As the enthusiastic yet self-aware narrator of “Jane the Virgin” let us know last week, Jane Gloriana Villanueva was not always the level-headed heroine we’ve grown to admire.
Since the show’s pilot premiered last year, Jane’s personality has been marked by a desire for control: control of her calendar, control of her increasingly tumultuous family life, control of her career prospects, which, up until she met the disruptive Rafael, didn’t stray from the practical.
You can’t really blame Jane for being Type A. Her mom Xiomara is super-doting, but repeatedly reiterates her regrets about having Jane at such a young, capricious age. This leaves Jane with a life centered on not repeating her mother’s mistakes -- but the uncontrollable events of her life seem to be working against her.
If you haven’t seen the show, here’s some complicated exposition. Bear with me for a sentence or two; it is a riff on the notoriously maudlin genre of telenovelas.
So. Jane is slated to finish school and begin working as a teacher just in time for her engagement to longtime beau Michael when -- surprise! -- she gets artificially inseminated by a loopy doctor who happens to be the sister of a dude she made out with once. Said dude, Rafael, happens to be the baby’s father, and the mom is an understandably sinister woman with whom he’s going through a divorce. Phew.
Jane manages to take all of this, and much more, in stride, because she’s a straight-A student accustomed to being flexible and working hard. She does these things because in many ways she’s her family’s emotional bedrock; Xiomara is less mature than Jane, and Jane’s grandmother’s first language isn’t English, so she occasionally needs support outside of the house.
Jane, then, epitomizes a sort of anti-slacker girl, working against a recently established on-screen trope. Unlike Hannah on “Girls,” who waffles between dudes and life paths, or Annie from “Bridesmaids,” who’s unsettled by her best friend’s plan to settle down, Jane has her act together out of necessity.
To be clear: the slacker girl, who’s a more realistic manifestation of the idealized manic pixie dream girl, serves an important, feminist purpose. Presenting the idea that women can’t do it all, she’s morally confused or drifting either by choice or as a response to the difficult decision presented to a contemporary woman. She can choose a life of domesticity, or a seemingly freer, more independent path. That these two desires are conversationally couched as conflicting can be crippling; not choosing can feel like the most honest choice.
But, being presented with such a choice at all, rather than being expected to take on both family and work, is a uniquely privileged position. And, as the Christmas-themed episode of “Jane the Virgin” illustrated, Jane wasn’t born emotionally stable; she began acting responsibly per her grandmother’s suggestion. (Her grandmother, as a reminder, isn’t a legal citizen through much of the show, and practices responsibility mostly out of fear of deportation.)
The episode begins with a flashback of young Jane screaming and huffing at her mother, who opened an advent calendar out of order. Jane’s grandmother then shares her own anger management techniques, suggesting she think of items or memories that make her feel calm; one for each letter of the Spanish word “calma.”
Once she’s employed the technique, thinking of “abuela” for “A,” and her son Mateo for “M,” Jane’s able to regain her focus, and get back to work. Level-headedness is an exercise she works at, not a natural disposition.
But make no mistake: Jane is no supermom ideal. Most of the show’s plot involves her inability to juggle her myriad responsibilities, and the hard choices she has to make when trying to do so. This conflict is convenient for the show’s quick pace. Jane is constantly running from work or school to Rafael’s house (the two share custody of their son) to her own home to spend time with her family. The show’s writers manage to make work-life balance a fascinating, gripping plot point, mimicking the actual travails of contemporary womanhood.
As a viewer, the experience of watching Jane struggle to stay afloat is akin to a breakneck action plot. We can’t help but root for her, because if she can’t do it, there’s little hope for the lazier rest of us, who are more inclined to spend our evenings watching telenovelas than changing diapers.
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