CULTURE & ARTS

The Impact Of 'Jane The Virgin' Cannot Be Overstated

The Gina Rodriguez-led series ended its five-season run, but the show's approach to Latinx representation, sex positivity and strong female leads is worth raving about forever.

“What do you mean the telenovela’s gonna end?” a young Jane Gloriana Villanueva, sandwiched on the couch between her mother and grandmother, asks in a flashback in the beginning of the “Jane the Virgin” series finale.

“They always have an ending,” her abuela Alba says. “But it’s always a happy one. The good people always get what they deserve. And there’s usually a wedding.” 

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

After five whirlwind seasons, the “Jane the Virgin” finale delivered on that promise with an end resembling a modern-day fairy tale. Jane actualizes her dream of becoming a successful, published author; she marries Rafael, after years of tension; and she grows alongside her family in an intergenerational tale about the strength, beauty and power of women. 

“In television, you rarely see three female Latinas being in charge of their lives,” Ivonne Coll, who portrays Jane’s abuela, says in the look-back special that preceded the finale. 

By bringing three passionate, flawed Latina leading ladies to the screen, “Jane” changed the landscape of television and brought Latinx representation to viewers who were so hungry for it — a cross-cultural accomplishment done so seamlessly and sincerely that it’s difficult to remember what entertainment looked like before this show upended our lives in 2014. Latinos on television shows continue to be represented primarily as criminals or in law enforcement, as hypersexualized beings and in low-wage work, according to a 2014 study that looked into the quality of roles available for Latino actors. So the impact of seeing the uber-talented Gina Rodriguez, Andrea Navedo and Coll kill it on “Jane” cannot be overstated. 

“Jane” has been rightfully praised for bringing the telenovela genre to English-speaking audiences and may even be partly credited with the surge in popularity of Spanish-language programming among such audiences in recent years. Despite its unquestionable histrionics, however, the show — which is a loose adaptation of the 2002 Venezuelan telenovela “Juana, la virgen” — poked fun at Latin America soap operas. It melded realism and drama, giving viewers characters they could be wholly invested in and coalescing to form a perfect firestorm of a series. 

As a Latina writer, I easily saw myself in the character of Jane. While I’m nowhere near the intense outliner she is, watching her sit in front of her computer, trying to scribble down the cacophony of thoughts in her head and seeing her sometimes get in trouble for pulling from her own life experiences were moments I’m all too familiar with. Jane hustled; she fought to tell her stories. She worked endless shifts at The Marbella, all while striving to find an agent and publishers for her books. So when she lands a huge book deal in the penultimate episode of the series after not even feeling comfortable enough to say she was a writer in the beginning of the show, you know just how well-deserved her accomplishments are. 

Perhaps one of the biggest accomplishments of the series, however, was in revolutionizing conversations and depictions of sex on television. Like Jane, I grew up in a Catholic family, received all my sacraments and internalized the message from my religious elementary and high schools that sex was a bartering chip you traded for marriage. 

No one (luckily) gave us a white flower and had us crumple it up, like Alba did for Jane. We didn’t have to take a piece of tape and stick it on a partner, in an attempt to demonstrate that if we tried to stick it on other people, it wouldn’t work because the tape had lost its ability to bond to others, that it was used and worthless ― like we would be once we “gave away” our virginities. Nor were we instructed to unwrap a peppermint patty and pass it around the room, an exercise meant to signal that the more people that touched the chocolate ― and us ― the dirtier and more undesirable it ― and we ― became. We simply never talked about sex, and in ignoring its existence, we sullied it further.

For a young, impressionable woman who wasn’t getting positive sex messaging from anywhere back then, “Jane” was refreshing. For the first time, I wasn’t watching a poorly disguised PSA that made me feel like I lacked autonomy, nor was I watching a show about a girl who didn’t have to grapple with religion’s influence over one of life’s most personal decisions. 

Jane waits until her marriage to Michael to have sex ― a decision she ultimately decides is right for her ― but the fact remains that viewers were privy to a complicated feminist attempting to separate her beliefs from those of her grandmother’s, unlearn patriarchal mores and reconcile being a woman of faith who could actually find pleasure in sex. 

