung of power to women. Now, sometimes, that is done by women of color or white women (like Petra Solano or Rose Solano).

The same power struggle continues with Rafael, a rich former-playboy, who is Jane’s boss and, incidentally, her baby-daddy. He is never fully in control of the hotel where Jane works. From his father to sister, to ex-wife, to Petra’s twin sister Anzeka, there are so many people who take over the ownership of the Marbella.

In Conclusion

The show breaks the telenovela’s expectation of including only romance. Instead, it tracks the development of a woman’s voice as a writer, worker, mother, daughter, and romantic partner. Through Jane’s flexible identity, manifested through her daydreams, she starts to find her place as a Latina. Jane the Virgin goes beyond the themes of sexuality and chastity by placing an emphasis on personal growth rather than romance only.

Bibliography

Burtt, Krystin. “Let’s Talk about Diversity (Or Lack Thereof) on Daytime TV.” She Knows. 10 March 2017. Accessed 18 May 2018. http://www.sheknows.com/entertainment/articles/1132494/diversity-in-daytime-tv

Martinez, Diana. “Jane the Virgin Prove Diversity Is More Than Skin Deep.” The Atlantic. 19 Oct. 2015. Accessed 19 May 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/10/jane-the-virgin-telenovelas/409696/

Piwaworski, Allison. “Jane the Virgin is One of the Most Feminist Shows on TV for Many Reasons, But Especially These 5.” Bustle. 16 Feb 2015. Accessed 12 May 2018. https://www.bustle.com/articles/64013-jane-the-virgin-is-one-of-the-most-feminist-shows-on-tv-for-many-reasons-but

Zeilinger, Julie. “6 Ways Jane the Virgin is Destroying Latino Stereotypes.” The Mic. 18 Feb 2015. Accessed 10 May 2018. https://mic.com/articles/110768/6-ways-jane-the-virgin-is-destroying-latino-stereotypes#.b4tWyCwI3