What We’re Watching

Making Peace and Rooting for Love: the End of “The Good Place”

There’s a certain “cool girl” factor in saying I watch The Good Place for the Big Ideas and not the relationships. “I don’t care about Eleanor and ChidiI’m team Jane (not Rafael or Michael), I’m so glad Rachel Bloom ended up alone.” And while I’d argue feminism is the reason for this (women are more than their romantic entanglements), there’s still a whiff of “I’m not like other women” condescension to it.

So I’d like to come clean and admit I’m rooting for Eleanor and Chidi in this, the final season of The Good Place. Yes, there are plenty of shows that frustrate their romantic leads, pulling them apart and then back together again. And yes, what makes The Good Place different is how it explores philosophical ideas from Kant to Aquinas. But that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy both the cliche sitcom trappings and the larger questions about the meaning of life. The combination is what makes The Good Place so genius after all.

This is a show that’s reset itself every season (if not more often) and has managed to do it well, creating believable obstacles for its main pairing. The first season we didn’t know our lovers were really in hell, the second we knew but they didn’t, on the third they were down on Earth having a second go at life, and now in the fourth and final season Eleanor is running “the good place” and Chidi, memories wiped, is just one of four humans who don’t know what’s going on. Throughout it all, Eleanor and Chidi are pulled to each other, falling in love despite their many differences and even greater obstacles.

Watching Eleanor keep her feelings for Chidi secret this season finally got me. Before this, I found their romance somewhat annoying, even rooting for Simone as a better match. This may seem cruel to Eleanor and Chidi shippers, but you have to understand, I have a complicated relationship with Eleanor Shellstrop. You see, I too, am “just a girl from Arizona.” I love all the jokes about my home state and its vapid inhabitants. But while no one’s ever called me a dirtbag (at least not to my face), Eleanor’s failings hit a little too close. Certainly, her sins are exaggerated but that doesn’t mean I can’t find a kernel of self-truth in them. For example, in high school my friends and I made T-shirts shaming a rival girl at another school. It wasn’t quite Eleanor selling the “dress bitch” T-shirts to humiliate her roommate but it wasn’t too far off either (we were both wrong).

So it’s a bit hard-won, this rooting for Eleanor’s happiness and growth. Chidi represents both and seeing her doing the work without him finally got me in her corner. It helps that in this final season we’re less exploring Big Ideas and more plot-focused. The big question of the season is, ostensibly, can humans improve? But we already know the answer having seen our four original insufferables (plus demon Ted Danson) change for the better. This new set of humans may offer some interesting test cases, particularly in Brent Norwalk, the embodiment of white male privilege. How do you goad someone to improve who thinks they’re perfect? Is there redemption for racist misogynists?

But overall we’re free to focus on the plot — how to rescue Janet, Tahani’s quest for growth, Eleanor’s heartbreak, etc. And with this new focus, I can’t help but root for Eleanor and Chidi to end up together. Simone doesn’t need him, she’s doing fine. And maybe Eleanor doesn’t either. She’s growing into her leadership role, rising to the occasion of saving all of humanity. But just because she doesn’t need him, doesn’t mean she can’t still want him.

And I want them to end up together. I’m predicting a happy ending to The Good Place with humans having access to heaven again and love finding a way. It’s the reward us girls from Arizona deserve for leaving behind our dirtbag ways.

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The Latinidad of Veronica Lodge

I like Riverdale. Yes, it’s a weird show. Both in tone and emphasis, it pretends that solving murder mysteries is a normal part of high school. It’s unsure of what decade it’s in, waffling between 50s-era nostalgia (Betty may not actually wear a hoop skirt, but it’s close) to modern-day plot points(see the episode where Veronica was slut-shamed online or the one on gay-conversion therapy). It is terrible at product placement with characters naming brands from lipstick to dating apps in a way that’s clearly trying to sell you something.

But these quirks give Riverdale a unique style. You know you’re in the Archie-But-Make-It-Sexy universe when you see that terribly died red hair, applique leather jackets, and high school girls at home, alone, in silk lingerie and heels. Everything is both earnest and ridiculous on Riverdale and the same is true of Veronica Lodge’s ethnicity.

Riverdale’s Veronica represents a major break from the source material — she’s not a vapid rich girl who’s biggest challenge is her shoe selection. Instead, she’s a savvy businesswoman, trying to do right despite being raised in a mob family and her former life as a mean girl. She also happens to be Latina.

Camila Mendes, who plays Veronica with charm and verve, is Brazillian-American and her TV parents Hermoine (Marisol Nichols) and Hiram (Mark Consuelos) are both played by actors with Mexican heritage. As far as I can tell, the Lodges are some sort of generic Latinx with no particular place of origin. Their Latinidad shows up in their Catholicism, their mestizo appearance, and their propensity to say “mija” as many times as possible.

Latinx/Catholic plotlines include Veronica’s confirmation and her parents getting their marriage annulled rather than divorcing. Spanglish crosses their family dining table, alternating between silly and cloying. At one point Veronica tells boyfriend Archie that her Dad doesn’t like him because Archie doesn’t speak Spanish — even though we don’t actually see her family speaking Spanish to each other, outside of you guessed it “mija.” Presumably, Veronica’s remark is actually just a coded way to say her dad would prefer her to date inside her race, which she has no chance of doing as there no eligible Latino boys on the show.

In fact, the only Latinx people we meet (and who we’re sure are Latinx) are Veronica, Hiram, and Hermoine. There are no primos, tias, or abuelas swooping in. When we meet Hiram’s mob family, they’re all white. Perhaps some of the Southside Serpents (hi Sweetpea, hi Toni, hi Fangs) are Latinx but we don’t know for sure as they don’t have the backstories (and the actors are not).

Riverdale is one of those one-of-each shows with representation from every group while still remaining white overall. There are Black and Asian and Latinx characters and maybe even Native Americans although whether an indigenous grandparent counts is unclear (just ask Elizabeth Warren). But the show’s main characters, three of the four central group, are lily white and Josie and the Pussycats aside, so is the show’s aesthetic.

I’m not saying Veronica’s latinidad is inconsequential. Certainly, I’m glad she’s in there and holding her own. It’s fun that she’s the rich out-of-towner rather than a salt-of-the-earth or girl-next-door type. That said, I’d prefer the sole Latinxs not being criminals, even in a show where nearly everyone is tainted.

