At the age of 5, I heard the first lie I ever recognized. It was the 1990s and I was in elementary school, an endeavor that included being woken up before sunrise by my mother. “You have to get up,” she would say. My mom was in nursing school and had long days, meaning I had long days too, ones that began before early-morning cartoons excited my older brother and sister and me into being. Days were bookended with TV shows, the age-appropriate ones reminding me that I was the youngest, which made me try to stretch my understanding to the older kids’ level. But none of us knew what was age-appropriate to begin with, so we also watched whatever was popular, like Saved by the Bell and Married With Children. Those shows told lies, but I didn’t know that then.
The first lie I recognized came when my classmate Amanda said I was the one who used crayons in the pencil sharpener, and I cried. I was so embarrassed of my tears that I began to cry worse, an ugly cry of snot and the severe breathing of an inconsolable child. I began to cry, less from the injustice—Amanda ruined the pencil sharpener and lied to get out of trouble—and more because I was crying at all.
Five-year-old me rarely saw emotional depictions of men in front of my family’s TV in the ’90s. Instead, on Saved by the Bell I watched Zack Morris scheme and maneuver to get what he wanted; he was a charismatic and often cold trickster who sometimes made other kids at school cry. On Married With Children I saw patriarch Al Bundy sound off about a version of manhood that involved nostalgia and superiority: “It used to be so great to be a man,” he said. “Women were there to please us.” I saw him found an anti-feminist organization called NO MA’AM and fake-cry when he was made to kiss his wife. All this also explains why I’m now jealous, as an adult, of a fictional boy: 5-year old Mateo Gloriano Rogelio Solano Villanueva, the son of Jane on the fantastic Jane the Virgin, which is now rounding out its fourth season.
More specifically, I’m jealous of (and inspired by) the male influence of Mateo’s grandfather Rogelio De La Vega: the rich, self-absorbed character played by Jaime Camil who takes the trope of the narcissistic, powerful man and turns it on its head. Rogelio is a star of telenovela fame, an A-list actor whose fans included the protagonist, Jane, her mother, Xiomara, and Jane’s abuela Alba. As viewers of the show well know, the identity of Jane’s biological father was a mystery until the pilot-episode twist revealing that it is Rogelio, and that Jane is the daughter of the man she’d grown up watching on TV.
If Jane the Virgin is a clever homage to the dramatics of telenovelas (Mateo himself is the result of Jane being accidentally artificially inseminated), Rogelio’s personality is, true to the telenovela characters he plays, larger than life. He might make amends by filling a limousine with hundreds of flowers (as he did earlier this season, after an argument with Xiomara); he feels so deeply that when he wants to make a gesture, nothing small will do. He also cries: Over the seasons, he’s wiped away tears on his daughter Jane’s long-awaited wedding day, teared up while talking about his best friend, and wept in fear of the potentially malignant lump that doctors found on his wife’s breast. He’s by no means perfect—his history with women includes custom gift baskets to mitigate any harm done from sex that was more casual for him than for his partner—but his flaws are accompanied by a willingness to be vulnerable. A recent episode put Rogelio in funny, poignant conversation with his imaginary inner critic to learn just how challenging it must be for others to deal with his egotism.
Such scenes show a transparent desire for self-improvement that puts Rogelio in stark contrast to characters like Zack Morris and Al Bundy, who both projected, in their different ways, a “boys will be boys” toughness that, as a kid, I thought I was supposed to emulate. Rogelio is vain, caring, and generous; he’s fame-obsessed and enormously passionate. He also challenges the slippery concept of acceptable manhood without qualifying labels to define him, and I marvel at what his presence on TV might mean for younger viewers today—partially in hope, partially with envy.
Over the years, into my teens and young adulthood, television often fell woefully short of showing emotion or flexibility in men as sources of strength or satisfying resolution. Men displaying “unmasculine” qualities have regularly been the source of comedy, the mere act of being “feminine” the joke. On Friends, Joey wears a “man-purse” and tries to defend it; the laugh track is cued to his subsequent debasement. In How I Met Your Mother, Marshall’s neediness is juxtaposed with Lily’s brashness, a reversal of gender roles that would be creditable if not for the show’s presumption that it’s hilarious that Marshall is the type of man who cries after his job interviews and promises not to do so again.
