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Sexuality

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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Four Reasons Why Charmed is Heir to Buffy’s Legacy

I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I watched it live, made sure I hadn’t missed an episode with the DVDs, and read all the think-pieces I could (and there are a lot). Not to mention science says it’s good for you — watching shows like Buffy (aka shows with kickass female leads) has a proven positive correlation to less gender bias in boys and men. In fact, with so much media out there, I’m pretty much only watching shows that fit the Buffy-mold: woman-led, woman-centered.

But can any show really pick up where Buffy left off? I mean, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a cult favorite for a reason, right? But I think it’s possible. And the show that’s doing it is the CW’s remake of Charmed.

You probably missed Charmed when it originally aired (to be clear I’m talking the 2019 reboot here). It didn’t get a lot of press. And what it did get was negative (the original stars weren’t happy, it uses cross-racial casting). Those critiques are valid and interesting and worth pondering. But it’s lack of critical acclaim (when they cover it at all) speaks much more to bias in criticism (old, white, male) than the show’s actual merit.

Charmed, now with its first season available on Netflix and a second season set to premiere later this year, is carrying on the Buffy legacy. Let me walk you through it:

1. Same Premise (and Mentor)

Both shows are about young women who suddenly find themselves in the position of needing to save the world, thanks to a set of new powers they didn’t see coming. Buffy first discovers her powers in high school (although we see her go to college+) while Charmed’s trio of Maggie, Mel, and Macy (let’s call them the 3 M’s for short) range from undergraduate to post-doc. They’re all in that figuring-out-who-you-are stage of life. It’s just that now their coming-to-age story includes defeating monsters each week and handling the season-long threats to life as we know it.

With the fate of the world resting on their young shoulders, the shows start with them learning how to control their new gifts (while navigating romances, school, and work). Enter a helpful, white British guy, representing a secret society of guardians who say they’re there to help our young heroines. Should we trust this far away bureaucracy? Both Buffy and the 3 M’s have their doubts. But is Giles/Harry a positive, crush-worthy if stiff, figure? Yes and yes. And with that premise, we’re off and running.

2. Humor Breaks Up the Darkness

Buffy and Charmed are campy and dark. The contrast of ugly demons with of-the-moment outfits is funny, dynamic, and telling in both shows. The idea that HQ for saving the world would be your mom’s house is pretty great. And the contrast between the villains being literal demons, while the superheroes are girls worried about losing their virginity is wonderful. Add in a bunch of puns and some general enjoyable silliness (see Charmed’sTouched by a Demon” or the Buffy-bot episode), and you have humor counterbalancing the serious, literal darkness surrounding our heroines.

Charmed even goes the extra mile by loading up on feminist in-jokes with Harry’s claim to fame being how Roxane Gay retweeted him once (but you have to scroll back a lot because she’s “quite prolific”), plus jabs at incels, manic pixie dream girls, and the like. It’s the updated Buffy humor you’ve been waiting for. Plus demons. Lots of demons.

3. (Intersectional) Feminist Intentions

Of course, plot and style is just part of what made Buffy so great. The key to its rabid fandom and staying power has always been its actual feminism — its centering of a small, young woman as worthy of our attention, admiration, and consideration. Charmed does the same thing, pushing the envelope by imagining that young woman as ::gasp:: not blond. Maggie, Mel, and Macy are Latina/Afro-Latina with a range of skin colors and hair textures. Sometimes their racial identity takes center stage (say when Maggie learns the truth about her dad) and sometimes it’s just in the details (they drink coquito at Christmas). But it’s always there, just like Buffy’s whiteness. Centering women of color pushes the argument further, allowing us to see more people as worthy of the supernatural feminist destiny we all crave.

Then there’s the presentation of sexuality. Buffy won accolades for its LGBTQ representation (I’m still shipping Willow and Tara) and Charmedtakes it to the next level by having one of its three principles be queer. Mel gets two women love interests in the first season and her romances are just as steamy, important, and complicated as her hetero sisters. Neither show assumes straightness and that’s how it should be.