I mean Betty’s Dad is a serial killer and Jughead’s is an accomplice to murder but white people (somehow) get to sin without it reflecting on their entire race. After all, Betty and Jughead’s dads are countered by Archie’s parents (RIP Luke Perry) who are 100% good and other, more ambivalent figures in the town like Sherrif Keller, not to mention the kids themselves. But the Lodges are alone. They’re the only Latinx people in Riverdale and so their story becomes the single story of an entire ethnicity. That’s why we need more than one, not just a single girl and her parents, but rather a multitude.

It’s not too late for Riverdale to deliver a more nuanced understanding of latinidad. Mishel Prada of Vida fame is set to play Veronica’s sister in the current season and I’m excited to see what she’ll bring. Perhaps some new students or visitors from New York could brown the place up. Maybe now dead Joaquin DeSantos (played by Italian Canadian Rob Raco) will have not just the pint-sized brother Ricky (played by Nico Bustamante) but more relatives, this time played by Latinx actors and with more central plotlines. Certainly, if Riverdale’s creators can set their show simultaneously in the fifties and today, they can figure out how to fit in more Latinx people.

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Motherhood and Morality: Catching Up with “Workin’ Moms”

The protagonist of Workin’ Moms is not a good person. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about that. Plenty of shows are about bad people and Kate’s sins are relatively minor. She’s not killing people, dealing drugs, or running a criminal enterprise. Yet, most antiheroes (and heroes to be honest) remain men and Kate’s misdeeds are particularly interesting because of the premise of her show — motherhood.

Or more precisely, working, regular motherhood. Kate and her friends may be privileged (no plotlines yet about the expense of childcare) but they’re also supposed to be relatable. The zany “other” characters sit at the show’s periphery, uttering just a few lines in the mother’s group to signal that the show’s creators know that black and brown and older mothers exist. But these women are outside the central group, not as relatable or flushed out as Kate and her friends.

The main group, of which Kate is the lead, is comprised of working, upper-class white people, struggling to be good parents, professionals, and people. It’s the last one that Kate fails at through acts big and small. She teases a toddler boy for his long hair, showing her propensity to punch down (not to mention her lack of feminist bona fides). Though technically consensual, she starts sleeping with her much younger assistant in a plotline that if the genders were reversed would have people calling for her head. She even serves as the go-to PR person for the local men’s right chapter (before eventually quitting this vile gig).

You see Kate’s ease with moral missteps are all light enough, small enough that we’re meant to forgive her, to understand. It’s the type of empathy that asks you to briefly cross ethical lines. And in Kate’s universe, most everyone crosses it with her. Her assistant comes back after the men’s rights clients are gone, seeing Kate’s willingness to work for them as a momentary lapse. Her (estranged, having cheated) husband doesn’t see a problem in Kate sleeping with her assistant — he goes so far as to support his wife, acting as her attorney when the young man sues.

The only time Kate is held accountable is for teasing the boy about his hair. The boy’s mother takes offense and uses her power as a journalist to smudge Kate’s reputation. It’s clear this transgression is different from the others — it reflects not just on Kate as a person, but her as a mother. And that distinction, that Kate can be a good mother while not being a good person is what makes Workin’ Moms so distinct.

Usually, TV moms are good or bad and their personality outside of motherhood matches nicely. There are the good moms of yore (from June Cleaver to Claire Huxtable) and their modern variations (Pose’s BlancaFriday Night Lights’ Tami Taylor), all good people through and through. There are selfish bad moms (like Betty Draper and Lucille Bluth) and criminally abusive moms (from Mommy Dearest to Carrie). But the bad person/good mom is hard to find (and the good person/bad mom seems entirely absent, while men get this characterization all the time).

Now some may argue that Kate’s not a good mom. She consistently prioritizes her career over her family. In season one, she takes an out-of-town job despite having a newborn at home. Later when she’s on a forced-leave, she hates staying home with her baby and takes a second job just to have something else to do. But Workin’ Moms doesn’t demonize her for those choices. Instead, it contextualizes them as part of how Kate struggles to be a good mother. Yes, her husband cheats on her, blaming, in part, how she puts herself (and her career) first. But not only does that not stick (he wants Kate back as soon as he’s found out), it doesn’t affect Kate’s parenting. You can be a good mother and bad partner.

Kate’s mothering may not look like June Cleaver’s but it clearly falls into the “good enough” category. In season one, we see her struggling to get her baby to latch, fighting the good fight to breastfeed, even when it’s clearly not working. Later, she’s figuring out how to co-parent after separating from her cheating husband, first denying him the ability to see his kids and then eventually granting it. By the end of season three, she’s making her toddler’s Halloween costume in a hotel bathroom, sneaking away from her sexy new lover to make sure her kid has something to wear. None of these parenting moments shows a perfect mom. But they each show a woman struggling to do right by herself and her kid.

Kate has to work at mothering, not because she’s a bad person but because she’s human. So much of the portrayal of parenthood omits these day-to-day difficulties. Instead, it’s how best to guide your kid — not how to deal with the constant pressure to subsume yourself to the cult of good motherhood.

In the second season of Workin’ Moms, we see a lot of younger Kate, learning how she met her husband, what she was like before kids. And like everyone I know in real life, Kate is the same before and after having kids. She doesn’t become a different person. Instead, she remains the funny, morally-flexible person who quips to defend herself but can’t predict when she’s about to take a joke too far.

I sympathize with Kate not for her lack of conventions but rather for her flawed nature. She’s not evil or saintly. Simply she’s imperfect and women, particularly mothers, are rarely given the chance to tell that story.

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Teen Gang Members on TV: “On My Block” and “Riverdale”

I don’t normally watch, let alone recommend, shows about gang members. Characters like that are over-represented, giving the false impression that people of color are all cholos. Yet, I found Netflix’s On My Block to be the rare show that manages to depict gangs without romanticizing or pathologizing them. And I particularly like how the show contrasts with the CW’s Riverdale, a similarly structured teen drama, where the main character who joins a gang is white.

