Discussion: Political Statements in Jane the Virgin

I posted awhile ago about all the reasons the TV show Jane the Virgin is one of my favorites.  As season 3 comes to a close, every one of those reasons still holds.  Jane the Virgin is definitely in my top five favorite TV shows ever (up there with Parks and Rec and Breaking Bad, in case you’re wondering).

Jane the Virgin is also one of the most politically active fictional TV shows I’ve seen.  Other shows may use politics as a small plot point here and there, but Jane the Virgin sets itself in modern day, where the characters can react to politics and other current events as they happen.  It makes the show even more relevant than it already is, and may serve to get viewers more interested in current events and activism.  And it makes so much sense that the show is like this, because Gina Rodriguez, who plays Jane, is very politically and socially active.  She advocates for many minority groups on social media, and has an Instagram feature called #MovementMondays where she highlights minority actors and activists to get her followers learning and excited about change.

One example of current politics done well in Jane the Virgin is the status of Jane’s grandmother, Alba.  Alba is a Venezuelan immigrant, and when the show begins, she is completely undocumented.  For this reason, she is deathly afraid of police and other authority figures, and wants to apply for her green card but is afraid her lengthy illegal status will get her deported if she applies.  Jane and her mother help Alba overcome her fears and apply for her green card, and she later ends up marching in a protest to advocate for herself and for her boyfriend, who is undocumented when they meet.  It’s a very real situation for many here in the US, and Alba becomes a stronger character because she overcame her fear.

But there are other political statements that feel like they’ve been forced into the plot.  For example, Jane begins dating Fabian, one of her father’s coworkers, and feels she is ready for casual sex.  So she goes for it, showing up at his apartment dressed to impress, but Fabian ends up talking to her for two hours about books.  She’s frustrated, obviously.  But at the beginning of the scene where Jane tries to bring up her intentions, Fabian first asks a question about one of the books, to which Jane replies with a statement about free speech for everyone.  Then they launch into the sex conversation.

To me, that interaction felt forced.  It didn’t flow like a real conversation might have.  We didn’t see any of the previous book conversation, and after that one statement was made, there was no follow-up.  It wasn’t part of the plot, or part of any character’s development.  It was social commentary with no basis in the story, stuck into a conversation seemingly at the last minute.

Another thing that bothers me is the use of Jane’s child, Mateo.  At this point in the show, Mateo is about 4 years old.  Like any 4-year-old, he notices things about the world and wonders about them.  But I don’t know if the statements he makes are ones that a 4-year-old would think to ask.  He asks about abstract and complex concepts often.  Of course, young children are often much wiser than we give them credit for, and can surprise us with incredibly deep questions.  But the way they ask them is different than the way an adult or an older child would ask them, and I think Mateo’s writers may need to further study the way 4-year-olds process information.  Also, the fact that Mateo is even used at all to further the show’s political agenda (because it’s clear there is one) is a tad cringe-y to me.  Kids themselves do ask intelligent, political questions, but Mateo is used more as a mouthpiece for the writers than his own character, and that’s not the high quality storytelling that Jane the Virgin has shown previously.

Another show that makes political statements often is the comedy Last Man Standing.  Its views are on the complete opposite end of the spectrum from those on Jane the Virgin, but the statements are usually more tastefully made because the characters’ political leanings are often a crucial part of the plot.  The father character on the show, Mike, holds opposite political views from his oldest daughter and some of his friends, and these differences are sometimes the basis of entire episodes.  As a sitcom, political differences make good fodder for jokes intertwined with the characters’ (and presumably the writers’) deeper values.

Last Man Standing, which aired on ABC, was discontinued on May 10, 2017 after 6 seasons.  Six seasons is a pretty good run for any show, but some are saying that ABC stopped it because the show is staunchly conservative.  I hope that’s not the case, for two reasons.  One is because TV shows should be protected under freedom of speech and expression, and removing a show because it differs in values is a little sketchy.  The other reason is because having different perspectives represented in TV is important.  People use TV for a ton of different reasons, but arguably the biggest is to relax.  Most people have come home from work or school and vegged out in front of the TV for a few hours, because it gives us a break from our own reality.  It gives us a reason to laugh or cry, and it gives us something to enjoy even when we’re so exhausted we can barely move.  Different perspectives need to represented on TV because everyone watches, and we all like to see ourselves.

Since we’re all watching TV anyway, adding some political and social commentary in there can be beneficial.  When it’s done artfully, it gets people thinking, and then maybe acting.  When it feels forced or not genuine, it alienates people from the perspective it’s trying to portray.  That’s why the best way to insert commentary is to do it subtly, make it an important plot point so that it doesn’t feel forced, and don’t overwhelm the show with it.  Regardless of my complaints, I feel that Jane the Virgin, overall, does an excellent job balancing social and political responsibility with superb storytelling.  I just hope the writers don’t go overboard.

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