Also on the sexuality front, both shows deal with female virginity and Charmed comes out ahead. Buffy famously lost her V-card to Angel, causing him to turn evil and setting up a multi-season arc of brooding heartbreak. The tragic costs of Buffy’s sexuality are pretty retrograde and while she eventually gets to have sex without consequences (which male heroes seem to always enjoy), nothing ever matches up with that first romance. Macy, on the other hand, starts the show a virgin not because she’s pure or religious but rather because she’s standoffish. That said, with the help of her sisters, she comes out of her shell, makes a real connection (after overcoming some magic roadblocks), and has sex. It turns out not to be that big of a deal. Because it’s not. Pretty cool, huh?

4. Charmed Picks Up Where Buffy Leaves Off

Remember how the final season of Buffy ended with Buffy changing the rules of the universe so there’d be more than one slayer? It was just too much for one person, however strong, to bear. Score one for collectivism, zero for individualism. Charmed starts there: we’ve got the “power of three,” which requires not one, but three powerful women (sisters no less) to save the world. They have to negotiate collective decision making (do decision have to be unanimous or just two-against-one?), their competing priorities (who’s practicing witchcraft versus at their job versus with their partner?), and their different personalities (because different people have different ways of solving problems). All things Buffy could ignore when she wanted to.

Charmed’s collective approach reflects its Latinx premise nicely, moving us away from the limited, bootstrap narrative attached to so many of our (white, male) heroes. In Charmed, we have a show that builds on Buffy’ssuccesses and takes us into 2020 and hopefully beyond.

So if you miss Buffy or just finished Stranger Things and want more young people + fantasy/sci-fi, let me recommend Charmed. It’s pretty delightful.

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“Vida:” The Millenial, Latina, Queer Show of Our Dreams

The second season of “Vida”is available to stream on the Starz app Thursday, May 23 with episodes airing weekly on the Starz network starting Sunday, May 26. The first season is available now on Starz and via the Hulu add-on. Warning: spoilers ahead.

The second season of Starz’ Vida is out this week and I’m so excited. If you missed the first season (because it’s on Starz, because you didn’t even hear about it because it’s on Starz), Vida is the millennial/Latina/queer show of our dreams.

It follows two Chicana sisters, Emma and Lyn Hernandez, who return home to Boyle Heights to bury their mother and decide what to do with the family business, a neighborhood apartment building and bar. Emma is the career-driven chingona, taking charge and ruffling feathers everywhere she goes. She also happens to be a lesbian. Lyn, meanwhile, is all drifting free spirit. She moves from man to man, business idea to business idea, with her good looks, overall cool, and loose morals (stealing a credit card in her deceased and debt-laden mother’s name — yikes) to live well beyond her means.

Soon, Emma and Lyn realize that not only is the bar/building vastly underwater with bills owed to greedy gentrifiers but their mother was married to her female “roommate” Eddy despite not even being out to her daughters. Newly widowed, Eddy has one-third share of the family business with the rest split between Lyn and Emma. Together, this unlikely trio has to figure out a way forward.

Created and led by Latinas, Vida’s baked latinidad into its every fiber and the results are amazing. There’s the all Latinx cast. The Boyle Heights setting. And there’s the way Vida truly centers family, identity, and a nuanced conversation about gentrification.

Created and led by Latinas, Vida’s baked latinidad into its every fiber and the results are amazing. There’s the all Latinx cast. The Boyle Heights setting. And there’s the way Vida truly centers family, identity, and a nuanced conversation about gentrification. The first season manages all this deftly, making Vidaread as an edgy, critical darling while being firmly rooted in the Latinx experience.

I particularly appreciated seeing Emma and Lyn navigate their identities in response to the question so many of us grapple with: are you Latina enough? Emma spends the first season confronting the idea that she hates where she’s from with several characters stating or implying as much. The truth is, Emma doesn’t hate Boyle Heights — she’s just estranged from it as her mother sent her away in a (failed) effort to stop Emma’s queerness. This rejection led Emma to build walls against her loved ones and her home. Yes, despite her prickliness, Emma learned formal Spanish, ensuring her ability to communicate in the neighborhood. And while her initial instinct is to sell the bar, she ends up picking another path. She figures out the predatory nature of the loans her mother took out and that selling would mean letting those folks win, so she decides to stay and use her college-educated business acumen to make the place profitable. Emma’s straddling two (three? multiple?) worlds and trying to figure out what pride in her identity means while also dealing with self-loathing as a rejected and isolated daughter.

