This article contains minor spoilers from the first two seasons of “Jane the Virgin.”
The first time I remember seeing a part of my identity mirrored on screen was, as a child, watching Jennifer Lopez play Selena in the eponymous ‘90s film that I’ve watched, inarguably, too many times since then. Sadly, thereafter, most of my experiences watching Latinas on either the small or big screen have been disappointing. The rarity of seeing someone who looks like me projected onto a theater screen or pop up in my living room has been received with piqued interest, quickly followed by disappointment at seeing my likeness fecklessly misunderstood and misrepresented over the years. So you could imagine my elation at discovering a show like “Jane the Virgin” earlier this year.
But before I get into my effulgent praise of the CW’s hit series, allow me to explain my exasperation as a Mexican-female spectator.
Too often, the Latina has been whitewashed, caricatured, fetishized, stereotyped or placed in the background as ethnic décor. The TV landscape, despite showing promising strides of diversity lately – e.g., “Master of None,” “Supergirl,” “Transparent,” “Jessica Jones,” “Fresh off the Boat,” etc. – continues to be overwhelmingly dominated by non-minorities (white, heterosexual, cisgender, male).
Normally, shows featuring a Hispanic family tend to concentrate on a white family instead (“Fear the Walking Dead”) or a white protagonist (“Orange is the New Black”). Often shows attempt to portray growing racial shifts that unfortunately exacerbate racial stereotypes (first season of “American Crime”) or employ humor of the lowest common denominator (“Bordertown”) that exploits minority groups.
Recently, networks like NBC and FOX made an effort to carry shows that starred and were produced or executive-produced by famous Latinas: America Ferrera in “Superstore,” Eva Longoria in (the now cancelled) “Telenovela” and Lopez in “Shades of Blue.” The latest TV venture is “Queen of the South,” a crime drama starring Alice Braga, who plays a woman that eventually manifests into a powerful crime boss. I’m supposed to ignore the fact that in the first episode we see Braga’s character get raped to tell you it’s wonderful that another Latina is at the forefront of cable (excuse me if I fail to recall this ever happening to Wagner Moura’s character in “Narcos”). It is still rare, though, to see a Latina headlining her own series, because despite attempts to diversify, the Latina continues to be an enigma on screen, subjected to a fetishistic, phallocentric gaze or employed to demonstrate the hardship of otherness in, too often, the most undignified manner that affords her little agency in a story that is usually constructed by the racial and/or gender hegemony.
“Jane the Virgin” is exceptionally different in this regard.
The show, which pays playful homage to the romantic comedy telenoleva tropes and format, focuses on Jane (Golden Globe winner Gina Rodriguez), a young student and aspiring romance novelist, as she deals with life after being accidentally, artificially inseminated and becomes pregnant. The show delicately balances between comedy – both slapstick and spoofing of the telenovela from which it borrows its melodramatic elements from – and its more serious notes (all of which Rodriguez nails with disarming authenticity). Jane, the youngest of three generations of women living together, is so three-dimensional, she reads like a real person, albeit often being caught in the struggles of a quixotic love triangle (#TeamMichael).
What’s so nice about the fact that Jane is a young mom is that this derails her very little in pursuing her goals. The same can be said of the other women on the show. Jane’s mother, Xiomara (Andrea Navedo), was a teenager when she became pregnant with Jane. When Xiomara isn’t helping her family, she is out pursuing her lifelong dream of becoming a singer and dancer. Too often I see women under-written as maternal archetypes, swept to the sidelines of narratives, peeping out occasionally to provide passé “mom support.” Even Jane’s abuela, Alba (Ivonne Coll), is given small romantic sub-plots throughout the series that grant her character gravitas and agency, and aims at dispelling antiquated notions that women have a shelf life and should permanently put on the apron after a certain age while disregarding their own needs and, often, prurient desires.
“Jane” is not only a series about strong women in general, but, more specifically, it is also about presenting realistic, positive imagery of women of color.
Having similar cultural backgrounds, I was drawn to Jane’s home life. We both share a bi-cultural upbringing with ties to the Catholic Church. We both have a religious grandmother whose answer to everything is relentless prayer. And (before watching the show believed I was the only person that did this) we both have entire conversations in English with a family member who speaks Spanish. It’s also impossible not to notice that we both share similar features: dark hair, dark eyes and a curvy figure, which allows the show to heedfully reject the ubiquitous female figure constructed in mainstream media, opting for someone who is magnificently normal.