Both shows feature a mixed group of four high school friends, navigating coming of age in their troubled communities. On My Block’s main characters are all people of color with the Afro-Latina Monse as the group’s lone girl, Cesar and Ruby representing diverse Latino experiences, and Black Jamal rounding out the group. They’re in Freeridge, a fictional South Central neighborhood of Los Angeles plagued by gang violence. In Riverdale, the central group is much paler with White Archie, Jughead, and Betty getting a bit of color with Latina Veronica. These four inhabit the titular small, picturesque town losing its innocence.

These shows have A LOT in common

On both shows, one member of the central quartet joins a gang — with vastly different results. On On My Block, Cesar’s gang membership is an obstacle, a blatant tragedy. His friends’ attempts to save him propels much of the plot. By the end of season two, he’s negotiating with his brother and gang leader Spooky to be excused from the gang’s violent duties. Meanwhile, on Riverdale, being a Southside Serpent gives Jughead power and purpose. He ends up the leader of the group, keeping his fellow gang members from dealing drugs and protecting them from gentrifiers along the way.

Take for example the initiation process. We learn that Cesar has joined the Santos gang by seeing the bruises on his abdomen, an ugly, painful sign of getting jumped in. He’s not proud of his wounds and the show doesn’t dramatize the process, letting the injury speak for itself. Meanwhile, we see each step of Jughead’s initiation, some of it silly (taking care of a cute dog, being stung by a venom-less snake), some reminiscent of joining a frat (reciting memorized group rules), and some classic hypermasculine “heroics” (surviving a punching line of fellow Snakes). In Jughead’s initiation, he stands defiant and strong, taking his punches while looking his peers in the eyes. This portrayal glamorizes the process, making the violence a chance for Jughead to show his strength of character.

Against all likelihood, Jughead becomes the leader of the Southside Serpents

In fact, violence generally is a way for the teens of Riverdale to prove themselves. They solve the murder of their classmate Jason Blossom and expose a drug kingpin in the process. They catch not one but two suspected serial killers. They cover up murders, attack people, and still run for student council. They may grapple with their “darkness” but the show portrays all this violence with the same seriousness as it does wrestling tryouts, keeping us from having to consider what it’s like to be a teenager facing violence.

On My Block has no such delusions. Its black and brown characters inhabit a place much closer to reality, where murder is not something a normal teen should have to think about. After Cesar and Monse are rolled up on by rival gang member Latrelle, Spooky tasks Cesar with killing this new threat. Cesar attempts it but in the end, balks. You see Latrelle may be a rival gang member but it wasn’t too long ago that they were classmates, peers. Not wanting to become a killer, Cesar tells Latrelle to leave Freeridge and never come back. The threat works for a while but (spoiler) Latrelle returns in the season one finale, shooting two of our principal characters, killing one.

This violence — the death of an innocent fifteen-year-old and near-death of another — does not take a single episode or arc to resolve. The horror of it gives Ruby PTSD and leaves all of our characters in mourning for the entire second season. Meanwhile, Cesar is further punished for his good deed, exiled from the gang and forced to sleep on the street between staying with friends. The adults here respond not by being impressed by the young teen’s action (like they are with Jughead’s) but rather dismayed by the circumstance. For a few episodes there, it felt like everyone was just repeating the sentiment that “no child should be in this situation.”

Cesar is literally the smallest member of the Santos

On My Block illustrates a fact — gang violence hurts the children in its wake. It does not lift them up a la Jughead becoming the leader of the Serpents. And the violence is shown for what it is — ugly, irreversible, and de-humanizing. It’s not the mystery of the week. And it’s not the defining characteristic for any of our young heroines. Monse, Cesar, Ruby, and Jamal may live in a violent world but they’re typical teens, as worried about their latest crush and parent problems as they are about the state of their neighborhood. You see in addition to gang violence, On My Block portrays a slapstick treasure hunt (with gnomes no less), the double standard around hooking up (boys get points, girls a reputation), and an on-going bit about masturbation (socks figure in heavily).

Cesar is not “The Gang Member” to his friends or the audience and neither is Jughead (whose whiteness makes this trick much easier). In fact, they’re both the only gang members in their group of friends, ensuring we see other parts of their identity. With its brown and black point of view, On My Block takes the responsibility of righting the traditional gang narrative. Meanwhile, Riverdale hyper sensationalizes and promotes harmful myths but avoids any major offenses, mostly by keeping its of-color characters out of the Serpents and positioning the group as a response to Riverdale’s classist Northside/Southside conflict. Together, these shows ask viewers to see gangs not as brown or black menaces but rather the result of structural inequality. And for that, I commend them.

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10 Netflix Shows to Watch for Hispanic Heritage Month

It’s Hispanic Heritage Month, the time the federal government has designated to celebrate latinidad. So we’re taking a moment (really September 15-October 15) to shout out our fellow Latinxs for all they do, commemorate the independence days of seven Latin American countries, and watch some Latinx folks on TV.

Yes, you are still about as likely to see an alien on screen as a Latina but that doesn’t mean there aren’t great shows out there featuring “Hispanics.” Just to make it easy, we’ve compiled a list of ten of our favorites from Netflix. After all, one subscription is all should need, right? Enjoy!

Charmed

Brujeria is in our blood, so it makes sense that Latinxs are finally getting our own TV witches. Shows like CW’s Charmed may not get as much attention as our white counterparts but that doesn’t mean they’re not just as good.

The latest Charmed is packed with feminist in-jokes and reminiscent of cult-favorite, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The show premiered to controversy when it turned out that despite its Latinx premise, only one of the three sisters identifies as Latina (the other two are black) but don’t let that stop you. There’s plenty to enjoy in the first season now on Netflix before the second season starts October 11.

Grey’s Anatomy: Seasons 2–12

I admit it — I miss Callie Torres. The big-hearted orthopedic surgeon was an inspiration on Grey’s Anatomy, breaking bones and dancing in her underwear in seasons two through twelve. She spoke Spanish, dated (and married!) both genders, and did the most singing on the musical episode.

Actress Sara Ramirez is now doing great work over on Madame Secretaryas the butch Kat Sandoval, yet this Hispanic Heritage Month, we’re finding refuge from Trump’s America in re-visiting Callie Torres.

Jane the Virgin

Jane the Virgin recently wrapped its final season and now all five seasons are available on Netflix. If you haven’t hung out with the Villanueva family yet or you’ve simply missed the latest installment, you’re in for a treat.

