Religion anchors everything in the CW’s Jane the Virgin. From the minute Jane’s grandmother Alba confronts her with a flower symbolizing her virginity, Jane is on a careening cliff to maintain that virginity till marriage. Watching a show with a devout Catholic Latina character is rare, and the show’s been both praised and taken to task for its depiction. On Catholic Answers, a religious message board, a user by the name of lvcabbie declared Jane the Virgin a “farce designed to belittle the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception.” The depiction of Catholicism has certainly transformed throughout the show’s three seasons. And even though Jane lost her V-card, her religious beliefs hover over the show, kinda like God Himself. In the wake of its impending return from winter hiatus on January 23rd, where does this leave Jane’s ardent, albeit at times tongue-in-cheek, Catholic upbringing?
Jane the Virgin’s biggest detractors point to its fallback on conservative Catholic presentations of chastity and virginity. Jane’s unspoken symbol is the white flower Alba gives her at age nine. Meant to represent her own “flower,” Alba implies that to crush it makes Jane impure in God’s eyes. As Jessica Valenti says in The Purity Myth, this fear is a common tactic in conservative abstinence-only sex education, often demonstrated with items like flowers or tape. Self-confessed “cradle Catholic” Isis Melton says she identifies with Alba’s attempts at safeguarding her granddaughter’s virginity. “My Abuela Melendez worked in Catholic guilt like Lin-Manuel Miranda works in composing music…Little did she know I already had health class in middle school.”
Jane’s chastity is motivated by fear and it is this sort of soul blackmail and religious rigmarole that’s a key factor in people losing and/or leaving the Faith. Alba acts as a stand-in for God, falling back on outdated stereotypes that people use to keep young women from making their own decisions regarding sex and love. It’s why many scenes — before Jane is married and actually has sex — have Jane use her grandmother and the flower as a metaphorical cold shower.
“My Abuela Melendez worked in Catholic guilt like Lin-Manuel Miranda works in composing music… Little did she know I already had health class in middle school.”
There are many reasons to remain abstinent, several involving religion and familial expectations. The mere fact that Jane is a virgin over 21 alerts the audience of both her religious upbringing and deep-seated morality. The CDC says the average American loses their virginity around age 17, with around 5% of virgins over 25. Alicia Cohn of Christianity Today argues Jane’s fears belittle late-in-life virgins, “When abstinent adults can’t offer a compelling explanation for why, at some point we’re going to have a hard time with the why not.” As the series has progressed, Jane’s come up with various reasons “why not” — from it being the wrong time, the wrong guy, or that she’s so close to marriage (why not get to the finish line?) These arguments work for Jane despite still being rooted in her religious fear.
In the very first episode, when Jane gets pregnant sans intercourse, she suffers the consequences of premarital sex without actually having done the deed. Melton says, “I remember my grandmother telling me in my teenage years that it was a sin to have sex before I was married and that God would know and punish me with a baby.” The show never treats Jane’s pregnancy, and her son Mateo, as a punishment though. In fact, many of the show’s strongest episodes involve discussions of pregnancy — from Jane and Petra’s fears of labor to Xiomara’s radically nonchalant abortion this past season. Though it falls back on a typical parental scare-tactic, Jane the Virgin reclaims the “virgin birth” for a new generation. Jane is an unchaste virgin. She knows about sex, writes about sex, and for what she doesn’t know, she has an active imagination.
So Jane, in strict conservative Catholic terms, has a virgin birth, but certainly retains the “taint” of original sin through her sexual desires. The pushback (mostly from Catholic message boards and blogs such as Catholic Realist) feels like continued persecution of a woman’s desire for a healthy sex life. There’s a tacit awareness of Jane’s sexuality, but maintains her religious piety. If anything, a source of contention is Jane’s religion and sexuality defining her. Other characters, like Rafael, lack the connection to any source of religion; Rafael actively scorns it for the bizarre reason that his mother used a church for illegal dealings. In a way, this makes Jane a unique character — an adult virgin is rare, let alone one who isn’t stereotypically “ultra religious” in her logic. Now that her virginity is gone for good, the show can integrate her religion into her life, free of Biblical connotations.
Jane the Virgin ends up being a depiction of Catholicism for the modern era, blending real-life issues of sex and dating with the questions of wishing to abide by strict doctrine. The current Argentine Pope (the first-ever Latin American pontiff) has been more welcoming regarding the pressures of creating an idealized marriage that involves abstinence. He’s also acknowledged that childbirth is a whole different ballgame in a life of in-vitro fertilization. Papa Francisco’s tone is one of blind acceptance, a “if we can’t see it, it’s okay” mentality that Catholics are finding refreshing. With over 40% of the 1.2 billion Catholics in the world coming from Latin America, Jane the Virgin remains a positive depiction of religion in general with a strong, uncompromising heroine at its core.
Jane the Virgin returns after winter hiatus to its regular time slot: Mondays at 9 p.m. New episodes begin on January 23, 2017.