Jane, though, very much representing her Spanish-speaking heritage, is not defined by her ethnicity or appearance. She is a fully fleshed-out human being, who dares to be happy in the face of oppressive stereotypes polluting people’s perceptions of not just women but women of color on screen.
It seems odd that Hollywood has placed Latinos in media barrios – limited roles with little opportunity to get out – when we’re 54 million-plus in the U.S., according to a 2014 study by the Census Bureau. That’s roughly 17 percent of the nation’s population. However, Latinos are continually “underrepresented” on screen, according to a study conducted by UCLA’s 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report: Flipping the Script. The study states that Latino characters made up 5.6 percent of select TV shows during the 2012-2013 season, less than half of the U.S. population. And according to a study released in February by the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, less than 38 percent of actresses are Latina and they are the most sexualized of a minority group.
TV’s representation of Latino characters is dismal and Hollywood has not been any more kind. Recently, critics called out the latest Coen brothers’ film, “Hail Caesar!” for its lack of diversity. Firstly, I love the Coen brothers and they have always had excellent actors in their films. However, I would be remiss not to address their inclusion of a minor character in “Hail Caesar!” In the film, Veronica Osorio plays Carlotta Valdez – the Carmen Miranda of the Coen’s alternate ‘50s Hollywood universe. What is so upsetting about this character, besides being vexingly cliché, is the fact that she’s there for no other reason than ethnic décor, a prop used to give her suitor, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), an excuse to showcase his skills and advance his story-line forward. It would have been nice if Carlotta could have mentioned the hurdles of stereotypical roles and trying to break out in an industry that likes to put its stars in a box (especially considering Scarlett Johansson’s character is given opportunity to vent). I understand the Coens have no obligation to address such issues in their films, nor was the issue of diversity a topic in this or, really, any of their films, but it’s upsetting when the limited opportunities I get to see a Latina in a movie are so inauthentic, albeit inspired by reality.
With the recent Oscars installment, two other films flirt across my mind: “Cartel Land” and “Sicario.” Both films were nominated for Academy Awards this year and both films also, tragically and honestly, illustrate the political corruption and macabre drug warfare that plagues much of Mexico. However, why are films about Mexicans/Mexico always so violent? Why are we always suffering for illustrious statues?
What I like about “Jane the Virgin” is that it proves a happy, confident, funny and resilient woman of color is just as engaging to watch, if not more, than one that is hurting. When was the last time you saw a Latina on screen who wasn’t suffering? Who wasn’t being raped (“Narcos”), serving as a drug mule (“Maria Full of Grace”) or finds her strength through trauma (“Colombiana”)? Sadly, in the first two episodes, “Queen of the South” fulfills all these requisites. And let’s not forget that none of the aforementioned stories are mediated by women.
“Jane” manages to deal with serious topics without subjecting anyone to ethnic or gender stereotypes. The series, as amusing as it is, addresses sobering, life-changing issues like abortion, sex, religion and economic stratifications. But it’s probably the care and attention it pays to topics like immigration reform that makes this a socially important series that reflects an audience and a community not yet used to seeing matters they relate to personified on screen in a dignified fashion. For example, when Jane’s abuela, who is an undocumented immigrant from Venezuela, is taken to the hospital after an accident, she ends up at risk of medical repatriation – a process in which hospitals return patients to their home country if they don’t have proper documentation. Luckily, everything turns out well for Alba but not before driving home the message to viewers that these are very real fears and issues many families in this country have and go through, including my own.
The show does an excellent job of, time and time again, presenting women (of all races) with verisimilitude, whether it’s breaching the topic of slut-shaming (an incredibly common issue within Catholic matriarchs), as what happened this season with Abuela and Xiomara or showcasing the realistic struggles of pregnant women (breastfeeding) or first-time moms (postpartum depression). The show never shies away from offering its female characters as layered, complex, often flawed human beings who circumvent stereotypes and expectations.
