Jane the Virgin Proves Diversity Is More Than Skin Deep

By subverting its telenovela format, the show goes beyond colorblind casting to weave Latino culture into every part of its story.

The CW

As the only show currently on network television with a predominantly Latino cast, Jane the Virgin matters. The CW’s comedy-drama, loosely adapted from a Venezuelan telenovela and now in its second season, coincides with a reinvigorated debate about immigration, citizenship, and Latinos in America. 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.

Jane the Virgin doesn’t just make its Latino characters visible: It makes their point of view the dominant lens of the show and filters their stories through the socially aware telenovela format. True, this means it inhabits an outlandish world of hyperbolic gestures and emotions. But the telenovela is a important cultural touchstone for many Latinos—the second-season opener even begins with a flashback showing Jane as a young girl fretting over the future of the couple on her favorite telenovela. As such, the format is uniquely suited to amplify how gender and race shape the lives of Jane and her family, making Jane the Virgin the rare diverse show that embraces the cultural origins of its characters on multiple levels.

Among the many issues it cares about is the concept of Latina womanhood—not that there is a monolithic Latina womanhood, or that Jane the Virgin is the first show to star Latinas. The series focuses on three different generations: 23-year-old Jane (Gina Rodriguez), her mother Xiomara, and her grandmother, Alba. 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.”

Instead, it takes the more daring route of understanding its female characters. Latin American telenovelas often rely on problematic portrayals of women that fall into two types: sexy, fiery, and brazen, or cloyingly sweet, naïve, and submissive (though this has changed in recent years). Jane’s mother and grandmother are modeled after these opposing versions of Latina femininity. Alba (Ivonne Coll) is a warm-hearted, endearing grandmother. Because she’s also a devout Catholic, her granddaughter’s virginity is important to her. But Alba’s preoccupation with Jane’s purity is also a result of her daughter’s teen pregnancy. Xiomara (Andrea Navedo), now a 39-year-old aspiring pop star, is the counterbalance to her mother. She’s flighty, sassy, and often forces Jane into the role of caretaker. Even though telenovelas often present these two types of womanhood as irreconcilable, Jane the Virgin spends a lot of time teasing out their hidden complexities.

In the pilot, an accidental artificial insemination leaves Jane pregnant and seriously contemplating whether she wants to be a mother. When Jane asks Xiomara if she regrets not getting an abortion, Xiomara replies in a roundabout way, seemingly confirming Jane’s feeling that her birth derailed her mother’s plans. Jane fears her mother would have chosen an abortion if Alba had allowed it, but the show doesn’t allow that interpretation to last long. Later, Alba confesses to Jane that she, in fact, advised Xiomara to get an abortion, but Xiomara refused. By subverting what’s typically expected of characters like Alba and Xiomara, the show makes the telenovela format its own and adds dimension to characters who could otherwise be flat and unoriginal.

Similarly, Jane’s status as a “virgin,” cemented in the show’s title, seems destined to define her. Instead, she quite literally “tries on” various types of womanhood as episodes progress. In scenes that play out in Jane’s imagination, and that combine Pedro Almodovar’s satirical edge with Amélie’s whimsy, she becomes a sexy maiden, a damsel in distress, a girl-next-door, a saint, and a rom-com heroine. Her flights of fancy evolve into more elaborate set pieces, a change that coincides with Jane accepting her ambitions to be a writer. Over time, she learns some roles “fit” her better than others. 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. Jane the Virgin’s attempt to legitimize and revise the representation of women in the telenovela makes it clear that it takes its characters and its Latina viewers seriously.

The context in which telenovela characters develop is distinct from U.S. soap operas or primetime television. The telenovela is a historically and politically aware genre; it attends to the class conflicts and institutional problems that its audiences face. As such the telenovela’s focus on love, marriage, and the reconstitution of the nuclear family comes from an effort to romanticize stability. Cinderella stories of impoverished “good” girls who fall in love with rich men temper concerns about poverty and social mobility. In Jane the Virgin, these themes play out in much the same way, and the question of the women’s financial security is woven into romantic storylines. Alba’s backstory reads like a fairy tale: She fell in love with a rich boy who came from Venezuelan oil money, but her parents didn’t approve. He gave up his fortune and decided to move to America with her. When Xiomara rekindles her romance with Rogelio, a rich and famous telenovela star, she too seems headed for her own happy ending.

But telenovela heroines must earn their happy endings—by establishing their moral superiority over their rivals. Morality and religion play a big role in telenovelas, much like they do in the everyday lives of many Latinos and Latin Americans. In Jane the Virgin, Catholicism is deployed to test the women’s views on sex and motherhood, as seen in the abortion storyline of the first episode. This comes up again in a later episode when Jane, already pregnant, decides to have sex with her fiancée, Michael, despite initially wanting to wait until marriage. The show renders their decision a practical one—after all, what does Jane have to lose now that she’s pregnant? But it’s harder than anticipated for Jane to let go of Alba’s well-intentioned but overwrought proclamations about the sacredness of Jane’s “flower.”

But perhaps the most important way Jane the Virgin reveals itself as a show with an inherently Latino perspective is how it deals with issues of citizenship. In an unlikely sequence of events, Alba ends up in the hospital in a coma. Xiomara is informed that because Alba’s in the country illegally, she’ll be deported when she wakes up. At this moment, text appears onscreen that reads, “Yes, this really happens. Look it up. #immigrationreform.” The possible separation of Alba from Jane and Xiomara threatens the stability of the show’s emotional center, but this medical-repatriation plot point isn’t just played for dramatic effect. It’s of the same tradition as other telenovelas like Tierra de Pasiones (Land of Passions) and El Alma Herida (The Wounded Soul) that also explicitly deal with immigration issues.

Jane the Virgin is the rare show that builds the culture of the people it’s depicting into its very DNA. It so expertly deploys tropes, styles, and themes familiar to Latino audiences—while still being accessible to a broad range of viewers—that it almost seems crass to call it a successful case study of what happens when a network commits to “diversity.” What Jane has accomplished in its first season is admirable, and not all shows depicting underrepresented groups can strike a perfect balance between entertainment and political awareness. Perhaps to blame is the prevailing belief that actors of color should most aspire to roles with no racial component. But color-blind casting just makes televisual worlds look more like reality: As Jane the Virgin proves, the messy, beautiful specifics are what bring that reality to life onscreen.