Feminism

Jane the Virgin May be the Most Progressive Show on Television

It may seem unlikely that a telenovela adaptation about a 23-year-old virgin by choice who was accidentally artificially inseminated by her soon-to-be baby daddy’s gynecologist sister would be a bastion of progressive ideas, but with every new episode this show surprises me more in its adept handling of issues of culture, family and sexuality.

As a quick warning, this post is going to contain some spoilers. In typical telenovela-style, almost every episode contains a multitude of crazy plot twists, so it is impossible for me to discuss the progressive issues raised on the show without giving away some of those twists. If you want to remain a blank sheet, then stop reading now and bookmark this post for when you’ve watched passed Chapter 8 of the first season of Jane the Virgin.

Jane the Virgin follows Jane Villanueva (played by the absolutely charming Gina Rodriguez) through her life and the lives of those around her as she deals with her virgin pregnancy, her fiancé and soon-to-be husband, her baby daddy who also happens to be her boss and for whom she is developing feelings, her father who she only recently met and happens to be a famous telenovela star, and her mother Xiomara and abuela Alba. Oh, and in addition to all this there is a murder mystery plotline involving her boss/baby-daddy/boyfriend’s(?) soon-to-be ex-wife, a mysterious drug kingpin, and a Serbian war criminal, and this only begins to touch on the convoluted plot-lines that run through Jane the Virgin. Throughout all the insane plot-twists and coincidences of the show, the characters feel real and genuine and have to deal with complex and very real social issues. It’s this authenticity that gives Jane the Virgin its heart. They deal with progressive issues in an honest way that no other show on television even gets close to.

Cast Diversity and Female Characters

Although in true CW-form all the characters on Jane the Virgin are impossibly beautiful, it contains an ethnically diverse cast. Almost all the characters on the show are people of color, relegating white people to the smaller, supporting roles. Plus, rather than just casting non-white actors and calling it diverse, the show lets the characters have their ethnicity as a part of what makes them who they are. Latinx culture permeates the show with lots of meta discussions about telenovelas, Abuela Alba speaking only in Spanish with subtitles rather than English with a Spanish accent as a lesser show might of done, and Catholic overtones. There are LGBTQ characters though their non-heterosexuality is hardly remarked on except for their choice in lovers. The affair between the lesbian and bisexual couple on the show is treated in the exact same way as the opposite-sex affairs rather than as an aberration.

In addition to all this, most of the characters on the show are women. Even the main family on the show is entirely made up of women, with the exception of Jane’s father who isn’t really considered a close member of the family the way her mother and abuela are. The women on Jane the Virgin run the show. Their choices are what moves the plot forward with the men merely having to react to the choices of the women around them. The female characters lead full, complex lives and make some good choices and some choices they regret. They have personalities with positive aspects but also with flaws. In other words, the women on Jane the Virgin are full human beings in a way that most female characters on television are not. Their lives are not run by men or overseen by men. They are going to make their own decisions, good or bad, and the men are just going to have to live with that.

Women’s Sexuality

It’s right there in the title: Jane is a virgin. She is also a virgin by choice. Although the show does start out with her abuela showing Jane a beautiful flower and explaining that this is her purity, only to crumple and destroy the flower, showing what would happen if Jane “gives away” that virginity, it later becomes clear that Jane is not choosing to stay a virgin based on outdated ideas about women’s sexuality. Although Jane and her family are Catholic and religion is clearly important to her, the main reasons she has for remaining a virgin seem not to to be because of religion at all. Firstly, Jane is worried about ending up like her mother who became pregnant at a young age before she was ready (an ironic reason considering in this universe Jane became pregnant regardless of holding on to her virginity). Jane knows that her own birth derailed her mother’s life plans and she believes that by staying a virgin until marriage she can avoid the same fate. However, once Jane is artificially inseminated she no longer needs to fear pregnancy and decides to have sex with her fiancé, which brings me to her second and primary reason for remaining a virgin. Jane’s abuela is very religious and for her remaining a virgin until marriage is very important. Jane knows that it hurts her abuela to think that Jane is violating this principle and so she eventually decides that having sex is just less important to her than her abuela’s feelings about it.

