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.