The show manages to represent a type of Latinx family we all know (hard-working, women-led, multi-generational) and deal with hot button issues (immigration, Catholicism, sexuality) while never getting preachy or tired. Instead, Jane the Virgin entertains with telenovela plot twists, an epic love triangle, and a hell of a lot of empathy. I miss it already.

On My Block

A Netflix original, On My Block’s second season came out earlier this year and we love how it centers brown and black teens. Whether it’s crushing on your no-blood-relation prima or dealing with the intricacies of gang violence, the show positions our coming-of-age stories as important, funny, and valuable. The young stars run the gamut of skin tones and hair textures and their antics speak to what we all know about the pitfalls of growing up: it’s hard/awkward/ridiculous.

Now, if only Netflix would take note and make more content for and by US-born Latinxs…

One Day At A Time

One Day At A Time made headlines earlier this year when Netflix declined to renew it despite rave reviews (and perhaps strong viewing numbers). Luckily, CBS’ Pop TV has picked up the Justina Machado-helmed comedy and all the past seasons are still available to stream on Netflix.

Featuring a stand-out performance from living legend and original EGOT winner Rita Moreno, One Day At A Timegives the Latinx experience the sitcom treatment, only more brown than you’re used to.

Orange Is the New Black

Orange Is the New Black may have changed TV as we know it, ushering in the streaming era with a show elevating incarcerated women of color. It certainly catapulted the careers of Latina talent ranging from Jackie Cruz to Laura Gómez from Diane Guerrero to Selenis Leyva from Dascha Polanco to Elizabeth Rodriguez. It’s rare for any show to feature this many women of color, let alone give meaty parts to so many Latinas, and OITNB did it all while appealing to the “mainstream.”

You can binge all seven seasons now and relive the tragedy and beauty of the women of Litchfield.

Pose

Featuring a Latinx cast (MJ Rodriguez as Bianca, Indya Moore as Angel, Angel Bismark Curiel as Papi) and helmed by Latinx creator Steven Canals, Pose is making history in more ways than one. It depicts the New York ballroom scene of the early ’90s showing a community plagued by the AIDS epidemic and continuously under threat by discrimination.

Yet, Pose finds a lot of hope and beauty in its cast, helmed by the fearless do-gooder Bianca who exemplifies how a community can step up for each other. The LGBTQ drama raked in the Emmys and hopefully is just getting started.

Riverdale

The fourth season of Riverdale is set to premiere October 9 (in time for #HispanicHeritageMonth!) and in the meantime, you can catch up on the last three seasons on Netflix. The show explores the darker side of the Archie comics universe with plotlines around murder, drugs, and slut-shaming.

With Camila Mendes as Veronica, Riverdale gives us a Latina character we are not used to seeing — the richest girl in town. So friendly reminder, there’s not one Latinx experience! And the CW’s Latina characters — whether it’s Riverdale’s Veronica, Jane the Virgin’s Villanuevas, or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Valencia — are here to remind you.

The West Wing: the Final Two Seasons

Remember when Jimmy Smits played Obama before Obama played Obama? No? Just me? Well, the year was 2005 and The West Wing needed an inspirational candidate to succeed President Bartlet. They chose Smits as Congressman Matt Santos, a principled, tall man of color with a relatively short resume.

Watching The West Wing (and Santos’ campaign) was always like going to an alternate universe where the people in power belonged there both because of their excellence and because they had the best interest of the country at heart. Today it feels even further from reality but it’s still nice to visit a universe where someone who looks like Julian Castro becomes President.

When They See Us

In 1989, the Central Park Jogger case captivated the nation and sent five wrongfully accused black and brown boys to prison. The narrative around the case — teenage boys of color roaming wild and attacking innocent/white folks — captured racists’ imaginations including one named Donald Trump who took out a full-page ad in the New York Times, arguing the boys should be put to death.

Ava Duvernay’s “When They See Us,” a Netflix miniseries depicting the events, sets the record straight, even getting prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer to finally face consequences for her role in the injustice (no word on the repercussions for Donald Trump). The four-part series is devastating and compelling, earning half of the four Emmy nominations afforded to Latinos this year.

Bonus: This Episode of Queer Eye

Sometimes you just want to relax and see a hard-working, activist Chicana get a great makeover. Enter the season finale of Queer Eye with protagonist Deanna Munoz. She’s the founder of the Latino Arts Festival in Kansas City and watching her journey gives us all the feels. Happy #HispanicHeritageMonth!

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“Los Espookys” is the Perfect Show for this Ironic, Faux Start of Fall

It may not be officially fall, but unofficially, “Hot Girl Summer” has ended and everyone is looking for the next track. In honor of the changing season, let me recommend HBO’s Los Espookys. It came out in June and while it takes place in Los Angeles and some sunny, Pan Latin American country, it’s the perfect show for the ironic faux start of fall.

Created by Fred Armisen and Ana Fabrega, Los Espookys follows a group of friends who are trying to turn their love of horror into a business by staging spooks, like a monster-sighting and an exorcism, for hire. The show is delightfully odd with absurdist gags ranging from the random (a demon demanding to see The King’s Speech before cooperating) to the insightful (a group of LA-based valets doesn’t understand what “to snowball” means, having never seen snow).

It also happens to be very Latinx. In case you forgot, there’s not a lot of media featuring or made by Latinxs (did you see that Annenberg study? Its findings were dismal). And when Latinxs do make it on the screen, we’re generally gang members and drug runners — just like what the man currently occupying the White House thinks.

Fred Armisen is one of ours and a co-creator of the very Latinx Los Espookys

To have a show like Los Espookys on HBO is a pretty big deal. It’s in English and Spanish. The Latinx cast are different generations, skin tones, social classes, and personalities. It’s created by Latinxs (did you know Fred Armisen was one of ours? I didn’t! But it turns out his mother is Venezuelan). And it’s really good.

It’s also not about being Latinx, in the way, say Vida (the other prestige show we’ve got) is. The characters on Vida are dealing with identity in heavy ways, trying to figure out how race and class and color intersect within and outside their communities.

Not so on Los Espookys. Renaldo, Úrsula, Andrés, Tati, and Tico are just living their lives, figuring out who they are and how to get by without questions of racial identity playing a major role. That’s not to say Los Espookys is racially or ethnically agnostic. It’s not. It’s very Latinx. It just portrays our identities as the default, refusing to contrast our experiences with Anglo ones.

