“It represents a culture that wants to see themselves as heroes.”
Jane the Virgin was this season’s critical darling and surprising CW hit, but after Gina Rodriguez’s Golden Globes win last Sunday for Best Comedic Actress, it’s finally cementing itself as a pop culture touchstone.
Gina Rodriguez’s speech was one of the highlights of the Golden Globes; she was graceful, humble, and brought to national attention the need for cultural diversity on television. Her speech resonated with a lot of people because of her choice of words. She didn’t simply state that her culture wanted to see themselves represented on television, but that they wanted to see themselves better represented. After decades of playing the maids, gardeners, and “spicy” mistresses, Latinos longed to be the heroes of their own story.
Because diversity isn’t just about splattering on a rainbow of different colored faces to continue playing out the same tired stereotypes that “classic” Hollywood has created. It’s about seeking to understand a culture’s values to create accurate, well-rounded representations of human beings.
Jane the Virgin showcases a multi-generational representation of what it means to be a Latino family living in the United States. Yes, Jane’s mother, Xiomara, was a teen mom, just like so many young, single Latina mothers, and though she’s infamous in her family for her promiscuous past, she’s shown to be a good, selfless mother and hardworking woman with dreams of her own. Xiomara’s “fiery” portrayal as a Latina is one we’re used to seeing on television, but by showing life from her point of view, Jane the Virgin humanizes the stereotype. Her personality and behavior help define Jane’s point of view and choices as an adult.
Jane herself breaks away from the Hollywood-standardized stereotypes of Hispanics to represent another facet of Latino culture that is rarely showcased on American television. As a bright, unabashedly religious woman devoted to her family’s modest values, she is a far cry from being a Spanish sex kitten. What’s fascinating is that even though Jane is the very model of the traditional telenovela archetype of the “virginal heroine,” she is considered a breakthrough character on American television simply because the actress playing her is Latina. In Latin-American telenovelas, obviously everyone is Hispanic, so it only makes sense to have a myriad of personalities either supporting or antagonizing the “good girl.”
Like in a traditional telenovela, in Jane the Virgin, Jane’s family and friends aren’t defined by their culture in that they are meant to represent a blanket generalization of all Latinos. While the show takes pride in utilizing Jane’s heritage when it is appropriate and allowing the characters to be influenced by their culture’s values, their ethnicity is a logical addition, not the main focus.
So when Jane’s grandmother speaks Spanish on Jane the Virgin, it serves to ground an otherwise outrageous plot by realistically portraying how a first generation immigrant would interact with the world around her. Likewise, her status as an undocumented immigrant subtly humanizes the fear and plight of so many Americans today. Her role in shaping Jane’s life feels authentic to the way Latino culture values the importance of the multi-generational extended family. Of course Jane loves her abuelita! And the respect afforded her relationship with her grandmother allows the show to respect Jane’s religious choices as well.
Because while television shows often play religious characters for laughs as uneducated bigots, Jane the Virgin isn’t afraid to treat Jane’s Catholicism as an authentic part of her Latina experience. Her voluntary abstinence isn’t treated as a joke, but is respected as a valid choice she is making for herself. A modern Hispanic woman, Jane is allowed to be both intelligent and proud of her faith. Her faith, like her ethnicity, is a part of her heritage, and though it does not define her, it has helped shape the woman she is.
Jane the Virgin is part of a growing number of television shows that are proving that diversity is not only a worthwhile investment culturally, but financially as well. This season the highest rated freshman comedy and drama, Black-ish and How to Get Away with Murder, both star people of color. As recently as last week, Fox’s new breakout hit Empire, featuring an almost entirely black cast portraying a music mogul family, broke records with its debut. Even back on the CW, The Flash rounded out the show’s trio of stars with the West family, making way for the eventual emergence of an African-American Flash in Wally West.
Diversity on television matters, and done correctly, by treating the characters as fully dimensional human beings with backgrounds that feed into their evolving story, it has proven to be profitable both in the ratings and during awards season. Because Hollywood should no longer have the right to ingrain in our consciousness what a “default” human being is. Every culture deserves to feel valued through their representation in a diverse array of roles, and we should all get to take turns playing the hero.
The mid-season premiere of Jane the Virgin is tonight, Monday, January 19, at 9/8c on the CW.