What does it take to be “Latina enough?” Speaking Spanish? Being from the neighborhood? Never leaving?

You see, Vida doesn’t just have latinidad at its core, it’s also dealing with female sexuality in its many forms. There was A LOT of sex in the first season with Lyn and Emma each having multiple partners, plus a prolonged solo scene. And since this is Starz, yes, those scenes were erotic as hell. But take note — they didn’t rely on the usual male-gaze tropes of depicting women as objects. Instead, I saw sex scene after sex scene with different sets of participants (woman/man, woman/woman, woman alone), all centering female pleasure and the woman’s perspective. It was hot. And this rare, woman-focused depiction of women’s sexuality is made even more powerful by how it centers and values brown bodies not as sites of sexual gratification but as agents deserving of love and pleasure.

Building upon its depiction of sex and brown identity, Vida uses gentrification as its looming threat, powering the plot. Gentrification’s the reason Emma and Lyn stay in Boyle Heights instead of returning to their lives in Chicago and San Francisco after the funeral. It’s the reason Eddy isn’t able to be forthright about the books at the beginning and it lays the groundwork for her ending up in the hospital at the end. And, of course, it’s the menace Marisol and her group of activists are working against, a battle that puts her in conflict with the sisters.

This rare, woman-focused depiction of women’s sexuality is made even more powerful by how it centers and values brown bodies not as sites of sexual gratification but as agents deserving of love and pleasure.

Gentrification threatens all of Boyle Heights. For Emma, the conundrum is if you need to charge $8 a drink to pay your rent then you can’t stay a neighborhood place. But if you don’t charge that amount and lose your property, the next place that opens won’t cater to the original residence either. For the residence, it’s what’s pushing them out of their homes and wreaking havoc on their community. For the activist group, it’s how to hold back the tide of economic “development” that’s destroying the neighborhood and, to push the tide metaphor, like water always seems to find a way.

In other shows with big external threats, there’s often a clear answer. Is it war or monsters that threaten you? Then fight for your life. Kill your enemies and create your own bit of peace. Think Walking DeadLord of the Rings, even Mash. Is it a natural (or supernatural) disaster? Perhaps surviving is enough. Gather the people you love and try to make it like Viggo Mortenson in The Road or Helen Hunt in Twister.But what if you’re facing gentrification? Putting one developer out of business won’t end the threat, no matter how slimy and terrible they are. Surviving may mean moving, which here means defeat.

It’s not clear what to do or try to save when your enemy is gentrification.

The first season of Vida setup gentrification as the show’s primary danger, exploring the ways it works and why it’s so intractable. I’m excited for the second season to delve into solutions as Emma, Lyn, and Eddy work to save the bar. The answers aren’t clear but I hope we see them join Marisol and try to overthrow the system. I can’t imagine Emma tagging anything or either of the sisters marching in a protest (although I could see Eddy taking to the street). No, I envision Emma meeting with city council members to change laws while Lyn uses her charm to get the intel needed. Perhaps, working together, these women can push on all the levers needed to save Boyle Heights for its residents and for us. I’ll certainly be tuning into the second season to find out.

And even if we can’t find the solutions to gentrification in the show, Vida is doing its part in the real world. You see, the problem at the heart of gentrification is that the market and American culture at large don’t value actual Latinos. They want our food and our art and our labor but not our humanity. In fact, they don’t even see us. When compared to our numbers in the general population, Latinx are the least represented group on screen. And when we do show up, we’re usually criminals and drug runners. This is the country that elected Donald “Mexicans-are-rapists” Trump as President.

In its way, just by existing, Vida is helping to right these wrongs, displaying Latinas as the beautiful, complicated, fully human people we are. And it’s doing so in a way that appeals to the hipsters who wrote off One Day at A Timeand Jane the Virgin as too fluffy, inconsequential, or not for them. Take note and join me in watching, evangelizing and generally not shutting up about season two.

The problem at the heart of gentrification is that the market and American culture at large don’t value actional Latinos. They want our food and our art and our labor but not our humanity… Vida is helping to right these wrongs, displaying Latinas as the beautiful, complicated, fully human people we are.

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