This centering of the Latinx experience starts with subtle nods. The series opens with an elaborate quinceañera. There’s a whole bit about how Renaldo spells his name, which while explained, works much better if you’re familiar with actual Reynaldos. The Catholic church makes appearances in the form of nun and priest characters but instead of being saints or pedophiles, these clergy members are regular, petty people motivated not by good or evil but rather by jealousy or simply the desire to finish their favorite telenovela. It’s the stuff of Latinx life, told with HBO dollars and a silly, experimental point of view.

In Los Espookys, the US government is ignorant, superficial, and ridiculous — like Latinx have known it to be for generations

This centering of the Latinx experience is not just in the details of the show but the politics too. Take the one white American character: US Ambassador Gibbons. She’s a sort of evil Elle Woods with platinum blond hair, pink everything, and a blasé colonist attitude. Superficial and willfully ignorant, she couldn’t care less about her powerful job as evidenced by her disdain for the language (she gets an invitation and declares that it’s in “code” before her one Latinx aid tells her it’s in Spanish) to deciding randomly who gets a visa and who does not. This understanding of Los Estados Unidos as irrational, mercurial, and careless is about as Latinx as it gets. And it’s particularly funny and cutting in the Trump era.

Which is not to say Los Espookys takes itself seriously or leans in politically (although it does take pains to hilariously decimate the Herbalife pyramid schemes that prey on our communities). No, the show is all about the laughs, the absurd, and the spooks, using the Latinx point of view as its building blocks.

On HBO, series are divided into “All,” “Latino,” “International,” and “Family” but don’t let that “All” fool you — most of the “Latino” programs are not listed there. Los Espookys is. The show is claiming space in the mainstream HBO platform and I love it. The idea that a bilingual, silly, fun Latinx show is as much for everyone as Insecure and Sex and the City is just powerful. So before the days get too short and your TV options too vast, spend a few hours enjoying Los Espookys.

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What “Pose” Taught Me About Womanhood

“God may have blessed you with Barbies, a backyard with a pony, a boyfriend named Jake, and an unwanted pregnancy that your father paid to terminate so you could go to college and major in being a basic bitch. None of these things make you a woman.”

Elektra Abundance

“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

Simone De Beauvoir

As a straight, cis woman, I don’t do too much thinking about my womanhood. No one misgenders me. I’ve never been clocked. Yes, I joke about how terrible I am at stereotypical lady stuff. My hair/make up/nail game leaves much to be desired. This is not a source of pride for me, but rather mild embarrassment. I’m 35 — shouldn’t I be able to blow dry my hair by now? Yet my lack of both inclination and skill in this department doesn’t make me less of a “real” woman. I’m not endangered because of it, the consequences are minimal. In fact, the only one joking about my inability to perform these aspects of femininity is me.

In addition to being dedicated to looking a certain way, society also expects women to be naturally nurturing. We’re the mothers, the people-people, the ones with emotions. But I’m not what you’d call a “warm, fuzzy.” I always get analytical instead of emotional on those personality tests. My husband once insinuated that I let our baby cry too long before picking her up. I wouldn’t describe myself as cruel by any means but quick-to-the-hug, I am not. Yet again, no one doubts the actual fact of my womanhood, even if I sometimes get comments about acting “more like a man.”

So if I don’t meet the expectations around looks or personality, I have to wonder, why is my womanhood never questioned? Is it the fact that I have a vagina? That seems highly unlikely. Everywhere I go, people treat me as a woman and 99.9% of them have no knowledge of my reproductive organs. They couldn’t vouch for my vagina’s existence. I certainly don’t go around imagining strangers’ genitalia. Do you?

So, the question remains: what makes a person a woman?

. . .

 
The women of Pose: Judge them not, lest you be judged!

Watching Pose, I never doubted the femaleness of Blanca, Elektra, Angel, Lulu, Candy, and crew. Sometimes, I got confused when other characters would perceive them as male — what were they seeing that I wasn’t? It’s like when other shows pretend someone is regular looking (say because they’re wearing glasses and a cardigan) and we’re not supposed to notice that there’s a weirdly attractive person under there.

The thing is, the women of Pose are so skilled at performing womanhood. The clothes. The nails. The hair. The makeup. The shoes. They understand the trappings of femaleness and are committed to executing it each and every day. I imagine for them, as activist and show writer/producer/director Janet Mock wrote, “Femininity was more than just adornments; they were extensions of me, enabling me to express myself and my identity. My body, my clothes, and my makeup are on purpose, just as I am on purpose.” And this purposefulness is key — it is not enough to simply dress a part, that part has to be integral to your identity.

Think of the season two finale — in it, we see the male characters walk the ball in drag. They’ve practiced strutting (or stumbling) in heels. They’ve got on wigs and dresses and jewelry. But as Elektra says, “Don’t get it twisted. These men are not trying to be women. These linebackers are tapping into their inner femininity and letting their inner queen come out to play.” In Pose and in real life, dressing up as a woman (whether you “pass” or not) does not make you a woman, no matter how feminine.

. . .

 
There’s more than one way to mother on Pose

There’s this idea that “masculine” and “feminine” are polls, two complementary forces that a person is between. We all know this script — the “masculine” is rationale, stoic, violent even while the “feminine” is emotional, nurturing, expressive. In this framework, to be “feminine” is to be vulnerable, less than. We see this play out in Pose as characters are continually punished for showing “feminine” traits, gay and trans kids kicked out of their homes, beaten, or worse. The consequences for being outside the norm are real from women who wear less makeup getting paid less all the way to the extreme violence perpetrated against the trans community. It’s a culture of violence, of regulation, of suppression.

As a feminist, I don’t believe there’s a correlation between someone’s sex and how “masculine” or “feminine” they are. Yes, women are socialized to be “feminine” and men, “masculine.” But people are primarily people and the expectations we put on them around gender are extremely limiting and unhealthy. As activist and author Jacob Tobia told Paper Magazine, “there’s this idea that there’s only cis people and trans people, and trans people have the complicated genders and cis people have the simple genders. That could not be further from the truth — gender is simple for nobody. Even people who think that they’ve experienced gender ‘simply’ have a nuanced, complicated, and multidimensional gender experience.” None of us are just or even primarily our gender.

