Culture/TV

Jane the Virgin is changing how TV tackles politics

December 1, 2017

The breakthrough sitcom takes a stand against injustice.

Comedy has never been a stranger to politics — and comedic films like Get Out continue to reset the standard for blending sharp critique with enough laughs to soften the blow. But romantic comedies with the same degree of political prowess are harder to come by. Jane the Virgin, with its careful attention to detail wrapped in hilarious drama, is trying to push the boundaries of the genre.

Produced by Jennie Synder Urman (the mastermind behind Gilmore Girls and 90210), Jane the Virgin, a show about a young, aspiring writer who’s artificially inseminated with a wealthy hotel owner’s sperm sounds like a basic rom-com premise. But throw in the fact that the wealthy hotel owner’s sister is also dating a malicious drug lord at the centre of a cop investigation carried out by Jane’s fiancé, who’s also buddies with her long-lost celebrity father, and you’ve got yourself one hell of a telenovela. But the show’s ability to juggle so many details and plot twists is not what makes it impressive; its masterful execution enables the series to slip in sensitive political commentary with nuance.

Jane the Virgin (and its mostly Latinx cast) often deals directly with the pervasive anti-immigrant sentiments of a political climate that elected Donald Trump on a platform of “extreme vetting.” In the fictional show-within-a-show telenovela, Jane’s dad Rogelio stars as a time traveler who meets Emma Lazarus, the writer who penned “New Colossus,” the poem displayed on the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. Rogelio’s character, Tiago, speaks out against a judge who worries that the poem is too welcoming to immigrants, and uses the opportunity to reflect on how immigration is a key component of America’s identity.

But Jane the Virgin doesn’t only represent characters that are ethnically and racially diverse — it carefully highlights the intersecting identities of their dynamic characters. Take Luisa, the sister of the wealthy hotel owner who artificially impregnated Jane: One of the factors that leads to the impregnation is Luisa being distraught over breaking up with her lesbian lover (who’s also her stepmother — exciting, right?!). And the show is not shy about portraying queer love, dedicating an entire montage to explicit scenes between Luisa and her lover without fetishizing lesbian sexuality with the male gaze in mind. Season four even sees the introduction of the show’s first male queer character; Jane’s boyfriend, Adam, is bisexual.

Jane the Virgin’s characters’ diverse social outlooks flourish from the complicated and complex relationships that connect them.

Perhaps the most subtly political elements of the show’s narrative derive from the multiple roles that its female characters occupy. For Jane, she’s portrayed as a daughter, single mother, lover, writer and best friend. The plot also explores Xiomara and Alba’s role as mother and grandmother to Jane respectively, while allowing them to play with their sexuality and develop their careers free from judgment. It exemplifies how its characters’ diverse social outlooks flourish from the complicated and complex relationships that connect them.

Despite having the word “virgin” in its title, which might presuppose Catholic values of moral and sexual purity, Jane the Virgin is unafraid to tackle reproductive politics. Take a recent episode where Jane’s mother, Xiomara, reminds her husband Rogelio that Darcy, his partner, has the right to choose what is best for her body regarding her pregnancy. And in season two, Xiomara mulls over her birth control options before deciding on an abortion.

While it’s not the first time that abortion has appeared on the small screen, Jane the Virgin’s portrayal of the experience reveals a degree of sensitivity and nuance that’s rare on primetime television. For mainstream audiences, abortion is still an incredibly contentious topic. In a year filled with heated debates on the issue, the constant threat of Planned Parenthood being defunded and 44% of Americans believing that abortion is morally wrong, the show makes a brave decision to let Xiomara follow through with the procedure.

Jane the Virgin has done more than package the moral of the story “after-school special-style.” They’ve made it their aim to use tongue-in-cheek humour and dramatic plot lines to counteract a U.S. political agenda

It contrasts other representations for similar viewing audiences that somewhat sidestepped the realities of having an abortion, like in HBO’s Girls, when Jessa miscarries. In Jane the Virgin‘s third season, the show even slapped a #SupportPlannedParenthood footer on an episode, using their platform to inform public opinion.

The show touches on one of the fundamental tenets of popular sitcoms: that they hope to reflect some part of our reality, teach us something about ourselves and (hopefully) try to influence the world for the better. Several TV shows, ranging from classics like All In The Family to ABC’s newest project, When We Rise, which documents the LGBTQ+ movement following the Stonewall riots in 1969, have played this role, but Jane the Virgin has done more than package the moral of the story “after-school special-style.” The show’s creators have made it their aim to use tongue-in-cheek humour and dramatic plot lines to counteract a U.S. political agenda that frames diversity and freedom of choice as an encroachment on American patriotism. And in the midst of a social and political maelstrom, it’s a welcomed addition.

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