How the American Telenovela Jane the Virgin Updates the Sentimental Novel
With its lack of regard for plausibility and a strong, moralistic heroine, Jane the Virgin is a modern reinterpretation of the nineteenth-century sentimental novel tailored to fit the needs of the growing Latino community, which today makes up more than seventeen percent of the US population.
Published in The Journal of Popular Culture’s April 2019 issue.
When Gina Rodriguez, an American actress of Puerto Rican descent best known for her role as Jane Villanueva in Jane the Virgin, won a Best Actress Golden Globe in 2015, she and the fifty-five million Latinos living in the United States had plenty of reasons to celebrate. She was the only Latina nominated that year, and a Latina had not been nominated in that category since 2009, when America Ferrera was nominated for her starring role in Ugly Betty. (Ferrera was the first Latina to win the category in 2007 for the same role.) In her emotional acceptance speech, Rodriguez said that her win represented “a culture that wants to see themselves as heroes” (Andreeva).
Both Rodriguez and Ferrera won for roles in telenovelas, soap-opera-like television series popular throughout Latin America. Like Ugly Betty before it, the success of Jane the Virgin depends on a diverse audience, but the series is one of only a handful of English-speaking programs on television where Latinas can see actors who look like them, playing characters who move away from the stereotypical maid/nanny/sexpot/thug roles presented on other popular shows.[i] Instead, the series moves towards a complex view of the Latina experience in America. As a result, Jane the Virgin has become a standout sensation. Its final episode aired in July of 2019, but when it debuted in 2014, it was one of the only CW shows that has ever earned major attention from awards shows and critics.
Created by Jennie Snyder Urman (previous credits include Gilmore Girls and reboots of Charmed and 90210), Jane the Virgin debuted on the CW on October 13, 2014. Snyder Urman based Jane the Virgin on the Venezuelan series Juana la Virgen, created by Perla Farías. Both the original and the adaptation rely on many of the absurd and overly dramatic tropes of the telenovela genre. In Jane the Virgin, Rodriquez plays twenty-four-year-old-fulltime-waitress-part-time-student Jane Villanueva. Jane lives with her unwed mother, Xiomara, or “Xio” for short, and her traditionally pious grandmother, Alma. In addition to being an aspiring writer and teacher, Jane also works at a Miami hotel, the Marbella. She hides her long-ago fling with her boss and hotel owner, Rafael, because he is “happily” married to his evil Czech wife, Petra. Jane is also engaged to Michael, her doting detective boyfriend. During the first episode she discovers that she is pregnant, but there’s a problem—Jane is a virgin. She and Michael have never had sex, nor has she had sex with anyone else, ever. So who is the father? Rafael, of course, even though he is sterile and doesn’t even remember Jane. The show’s absurd explanation is that Rafael had cancer a few years previous and, before he underwent chemo that made him sterile, he and Petra froze one sample of his sperm. After seeing him through treatment and remission, Petra was determined to save their marriage by finally having his child. She asked her gynecologist, Luisa (Rafael’s sister), to artificially inseminate her with Rafael’s sperm without his knowledge. However, Luisa was having a bad day (her wife cheated on her), so instead of inseminating Petra, she accidentally inseminated Jane, who was at the doctor for a routine check-up. Several weeks later, Jane learned she was pregnant.
Even though Jane the Virgin’s plot lines are quite modern, the show’s themes can be traced back to the popular and commercially successful sentimental novels of the Romantic era, penned by the “scribbling women” of the nineteenth century. Popular examples from this time include Susanna Haswell Rowson’s Charlotte Temple, Catharine M. Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie, Susan Warner’s The Wide Wide World, Maria Cummins’s The Lamplighter, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Jane the Virgin shares the common element of melodrama with these sentimental novels, executed through improbable plot lines, dramatic and coincidental twists, narrators who engages directly with their audiences, and an overall tendency towards heightened emotions with an “unmistakable moral . . . dimension” (Crane 103-04). But more importantly, both the sentimental novel and Jane the Virgin speak to similar audiences.Like sentimental novels, Jane the Virgin’s heroine acts as a stand-in for her viewers. For example, Susanna Rowson’s audience for her 1791 novel Charlotte Temple was newly literate, upwardly mobile young women. They watched Charlotte endure the most harrowing of situations, be it duplicitous characters, wild romances, sexual encounters, or generally bad decisions, and in the process gleaned coping skills if similar situations presented themselves in real life. Similarly, Jane the Virgin gives audiences the opportunity to vicariously explore new ideas surrounding Latina identity, such as the Latin patriarchy, education, religion, and the unwed mother who is “doing it all.” With its lack of regard for plausibility and a strong, moralistic heroine, Jane the Virgin is a modern reinterpretation of the nineteenth-century sentimental novel tailored to fit the needs of the growing Latino community, which today makes up more than seventeen percent of the US population.
[i] 28 percent of speaking or named characters on television are played by minorities (with 5 percent played specifically by Latinos), ten percent lower than the number of minorities living in the United States (Smith et al.). However, this does not account for the quality of the roles being played by minorities. While systemic stereotyping is improving in Hollywood, there are still television series that portray minorities, specifically women, in ethnically “typical” roles. See series like Orange is the New Black (thug), Modern Family (sexpot/maid), and Desperate Housewives (sexpot). Félix Gutiérrez argues that, “when seen on the screen or page, the stereotyped characters quickly trigger a picture in the heads of the audience of what the character is like and what role she or he will play as the plot unfolds. This typecasting has deep roots in popular literature and entertainment” (U.S. Department of the Interior).
Andreeva, Nellie. “‘Jane The Virgin’ Emmy Campaign Employs Gina Rodriguez’s Own Words.” Deadline.com, 28 May, 2015. https://deadline.com/2015/05/jane-the-virgin-emmy-campaign-gina-rodriguez-1201433804/. Accessed 23 Feb. 2016.
Crane, Gregg. The Cambridge Introduction to the Nineteenth-Century American Novel. Cambridge UP, 2007.
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