Feminism is rooted in the idea of “choice.” Feminism is about women being able to choose to go into the workforce or stay home. It’s about women being able to choose to have a baby or use contraception or even have an abortion. And, it’s about women being able to choose to have sex or to say “no” and have their choice respected, regardless of the reasons behind that choice.

Although not every character in the show agrees with Jane’s choice to not have sex, they all respect it (though we’ll have to wait to see if Rafael continues to remain so accommodating). Also, the show itself is respectful of Jane’s choice. The show doesn’t shame her for choosing to remain a virgin even as they show the hardship and ostracism Jane experiences being a virgin in a society where sex is the norm. At the same time, the show doesn’t hold Jane up as some sort of bastion of purity. As Latin Love Narrator tells us, Jane may be a virgin but she’s no saint.

The show sets up Jane’s mother Xiomara as the sexual contrast to Jane’s virginity. Xo is flirty and sexual even with men she just met, often wears form-fitting and revealing clothes, and is pursuing a career as some sort of sexy Spanish lounge singer. She often encourages Jane to be more open sexually. Most importantly though, just as the show doesn’t shame Jane for being a virgin it never shames Xo for being sexual. It sets up the two characters as having very different attitudes towards sex and modesty but without implying that any one side is more moral than the other. Jane and her mother just make different choices regarding sex and both of those choices are equally valid. That sure sounds like feminism to me.

Abortion

Although abortion is a subset of women’s sexuality, I wanted to discuss it separately. Now, we know that Jane is not going to get an abortion because a show about a girl who is accidentally impregnated and then gets an abortion and her life remains exactly as it was before isn’t particularly interesting. We know she’s going to have the baby, but the real question is how the show will handle the consideration of abortion.

It’s not uncommon for movies and tv shows to have a character’s life turned upside down by having an unexpected baby, leading to lots of drama and eventual life lessons for everyone involved. In these cases, the movie/show has to somehow explain why the character is not getting an abortion. Usually this is done either by the character just mentioning in passing that abortion is “not an option” or a character deciding to get an abortion and then changing her mind at the last minute for reasons that are never really clear, but probably involve some fluffy idea of “morals.” Most shows don’t get into a real discussion about abortion because no one wants politics mixing with their Seth Rogan comedies.

Jane the Virgin’s handling of the question of abortion in the first episode was one of the most honest depictions I’ve seen on television regarding abortion in which the character decides not to have one (though admittedly the bar is low). Jane and her family, especially her abuela, are quite religious. Abuela Alba does not want Jane to have an abortion though Jane’s mother disagrees. Xiomara knows from experience how much having a baby can upend a person’s life and she doesn’t want Jane to end up like her. Complicating her thought process, Jane knows that her mother considered abortion when she was pregnant with her. She believes that she was only born because abuela talked Xo out of having an abortion. She only learns at the end of the episode that in fact, abuela wanted Xo to get an abortion when she was a pregnant teenager but Xo chose not to get one. In other words, even though Jane’s abuela is Catholic and religious and always considered herself anti-abortion, when her own teenage daughter’s future life was at stake, she was not only willing to consider abortion for the sake of her daughter’s future, but also encouraged it. In the end though, it was up to her daughter and now her granddaughter to decide for herself.

Even though teenage Xo chose not to get an abortion, she makes sure her daughter knows that it is fully her choice. In fact, every character makes it clear to Jane that it is her choice, even Rafael who has a huge stake in the decision since Jane is carrying his only chance to ever have a child. In the end, Jane decides to continue her pregnancy. It’s her choice and hers alone, as it should be.

