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Catholicism

Sleeping with Your Priest: From “Fleabag” to “El Crimen del Padre Amaro”

Pheobe Waller-Bridge created something rare and amazing with Fleabag — a show that completely inhabits a complicated (some may say “damaged”) woman’s perspective and finds humor and humanity. The second season won all the awards, and rightfully so, for its depiction of the relationship between our troubled protagonist and a Hot Priest.

Watching it, I was conflicted. Am I supposed to root for the relationship or want Fleabag to get the hell out of there? On one hand, the Hot Priest is in fact hot. He’s also adorable (see the thing with foxes) and really sees Fleabag (he’s the only one who notices her asides). But on the other hand, he’s not available! I mean, the man has taken a vow of celibacy. And he likes being a priest so it’s not exactly a surprise (spoiler coming!) that he picks God over Fleabag (although it’s not out of the realm of possibility that one might choose Pheobe Waller-Bridge’s incredible magnetism over the Catholic God).

No matter what side you fall on though, Fleabag is notable for how it takes you through the relationship from the (white) woman’s perspective. We are with her as she first meets the Hot Priest, checks out his congregation, learns a bit about the Bible, and eventually, even, has sex with him. From Fleabag’s perspective, we see the pain and the pleasure of another manifestation of her self-destructive behavior. Only this time, it’s more poignant because she finally manages to forge a real connection, even if it’s doomed from the start.

Catholicism is harmless, horny, and hilarious when seen through Fleabag’s eyes

In her relationship with the Hot Priest, Fleabag’s happiness is at stake and we want her to have it. To her, the Catholic church is an oddity, a quirk of her family. It didn’t help commit genocide against her ancestors, destroying their sacred places and building churches on top of them. It doesn’t still influence the politics, economies, and culture of her homeland, providing social services in failed states while also upholding patriarchal anti-abortion laws. It holds no greater power than to thwart her love life.

Obviously, that’s not true for many of us. So when the story of transgressing the vow of celibacy is told from the Latino perspective, it looks really different. Take the 2002 sensation, El Crimen del Padre Amaro. It also features a hot priest (who didn’t/doesn’t have a crush on Gael Garcia Bernal?) who breaks his vow, this time with Ana Claudia Talancón’s Amelia. This Spanish-language film won all sorts of awards too, even becoming one of nine films from Mexico ever to get nominated for Oscar’s Best Foreign Language Film.

But while the set up’s and critical responses are the same, pretty much everything else is different. For one, El Crimen is told from the priest’s perspective. We don’t learn much about Amelia, other than that she masturbates to Jesus (¡Dios mio!). And even that tidbit is meant to just make her more desirable for Padre Amaro. She’s the early aughts version of a priest thirst trap, a Bible-thumping virgin who Amaro literally dresses up as La Virgin. And of course, things don’t go well for her. She gets pregnant, gets a back alley abortion with Amaro’s help, and dies.

Male gaze much? Amelia as the perfect priest-sex-object in El Crimen del Padre Amaro

So while the stakes for Amelia are life and death, they exist only to illustrate how far Amaro has fallen. The young father starts out good but his ambitions get the better of him as he forsakes his moral code for career advancement, betraying Amelia, his mentor, and his broader community. Meanwhile, we see the Church supporting cartels, curtailing free speech, and ex-communicating the only priest who puts the well-being of his congregation first. As Padre Amaro falls from grace so does the church, making the whole movie a critique of the church as a power-hungry hypocrite without a moral compass.

It may be worth noting here that El Crimen del Padre Amaro set the box office record when it premiered in Mexico.

Hot priests sell. Rewatching the film in 2019, I couldn’t help but wonder how different it would be from the woman’s point of view. Fleabag only half-answers that question, flipping the gender perspective but also transporting us to the colonial power. Certainly, a Latina would tell the story differently. But our stories are so rarely told — we still struggle to keep critically acclaimed, feel-good family sitcoms (cough One Day At A Time cough) on air, let alone transgressive sexual narratives that risk angering the Catholic Church. So I may just be waiting a long time.

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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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