The sex positivity isn’t simply reserved for Jane, either. Alba, who still feels somewhat shameful about having sex before marriage, has her own coming-of-age journey, which involves Jane helping her shop for a vibrator ― a storyline that empowered viewers by showing that growth comes at all ages. 

Because the series was a balancing act between authentic U.S. Latinx representation and hyperdramatic telenovela-like plot twists, “Jane” could approach some of the most difficult issues today with nuance and without didacticism. In “Chapter Sixty-One,” Alba is ringing up a customer’s items at The Marbella gift shop, while her co-worker helps a Spanish-speaking customer find lotion. Before Alba’s customer leaves the gift shop, she tells the other women, “This is America. You should learn how to speak English.” 

Alba, who is a Venezuelan immigrant, is too shocked to say anything to the woman, but when she returns home, her pain turns into anger.

“You know what I should have said? ‘We the people of the United States,’” she says, before reciting the beginning of the Constitution. “How much of the preamble do you think she knows?”

The character of Alba, in particular, pushed forward Latinx representation on television, as she pretty much exclusively spoke in Spanish, despite the fact that the show is otherwise conducted in English and was aimed at English-speaking audiences. 

From left: Justin Baldoni, Gina Rodriguez, Ivonne Coll, Andrea Navedo, Jennie Snyder Urman, Yael Grobglas, Jaime Camil and Br
From left: Justin Baldoni, Gina Rodriguez, Ivonne Coll, Andrea Navedo, Jennie Snyder Urman, Yael Grobglas, Jaime Camil and Brett Dier of the "Jane the Virgin" cast.

From multiculturalism to xenophobia to abortion, the storylines were situated in the current cultural moment, making the show feel fresh and relevant. And just as important, “Jane” was comedic and ironic. Her father, the over-the-top Rogelio De La Vega (Jaime Camil), was on a  journey to become a telenovela star in the United States. His trajectory shows the struggle of trying to break into an industry where Latinos are vastly underrepresented — a pretty meta plot arc. But Rogelio prevails and winds up achieving success among American audiences by the show’s end with his pilot episode of “This Is Mars.” 

Given the place “Jane” occupied in my life these past five seasons, it’s strange to think that I almost stopped watching the show after Michael “died.” 

How could the series possibly bounce back after killing off the love of the titular character’s life shortly after they got married? Michael (Brett Drier) had already overcome so much in their relationship. They survived Jane’s accidental artificial insemination with another man’s child, they survived after that child was kidnapped by a crime lord and, perhaps even more daunting, they survived the classic television love triangle trope. Jane finally chose Michael over Rafael (Justin Baldoni), the debonair father of her son Mateo.  

Yeah, maybe you could argue that by Season 3 of the show, I really should have been more skeptical and realized that the “Jane” writers were doing what they do best: playing me and making me feel all the feels only to laugh among themselves in some writers room in Los Angeles. 

But while many viewers suspected that Michael was still alive, I brooded in my resentment at the unjust nature of life and the cruelty of these writers. It wasn’t until I picked the show back up again that I realized the writers were playing the long game — and even then, I could not have anticipated the 2,946 other twists and turns that would follow. (Disclosure: I am fully Team Rafael now and if you aren’t, maybe you should reevaluate your life.) 

After suffering from amnesia, induced by the aforementioned crime lord, Sin Rostro, Michael is no longer the same guy. And he seems pretty happy with Charlie (Haley Lu Richardson) ― who, in another stroke of writing brilliance, is Drier’s real-life fiancée. 

Yet for as much time as I’ve spent talking about the men of the show ― who admittedly are a significant aspect of the plot ― “Jane” was always more than its “Will they, won’t they, when will they?” dramatics. 

“The show deals with a lot of interesting aspects of what it means to be a hero,” Baldoni said in the flashback special. “It takes the everyday person and turns her into a hero.”

It’s difficult to accept that the opinionated narrator ― who was revealed to be Mateo in the finale ― definitely said “The End” in the final seconds of the finale. But “Jane” offered many of us the chance to see ourselves on screen ― not just as who we are today, but as who we can potentially become.

And because of that, the show lives on.

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