Pose demonstrates this complexity so well. Think of how different the women’s personalities are, how each of them is a complex mix of traits. I particularly like how the show portrays motherhood in Blanca and Elektra. Blanca is the good, “feminine” mother we are used to seeing — she loves her children, nurtures them, and fights for them. She’s descended from Clair Huxtable and Tami Taylor, strong women who use both tough and unconditional love to raise their children. Elektra, on the other hand, could be seen as the “bad” mother — she starts the show putting down her family members in an attempt to make herself feel more superior. And while she grows over the two seasons (think of the beach trip as an example of how she takes care of her daughters), she’s not who you’d go to for a self-esteem boost. No, Elektra mostly provides for her children monetarily — her house is swanky, her ball costumes and props luxurious. This may be the more “masculine” way to care for people, but it never threatens Elektra’s womanhood. Indeed, it’s Blanca who worries more about getting clocked while Elektra passes with greater ease. Where their personalities fall on the socially-constructed spectrum of “masculine” and “feminine” does not determine their womanhood, either for themselves or the society that judges them.

. . .

 
The dress doesn’t make the woman on Pose or IRL

Gender is also not defined genitalia. That’s just silly. We categorize every person we meet quickly and easily into a gendered category with no knowledge of what’s between their legs. And it’s not about hormones or other biological processes either (see the backlash against women’s running for trying to define womanhood by testosterone level). We just don’t know those things about other people (or ourselves) and yet we’re all out here using gendered pronouns as a matter of course.

. . .

 
On Pose, the women must assert their womanhood over and over again

So, again, what does make a woman? If it’s not how you look, not who you are, not your biology, what’s left? Part of me wants to say it’s a performance. It’s certainly something I do every day, consciously or not. It’s in how I dress, how I walk, even how I speak. But you choose to perform and I never chose to be a woman, I never chose to be straight, and no one else does either.

Being a woman is more like a role that chooses you. It comes with impossible expectations, the pressure to live up to an unattainable ideal of womanhood. Sometimes as women we mold ourselves to match an ideal, trying to get as close as possible. Think of Pose’s Angel — she succeeds at portraying feminine beauty to such an extent that she gets big contracts in the modeling industry (only to see her success stalled thanks to the rumor mill). Sometimes, we rebel against those expectations, going in an opposite or third direction. Like Candy always ready to pull out her hammer, ready to defend herself physically whenever the situation called for it.

Regardless, when you’re a woman, you’re identity is in relationship to the feminine ideal in a way that a man’s or genderqueer person’s is not. Maybe that’s what makes a woman.

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Watching and Loving the White, Male “Stranger Things”

Stranger Things is a white, male show. Yes, one of the original four boys is black, and yes, there are strong female characters, and yes, for the first time in season three we got a character who is BOTH black and a girl, but the fact remains — this is a show that centers the white, male experience. I don’t normally watch shows like this. I generally prefer to hear from women and people of color — voices vastly underrepresented in media. This tendency helps me narrow down the overwhelming options that are TV today and ensures I’ll be spending my time on the most interesting shows anyway.

Yet, there I was, gobbling up the third season of Stranger Things as quickly as I could (four nights in my case). And while the show is undeniably white and male, they’ve clearly done some thinking around how to be better on diversity.

First, there’s the addition of Erica, Lucas’ 10-year-old sister, as one of our child heroes. If you haven’t watched the most recent season yet, you may remember her from season two — she had several scene-stealing appearances. In season three, she joins our adventurers in saving the world, playing a pivotal part in figuring out what’s going in Hawkins. And while actress Priah Ferguson is amazing, leaving more of an impression than many of her older colleagues, there’s something in Erica’s role as the fast-talking, “sassy” black girl that made me uncomfortable — it’s a bit too close to stereotype for comfort.

See what I mean about the sass?

Meanwhile, her brother Lucas gets to be more of a whole person (perhaps because he’s not saddled with being both a girl and a person of color). That said, there were several times when he literally faded into the shadows, his face so poorly lit in the line up of boys that I couldn’t distinguish his features. Perhaps they should hire some of the folks who do lighting for Insecure to help out… And of course, there’s also the issue that Asian and Latinx folks exist, but still, I noticed and appreciated the effort!

Not just race, the creators of Stranger Things are also working on their portrayal of gender. This season featured two episodes directed by a woman (last season had one — the Eleven bottle-episode and the first season had none). Plus, Eleven and Max finally became friends instead of rivals, a truly annoying and unnecessary plot point in season two.

It turns out girls are not natural enemies — thanks Stranger Things!

In season three, we get more girl characters and more who are two-dimensional. Eleven is no longer a genderless creature, a girl in name only. She not only presents more feminine (she’s got hair) but also is figuring out what it means to be a different “species” than her boyfriend Mike and his friends. That journey includes a totally 80’s makeover-at-the-mall sequence, which is positively delightful (although where does she get the money for all those new clothes?). And she gets to kiss her boyfriend, create a “new look,” and make a female friend all while still being the most important of the kids, the one who stands in front of the gang and fights the monster, the one who everyone must protect even as she is the only one who can hold off the forces of darkness.

On the grown-up side, Winona Ryder’s Joyce Byers is still the only woman involved in the adventure and her primary weapon remains her mom-ness. Yet, this time it’s not just her knowledge of her kids and drive to protect them that makes her important. She’s able to use those same skills outside the house (how novel!) to demand she gets what they need, whether it’s help from the government or our local Russian-speaking conspiracy theorist. Definitely progress from taping together drawings on her living-room floor.

And we meet Maya Hawke as Robin Buckley in the third season, a girl who’d have no place in previous seasons. Her hair’s a bit greasy and she’s got indie sensibilities, having played in band in high school and been invisible to her now coworker, Steve “the Hair” Harrington. But she’s down for adventure and good with languages, so much so that she breaks the Russian code and generally becomes crucial to our saga. At first, it seems like she’s just a lesson for Steve — shouldn’t he have gone for the girl who is smart and cool and right in front of him all along? But then (spoiler coming!) when he finally realizes his mistake and makes his move, Robin lets him down gently. Turns out she’s gay! And with that twist, she becomes not an object of Steve’s development but rather her own person, eventually helping our popular if pedestrian young man find employment after the mall “burns” down.

