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Catherine AddingtonFebruary 15, 2017
Brett Dier as Michael and Gina Rodriguez as Jane (Photo: Scott Everett White/The CW) 

In the pilot episode of Jane the Virgin, the wildly popular television show now in its third season on the CW, Jane’s grandmother instructs her to crumple up a white flower and then try to restore it to its former state. Understanding the lesson, Jane promises her grandmother to remain a virgin until marriage, like the good Catholic girl she is.

Fast forward to Jane in her early 20s, when a mix-up at a routine gynecological appointment leads to her accidental artificial insemination. The virgin is with child.

Almost more surprising than Jane’s status as a virgin mother is her portrayal as a committed virgin in the first place. Though her mother, Xiomara, embraces a more permissive lifestyle, Jane chooses a different route. Her commitment to chastity is not based on fear of her grandmother, Alba. Instead, Jane’s commitment is an act of trust—in her grandmother, in her past self and in the wisdom of tradition. Crucially, she also trusts her future partner to accept and support her decision.

Writing in The Federalist, Josh Sabey articulates a common criticism of the show among traditional viewers, lamenting that Jane’s chastity is portrayed as little more than a personal choice, with no explicit moral reasoning behind it. Addressing the characters’ sexual ethics, he writes, “The show replaces religious belief with personal commitment so that no one has to feel guilty about his or her decisions.”

It is untrue, however, that religious belief is erased from the show. Alba’s insistence on chastity, far from a stereotypical portrait of “slut-shaming” piety, is grounded in her own life. When she lost her virginity to her first boyfriend, Pablo, she was punished by her family and society. When she married the love of her life, Mateo, his family disowned them to keep her from inheriting any of their oil money. Later, as a widow finally ready to make her first move in decades, Alba ends up asking out a man who turns out to be a priest. It is no wonder that she sees every relationship as a high-stakes opportunity for life-ruining scandal. Her instinct toward shame and paranoia is based not so much on her religion as her life experience.

Meanwhile, Alba’s faith is portrayed as a constant that helps her family navigate fear rather than cause it. For instance, when Alba is hospitalized and threatened with deportation in “Chapter Ten,” Xiomara and Jane both instinctively recite the prayers they learned from her. The show may not always agree with Alba, but it always respects and understands her. Such treatment is rarely afforded to religious characters on television today.

Jane may not articulate her chastity in terms of virtue, but she certainly lives her life that way. She is not the angry, repressed Catholic we have come to expect in pop culture. She learns from both her grandmother’s faith and her mother’s openness and takes the best from each role model. Jane lives out a chastity that is sustainable precisely because it is a “personal commitment”: a daily, constant decision that is cultivated, evaluated and intentionally preserved. She enjoys romantic intimacy, struggles with temptation, reaffirms her commitment and ultimately enters into a fulfilling, life-giving marriage. That model of modern Christian sexuality is hardly seen, let alone celebrated, in any other media.

Jane is not the angry, repressed Catholic we have come to expect in pop culture.

But the show is not always so thoughtful, especially on the question of abortion. In the show’s pilot episode, when Jane is considering her options regarding her pregnancy, Alba confesses that she had advised Xiomara to have an abortion when she became pregnant with Jane at the age of 16. Alba tells Jane: “I carry that shame in my heart every day. Because now, you have become the best part of my life.” In season three, when Xiomara does choose to have an abortion, the event receives none of the thoughtful solemnity that accompanied Jane’s choice. Instead, it is a lighthearted story mainly focused on avoiding Alba’s fire-and-brimstone judgment. Alba and Xiomara have a falling out but ultimately make peace. Xiomara’s actions are not given any moral weight whatsoever. In other storylines, pregnancy serves to aid character development, but here it is little more than a fable of “choice” that comes off as an out-of-character performance of progressivism.

Despite the writers’ need to shoehorn a pro-choice narrative into the story, the rest of the show is resplendently pro-life. Jane is a control freak who responds with generosity to completely out-of-control circumstances and is blessed by them in return. On this show, unexpected children are a gift. As a teenager, Xiomara gives birth to her best friend in Jane. Jane’s own father, who did not know of her existence until she was an adult, is profoundly transformed as he learns to put another person first. Finally, at the show’s heart is Jane’s son, Mateo, who inspires responsibility in his father, flexibility in his mother and open-heartedness in his stepfather.

The characters are not just pro-life at birth but deeply committed to the family. The profound joy that Alba, Xiomara and Jane share when Mateo smiles for the first time is emblematic. After a full episode of agonizing over this particular “first,” the payoff brings laughter and tears as it revels in the trivialities of parenting. The show dedicates as much, if not more, narrative energy to Mateo’s milestones—from first words to preschool visits—as it does to complicated drug-ring conspiracies. This, incidentally, is a virtue of the genre; telenovelas are fundamentally domestic dramas that privilege intimate emotion over the wider plot arc.

Despite the writers’ need to shoehorn a pro-choice narrative into the story, the rest of the show is resplendently pro-life and celebratory of the family.

