Depictions of Family, Love, and Writing in Jane the Virgin
Depictions of Family, Love, and Writing in Jane the Virgin
In between episodes, my keyboard and I share tentative, yet knowing stares that I will return back to them. I glance to the moon, a pesky intermediary hanging in my basement’s window before I decided to give into my nightingale and click “play,” instead of continuing my studying for the cumbersome midterm season.
My face is lit from the fluorescent light of my laptop screen, as the suave voice of the Latin Lover Narrator recaps Jane the Virgin’s dramatic, telenovela-style plots, beckoning me to find solace in Jane Villanueva’s world once again. The English-language telenovela is based on the premise of the popular Venezuelan series Juana la Virgen where a young religious Latina is accidentally artificially inseminated. And like most soap operas, it’s awash in Hollywood, telenovela-like glamour: with beautiful actors like Gina Rodriguez, Justin Baldoni, and Yael Grobglas and their beautifully-poised breakdowns and subsequent come-ups set against a dreamy, opulent Miami, Florida.
That—and its meta references to telenovela tropes like amnesia, characters coming back from the dead, long-lost siblings, and love triangles galore―make for a formulaic, but reliable watching experience. We all need a reprieve from the stuffiness of critically-acclaimed movies and the whiplash of every new netflix show. And you know what it’s like to be burned by a drafty ending, by the utter disappointment that comes with an ambiguous resolution done disdainfully in the name of art.
And with this reasoning, I give in once again. My notions of time and a healthy circadian rhythm fall away imperceptibly and I double down on binge-watching this wonderfully ludicrous show, the same way you would spend the entire night talking on the phone with your new beau.
My On-Again Off-Again Relationship with Telenovelas
As a self-described “trash TV” enthusiast and serial hate watcher, the mostly English-language soap opera had been my guilty pleasure, something I would (and still) indulge in within the comfort and privacy of my room in the wee hours of night. It is quite similar to my childhood routine of clandestinely watching telenovelas with my elder sister; we would wait until my mother went to work before tuning into not very age-appropriate telenovelas. Among our favorites were El Clon (The Clone), Al Diablo con Los Guapos (Down with the Beautiful), and Aurora.
Our older brothers, preoccupied with video games and reenacting WWE moves like the Batista Bomb, turned a blind eye to our “girly” shows. That is, until they peddled this information as ammunition for some juvenile misdoing, a way for them to lessen the blow from our mother’s lecturing. I parted from telenovela-watching despondently, but understood ultimately that I was probably too chiquitita to be watching, knowing I would wait until I was “of age.” Meaning fifteen years old or so.
In the time that I did watch novelas, I rationalized to myself that these were not shallow love stories of debauchery, but a way for us to see ourselves, to hear the language we were brought up with, and to learn the rhetoric of love in Spanish (and the theatrics and colorful insults too). For the former point, it did feel like an integral part of my identity formation. I was Jade, a rebellious girl fleeing from tradition; I was Milagros, a young servant girl falling in love with someone out of reach; I was Aurora, princesa de hielo, trying to recuperate a long-lost love after being cryogenically revived.
My fevered identification with these protagonists diminished as I became older. I grew more cynical of the narratives these novelas gorged me of ten times over, but had a back and forth dynamic with novela-watching, each time reminding myself that these representations of love and relationships were one-note, unrealistic, and sometimes, even damaging.
As I watch Jane the Virgin, I watch with a critical eye and notice: the lack of Afro-Latinx people, the treatment of Black people (through the character of Roman Zazo), the objectification of Rafael at any opportunity, using a character that battles with alcohol addiction as comic relief, and so on. I do, however, commend its merits, for its overall positive Latinx representation, how it wove in an immigration plotline in an anti-immigrant time, and showcasing all different kinds of love―platonic, familial, and romantic.
But this time around with rewatching, I am not Jane, the hopelessly romantic novelist with a tight-knit matriarchal family, but a covetous spectator.