The other teenage girl (and Steve’s previous love interest), Nancy Wheeler, doesn’t do quite so well on bucking the gender stereotypes. She’s the most feminine of all our leading ladies consistently in skirts and heels. She fights misogynists at work and monsters in her free time but the way she’s shot makes her look small and fragile, despite being in a show mostly populated by actual children. Nancy’s not powerless — she’s right about her story idea and does the most damage with a gun of anyone this season, including the chief of police — but her power seems limited by femaleness (and her boyfriend always trying to save her) rather than stemming or even just free from it (like the rest of the female cast).

How many times have you seen this shot?

That’s not to say there isn’t plenty to love about Stranger Things. Of course, there’s the 80’s nostalgia (I had that radio! I’d wear that dress today!) and all the great movie references, bringing us elder Millenials and Gen X’ers back to our childhoods. But more than that, Stranger Things is primarily a story of underdogs winning and who doesn’t love that?

I’m not talking about how the kids are nerds — watching from 2019, we know that 80’s nerds become today’s power players — I’m talking about how the kids are kids. There may be superpowers involved but the young people at the center of Stranger Things are exactly where they should be developmentally. They’re learning what it means to have romantic relationships, to grow out of childhood interests (so sad that Dungeons and Dragons scene), to have first jobs, and try on new identities. And they’re not all doing it at the same pace or in the same way as each other.

Stranger Things takes childhood seriously. The friendship between Mike, Dustin, Lucas, and Will is as important as anything else on the show. In fact, they succeed only because they are children: they need Erica’s smallness, adult’s underestimation, and their own, childhood ability to believe and imagine to survive.

It’s rare to see young people taken so seriously in media and Stranger Things really does it right by letting its kids grow. These aren’t characters stuck perpetually in a single grade, they’re actual people transitioning from being children to teenagers to adults. The show lets this change breathe, seeing it as an opportunity to explore new dynamics and possibilities rather than a wrinkle in its original premise.

The result is a unique narrative, one that expands who can be a hero, who’s worthy of our attention, and who deserves to have their story told. And this quality, this loosening of the adult-white-male hegemony over our imagination, is, as it turns out, what draws me to most of the media I consume. So I guess, that’s why I binged Stranger Things and why I’ll be one of the millions waiting for the next season. Yes, it’s white and it’s male but that’s not all it is.

Who’s ready for season four?
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Queer Eye’s Deanna Munoz is a Tearful Portrait of What it Means to Be Latina Today

Queer Eye is delightful in its ability to make life look simple. A haircut, wardrobe refresh, and a new recipe can transform someone into the best version of themself.

But we all know life outside of reality television is not so simple. Our families are complicated. Our politics are complicated. Our country is complicated. And new apparel curated by the nearly perfect human that is Tan France and his beautiful silver hair can’t change that.

When the first Latina on Queer Eye was introduced, I saw a person I knew but whose story rarely gets the spotlight. Deanna Munoz is a hard-working, intelligent, family-centered Chicana creating a community for artists and creatives in Kansas City as the founder of the Latino Arts Festival.

As a second-generation Mexican-American and a woman balancing two cultures, many of Deanna’s insecurities matched my own. I immediately resonated with her as she explained how she feels in the kitchen with her mother in law — intimidated. These are the feelings I’ve dealt with as a Latina but are rarely addressed on TV, much less to a mainstream audience on Netflix.

Likewise, I resonated with Deanna’s embarrassment as she explained that she couldn’t speak Spanish because of her father’s desire to assimilate. When I was young, I remember hiding in the bathroom as my grandparents talked with their friends because I was so embarrassed I couldn’t speak Spanish.

As I watched Deanna update her wardrobe with Tan and get a new haircut from Jonathan, it was touching to watch someone who had given so much get time for herself too. And not just time for herself, but also a new space for her community. As I watched Bobby take Deanna through her new community center, I cried to see a woman’s dreams come true.

However it was Karamo’s segment that connected me back to reality. Deanna shared with Karamo that she didn’t feel accepted by her predominantly white neighborhood so he set up one of his infamous therapeutic sessions: having her go door to door to introduce herself and talk about the Latino Arts Festival.

Before the exercise, Deanna reveals some of her neighbors have been more than just cold. She tells Karamo when her husband was landscaping their own yard, one of her neighbors sent a message to her husband, mocking him with “the Mexicans were building their own wall.”

It was a difficult episode to watch. While I was happy that Queer Eye choose Deanna as one of their heroes, watching her knock on each neighbor’s door was heartbreaking. Because this is what most Latinos have to do today to connect beyond our own community: we have to make the case for existing.

Instead of just being welcomed in her community, Deanna had to prove to her neighbors that she was worthy of being included. It was particularly difficult in this political moment. The shooting in El Paso. Donald Trump telling Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), and Ilhan Omar (D-MN) — all US citizens — to “go back” to their countries. While violent racism is no longer a surprise, it is still very, very wrong. And I am tired of all the reminders that racist acts, even at their clearest and most pointed, are ignored and excused by everyone from the President to our neighbors.

This episode perfectly showed the limits of Queer Eye. I would love it if all of our conflicts could be solved in an hour montage full of empathy, joy, and understanding. But even a Jonathan haircut and a makeover with Tan cannot hide our country’s past and increasingly polarizing dynamic.

There is a reason that Jonathan suggests dialing her hair back to be more “polished” and why Tan suggests a more “sophisticated” work look. It’s because for many Mexican Americans, our culture has been written off as “not serious” or “working-class” instead of what it is — an expression of our identity and where we come from.

As immigrants, we still have to prove our humanity. We are forced to go door to door, neighbor to neighbor to ask for acceptance because we know people will not give us the benefit of the doubt. When Deana shares her difficult experiences, one neighbor sympathetically replies “I didn’t know you were feeling that way.” It’s this reality that many of us start with, that racism and exclusion is often the last thing a white family might think about. We have to share stories of our trauma, our families, and our hard work to been seen — something most white Americans can’t even fathom.

Deanna’s experience on Queer Eye is a reflection of how far our country still has to go. I dream of a day where we won’t have to share images of children crossing the border or huddling in detention centers or gunned down at Walmart. That just the mention of children or simply people in need would be enough. A time when Deanna doesn’t have to introduce herself to every neighbor on the block, a time where her neighbors come to her and welcome her as a member of their community. This is the ultimate American makeover I hope for but I know it’ll take time and more than just a little “zhuzhing.”