While the show’s pro-life, pro-family attitude is never explicitly linked to the characters’ Catholicism, their faith is an active, integrated part of their lives. The emotional high points of the series have often centered around Catholic sacraments. While Mateo’s baptism lacked liturgical authenticity, the characters’ joy at welcoming a new member to the church community was exuberant. Meanwhile, Jane’s wedding to her longtime sweetheart Michael was not only a tearjerker involving bilingual wedding vows, Bruno Mars and a spectacular (and modest!) wedding dress, but it also allowed audiences to witness the phrase “sacrament of marriage” being spoken unironically on national television. Jane and Michael have come a long way from their awkward experience with pre-Cana in season one, and they go on to have a healthy, mutually supportive marriage.

The rest of the time, the show is steeped in Catholic cultural references that are often tongue-in-cheek but never outright disrespectful. In “Chapter 38,” a house flood gives rise to a series of biblical jokes that are equal parts cheesy and subtle, as when Alba orders “two of everything” for post-flood breakfast. While there are certainly jokes based on tired Catholic stereotypes, like the stern nuns who employ Jane as a teacher, they generally come with a twist. In this case, it is that the scheming principal, Sister Margaret, had hired Jane in order to exploit her virgin-mother status to attract pilgrims and profit to her school. Jabs like these work because they do not occur in a vacuum absent positive representation of Catholics. They are told in the same clever, mischievous tone that the show uses to poke fun at telenovelas—an insider’s self-deprecation rather than an outsider’s disdain.

Andrea Navedo as Xiomara and Gina Rodriguez as Jane (Photo: Robert Voets/The CW)
Andrea Navedo as Xiomara and Gina Rodriguez as Jane (photo: Robert Voets/The CW) 

When the show does decide to engage Jane’s Catholic faith, and not just her cultural background, the result is moving. In “Chapter 51” (or, per the episode’s title sequence, “Jane the Virgin the Guilty Catholic”), Jane argues with Mateo’s father, Rafael, over whether their son should be attending Mass. As usual, Alba serves as Jane’s rumbling conscience. At the beginning of the episode, Alba asks Jane if she will be joining her at Mass. “It’s just that you haven’t been to church in a while,” she says innocently. “You just have to decide if you want Mateo to have God in his life. And if he doesn’t, well, I guess he’ll deal with the consequences...”

Jane freaks out, pleading with both Rafael and her self-identified “C and E Catholic” husband to support her in taking their child to Mass. In the midst of a heated discussion with Rafael, her reinvigorated religiosity quickly brings out the judgmental tendencies she had been trying to outgrow. “Maybe if you went to church you would know right from wrong,” she snaps.

The writers could have easily committed to this Catholic-guilt narrative, but instead, they went beyond the stereotype to draw out more complicated emotions. While digging into an art smuggling operation—don’t ask—Jane finds herself in a convent, talking to one of the nuns in what she thinks is a distraction so Rafael can search the superior’s office. Instead, in the course of her conversation, Jane realizes what is behind her anxiety regarding taking Mateo to church. It is not Alba’s guilt trip but her own insecurity about her increasing distance from God. In one of Gina Rodriguez’s finest performances, Jane finally allows herself to break into tears as she confesses her anger at God, how her husband’s recent near-death experience tested her faith like nothing ever had before. She realizes that she cannot hope to raise Mateo in the faith unless she is prepared to serve as an example for him, and that in order to do so she must mend her own relationship with God. This scene was remarkable for its emotional power, but also for a spiritual depth that transcended a mere cultural attachment to the Catholic tradition.

The show is steeped in Catholic cultural references that are often tongue-in-cheek but never outright disrespectful.

The relative virtues of “Jane the Virgin” become more evident when considered alongside a less deft treatment of cultural Catholicism, such as the character of Danny Castellano in “The Mindy Project.” Danny is a Staten Island Italian Catholic who won’t stop talking about it. His faith is portrayed as a bizarre mixture of endearing (he taught Mindy the “Our Father” so that she could pray it with their son), playful (“his password is either ‘thatstatenkid’ or ‘vatican1forever’”) and cartoonishly insincere (he cheats on his fiancé twice in one episode, and “since technically it was the same day it’s really just the one sin”).

“The Mindy Project” goes out of its way to avoid engaging Danny’s religion in any meaningful way. Considering that both he and Mindy work as gynecologists in Manhattan, the complete absence of the question of abortion is implausible. Danny’s joyful response to his own unexpected son hints at a pro-life attitude, but it is shattered when he shunts all expectations of childcare and the attendant sacrifices onto Mindy. He is, ultimately, a caricature: the nominal Catholic incapable of any sort of moral commitment, whether to a child or to a romantic partner.

The reason Danny doesn’t work, and Jane does, is that Danny Castellano’s character is about being Catholic. Jane simply is Catholic. This is also true of her ethnicity: Her character is not about being Latina, she simply is.

“Jane the Virgin” does not understand itself to be “the Catholic show” any more than it understands itself to be “the Latino show,” but in both cases, the show is under immense pressure to be both representative and commercially successful in order to pave the way for future stories. As a result, the show is subject to unreasonably high standards. “Jane the Virgin” cannot represent all Catholic stories, or all Latino stories, no matter how astute the writing. Rather, its specificity to one family doing its best to grow in love is precisely what makes it valuable—not just to Catholic viewers but to everyone.

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