Immigration

Chapter 8 dealt a little bit with immigration and specifically illegal immigration. A flashback to Jane’s childhood showed Xo getting a parking ticket in the mail and Abuela Alba panicking. It turns out that Jane’s abuela is an undocumented immigrant. Jane and her mother both seem to have been born in the U.S., so Abuela Alba must have come to the U.S. around forty years prior to the present (Jane is 23 and her mother had her when she was 16). Even decades later, Abuela Alba still gets extremely anxious when anyone in her family is involved with the government or courts. If someone dug into the family history and learned she did not come to the U.S. legally, she could be forcefully deported from the place that she has lived most of her life.

Most media portrayals of undocumented immigrants seem to portray them in a dehumanized manner or even as criminals. Abuela Alba fits closer with the reality of undocumented immigrants. She came to the U.S. so her family could have a better life, but if she is found out she could be separated from that family forever. Jane ends up dropping her lawsuit against the gynecologist that accidentally impregnated her in order to avoid anyone learning about her abuela’s status. Frankly, Jane deserved to win that lawsuit. This was a serious case of medical malpractice and Jane should receive compensation. However, she must drop the case because it’s not worth the risk that her abuela could be found out and deported. It’s one more way in which the threat of deportation puts their family in a position where they must give up basic rights in order to stay under the radar.

As Jane the Virgin makes clear, the current system of deporting undocumented workers leads to families living in fear and makes it impossible even for their children to live as full citizens. Perhaps President Obama’s new immigration policy will change things for the many non-fictional families whose lives seem parallel to that of the Villanuevas.


I hope I have convinced you at this point that Jane the Virgin is an absolute gem of a show and unlike everything else on television, especially in regard to its progressive idealism. From what I’ve been hearing, the show has not been getting the best ratings despite being critically acclaimed and having a pile of golden globe nominations, so please go watch it.

Jane the Virgin is a bit of a risky show, but if it can get good ratings it will prove that there is a market for other similarly progressive shows that are woman-centered. I highly suggest reading this excellent AVClub interview with showrunner Jennie Urman where she discusses everything that went into convincing CW this was a show worth backing. The show isn’t perfect but it’s certainly one of the best shows currently on television. Go watch it if you aren’t already and if you are a fellow fan let me know in the comments what other progressive themes you’ve picked up on in the show or even some anti-progressive messages that I may have glossed over but should be picked apart.

Jamie Bernstein

Jamie Bernstein

Jamie is a data, stats, policy and economics nerd who sometimes pretends she is a photographer. You can usually find her at skeptic events in Chicago or on Twitter or Flickr. She also blogs about music at Notes From Chicago Music Underground.

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4 Comments

  1. December 17, 2014 at 10:32 am —

    This doesn’t surprise me at all, the last “telenovela” to American television translation (Ugly Betty) was similarly deft at handling touchy subjects in a very progressive way (not surprising given that Salma Hayek was executive producer) while still being plenty goofy. I already watch too many shows but once I get bored with too many procedurals I’ll have to give Jane the Virgin a look since Glee has failed to scratch my “goofy melodrama with a heart AND a head” itch sufficiently, especially of late.

  2. December 17, 2014 at 12:54 pm —

    Especially important is that there is no way anyone can say her pregnancy is her fault. And she chooses (There’s that word, chooses. See, right-wingers? Pro-choice doesn’t necessarily mean everyone has an abortion.) not to have an abortion.

  3. December 18, 2014 at 2:56 am —

    Interesting writeup. I’d never heard of the show (don’t turn the tv on much these days).

    I’ve also never heard the word “telenovela” before. What is it?

  4. December 20, 2014 at 10:25 pm —

    Another show I’ve found surprisingly progressive is Disney’s ‘Girl Meets World’, sequel the old ‘Boy Meets World’ from the nineties.

    The main characters are in the 7th grade (I think), but they’re up front with the idea that girls are attracted to boys. Sometimes I’m amazed they’re as forward as they are. It is Disney, after all.

    And their friend, Lucas, is a pretty good role model for young men, too. Though he’s a little over traditional.

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