By Juan Piñón
Jane the Virgin, a current television series, makes a compelling case for the U.S. mainstream television and the presence that Latina/os have within that market. The show represents a crossroads of several industrial, market and socio-cultural forces. As an industrial product, Jane the Virgin is part of a global-industrial trend that relies upon adapting television formats to manage the uncertainties in this new post-network era. At the same time, this trend exposes the cultural tensions that arise in the process of adapting narratives, formats and genres for U.S. audiences.
Jane the Virgin is not a telenovela, in spite of its soapy elements. The presumably necessary transformation of what was once a daily Venezuelan telenovela, Juana la Virgen, into a weekly series dramedy Jane the Virgin speaks volumes about executives’ assumptions of audiences’ social tastes and cultural habits in TV consumption. This distinction becomes sharper because of the existence of Latina/o audiences across the Hispanic diaspora.
As a market product, Jane the Virgin follows a television trend in the United States that seeks to attract the U.S. Latina/o population as an audience, given the context of growing Hispanic demographics and market trends, in contrast with general ratings declines in U.S. made television products. The success and large audience following of telenovelas within the U.S. Hispanic television industry has positioned the genre as merely one opportunity for the U.S. television market to draw audiences from the growing Latina/o population. The narrative formula and characters needed to offer different cultural and linguistic elements have always existed in the U.S. television market.
As a socio-cultural product, in Jane the Virgin, Jane, following the steps of Betty Suarez, in Ugly Betty, speaks perfect and accentless English. They are both third or second generation women, with a middle-class mentality, following their dreams to climb the social ladder through professional improvement, based on discipline, hard work and intelligence. Through the three Villanueva generations, Jane the Virgin manage to present a genealogy of Latina/o representations through different approaches taken under a safe trope: the Latina/o family akin to the way the Suarez family was presented in Ugly Betty.
The family as a trope has traditionally been used as a safe recipe to present a non-threatening Latinidad. The assumed “values” of the Latina/o family, which include respect, solidarity and love, have led to representations of Latinidad itself, representations which include Latina/o roles as valuable citizens in film and television. Jane the Virgin uses that trope with a matrilineal twist: a three-generation Latina family with strong and admirable female characters. While love, respect and solidarity are at the core of Villanueva family relationships, the characters’ development shows different traditions of Latina representations that appeal to different constituencies: Alba Gloriana Villanueva (la abuela) dwelling on long-standing Latin American representations of womanhood informed by the “virgin/whore” dichotomy; Xiomara Villanueva standing for stereotypical representations of U.S. Latinas as "harlots"; while Jane Villanueva represents something new. That “fresh” Latinidad is the real trend, one in which the Latina/o image is rethought socially, culturally and linguistically as that of a full U.S. citizen, as Christopher Chavez recognizes it, a new commercial construction known as the “new Latino.”
The abuela calls upon a patriarchal tradition, present in Latin American telenovelas, in which women, particularly the female leading characters remain chaste and pure before marriage so as to be deemed worthy for the male protagonist (even though it emerges that Alba, the grandmother, indeed did not). The “virgin” metaphor, is nurtured by Marianismo that reinforces patriarchal norms. Women should not only should be pure, but submissive to their men, committed to their families, abnegate and selfless. The abuela brings the core of this philosophy in the form of the myth of the destroyed flower, the impurity of the self, brought by sex. Once anyone even mentions “virginity” as a metaphor, a metaphor that represents a mythical purity, then the flip-side of virginity becomes mentionable. The image of the impure, the tainted and the rugged, still haunts Jane because it is an important element of her Latina/o identity.