Love Overcomes All: Family Building
“It’s straight out of a telenovela!” quips the Latin Lover Narrator. And that it is, which bears a connotation that can be negative or positive, depending on the tides of time. I argue that Jane the Virgin has both good and bad to weigh in on. I don’t harbor unequivocal love for the series, but an appreciation for the repose it brings me.
Yet what remains after every marathon of rewatching is a newfound mix of disillusionment and residual longing, stemming from a childhood where telenovelas had a hold of my imagination and were for me, an unbridled extension of it. Whereas traditional telenovelas went above and beyond to produce a story perched upon a ledge too high up for me to grasp, Jane the Virgin abridges the gap between reality and fantasy, enmeshing the mundane with the surreal to relay both the frivolity and callousness of real life.
Characters in the series respond to stressful events in the way you and I, or any other regular person would. They freak out, mourn, complain, and experience trauma the way we all would, no suspension of disbelief necessary on the viewers’ part.
However, I can unjustifiably (and will) fuss over the fact that my heart does not glow in tender moments like it does for Jane, nor does a light romantic guitar riff accompany these so-called tender moments. There are no meet-cutes, no telenovela father, no homely hotel magnate, and no steadfastly loyal policeman. These creative additions reflect our interpretation of moments, resembling the way perspective and time colors memory. But at its core, the series is about this elusive thing, the thing of novelas, the idea that, amor supera todo which tinges the show with a sense of truth and familiarity.
With the beauty of the Michael-Jane-Rafael love triangle and the artificial insemination storyline as the foundation, initially the show is marked by the question of “Who will she end up with?” which it retains till the end, but it also evolves into this idea that we all deserve love and in turn, a family. It amplifies marginalized voices and gives a platform to unconventional love stories between family, friends, and even past lovers and enemies.
It is not a novel idea in any way: the true love story of Jane the Virgin could be perceived as being that of family, like other beloved series. From the very start, the Villanueva family contrasts the white nuclear family of the twentieth century and of American sitcoms like The Brady Bunch and Full House, not just in the situations they find themselves in, but they very makeup of the characters.
As a family unit, they’re three generations of Venezuelan-American women from modest means. They ride the public bus, work service jobs, and live in small dignified home where they bond over their shared love of telenovelas, arepas, and grilled cheese sandwiches. They’re much like the quintessential Latinx-American family from my neighborhood.
Alba, Jane’s abuela is a first-generation immigrant who speaks Spanish most of the time. Alba’s personal development in the series coincides with her path to becoming a citizen. Initially, quite stagnant and fearful of her status, but at the end more confident and open with herself and others. Her daughter, Xiomara, who Jane bumps heads with her time after time, gave birth to Jane as a teenager, but is now a dance instructor and aspiring singer. This almost combative dynamic is then replicated with Jane, with whom Jane is perpetually frustrated because of her naïve antics and self-sabotaging behavior.
In all of her romantic pursuits, Jane demands love to be relentlessly honest and forthcoming. It is no different when it comes to her mother and grandmother, and by the latter seasons, her arch-nemesis-turned-sister Petra. Amidst all of the noise of crime, drugs, and face-swapping, the trio are sitting on their patio swing in front of their home, conversing quietly about their day and the melodrama that came along with it. These scenes aren’t overly complicated, but a welcome constant in Jane’s unwieldy and ever-changing world.
The Villanueva women then extend this serenity to new family members, granting them this intimacy, even to people who may have wronged them in the past. This development of family is not just a respite from quickly paced plot twists, but they are a way to dissect norms and widely held beliefs in different circles, and they exemplify open communication. Practicing abstinence, having religious faith, bisexuality, and cultural and intergenerational differences, are just some of the topics the Villanuevas and their extended family come face to face with. The very premise of the show, of Jane saving herself for marriage, demonstrates their resolve to maintain familial harmony. Her pious grandmother believes that sex is an act reserved for the married, while her mother, a sex-positive dancer, is more lenient. Jane finds herself trying her best to stick to her grandmother’s ideal, and at some point, almost has sex, but decides beforehand to be transparent with her grandmother.
