The CW’s critically acclaimed telenovela adaptation “Jane the Virgin” is no virgin to pushing the envelope. For those who are unfamiliar with the show, it begins with a young Latina woman named Jane who is accidentally artificially inseminated at a routine gynecological exam. She becomes pregnant despite the fact that she has never had sex, and the ensuing events that unfold are a mixture of sitcom-worthy life lessons and telenovela dramatics.
Although the premise may sound a little ridiculous, the show has won accolade upon accolade for its empowering and provocative conversations around reproductive rights, female relationships, ethnicity and immigration. So when fans tuned in for season three and found out in a very casual manner that Jane’s mother had an abortion to prevent an unwanted second pregnancy, many fans were unfazed and supportive of the show’s radical idea to normalize abortion. Others were not so supportive; in an article written for The Federalist one woman wrote, “But this—this isn’t pro-life. It isn’t pro-family. And it isn’t what ‘Jane the Virgin’ has offered us for the past two seasons.” Although opinions on the matter differed dramatically, the most important thing to focus on is that the show created dialogues surrounding something labeled “taboo” in cable television.
Planned Parenthood publicly endorsed “Jane the Virgin’s” honest portrayal of the reality of abortions: that they are often not solely for personal desires but motivated by the economic and familial effects another child would have. In a statement released to Entertainment Weekly magazine, spokesperson Caren Spruch said, “Planned Parenthood applauds ‘Jane the Virgin’ for depicting a family having frank and honest discussions about abortion. This should not be revolutionary — Latinos, like the majority of the population, believe that the decision to have an abortion should be left to a woman in consultation with her family, her faith, and her doctor.”
In 2015, the show was given Planned Parenthood’s Maggie Award for its “honest and humorous reflection of the changing attitudes toward unintended pregnancy and abortion within the Latino community.” This statement reveals a subtle distinction that marks this show as the pioneer that it is. Not only does season three tackle the concept of a woman making her own reproductive decision and the importance of familial support in such a matter, but it also includes the fact that she is not a white, young, affluent woman.
According to The Cut magazine, the majority of abortions shown onscreen involve affluent white women between the ages of 16-30 who have no other children. In reality, however, the numbers tell a much different story. Across racial lines the numbers are exceptionally close; statistics show that white, black, and Hispanic women are choosing to abort in equal ratios. Beyond these factors, 42 percent of Americans who have abortions are below the federal poverty level.
The fact that Jane’s mother Xiomara is 41 years old, Latina, unmarried and middle-class further illustrate the show’s commitment to realistic representation of sensitive issues.
So what could this mean for television and its reluctance at portraying other taboos? “Jane the Virgin” has won numerous awards, including a Peabody Award, People’s Choice Award and an AFI Award. Gina Rodriguez also won a Golden Globe for her performance as Jane. Not only popular with critics, the show has garnered large numbers of weekly viewers; nearly one million viewers tuned in to the season two finale episode in May, 2016. For a cable channel show, these numbers are astounding and show why this development was so important. With nearly one million people watching, dialogue surrounding such an “unmentionable” topic is bound to lead to the eventual normalization of such stigmas.
In addition, the writers on the show have done an excellent job with plot and character development, meaning that viewers are invested and open to the decisions of each character. The strong and supportive relationship established between Jane and her mother Xiomara made it possible for the discussion of such a hard topic to take place. This is a key distinction that other television programs must take into account when trying to incorporate taboo topics—the most effective way to break a taboo is to introduce it into a well written story involving characters to whom audiences are already attached and invested.
Shows like “Jane the Virgin” prove that addressing and inspiring dialogue about difficult and taboo subjects is not just for premium satellite channels and streaming services. If major television networks like the CW are doing it and still receiving great ratings, we can assume that other television networks will soon follow and other stigmas will soon be addressed. For those who cannot afford expensive streaming services or satellite channels, seeing their favorite cable television shows feature controversial topics that touch everyday life may be the beginning of conversations surrounding those restricted themes.
Some may call it wishful thinking, but the move that “Jane the Virgin” made has helped push cable TV into the realm of inclusion and intersectionality. Perhaps in the future the characters struggling with mental health issues will not be portrayed as deranged or crazy, but simply as human beings dealing with different brain chemistry. Perhaps we will see more representation of minority groups in main roles. Perhaps that primetime romantic comedy will soon be centered on two people of the same sex rather than merely featuring a secondary gay couple or none at all.
As the industry continues to release new shows, it will have to appeal to a diverse audience. Things that are deemed taboo on television, such as mental health, non-heteronormative relationships and abortion are part of the reality of modern life and society, and the cry to include them on television deserves to be answered fairly with good representation. “Jane the Virgin” has made the first tentative step toward inclusion, and now it’s time for other shows to do the same.