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Why I’ll Miss “Jane the Virgin:”  Empathy, Representation, Sex, and More

It’s officially over: the last episode of Jane the Virgin airs tonight. The show wrapped up a lot up in the final 19 episodes (spoilers ahead!): Jane got a huge book deal ($500,000!), Elisa (finally) came through for her family, arch-villain Rose/Sin Rostro (definitively) died, Alba and Jorge found happiness together, Xo beat cancer, and Jane, of course, picked Rafael once and for all (although I imagine the Michael v. Rafael debate will continue indefinitely).

As a longtime fan of the show, I will miss the Villanuevas’ bench, Rogelio’s antics, and even Petra’s formal shorts. All that aside, what I hope the show is remembered for is treating each and every one of its characters with empathy. It turns out that the world is quite different when you apply the same level of compassion to everyone.

It’s easy, human even, to judge people who are different than you, ascribing negative motives and then writing them off. At its worst, this tendency combines with structural inequality (like how entertainment is overwhelmingly white and male), creating devasting problems like hate crimes, the mass incarceration of people of color, giant pay disparities, etc. Jane the Virgin defies this pattern, both in how its made and in what it portrays — a world filled with the problems we know but where race, gender, and class do not determine one’s value.

It’s worth remembering that Jane is lead by a white woman, Jennie Snyder Urman. Despite her lack of first-hand experience, she has managed to create one of the most meaningful portrayals of latinidad on television. She’s hired Latinx writers and centered a vision of Latinx identity that resonates with reality: Latinxs are a hardworking, diverse group of people (who are no more likely to commit crimes than the general population). All those shows about drug cartels and gang members are giving audiences the wrong impression.

And it’s not just that the Latinx characters on Jane the Virgin aren’t criminals, they’re diverse in so many ways: in age, in how they view sex, even in their views on religion. Take our three principle women: Alba, Xiomara (Xo), and Jane. They manage to have different worldviews, make different choices, change and grow, and yet remain sympathetic throughout.

Alba starts the series in the stereotypical “good Catholic” abuelita role. A staunch believer in no sex outside of marriage, she teaches her young granddaughter that a woman’s worth is tied to her sexual purity. Alba is sometimes wrong but she is never the villain. And as the show goes on, we learn that everything is not so simple: Alba did indeed have sex before marriage and by the final season, she’s even masturbating to Barack Obama — surely a church no-no!

Xo is, in many ways, the other Latina stereotype: a teenage mom who prefers sexy clothing and whose daughter gets mad at for acting younger than her age. And again, Jane the Virgin, grants her leeway to be. Xo doesn’t link her self-worth to her sexuality but rather sees sex as a fun route to self-expression. The show pushes this message with Xiomara getting an abortion and managing to be as likable as ever.

Likewise, Jane falls somewhere in the middle and that’s okay too. She takes what she likes from both her grandmother and mother’s examples and builds her own identity, whether it’s figuring out her views on sex, religion, parenting, or even how to pursue her dream. With these three, Jane the Virgin constructs a beautiful portrayal of the many ways women and Latinas, in particular, exist. The show doesn’t pretend that these choices are solely individual — Catholicism and social expectations loom large — but the Villanueva women each create their own way of navigating these pressures. Imagine if we all exhibited the same grace as the show creators in respecting the different choices others make.

I mean really imagine it — imagine it in the context of “mommy wars” (and the never-ending debate about what’s best for “the children”). Imagine it in class-based debates (say the disdain the GOP feels compelled to exhibit about House member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s previous job as a bartender). It’s hard isn’t, to imagine the world another way? And yet, that’s what Jane the Virgin does week in and week out.

Take the evolution of the Jane-Petra relationship. The show started with them as rivals. Petra was blond, thin, and rich to Jane’s brown, curvy, and working-class. Petra was also the wife of Jane’s love-interest, Rafael. But as the show progresses, these two stop competing and start working together — all the while remaining vastly different and finding themselves in healthy, regular conflict. I still remember the exchange they had while Jane was helping Petra shop for her new babies in season two:

Jane: Raf and I have this glider. We love it because it is so comfortable, especially if you’re gonna be up long nights, feeding the baby.
Petra: I’m not worried about late nights. I have a night nurse…
Jane: Okay, got it…So, pacifiers?
Petra: Oh, yes, definitely pacifiers. Wait, how about those?
Jane: Two for $12? No, that’s ridiculous. Look it, five for ten.
Petra: Yeah, but don’t you think there’s a reason for the price difference?
Jane: Yeah, they’re trying to scam you.
Petra: Or they’re better.
Jane: Maybe.
Petra: Definitely.

This conversation is perfect. Even though at this point, we’re used to sympathizing with Jane, Petra’s point of view is presented as just as valid. Later Petra says Jane “made me feel bad for wanting the best things for our kids” and call her “a martyr — she has to do everything herself.” Meanwhile, Jane has her own version of events with Petra “buying all these overpriced impractical things just because they were more expensive” and “talking about around-the-clock nannies.”

But as the show makes clear by interspersing these two accounts, neither is “right.” These two women, these two mothers are just different! And that’s okay! In fact, it’s more than okay. By the end of the show, Petra and Jane have both become successful mothers and individuals, finding happiness inside their families and outside them. It turns out the road to fulfillment isn’t determined by your feelings towards $6 pacifiers or even night nurses. Instead, it’s about learning to be honest (Petra) and flexible (Jane).

And it’s not just the women who can grow and change. Think about the central male characters — Michael, Rafael, Rogelio, and even Jorge. They all get to be attractive, “real” men while displaying totally different versions of masculinity. Instead of conforming to a masculine type, Jane the Virgin asks its men, just like it asks its women, to be good people: to respect others, to fight fair, to be honest.

It’s rare that a show manages to do so much: to break important barriers in representation in terms of race, gender, sexuality, motherhood, while also, fundamentally, asking all of us to be better people. Even in its darkest darks (and there were some dark times — Jane’s grieving of Michael, his heart-wrenching return), Jane the Virgin was always a light. It never betrayed the fundamental approach of empathy in building its world. And for that, in particular, I will miss it.

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