Any narrative, whether fiction or non, is ultimately a fantasy. It’s a story told for an audience, a place created for a person to go that removes them from their own world and puts them in the place of others. It’s an exercise in empathy, and even when the story on the screen or page mirrors our own reality—perhaps even brutally so—narrative allows us to explore the breadth of our own experience through the remove of somebody else.
Jane The Virgin, the CW’s fledgling comedy, looks like a fairy tale dressed up like a telenovela, where a good and beautiful young woman overcomes adversity and is roundly rewarded with a full and beautiful life, complete with a matching handsome love interest. And Jane The Virgin is a fairy tale. It’s just not about the romance the audience thinks it is.
There is a love story at the center of Jane The Virgin, but it doesn’t beat in the heart of a handsome prince. It exists wholly within the confines of three women committed to the most fantastical ideal of all: unconditional love.
Typically, romantic love is the lifeblood of most TV series, with will-they-won’t-theys and rabid non-canon fan ’shipping, all fueling story engines and keep plots lurching forward. These loving entanglements are used with varying degrees of success, with some shows finding a way to seamlessly navigate the shades of gray that love entails (The Americans, The Good Wife) and others falling short, resigned to rehashing the most tired tropes of relationship hell (The Vampire Diaries).
But from the show’s earliest episodes, even while titular Jane was embroiled in an epic love triangle between her fiancé and the father of her misbegotten unborn child (it’s complicated), the love exhibited between Jane and any of her suitors always seemed to be outdone by the love she felt for her and her mother and grandmother. Certainly a segment of the audience remains deeply invested in Jane’s romantic exploits, but the show’s smartest trick is that there’s really no chance any man Jane dates will ever hold a candle to the relationship she has with the two women in her life.
Beating solidly beneath the framework of the established matriarchy of the Villanueva family, the true heart of Jane The Virgin is fueled by agape love. While typically represented as the love between God and man in Christianity, agape is perhaps best illustrated in everyday life via the concept of selfless love. That the show is so deeply invested in this idea within the family isn’t exactly a surprise, given how the recurring themes of faith and religion. What’s shocking is how beautifully and thoroughly the series has imbued its central family with this trait in such a relatively short period of time.
The three independent women of the Villanueva family have been doing it for themselves for decades. Alba, Jane’s abuela, is a faithful Catholic widow who helped raise Jane after her daughter, Xo, got pregnant at 16. Throughout Jane’s upbringing, tensions existed between Xo and Alba, as one might expect when a family with such deeply divergent core values resides under the same roof. However, the show always takes care to underline that each argument, whether current or historical, is rooted in trying to determine what was best for the family as a whole. Even the most fraught arguments stem from a place of abiding love.
The way these arguments play out within the Villanueva family provides one of the most alluring elements of Jane The Virgin’s fantastical storytelling. In reality, arguments between loved ones are trying, and no matter how strong the bond, disagreements can cause fracture. Anywhere there’s room enough for fracture, there’s room enough for doubt. This doubt leaves people, no matter how confident, wondering if unconditional love is really that or if such a thing could be nullified by word or deed. In families, it can be all too easy to wonder if we truly love each other for who we are, or if we’re only loving each other because of contractual obligation.
On Jane The Virgin, that very real fear has been eliminated. In its place lays a strong foundation allowing for hope and growth for each character alike. And the sentiment is so fundamental to what the show is that the series even takes care to spell it out. In “Chapter 12,” something Alba says to Jane as a child resonates so strongly that Jane incorporates it into a script that she writes as an adult: “You are my flesh and blood. There is nothing you could do that is unforgivable to me.” The sentiment is a beautiful one, but it’s not that beauty that resonates with Jane. Instead, it stays with her because she believes it and is reminded of it every day, through actions and words. And that beauty is something viewers might recognize, or perhaps long to see, in their own lives.
That the women of the Villanueva family are able to maintain this bond is all the more remarkable given how very different they are, specifically in terms of their relationship to faith. Given agape love’s close ties to Christianity, it’s perhaps unsurprising that it plays such a fundamental role in Jane The Virgin, but each woman lives the virtue fully, no matter what their beliefs are. Faith, be it too much or not enough, depending on who you’re asking, can be divisive, causing schisms in once solid relationships. Moreover, in much of pop culture, religion is used as a synonym for judgment, but that’s never the case here.
Alba is a woman of tremendous faith, who carefully influenced young Jane in the ideas of goodness and virtue as dictated by her Catholic beliefs. It was at Alba’s encouragement that Jane vowed to remain chaste until marriage. Jane, on the other hand, despite living by her oath to her abuela, values the religious reasons for her chastity less than she does the fact that she gave her word to someone she loves deeply. Jane is guided not by God, but by the women who raised her to be, above all things, good and true. Xo, on the other hand, cares not for the trappings of religion, or even goodness, necessarily. But like Jane, her moral code is driven by commitment to her family, and in that, the ferocity of her faith rivals even the most pious. Faith becomes not an impediment to understanding and love but, rather, a shared practice that covers over hesitancy with raw understanding.
It’s this matriarchal zeal that makes Jane The Virgin an absolute marvel. Not only does it incorporate the unwavering affections of a single family but it portrays faith of any stripe in a way that doesn’t resort to a punchline. Where Alba differs from so many depictions of religious characters on television is that her faith does not magically subsume her love for her family. She encourages Jane to remain a virgin, but she also makes it perfectly clear that even if Jane chooses otherwise, it will not undermine her love. She wants Jane to keep the baby, true, but only because she had encouraged Xo to do otherwise (with baby Jane) and felt compelled to right that wrong.
This sentiment extends to each permutation of the family. Though Alba and Xo’s relationship has often been tumultuous, Xo’s devastation when her mother is hospitalized speaks to the depth of her devotion. Xo’s love for her mother is so strong that she even makes an oath to forgo sex until she’s married if only her mother’s life was spared—which is one thing to promise, but is another when she actually follows through on it. Alba’s affection is equally evident in how she commits to helping her impetuous daughter raise her child and never wavers in her support.
Raised by these strong and loving women, in this environment of sometimes tense, but always supportive affection, it’s really no surprise that Jane is likely the most loving and virtuous protagonist on television. Even when pushing the bounds of believability—like when she provides a shoulder to cry on for her boyfriend’s villainous ex-wife or when she pushes that same boyfriend to forgive the sister who accidentally impregnated Jane (again, very complicated)—Jane defaults to basic humanity in a way unlike most people, a pure product of her beautiful environment.
This is perhaps best expressed in a moment in the middle of “Chapter 13.” It features an impromptu bedside party to celebrate Jane’s graduation, a ceremony she missed because of pregnancy complications. Gathered at her side to laud her accomplishment are her boyfriend Rafael and her long-absent father Rogelio, as well as her beloved mother and grandmother. It’s a joyous occasion and slowly, as the scene goes on, something profoundly moving takes place.
Without drawing any attention to it, with both men still present, the scene collapses into being solely about the three women. Alba and Xo gather close to Jane’s side, the three speaking of their pride and accomplishment and love. The camera doesn’t care that these love interests are in the room, nor does the show, nor does the audience, nor do the women. What matters at that moment is what mattered always: They are together. They are safe. They are suspended in the love and life and light that they bring to each others lives.