How Jane The Virgin Reimagined On-Screen Sex For Women
A new series from the editor of Yes Means Yes that explores the politics of sex, power, and representation.
In 2014, when Jane the Virgin first premiered on the CW, it didn’t sound like a promising pitch: a show surrounding the virginity of a Catholic twentysomething who is accidentally artificially inseminated. As someone who sees virginity as a harmful construct, it was a hard pass from me. So imagine my surprise when friends convinced me to give it a try, and I discovered my new favourite show.
In that first season, Jane the Virgin quietly broke new ground in TV depictions of women’s sexuality, and it hasn’t stopped since. It tells the story of three generations of Latina women: the sincerely devout but still frisky widow Alba (Yvonne Coll), her sexually liberated daughter Xiomara (Andrea Navedo), and Xo’s daughter, the titular Jane (Golden Globe winner Gina Rodriguez), an aspiring novelist who is trying to carve her own middle path when the preposterously accidental pregnancy blows up her life.
The show somehow manages to both be an English-language version of a telenovela, and to constantly subvert telenovela tropes, giving it ample opportunity to comment on the tired stereotypes about gender and sex we’ve come to expect from television romance. Instead, Jane the Virgin takes every opportunity to point out what those mythologized experiences — like having men fight each other over you, or being on the receiving end of an overeager suitor when you don’t know how you feel — are really like for real women.
Even more impressive than the diversity of women’s sexual experiences that Jane the Virgin depicts is the way its characters negotiate those differences. They clash over all kinds of things, from Xo’s abortion to the ways both Alba and Jane eventually grapple with sex as widows. Through it all, they never let their disparate values overshadow their love for each other. Instead, those conflicts are portrayed as fertile opportunities to learn from each other, and to ultimately validate the importance of each woman’s sexual autonomy.
As Jane the Virgin draws to a close (its final episode is slated to air this July), I wanted to ask creator and showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman how — and why — she created a show that has changed what’s possible for depictions of women and sex on TV.
Jaclyn Friedman: When you were breaking the first season did you think, in part, this is a show about how these women navigate their own sexuality in the world?
Jennie Snyder Urman: “Definitely! I wanted it to be about all the different ways that we can approach sex and sexuality. At the initial start of the pilot, we focused on what Jane was taught about her virginity. We took that seriously: that was her choice, to remain a virgin. But as the seasons went on, we also wanted to deconstruct that. After she had sex, it was an important moment for us to ask why she felt like, “Now what?” We looked at the build-up [the feelings people who’ve “saved their virginity” experience before having sex for the first time], and how that build-up can affect us. Having three generations of women with different ideas about sex, and validating them all, was really important to me.
Everybody’s got different relationships to their bodies, to sex, and to sexuality. We’re just looking at it all and finding the joys and pains. And really privileging the female point of view.
We really tried to give our characters the space to be individuals. We didn’t want it to feel like, if they’re not doing the same thing as their mother or their friend, they’re somehow less than. Everybody’s got different relationships to their bodies, to sex, and to sexuality. We’re just looking at it all and finding the joys and pains. And really privileging the female point of view.”
There have been so many women in your writer’s room and in various positions of power on the show. Do you think that women intrinsically write, direct, and produce ideas about sex differently than men?
“Yes and no. Every woman approaches it from a different place. But because we haven’t had so much of an exploration of women’s inner lives [in pop culture], there’s so much to unearth. As female voices are increasingly privileged, you’re going to get different perspectives, because every writer in our room and every actor on our show has a different relationship to sex. It’s about taking all the female points of view seriously.
We’ve also been very, very particular about consent. We wanted to debunk some of that, like when a character says no, but what they really mean is yes, or somebody just grabbing someone and kissing them. I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t showing that because I’ve seen too much of it. I’m always looking for where we can break that down, and then look at the trauma that some of those images have caused. Then we replace them with things on screen that aren’t traumatic, but are using some of the same language and indicators. We’re very conscious about that on the show.
In this age, it’s just become more clear that as storytellers we have to be making smart choices. We’ve gotten more conscious as writers.”
Maybe the situation that Jane was in was OK, because there was overt consent. But there’s also a big power dynamic, and we didn't address that, and here’s a chance to go back to that.
That shift really shows in the ways you’ve evolved certain plotlines. I’m thinking especially about the affair Jane had with her professor, and how you later had her revisit that experience from a #MeToo lens.
“Exactly! That was something that felt OK at the time, and then we kind of got a feeling in our stomachs. We wrote it early on, and felt it was a romantic and exciting plot. Then as we’re talking about power struggles it really made us look back in the writer’s room and say, well what was that? And is that OK? And what are the shades of it? Maybe the situation that Jane was in was OK, because there was overt consent. But there’s also a big power dynamic, and we didn't address that, and here’s a chance to go back to that.”
And there have been some more delightful evolutions as well. For example, when did you discover that Petra (Yael Grobglas) was bisexual? Was that something you knew about her all along?
“Petra fell in love [with J.R., played by Rosario Dawson]. It’s something that she didn't know about herself, and it surprised her as well as me. We’re constantly evolving and we don't know every aspect of ourselves, so that felt very honest. It was an awakening, and an exciting part of Petra to explore. I think [her relationship with JR] has been one of our most successful because of the surprises that they brought out in each other, and the different layers of emotion Petra, at 30 years old, suddenly realized, ‘There’s a part of me that I wasn’t aware of. And I’m going to look at that.’”
Were there any moments that you wanted to explore that got nixed by the network for being too racy or outre?
“The studio and network have always embraced where we’ve gone, and I’m really grateful for that. Because we’re not on cable and we’re a different kind of show, we try to look for different ways into sex and sexuality that are certainly physical, but are also emotional. We like metaphors. We went into a cartoon when Jane and Michael [Brett Dier] first had sex, because obviously we weren’t going to show it. I think it forces us to be creative in different ways and still get the same emotional aftermath.”
In some ways those limits also make sex seem much more down to earth, in the way that it actually is for most of us. I love those moments where Jane, whether she’s with Michael or Rafael (Justin Baldoni) or whomever, is like, oh do we have a minute for sex now? It’s not this big romantic buildup, just a very practical approach to pleasure and connection.
“I remember I one time put in, after a reunion, a caption that said ‘26 minutes later.’ Everyone was like whoa whoa whoa, 26 minutes? But we’re a room of moms and dads. We know you have to fit it in when you can.”
Where do you think you learned the sexual values you’re describing here, and that we see on screen every time we watch Jane?
“From a really progressive group of friends, probably. And I think also a curiosity about the world. I’m someone who tries to always imagine beyond myself, and understand people more and more. That’s part of what makes me look at the different ways people relate to sex.”
Good friends are so clutch. Which is part of why we’re going to have a hard time letting go of Jane! Are there other shows that you’ve been enjoying that take a similar approach to sex and sexuality? What should we watch once the finale is over?
“Right now, I’m watching Killing Eve. That’s a very different show, but I love it. I like anything that has different women at the centre because I really love exploring and learning about the inner lives of women. That’s my heart and passion as a writer.”