I often think of television as being in two different categories. On the one hand, there are the shows that invite a lot of conversation, a lot of examination and analysis. There’s a depth and substance ti the stories and characters that just makes me want to talk about them. And on the other hand, I have what I refer to as my happy shows.
Just to be clear, this distinction is in no way an indication of the worth of a show. Plenty of shows that make me frantic to tear them apart and process every detail are far from what you’d call high brow entertainment. And plenty of the more fluffy, happiness laden shows that give me no deep thoughts but instead simply fill me with warm joy are television shows of the absolute highest caliber. There’s good an bad, quality and trash, on both sides. And both serve a pretty distinct and important purpose for me.
For most of its Season One run, Jane the Virgin was in that second category. It was frothy and funny, optimistic and sentimental, and I loved every minute of it. The narrator is hilariously witty, the characters are engaging and easy to root for (okay, with maybe the exception of the diabolical Petra), and the story lines are all equal parts hysterical, exciting, and heartwarming. At this point, Jane the Virgin is probably my Number One Happy TV tv show currently on the air.
And then last night’s episode made me think!
Truth be told, I think this was something that started percolating in my brain last season, but it became a fully formed thought last night. One of the things that I love so very much about Jane the Virgin is how completely, unabashedly, apologetically feminine it is. Not feminist (not that I’m saying it’s not or can’t be a feminist show, just that that’s not the subject of this discussion), but feminine.
Jane the Virgin is a show about women. I know that’s a pretty obvious statement to make, but I think it’s important. Jane the Virgin is a show about women. There are male characters for sure, like Rafael and Michael and Rogelio, but the show is about the women. It’s about Jane and her life as a pregnant woman and eventual unwed mother, all while still being a virgin. And it’s about how she experiences the joys and the struggles of that, the stigma and the reverence. Rafael and Michael want to be a part of Jane’s life, but it’s still Jane’s life we’re focused on. And more than that, though – again – there are male characters, they’re relegated to the roles women usually play in a male led show: love interest or family member without much story of their own that isn’t directly tied to that status and expendable once that connection with Jane has been terminated. Whereas when it comes to lady characters we have Jane and the rest of the Villanueva women, best friend Lina, human disaster Luisa, psycho Petra, evil Magda, duplicitous Nadine, and finally the villanous Rose. It is the women who make up the bulk of our players, and it is their stories being told.
When it comes to those storyline, yes, there are the somewhat madcap telenovela overtones of the threat of Sin Rostro – like last night’s kidnapping of Matteo – but those stories are an exciting backdrop to the real stories of family, pregnancy, and motherhood. Matteo, for example, was rescued and returned to his mother within 12 minutes, but we spent the entire episode invested in the difficulty Jane was having breastfeeding her newborn son. And this was hardly a one off event when it comes to the experiences of pregnancy. No, the realities of Jane’s pregnancy – and indeed, the realities of any woman’s pregnancy – are front and center. They are talked about frankly and honestly. And they are expected to be just as engaging a part of the story as anything else. And for me, they are.
Since I started thinking about this – this inherent femininity so entrenched within Jane the Virgin – I’ve been thinking back over the previous seasons and realizing just how many of the details are similarly entrenched in the ideals and suppositions and sterotypes of feminity. Things like Jane’s chosen profession. Jane wants to be a writer, which at that vague of a description seems gender neutral enough, but she specifically wants to be an author of romance novels – a genre dominated by both women writers and women readers, and often times dismissed as less than because of it. But there is no dismissal of those dreams here. Instead, it’s with great bravery and talent that Jane quits her teaching job in order to focus on writing full time.
Jane’s faith and it’s manifestation into her desire to wait until marriage is also inherently feminine. That’s not to say there aren’t Christian men who save themselves for their wives, but those aren’t the stories we tell. When we tell stories of boys losing their virginity, it’s American Pie like pacts, doing everything they can to lose it. It’s the thrill of a the chase, with losing their virginity being tantamount to manhood. When it’s stories of waiting, it’s women who tell them. It’s Lane Kim and Mercedes Jones and April Kepner and Jane Villanueva. And it’s not just characters making that choice, it’s the audience wanting those stories, saying Annie and Jeff sleeping together would be creepy because of her young age, but no one cares about that when it’s Troy sleeping with Britta. Or the uproar surrounding Debbie Gallagher’s story line of trying to lose her virginity by 16, but no one batting an eye at her younger brother Carl trying to sleep with girlfriend Bonnie or getting a blow job in a back alley. I’m getting a little off track here, but suffice it to say, Jane‘s entire premise – from the pregnancy to the virginity – is inherently feminine.
That intrinsic femininity is seen is smaller details as well as the big ideas. It’s villainous Sin Rostro’s criminal organization not being based on drugs or guns, but on plastic surgery. It’s Petra’s ex-boyfriend attempting to get back at her by disfiguring her face, her appearance being that thing assumed to be most important to her. It’s the men in Luisa’s life deciding for her that she needs to be institutionalized for mental illness when she goes a little off the rails. It’s Petra’s idea that the only way she’ll be worth anything to Rafael is if she’s carrying his baby.
Jane the Virgin is nothing if not an extremely feminine show. I don’t know if that was the goal, but that’s what they’ve done so far. And I think it’s wonderful. It’s wonderful to see things like Jane’s dream of being a romance author being validated rather than dismissed or laughed at. It’s wonderful to celebrate and explore all these aspects of femininity. To recognize that they are worthy and engaging stories to be told. Sometimes I worry that the current wave of feminism strives too hard to put distance between women and these more traditional ideas of what femininity is. And while I think it’s important to smash to pieces the idea that femininity is only these things, I think it’s also important to see the value in them – the good and the bad. There is value is Jane’s story of motherhood. There is value in the joys and struggles of the Villanueva women. There is value in sentimentality and faith and romance. And there is value in exploring some of the not so good things associated with femininity, like Petra and Luisa’s stories.
It’s getting late and I’m worried I’m going off the rails at the end of this post, so I apologize. When I started writing this I feel like I had a much more coherent direction I was heading in, but now I’m sleepy. So I’ll just leave you with this.
There is value in the stories of women. In whatever form they come.