I’ve noticed a pattern in my TV watching habits. I begin a lot of shows but finish few of them, a trend which is especially true for TV dramas. While my gnat-like millennial attention span may be partially to blame, I also blame the shows themselves. After stellar beginnings, their charms wane and, almost as if they can sense this, they start trying to top themselves. Their drama escalates to a level so ridiculous that I can’t even suspend my belief enough to accept it. I get tired of the endless twists and turns that only lead to more non-surprising surprises. I lose interest. I give up.
The one show that has managed to escape this fate is Jane the Virgin, a CW show about a young woman who intends to wait till marriage to have sex but becomes pregnant through accidental artificial insemination. What’s most remarkable about the show is that it seems primed to be a short-lived interest, but it isn’t. The show makes its seemingly ridiculous premise work because of how self aware it is.
Genre-wise, the show is a parody of itself. The concept for the show is derived from a telenovela called Juana La Virgen, and the show regularly pokes fun at the genre while at the same time paying homage to it. The result is a dramedy in the fullest sense of the word. The dramatic and comedic elements are equally high pitched, but instead of working as opposites the two tones work together—the comedy relieving the tension of the drama and the drama adding depth and dimension to the comedy.
Jane’s ability to straddle these two genres is partially due to its anonymous narrator. He has his own personality—the viewer’s friend and ally, who shares all their excitement and anxieties about he show. Like the viewer, the characters in the show can’t hear his warnings, excitement or opinions, but he comments anyway. His most popular line is to proclaim, at an episode’s peak intensity, “Wow! Sound’s like a telenovela right?” The line is a tongue and cheek reminder of the parody within the show and is also evidence of the writers’ skillful anticipation of viewer’s responses.
The line effectively calls them out on their high intensity drama, and beats viewers’ potential criticism to the punch.
In my experience, having the narrator there to vocalise my feelings made them feel not just valid but a part of watching the show. The only time where the narrator showed more omnipotence than the viewer is his knowledge of the show’s history. When an old character returned or plot-lines intersected he would stop the show to do a quick recap, situating the viewer with all the context they needed to process the ever-evolving story arcs.
Against the backdrop of the show’s drama is an undeniable humanity at the core of the characters. Yes, they may deal with the occasional murderous, identity changing drug lord but they also deal with more relatable problems like the sacrifices of motherhood, grief, and illegal immigration. While the storylines on Jane have universal appeal, women and ideas of femininity are almost always at their center. The show explores its major themes motherhood and romance on a multigenerational level by giving storylines to the other major characters in Jane’s family—her mother and grandmother. Between its telenovela and genre and its baby pink and blue set design, the show leans hard into its feminine identity where some might shy away for fear of being called perjoratives like “girl-tv.”
With this female-driven focus, it’s easy to label Jane as a feminist TV show, and the show itself subtly addresses exactly what it means to earn this label. A common (mis)interpretation of feminism is that subscribers must be anti-man and anti-femininity, aka the exact opposite of Jane’s personality. While her character is more substantive that the sum of her boyfriends, romance is a big part of Jane’s storyline and her life. An aspiring romance novelist, Jane encounters an uptight “traditional” feminist when one is assigned to advise her MFA thesis. At first they seem incompatible; the professor hates the gushiness in Jane’s romantic plot and Jane cannot find a way to reconcile her adviser’s criticism with her vision for her novel. Throughout Jane’s book writing process, however, the two push each other, coming to an understanding and eventually evolving their relationship into a mentor-ship. The ultimate point of the story line, as I see it, is that these two ways of approaching feminism can not only co-exist but can learn and improve from one another.
This is Jane the Virgin’s ultimate victory: making contrasts work. Be it through the opposition of drama vs. comedy, femininity vs. non-femininity, or reality vs. fantasy, these clashes are what keeps the show fresh and what keeps me watching.
by Sophie Hayssen
Sophie is a 20-year old college student studying English and American Studies. She likes to creative writing as a form of self-expression and procrastination. Her other interests include music, playing guitar badly, and enjoying the great outdoors from the even greater indoors. You can follow her at @filossofee and find links to more of her work here.