Pure HeartHow “Jane the Virgin” Turned Empathy into Power

Gina Rodriguez as Jane Villanueva in Jane the Virgin (Photo credit: Scott Everett White/The CW)

Mallika Khanna is Bitch Media’s 2019 Writing Fellow in Global Feminism

Five years ago, when Jane the Virgin premiered on the CW network, it seemed as though TV critics made a collective agreement that their reviews would follow a single formula, one that kicked off with incredulity at the show’s premise—a young, devout woman is accidentally inseminated with the sperm of her former crush–turned–hotel-magnate boss—followed by pleasant surprise upon realizing the show wasn’t just telenovela parody and actually had “heart.” As Brian Moylan wrote is his 2014 review in The Guardian: “[Y]ou would think that with a premise like that it would be total junk. But the strength of the show is it manages to find an emotional way to connect with the audience even through all the impossibility.” Over the years, the show’s plot points have only gotten more improbable (a villain who creates masks to change people’s faces! Amnesia! Not one but two sets of identical twins!), but the conviction that Jane is a show with heart has only gotten stronger as the series winds down. (The final episode airs tonight.)

The phrases used to describe the show’s appeal—the New Yorker has deemed it “deeply heartfelt,” GQ has remarked on its “compassion and humanity”—point to what makes Jane notable: its use of empathy as a mode of resistance. A few weeks ago, I wrote about finding an antidote to the objectifying vision of the male gaze in a gaze that’s resistant—a way of looking that digs into characters’ inner lives, affords them agency, and allows us to empathize with being the object. Jane is written, directed, and acted with precisely this gaze in mind: It invites empathy for characters who are rarely made empathizable in mainstream television. It demands that its audience recognizes people so often made the objects of American supremacy and white heteropatriarchy as full people with rich interior lives and agency.

This is the great achievement of Jane: its deliberate centering of Jane (Gina Rodriguez) and her Latinx family, the Villanuevas, in a mainstream show that directly challenges one of the most racist administrations in U.S. history but avoids fetishizing their ethnicity and race in the way so many shows with marginalized characters do. The family’s ethnicity is centered without being pivotal; their story is one that deals with such universal themes as intergenerational bonding and conflict, choice and womanhood, and—as is expected of any telenovela, even one that gleefully subverts its genre—dramatic love triangles.

And when the show does deal with the Villanuevas’s Latinx identity, it isn’t coy or tokenistic. Over Jane’s five seasons, we’ve learned that Jane’s abuela, Alba (Ivonne Coll), is undocumented and have seen her fight for citizenship. We’ve seen Jane’s telenovela-star father, Rogelio (Jaime Camil), struggle with the transition from Latin American television to U.S. television. The show’s creators never pin the family’s marginalization solely to its cultural identity—their trials are entwined with the political, economic, and social limitations that come with being an immigrant in the United States.

There’s a direct (and acknowledged) precedent for this: Jane’s executive producer, Ben Silverman, was also an EP of Ugly Betty, another show that offered a joyful, affirming challenge to the default assumption of white TV families as the only universally relatable ones. But Jane’s radicalism isn’t located only in its characters or its willingness to normalize immigrant experiences. It’s also evident in the storytelling innovations that help make the Villanuevas’s stories multifaceted and sympathetic.

Jane’s Latin-lover narrator (Anthony Mendez) is perhaps the best of these innovations: Over the show’s lifespan, the omniscient narrator has increasingly become a full character on the show (possibly because, as one fan theory holds, he actually is one of them). He has opinions. He gets hurt. He cares deeply for the characters in Jane’s world. It matters that this unnamed voice is friendly, passionate, emotional. His interjections let us into characters’ inner world so we’re not just looking at the characters’ lives, we’re being invited into them. The audience is rarely left guessing what people are feeling, even if we don’t know anything else.

Employing this strategy in a show that centers a Latinx family feels strategic considering that telenovelas don’t generally feature narrators. American audiences are used to seeing a certain kind of family on TV, white and determinedly American. Consequently, when a show like Jane tries to break into the family comedy-drama space, it risks cultivating a smaller viewership by seeming unrelatable and too outside the norm. Having a narrator who is so invested in the characters and their lives is a great way to bridge that gap.

The show demands that its audience recognize people so often made the objects of American supremacy and white heteropatriarchy as full people with rich interior lives and agency. 

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There’s a scene in Season 3, for instance, in which Catalina (Sofia Pernas), Jane’s overbearing, show-offy cousin from Venezuela, calls Jane’s son, Mateo, by Jane’s own nickname for him—“Mr. Sweetface.” The omniscient narrator can’t control himself, and chimes in with “Traitor!” when Mateo goes easily into Catalina’s arms. It’s such a human moment, a reminder that even the seemingly impartial forces in our lives have biases and feelings. The narrator’s personal attachment to Jane’s world pushes us to feel as deeply involved in the characters’ lives as the narrator himself does. 

Jane invites its audience to empathize with the characters in other ways as well. Another Season 3 episode “Chapter Forty-Seven,” finds Jane writing about Alba’s sister, Cecilia, as a character in her novel. Rodriguez embodies Jane-as-Cecilia, acting out who she imagines her great-aunt to be while simultaneously grappling with her own less-than-average first time having sex. The Cecilia she initially conjures up is both a sex-crazed maniac and a nun, a perfect embodiment of the Madonna/whore dichotomy with which Jane was herself indoctrinated as a child. It’s only when Jane finally has a satisfying sexual experience that she’s able to let go of the binary understanding of Cecilia and reimagine her as a fully rounded woman with a whole cast of characters who inform her identity. Aside from reminding viewers of Rodriguez’s talent, this narrative tactic allows us into Jane’s head by anthropomorphizing her deepest anxieties around sex. Jane acting out characters she writes or imagines is something the show does repeatedly to make her thoughts as accessible and relatable as possible.

In the same episode, Jane tries writing a version of Cecilia as a villain without any real motivation to be evil. Jane’s imagined Cecilia refutes this characterization with a curt response: “No one is a bitch just to be a bitch.” This could be the mission statement of the entire show. Every one of the main characters, marginalized or not, is afforded interiority and agency. We might not agree with what they are doing, but we always, always understand it. Despite the surreal and absurd plotlines, Jane is a show that gets to the heart of the anxieties and despairs of being marginalized without fetishizing or tokenizing the Villanuevas’ specific form of marginalization. It’s a show that reminds us that resistance onscreen can just be giving space to characters who aren’t normally visible, and writing them with both technical brilliance and empathy.

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by Mallika Khanna
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Mallika Khanna is an aspiring academic studying South Asian media, feminisms and the desi diaspora at Indiana University’s Media School. She writes about gender, the immigrant experience and pop culture and has words at Catapult, Himal Southasian, and The Establishment, among others.