The ghost of the virgin suddenly flips into its reverse: the “whore.” If you are not a virgin, then you are a whore. This dichotomy traces its tremendous sway over Latina/o psyche and identity because of the opposing poles of “La Malinche” and the “Virgin of Guadalupe.” La Malinche, in Octavio Paz’s terms, represents the traitor who sold out to the Spanish conqueror, and only then did La Malinche, become la Chingada. The desecrated, the raped, the impure. To counter the insidious power of this seminal identity figure, the Catholic story of the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe, la Virgen Morena, brings the redeeming qualities into focus in such a way that the mestizos and indigenous people can be integrated to society, as rightful bearers of the values of the new race brought about by the encounters of the old and the new worlds. The force of these two seminal figures has informed Latin American identity for centuries. In spite of all these ancient traditions, Alba seems to carry within herself the seeds of that contradiction. Always a voice of sexual conservatism, prudence, and restraint, by advising Jane, as well as admonishing those who appear to deserve it at the time. In contrasts, Albas seems to flourish and unleash her inner desires every time that telenovela star Rogelio de la Vega, “the president,” visits the Villanueva’s home. Rogelio is the main character of The Passion of Santos Alba’s favorite telenovela. Then Rogelio’s initial encounters with Alba offers a kind of picaresque moments, in which her presumably unrestraint attraction to her beloved television star is playfully shown to hint her the other side of this dichotomy. La abuela, the prudish-speaking Spanish character, appeals to first-generation immigrant Latina/os, a Spanish-speaking native population (she always speaks in Spanish with accompanying subtitles). The virgin/whore tradition that is at the core of conservative politics of sexuality has been central in traditional Latin American telenovela narratives.
In contrast, Xiomara, a member of a new generation, seems to reinvigorate the very long tradition of tropicalization of U.S. Latinidad. This central trope has made Latina/o presumably “uncontrolled sexuality” a central property of Latina/o character representations. As Ramirez-Berg has underscored, the Harlot, the Dark Lady and the Latin Lover are active stereotypes in film and television nurtured by white peoples’ desires and projected onto the Latina/o population.
The exotization of Latina/o characters in the United States has been a central formula to present a potential appeal of Latinidad for media consumption. The exoticism of the Dark Lady and the sensuality and passion of the Latin Lover are characterizations that present an alluring Latina/o identity, in spite of their sexual dangers, to mainstream audiences. The Harlot, at a lesser level of sophistication, and presents Latina women as slaves of their own sexual desires, in spite of their best intentions. Xiomara, in many ways, seemed to represent this Latina stereotype: a well-intended character seemingly trapped by her bad decisions, triggered by the un-repressive force of her sexual impulse. While seemingly alluding to the U.S. construct of the Latina Harlot, Xiomara is also shaped by the contradictions triggered by walking the fine line, between being a victim of presumably unrestrained sexual desires and claiming of her own agency, by showing female characters conquering their rights over their own bodies, as women, as citizens, as sexual beings. In this context, Chicana/o theorists and activists, such as Gloria Anzaldua and Cherry Moraga, have reclaimed the image of La Malinche, not as a whore nor as a traitor, but as wise women with agency, their bodies, and, of course, sexuality. The appeal of Xiomara, is that of one who treads a fine line, across which audiences can read her as the Harlot, the sexualized Latina being, or the New Malinche, as Chicana/os envisioned her, as a citizen that exercises the rights over her body, which to some extend defies patriarchy and sexual conservativeness.
At the core of the Jane the Virgin narrative there is an effort to claim full U.S. citizenship for Latinidad. As Arlene Dávila has argued, the Spanish-language was the glue for different Latina/o groups (Cubans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans etc.) as a device to create an identifiable television audience and market to be sold to advertisers. Ironically the Spanish language that was used as a marker of Latinidad, was also the trait that represent their assumed intrinsic foreign-ness. In contrast, Jane is an all-American girl. Far from the still quite common depiction of Latina/os as maids, gardeners, gangsters or Latin lovers, Jane’s character and subjectivity becomes the “moral balance” within the narrative on the series. The presence of Jane underscores the great values of citizenship, desire for empowerment, Western rationality and moral values.
A male triad counter balance of the Villanueva family is made up by Michael Cordero, Rafael Solano and Rogelio de la Vega. All these characters function as signs, the white guy (Cordero), the Latino man (Solano) and the Latin American man Rogelio de la Vega. All of them carry the burdens of patriarchy, heteronormativity, immigration and citizenship. They all seem to trigger specific audience’s expectations, but at the same time, they defy them through their behavior when confronted by real love. Machismo as the other side of Marianismo, is also challenged in Jane the Virgin. Latino men have long been tainted in media by their depiction as inherently macho. The male characters in Jane reformulate the stereotype of Latino men, and thus their own relationships as sensible men, as rational men, as full citizens. The initial dichotomy, in citizenship, seems to be illustrated by the idea of Michael Cordero (an ambiguously Latino character because of his last name). Though in a tough profession as detective, he is presented as a white sensible man who must respect Jane’s decision about her restrained and virginal behavior. In contrast, viewers are first led to see Rafael Solano as the player, the incarnation of the Latin Lover, the spoiled rich kid, just to be surprised by his restraint and sensibility when it comes to his relation with Jane, and his desire to be an example for his father by managing the family business with discipline and wisdom. The subtleties of the duality and representations of these two male characters as full citizens, seems to be deliberately in contrast with the over-the-top, melodramatic, and caricaturized representation of Latin Americanidad, embodied by Rogelio de la Vega, fundamentally a telenovela star.