Rogelio, on the other hand, is someone who has sought to plumb his own feelings over the course of several seasons, and the show celebrates him for it. He has learned to better understand the women around him—his daughter Jane, his wife, Xo, and his co-parent and sometime nemesis, Darci. After being held hostage by a kidnapper in Season 2, Rogelio healed by talking through his trauma, and later fell in love with therapy at the suggestion of his wife. His strength and charisma spur from his growing honesty with himself and with those he loves.
Characters like Rogelio—as well as Cisco Ramon and Joe West, the best friend and adoptive father, respectively, of the titular costumed crime-fighter on The Flash—debunk a monolithic portrayal of manhood that never really existed to begin with. In flouting gender stereotypes and behavioral expectations, they can also expand boys’ perceptions of acceptable emotion beyond forms of anger. I want more Ciscos, who are not embarrassed to be beaten in combat by a girl and, rather, expect it from a girl who is a better-trained fighter. I want more Joe Wests, who defers to his daughter’s leadership more than his own. I want more Rogelios to show more 5-year old Mateos the freedom to be themselves, and fewer Zacks to teach fewer 5-year old mes, confused and trapped in an emotionally constricted box.
Earlier this season on Jane the Virgin, Mateo felt powerful after accomplishing what he thought was a magical feat. “I’m like Wonder Woman, daddy!” he yelled, flexing his muscles. I wanted to hug the scene, in which a boy character was shown relating to a woman—to aspire, even—without shame, and with heart-swelling pride. Damn right you’re strong like Wonder Woman, Mr. Sweet Face. May a whole generation of boys grow to be just as strong as her and Nubia, I thought as I watched. Perceptions of masculinity are informed by everything and everyone around us, and for me, a latchkey kid with hours of entertainment budgeted into each day, media played as significant a role in shaping those ideas as did my own parents. For better or worse, it taught me what it meant to be a boy—at least, what I understood it to mean.
Critical reception has reflected the demand for shows like Jane the Virgin, with its portrayals of nonmarried co-parenting, its thoughtful Latinx representation, and its myriad complex identities. At the end of its fourth season, the award-winning drama still reaches more than half a million viewers per episode. Camil himself is a three-time Teen Choice Awards nominee—a reminder that adults aren’t the only ones watching the series, that young people are tuning in as well. It’s meaningful for kids to see a Latin American star in touch with his sensitive side, as likely to have a passionate outburst as he is to offer a heartfelt apology after realizing any damage he’s caused. It’s meaningful, too, that his intimacy isn’t reserved simply for romantic relationships, that he establishes close ties with anyone who is important to his family, including a special bond with Jane’s boyfriend-turned-husband, Michael.
It’s also a testament to Rogelio’s complexity that viewers don’t simply loathe a wealthy man who says things like, “I’m a huge proponent of nepotism.” Some of my own admiration owes partly to his ability to do what we might all wish we could do for the ones we love: Spin out big ideas, spare no expense. Rogelio is at his best when he cuts his sporadic hyper-masculinity with soft-hearted (and knowing) charm—such as when he plays the part of an emotionally bottled-up man requiring his wife to ask three times what is bothering him, before allowing himself, appreciatively, to spill his feelings. His pride, when it appears, is often made the butt of a joke: “I take my craft very seriously,” he says. “Which you can tell by my use of the word craft.”
Dynamic portrayals of manhood may have a ways to go, but characters like Rogelio De La Vega—macho and make-up’ed, a person who is complicated and open-hearted and actively learning from those around him—help to chip away at long-held notions of masculinity that linger in the foundations of so much pop culture. I needed positive representations of boyhood in children’s cartoons as much as I needed them in my teens, as much as I need them now. Because I want to cry, talk it out, and feel as strong as Wonder Woman, too.