Part of this reason is due to the fact that the series has a female showrunner – Jennie Snyder Urman (also serving as executive-producer and writer), whose previous works include executive-producing the stupid-good cult-TV show “Gilmore Girls.” It’s no coincidence either that many of the episodes are written and directed by females. Seventy-one percent of the show’s episodes from the 2014-2015 season were directed by women, according to a 2015 Directors Guild of America TV Diversity Report. Studies have shown that when there are women working in positions of power behind the camera, there tends to be more women overall working on the production. Some of 2015s best shows had female showrunners, many of them having honorably diverse casts like “Scandal,” “Jessica Jones” and “Supergirl”. Women and occupations of authority go together like Rogelio and lavender (sorry, only “Jane” fans will understand this).
The fact that “Jane” has so many female influences from behind the camera from week-to-week, allows the show to demonstrate how powerful the female is, very often, featuring female characters who hold powerful occupations, e.g., lawyer, doctor, psychologist, author, businesswoman, TV writer and director, network executive, professor – the latter of which lends itself for underscoring the importance of female mentorship (imagine how insulting, not to mention neglectful, it would be for Jane to get writing advice from a man when so many female writers are involved in the series), like when Jane and her grad school adviser (Melanie Mayron) struggle to find middle-ground when it comes to her story assignments. Nothing about the interactions the women have on the show are ever easy, unchallenging or painted with broad brush strokes. And none of the women are ever vilified to an irreversible degree, not even Petra (Yael Grobglas), who in any other series might have been relegated to the two-dimensional “mean girl” archetype, but instead is given layered story-lines with ample room to show Petra’s richly complicated narrative arc. Because Jane and Petra are now part of the same family circle they have to constantly work on their relationship, which is often strained, but occasionally demonstrates how capable women are of bonding, like when Jane offered her support to Petra during a difficult pregnancy or when Petra helped Jane and her fiancé find a home during financial hardship.
I’d like to go back to the issue of race, because it’s important to note how crucial opportunity is for minority actors. Rodriguez, who is of Puerto Rican descent, plays a character of Venezuelan decent. Lopez, a famous Puerto Rican, gained fame two decades ago for playing the late Mexican-American singer Selena. This type of cross-casting between Latino actors happens often.
“The Latino community here in this country is comprised of multiple cultures,” said Rodriguez during an interview for Sundance TVs “Behind the Story” last year. “And so the industry says, ‘let’s hire a Latino.’ And the Latinos say, ‘well, you want a Mexican and I’m Puerto Rican. You want a Guatemalan, and I’m from El Salvador. You want a Cuban, and I’m Dominican’…if they’re gonna put us under one umbrella…we need to unite,” she said.“Because we all share the same struggle.”
This struggle shows itself in the aforementioned stereotyping, but also in racial whitewashing, where white actors portray characters of Spanish-speaking descent, e.g., “Argo,” “The Impossible,” “Scarface,” “Evita” and the always-cringe-worthy “West Side Story” (read Cristina Arreola’s article for Latina magazine for more examples). These examples wouldn’t seem as ignominious and offensive if there was more representation of Latinos on screen, because Latinos steal traditionally white roles also – just look at what FOX’s “Grease Live” did (successfully, might I add) with color-blind casting earlier this year. Color-blind casting, of course, won’t fix anything, although, it does create opportunity for many qualified actors of color. There’s also the issue of cultural erasure, where Latino actors portray white-washed characters to appeal to a whiter/wider audience. Examples include Andy Garcia in Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s” trilogy, Lopez in “The Cell” or “The Boy Next Door,” Jessica Alba in the “Fantastic 4” films and the majority of Raquel Welch and Rita Hayworth’s careers.
So to see a qualified Latina actress like Rodriguez play a character like Jane, a wonderfully complicated woman of color, is paramount to opening the doors for more stories and characters that reflect a growing community that is tired of being ignored or misinterpreted. Because the show should serve as an example of how it could be all the time, rather than a fantasy or a rare chance at glimpsing something unconventional.
It’s been twenty years, since the first time I saw “Selena.” As a Mexican girl, how could I not have been attracted to the image of another brown female – one who was unapologetically herself, loved to laugh and consumed pizza like a garbage disposal – when she stood out so prominently to me? It’s unfortunate that there are so few examples like that between the time “Selena” came out and now. “Jane” is a powerful antidote to the degradation of Latinas on screen, surely giving many Latina girls much-needed positive imagery that was so conspicuously scarce when I was young. I take comfort knowing Jane is someone’s Selena, someone who will evoke nostalgic memories in the years to come and will remind them of that time the media got us right.