"This award is so much more than myself," said Jane the Virgin star Gina Rodriguez upon accepting her Golden Globe for best actress in a comedy series in January. "It represents a culture that wants to see themselves as heroes."
This sentiment is one with which the hit CW show's devoted fan base wholeheartedly agrees. Despite the telenovela-inspired comedy's unabashedly over-the-top premise, Rodriguez's multidimensional Latina protagonist is part of a stellar cast that offers an arguably unprecedented portrayal of Latinos on network television. Jane the Virgin is a necessary breath of fresh air in a media landscape that has historically been unfriendly to women — especially women of color.
While women have made strides toward parity in terms of basic representation on TV, this representation rarely feels authentic. As The Mary Sue points out, female characters are less likely to be shown as employed, more likely to have an obvious marital status and are overwhelmingly in their 20s. Latina characters in particular are often portrayed as hypersexualized and one-dimensional both on TV and in the media at large.
"The media is a venue and an avenue to educate and teach our next generation." — Gina Rodriguez
But Jane the Virgin is doing much to combat these insulting depictions. Here are six ways that the critically acclaimed show is destroying Latino stereotypes, one episode at a time:
1. It complicates the experience of teen pregnancy.
One major stereotype with which Latinas contend is the perception of rampant teen pregnancy. While studies show that the rate of such pregnancy is indeed higher among Latinas than other ethnic groups in the U.S., this disparity can likely be attributed to factors like the prevalence of abstinence-only education in states with large Latino populations, or the lack of access to reproductive health care like birth control — and not a Latina-specific hypersexuality.
Jane the Virgin faces the complexities of teen pregnancy head-on through its portrayal of Jane's mother, Xiomara. Though Xiomara had Jane as a teenager, she is not a one-dimensional, Latina teen mom stereotype, and her pregnancy has not defined her life. She is an aspiring singer, pursues romance and has fulfilling relationships with both her mother and daughter. Xiomara is shaped by having had her daughter at a young age, but it's hardly all there is to her.
2. It reminds us Latinos have all sorts of jobs — not just maids.
Many non-Hispanic Americans mistakenly believe that Latinos are largely confined to lower-level jobs like as maids or gardeners, or even perceive them as criminals. Jane the Virgin dispels this myth by depicting Latino characters of all economic classes — from the incredibly wealthy family of Jane's father and her child's father, to Jane's own working class family.
The characters pursue a variety of careers within these classes as well, from entertainment to entrepreneurship to education. Rodriguez has addressed this element of the show directly: "Being a maid is fantastic; I have many family members who have fed their children in that role," she told Entertainment Tonight Online. "But there are other stories that need to be told. The media is a venue and an avenue to educate and teach our next generation."
3. It portrays Latino culture as complex, not token.
Jane and her family are proud of their heritage. In fact, Jane's grandmother speaks in Spanish on the show (her dialogue is translated into English captions), creating a "Spanglish" household. This detail is never tokenistic or self-congratulatory, however; it is naturally integrated into the flow of the characters' daily lives, much in the same way it is for bilingual Latino families across the country.
The show's treatment of religion is similarly nuanced. While Jane notes in one episode that her decision to remain a virgin until marriage was influenced by her grandmother's adherence to a traditional Catholic identity, she does not allow her life to be dictated by religious doctrine, either, and still enjoys being close to her partners in other ways sans guilt.
4. It educates viewers about the structural barriers Latinos face.
Jane the Virgin tackles plenty of issues that impact Latinos, most notably deportation. In one recent episode, Jane's grandmother is hospitalized and subsequently revealed to not be a legal citizen. The episode makes clear the point that deportation is a fear that shapes the opinions and actions of Latinos across the nation — in terms of medical care and beyond — and yet is an issue about which many Americans remain uneducated.
Showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman told BuzzFeed that the show chose to pursue this storyline in order to address this pervasive ignorance, and that the writers hoped that, "by personalizing this issue, and playing it out through beloved characters, we can make the political, personal ... and hopefully raise consciousness and compassion."
5. It pushes back on common misconceptions about abortion.
In addition to immigration, the show has contended with abortion — a divisive issue most mainstream shows won't touch with a 10-foot pool. Despite stereotypes of Latinos as widely anti-choice, Jane the Virgin reflects the reality that, as one poll showed, 74% of Latino voters support a woman's right to choose. Though Jane chooses not to terminate her unplanned pregnancy, candid conversations with her mother and grandmother reveal that they would support her choice to do so.
These moments may be subtle, but do much to demonstrate that not all Latinas subscribe to the same beliefs about such a complicated issue.
6. It doesn't force Jane to be defined by her race, gender or sexuality.
Rodriguez's portrayal of Jane, which has been almost universally lauded for its humor, warmth and plain old likeability, is one of the most realistic on TV. This authenticity takes many forms, from Rodriguez's physical manifestation of the character — she told Entertainment Tonight Online that she's excited to play a character that is "size me" rather than a size 0 — to the obvious humor and intelligence evident in her performance.
Additionally, though sex and sexuality are at the heart of this show's premise, it does not contend with these issues in obvious ways. Most notably, it refuses to categorize Jane within the virgin-whore dichotomy that dictates the portrayal of countless female television characters, Latina or not. Jane is allowed to exhibit a nuanced sexuality, embracing her desires while still managing to stay true to her personal wish to remain a virgin until marriage. It's a middle ground with which countless young women can relate, yet which is rarely accounted for on TV.
Though a large part of the show, Jane's journey extends far beyond her relationship to sex. Her dedication to her education and career are noted throughout the series as well. Her persistent pursuit of her college degree and impending graduation are frequently referenced, for example, and entire episodes have been devoted to her careful consideration of what career path to take. Like the viewers who watch her journey every week, Jane can't be confined to just one aspect of her personality.
"The way I grew up, I never saw myself on screen," BuzzFeed quotes Rodriguez as saying. "And I realized how limiting that was for me. I would look at the screen and think, 'Well, there's no way I can do it, because I'm not there.' And it's like as soon as you follow your dreams, you give other people the allowance to follow theirs."
Thanks to Jane the Virgin, and Rodriguez's skillful portrayal of the show's protagonist, all women — Latina and non-Hispanic alike — now have a fantastic role model to look up.