Today, Jane the Virgin‘s final two episodes will air of Netflix, drawing an end to the one-hundred chapter, five year telenovela.
Of course, Netflix fanatics are used to shows coming and going, but Jane’s ending will wrap up not just one of the tightest and most persistently entertaining show to grace the platform, but also one of television’s most progressive.
So often representation in television, film and even governments (see Boris Johnson’s cabinet) can be distilled to sheer tokenism, introducing BAME or LGBT characters simply to give the illusion of inclusivity without having to do the actual work to ensure that particular populations or cultural identities are truly represented.
Consider Disney Star Wars, in particular Rogue One, which was praised for introducing an ethnically diverse cast. This, of course, is no bad thing, but the characters’ ethnicities did not play any part in the story – BAME actors were cast almost to fulfil diversity quotas, but is this enough when the backgrounds these sparse individual faces are coming from are not truly being reflected?
Of course, Star Wars is a difficult example to analyse; being set in a ‘galaxy far, far away’, it’s of course unlikely that race relations will reflect those on planet Earth, but it’s a solid example of how using superficial diversity to tick boxes is an easy way of overlooking the issues supposedly being addressed.
And if we look at popular Netflix shows, we can see that the majority focus on a predominantly white, Anglo-American cast, with BAME characters often on the wayside. In How I Met Your Mother, James Stinson’s skin colour (he is the only recurring black character with an arch in the nine-series show) is reduced to a joke as the main, white, characters moan that Barney Stinson warned them that his half-brother is gay (two birds, one stone?), as though that would shock them more than if he were black.
Jane the Virgin, admittedly through necessity based on its genre (and the fact that it’s an adaptation of a similarly-titled Venezuelan show), takes a different approach.
Instead of focussing on a white American family and introducing BAME characters as a novelty/‘other’, Jane’s focus is on a Latin American first/second/third generation immigrant family living in Miami, and uses this as a touchpoint to explore the immigrant experience in the United States in the present day, delivering some very timely political commentary about the treatment of even third-generation ‘immigrants’ in America (“just because I’m Latino doesn’t mean I’m their nanny”).
Not that the show exists to provide this commentary; rather, it utilises its platform and existing cast of characters to highlight some contemporary issues in a way which is secondary to the series’ overall arch, while also constituting developed and ‘woke’ storylines of consequence in their own right while never appearing tacked-on.
In short, it uses its existing set-up to provide relevant and well-integrated social commentary in a way that tokenistic representation never can.
As well as talking about political issues, Jane the Virgin takes representation one step further by introducing a whole new genre to mainstream Anglophone audiences. Enter the telenovela, a primarily Latin American limited-run series characterised by exaggerated emotions, coincidence and convoluted plots – all of which are used by Jane in abundance.
Couple this with the two ongoing meta-narratives of Jane’s family’s adoration of the genre and the One Hundred Years of Solitude-esque in-show novelisation of the series’ story, and Jane the Virgin ends up feeling like a celebration of Latin American culture. Characters such as Alba and Jorge speak almost exclusively in Spanish out of choice, but also appear as fluent English speakers who are able to integrate into white American society, helping to reduce stereotypes which may be gaining more traction since Donald Trump began his mission to demonize Mexicans since his presidential inauguration.
All of this is important because Hispanics or Latin Americans form 16.3% of the US population, its second-largest ethnic group, but are very rarely given any real cultural representation in American media. No doubt the very real and very present Catholicism of Jane’s family would have shocked the more Protestant sensibilities of some strata of Anglo American society.
But as Jane the Virgin’s platform grew, it used its influence to tackle other societal issues often overlooked in television.
Petra’s (one of the best-developed characters in any show) bisexuality may have seemed to come out of nowhere, but her attraction to JR was naturalistic and opened up conversations about the fluidity of sexuality in a show which had already had decent LGBT representation. Elsewhere, delicate issues such as depression and the use of antidepressants, ageism, and even how to effectively co-parent are handled with dazzling effortlessness, while never being preachy in any way that can be considered as anything other than tongue-in-cheek.
But all of this would have been for nothing if Jane the Virgin never built up an audience, and Jane would have never built up an audience if it wasn’t so dazzlingly entertaining. For all the random musical numbers, for all the set pieces perfectly building up tension, for all the foreshadowing leading to that reveal; for all the drama, all the toasties, all the late night chats on the porch swing – Jane the Virgin, I salute you, and it’s for this as much as anything else that you’ll be missed.
But I know there’s one thing I’m going to take away from Jane the Virgin besides from our narrator Anthony Mendez’s unforgettable catchphrases – I’m going to look more into international film and TV, and watch less watered down, by-numbers Hollywoodified Netflix coming out of Anglo-America. Jane, you showed me what television can be, and for that, I’m forever thankful.
Further reading: The Best Show on TV Is Jane the Virgin by Jen Chaney