Jane the Virgin appeals through soapy, melodramatic and magical moments. The translation of a telenovela into a series allowed the producers to live with what many considered familiar terrain, as far as U.S. mainstream English-speaking audiences were concerned. Some still needed convincing bicultural and/or bilingual Latina/os and Latin Americans. Although Jane is not a telenovela format, the narrative strategy appears to resemble one, by underscoring some melodramatic properties of the story, but also by underscoring campy and magically oriented over-the-top scenes full of romance or by creating new unexpected twists on the plot. Two central elements of telenovela storytelling have been the love triangle and a secret identity or hidden origin. From the beginning Jane follows that narrative strategy. These are telenovela-like engines of the plot. Moreover, the purpose of these narrative devices is to create an “over the top" telenovela-like narrative style, while at the same time, allowing the viewers to separate themselves from the narrative through, campy/soapy elements or through comedy and farce. So, the series manages to create a “soapy” mood that may engage bilingual Latina/os and Latin Americans. It also reminds audiences that this is not a telenovela, but at the same time this narrative strategy opens space for English-only speaking audiences to safely enjoy the over- the-top episodes by clearly recognizing them as something to ridicule or make fun of it. One device that concentrates that narrative device is the introduction of the series. The audience can safely enjoy the twist without worrying about falling into a presumably low-brow melodramatic rationale, by using a trap door through comedy.
One strategy used by the series is what some may characterize as “magic realism.” As a narrative device, the idea of “magic realism” is what made Latin American literature so prominent since the 70s. This narrative strategy exemplifies in literature the complex and uneven state of Latin American modernization project by using tradition, magic, and ethereal forces as central of the everyday lives and fate of their characters and stories. Jane’s grandmother Alba Gloriana Villanueva seems to echoed two long standing traditional characters and family traditions from Alba Trueba from The House of Spirits from Isabel Allende, and Aureliano Buendia from One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Alba Gloriana Villanueva warns Jane to maintain her virginity, with nefarious auguries if she does not comply, in the same epical tone in which Ursula Iguarán was warned not to have a sexual relationship with her now-married cousin José Arcadio Buendia (One Hundred Years of Solitude) because of the possibility of having a child with a pig tail. The magical elements used in Jane the Virgin seem to be loosely borrowed from that tradition. The series' original metaphor of the rose broken and deflowered symbolizes the moment in which a woman loses her virginity, and is a magical/metaphoric image at the core of Marianism in Latin American tradition. Magical, whimsical elements are used to underscore the romantic elements within the story. We see the colored red chests of Jane and Rafael, in which their hearts beat faster every time they touch each other, only to arrive to the scene when they kiss for the “first time” when rose petals falls from the tree and a unearthly light illuminates the scene, giving the sense that both are actually floating in love. The magical scene seeks to assure audiences what Jane has thought all along “this was meant to be” her destiny. The series is peppered with magical moments, from winks coming from Rogelio’s ubiquitous posters, the cash register telling Jane “will you tell your friends that you kissed Rafael?”, stop signs telling Jane in red letter lights “Rafael Danger,” the sparks between Xiomara and Rogelio, and too many other magical expressions.
However, the line between touching and/or farcical is quite blurred. Rogelio de la Vega embodies certain Latin Americanness that is tied to a telenovela soapiness and campiness. The character brings a telenovela mood that reminds audiences of their own distance from his caricaturized depiction. However, in the process certain elements of honesty and naivetes seems to bring to the forefront certain aspects of humanness that renders the character likeable. To some extent, the presence of Rogelio brings out the best of Jane and Xiomara in many cases.
Jane the Virgin shows the challenges in appealing and connecting with Latina/os in the context of their complex population’s composition in the United States while also pleasing U.S. mainstream audiences. The program brings to life a series of Latin American and U.S. traditions in representing Latina/os while offering one of the best efforts to create a space for U.S. Latina/os as full citizens, in which Jane as a new Latina/o bears the balance of the moral and rational universe in the show’s narrative.
Juan Piñón is an Associate Professor in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication, at the Steinhardt School, at New York University (NYU).