Latin@ politics in and around Jane the Virgin

Jane the Virgin has been beloved by the critics, garnered a respectable viewership for a new show, and earned lead actress Gina Rodriguez a Golden Globe. In the Latin@ studies community the show has also received a lot of attention. It is a bilingual show fully set, produced and filmed in the United States; it features 3 Latina—more specifically Boricua—actresses in important roles; it seems to make a gesture to move beyond the barrio-ization and tropicalization of latin@ bodies; and, perhaps just as importantly, it’s enjoyable and funny and has been signed for a second season (woohoo!).

Overall, this is a show I really enjoy. Urman does a great job of fleshing out and giving depth and complexity to characters that are easy to caricaturize and its parody of telenovelas (and perhaps Latin American traditions more broadly?) is funny but also light and, dare I say, loving. But while in front of the camera latinidad seems to be center stage—Gina Rodriguez famously said in her Golden Globe acceptance speech that the award represented “a culture that wants to see themselves as heroes”— at the production level, there are some interesting dynamics worth exploring.

Jane the Virgin is the story of a composed 23-year-old who lives with her mother Xiomara—pregnant at 16, single, flirtatious and with dreams of being a singer—and her grandmother Alba. Alba is presented as the ‘traditional’ Spanish-speaking Latin American Catholic voice in the pilot. Thirty seconds in we get a close-up shot of her face in a stern grimace as she gives 8-year-old Jane a lecture about virginity. The richness of the pilot is in serving up expectations that are quickly undermined. At forty five seconds a finger-nail-painting Xiomara interrupts with “Really mom? But this is so lame!” establishing the plurivocality of values and influences that a younger generation of latin@s will be exposed to and have to grapple with.

The show was brought to the CW by Jorge Granier of Venezuela’s RCTV as a format sale (meaning they can make a local version, like Ugly Betty) of a successful soap opera that ran in Venezuela. For Granier it was about expanding the company internationally and digitally after Hugo Chavez’s Venezuelan government revoked its broadcasting license in 2007(1). For the CW it was about a broader project of expanding its audience beyond a teenage girl demographic which was narrowing its potential pool of advertisers(2). And for the creator, Jennie Snyder Urman, it was about exploring the kind of person that is still a virgin at 23 and the relationships and changes that arise out of Jane’s “crazy accident”.

Notice how I haven’t used the word latin@ once? According to CW marketing and digital chief Rick Haskins, the Hispanic viewership of the show is 21%, fairly close to the 17% of Hispanics/latin@s in the general population, suggesting that latin@s don’t figure prominently in the audience consideration or targeting of the show. These factors may speak to the curious choice of a heavily accented male narrator which Urman has described as her “access point.” The narrator, for me, is the weakest element of the show. He constantly recapitulates the plot and re-introduces characters—even by episode 15—suggesting a conversation where an authoritative Latin American figure displays and explains this latin@ context for and to an Anglo audience. Every time the narrator barges in he’s basically saying, ‘It’s ok, you don’t have to remember which brown body is which or their crazy antics. I’ll explain everything.’

The show is also easy to critique for the general superficiality or lack of discussions of race, class and immigration issues but I can more easily forgive this point, particularly at such an early stage. While we can and should question why the characters aren’t given ties to any specific Latin American countries but rather to a more ambiguous latinidad, I think they exist as a reflection of a particular latin@ experience lived by some, particularly in Miami, where majority status and specific migration trajectories create very different racial and economic dynamics than say in New York or California.

 

 

1 Dessem, Matthew. «Virgin Territory.» Produced By 10.3 (2014): 56,58,60. ProQuest. Web. 10 Mar. 2015.

2 Holloway, Daniel. «The CW’s Male-Pattern Boldness.» Broadcasting & Cable 144.39 (2014): 12-5. International   Index to Performing Arts Full Text. Web. 10 Mar. 2015.

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