The Society Pages is a twice-monthly column about stories and feelings, through a sociopolitical lens. Because these are analyses of full narratives rather than reviews, they almost certainly contain spoilers for major plot points and narrative elements. Proceed with caution. Today: The CW’s Jane the Virgin (including comments up to episode 3.18).
Here at Genretastic, we spend quite a bit of time on superheroes, speculative fiction, and general geekery. In The Society Pages, though, I hope to stretch some of our nerdy little hands into the other genres as well; these stories that follow certain shapes, these beloved character archetypes. So while this may be the first time you see me digging into telenovelas and romance novels, I doubt it will be the last. I admit, however, that my forays into romance have been sporadic and largely unguided; I don’t have the chops for this genre in the ways I do for others. So while I have some theoretical perspective from my time in library school and the years since, I’m not always as well-versed as I’d like to be. I always accept recommendations!
One of my favorite examples, though, is not a book, but television. Jane the Virgin first aired on the CW in October of 2014, and it wasn’t until well into that first season that I actually gave it a chance. You can hardly blame me; the initial synopsis (a young virgin woman is artificially inseminated by her gynecologist at her first PAP smear) sounds utterly ridiculous. But over time, more and more people whose opinions I trusted encouraged me to give it a chance, and I’m so glad they did. Because like a fair amount of romance, buried in the predictable structure (some kind of surprising meet-cute, some kind of outrageous conflict, some kind of more-or-less expected resolution) there’s a lot going on. Jane’s sexuality isn’t as simple as being a waiting-for-marriage virgin; there are family dynamics with her mother and grandmother, a romantic streak a mile wide, a safe but maybe a little boring fiance, and surprise! A virgin pregnancy. As she navigates her relationships in light of the baby, deciding whether to keep it, whether to have a relationship with the father, and her place in her family (oh, and by the way, her long-lost father returns to her life at the same time), the show explores an extraordinary number of angles on the whole question of abstinence, female sexuality, and unplanned pregnancy. And that’s just Jane.
The show’s larger focus is on families: blended, non-traditional, toxic, and healing families. Jane’s immediate family consists of her very-Catholic immigrant grandmother and her vivacious and somewhat wild mother, her telenovela-star father, and the two men who, in their turn, parent her young son. His biological father is the source of a fair bit of the telenovela drama: murders, missing family members, long-lost twins, mistaken identities, and about as many plot twists as you can imagine. And yet, as the show develops, a strong extended family forms, one that, if not always close, is generally supportive and caring.
The show doesn’t shy away from current events, either. Jane’s abuela begins the show as an undocumented immigrant, and her very real fears about that are addressed with a tenderness that’s hard to find in most media. She gets her green card eventually, but being set in Miami, there’s no shortage of others in similar circumstances, and eventually, a truly heart-rending scene shows a now three-year-old Mateo asking, “Mama, why don’t some people want [abuela] in this country?” After a moment to compose herself, Jane tries to explain.
If you’re unfamiliar with romance as a genre, it may surprise you to find this kind of depth in a story that takes its shape from dramatic telenovelas and predictable romance plot tropes, but part of what makes Jane the Virgin so phenomenal is that it leaves room to remind us that there are many, many romance novels and stories that contain the same kinds of cultural finesse. Some of the earliest romance novels, of course, are scathing critiques of the place of women in society. Even the oft-maligned paperback bodice-rippers hold an important place in the sexual revolution and the movement toward greater sexual freedom for women. Beyond this wide lens, though, as genre readers all, we should remember that although they may come in familiar packages, most stories have something in them that feels imminently true. The reasons genres endure is that those familiar, comforting packages often hold precisely what we need to feel whole. Romance is no exception.