As Jane’s family grows, they are more often at wits’ end with one another, each ranging in different levels of being informed or feeling particularly impassioned about a topic. As ardently as they love, they vehemently disagree and contest each other’s views. They argue, say harsh things but it was always comes full circle, culminating into a heart-to-heart on their patio swing or their kitchen table.
What We Write About When We Write About Writing
If Jane were to take a love language test I imagine the results would designate “Words of Affirmation” as her primary form of expressing affection. I deduce this from her love of writing, the erotica she wrote for her then-boyfriend, and the most obvious one—her published romance novel, a homage to her and Michael’s love story.
Jane has a type-A personality, I can almost see the scarlet letter A seared on her chest. She has a knack for high-level organization, has a fervid imagination, and is always almost painfully hopeful. She is what many writers would wish to be, traits that are necessary for a career path with virtually no guarantees. That and also her devoted family, though they are not all in agreement with her choices at first, they come to support her wholeheartedly. Yet another thing most writers desire.
I must admit I prematurely judged the trajectory of Jane’s writing career as “too good to be true” even including Jane’s obstacles and bumps in the road. This critique was borne out of envy of a fictional character. I found it extremely inaccurate that she didn’t really undergo a period of completely abhorring everything she wrote or not writing at all. On the latter point, many writers end up thinking about writing, want to be writing, dream to write, but struggle to put pen to paper or hands to keyboard. It is a telenovela after all and seeing the protagonist struggle so much wouldn’t make for great television.
Nor would it fit with Jane’s belief in things being “meant to be”, originating from a common telenovela trope where two people are destined to belong to one another. This concept does not only function in the romantic context, but that of dreams too as we see the risk-aversive Jane abandon her job in teaching. Hailing from a working-class, mixed-status Latinx family myself, I was taught what Jane was told, that dreaming comes at a price. From then on, I’ve been encouraged to pursue tried-and-true career paths.
But I couldn’t help but feed off of Jane’s desire to fulfill her ambitions and knew that it was the reason I was rewatching and really why there’s a rump dent molded into my couch cushions.
That and also the fact that the show does portray some truths about writing, particularly the joyous side of writing: the community, writing all night after a pretty hefty writing block, the absolute need to jot down a story idea before it escapes you, and the simple but fulfilling act of putting thoughts and ideas to paper. Not to mention that there are golden tips for writing sprinkled throughout the series. My favorite one arises from the time Jane is tasked with the monumental job of writing her father’s character’s death scene in his novela and she experiences writing block. She then remembers what her abuela had told her when she lost her earrings. Guilt-ridden and believing that Alba would never forgive her, Alba reassures her saying “You are my flesh and blood. Nothing you could do is unforgivable to me.” She uses this line as the last words uttered by the cherished telenovela character to top off an unforgettable death scene. This piece of advice could be summed up simply as write what you know.
Happily Ever After, The End, Fin
Writing teachers have long opposed the epitomized “happily ever after” or the like as an end to a story, but in the spirit of Jane I must incorporate it somehow for the resolved happy endings of telenovelas is the reason we all tune in.
Jane the Virgin is a story aware of itself, it celebrates the melodrama and cultural tradition of telenovelas and uses its revelatory qualities to express the importance of telling stories in compelling ways.
The show blurs the line between reality and fantasy in order to do away with the idea that happily ever after is an unattainable endeavor, a cliché to avoid at all costs.
For someone who watched the show when I was fourteen years old and now rewatching it at twenty, I can recall my slight repulsion towards its predictability (though I secretly reveled in it) and its use of clichés.
Because that’s how clichés work, they’re obvious and easily forgotten. They envelop ideas and lessons that may seem too apparent and too surface-level to really consider. But one day, they won’t be. At some point, you will want to revisit those cheesy scenes, not because of their over-the-top presentation but because at the heart of it all, they will come to resemble the very things you desire or relate to.
Something will fall into place. And another cliché will unfurl.