Television / Jane the Virgin

Jane the Virgin Knows How to Talk About Sex

Note: This article contains spoilers for all four seasons of Jane the Virgin.

In season four, episode ten of Jane the Virgin, protagonist Jane and her grandmother walk into a sex shop. As Alba (Jane’s grandmother, played by Puerto Rican actress Ivonne Coll) glances from the handcuffs to the edible underwear on display, the look on her face captures the discomfort that might be expected from a sixty-something-year-old women shopping for a vibrator with her granddaughter. Then again, the CW show, which premiered in 2014, has never shied away from uncomfortable conversations—even, and especially, when it comes to sex. Even before Jane (played by the wonderful Gina Rodriguez) stopped being a virgin in season three, the show’s writers have always taken the opportunity to address sexuality in a variety of its forms. In several episodes of the show’s fourth season this spring, they have come through on topics as diverse as sex positivity for older women and the complicated landscape of #metoo.

Jane and Alba’s sex shop excursion is the culmination of an arc that began in the show’s first episode. When the eponymous Jane was ten years-old, her grandmother gifted her a flower. Under Alba’s instruction, young Jane crumpled the flower, then tried to make it new again. It’s a metaphor for her virginity, her grandmother explains. Once she has sex, she’ll be the crumpled flower that nobody wants. To most viewers of the show, the flower is an antiquated metaphor, although it’s not so far off from the abstinence-only sexual education models that are still used in parts of the United States.

Jane does ultimately wait for marriage before having sex, although she insists that her decision isn’t about her grandmother’s scare tactics but the fact that she doesn’t want to end up like her own mother, who had Jane at age sixteen. Still, she keeps the crumpled flower in a frame, until her husband Michael asks her to throw it out after they move into their first home together.

Alba’s journey, however, is perhaps more remarkable than Jane’s. It is revealed that she was rejected by her family in 1970s Venezuela after her sister divulged the fact that she wasn’t a virgin on her wedding day. It is a backstory that helps the audience understand her views on sexuality, and a reminder of the consequences women can face for their sexual history. (While Jane the Virgin pokes fun at the flower metaphor throughout the series, Petra—a hotelier and friend of Jane’s with a very complicated backstory—is several times accused of sleeping her way to the top, a reminder that female sexuality is absolutely still policed today.)

Fast forward to season four, and we find Alba happier than ever. For the first time since her previously mentioned husband passed away over thirty years ago, she’s dating again. But when Jorge, her boyfriend of several years, proposes, she rejects him—and then admits to Jane a few episodes later that she couldn’t get married because she was scared to have sex after so long. In a heartbreaking conversation on the kitchen floor, she tells Jane that she feels like a “broken wheel on the side of the road,” scared not only of her own sexuality but of how others, even a man she loves, might perceive her changed body. It’s this interaction that results in the pair’s trip to a sex shop, and despite Alba’s initial horror, the episode ends with her acknowledgment of her desire, and the realization that her body works just fine.

Alba’s not the only woman on the show to struggle with her aging body. In season four, episode fourteen, Xiomara (Alba’s daughter, Jane’s mother) struggles to decide what kind of surgery she wants after she is diagnosed with breast cancer. While Jane, who is both a thorough researcher and quite opinionated, thinks her mother should opt for a double mastectomy, Xiomara is less sure about a preventative surgery that she fears would cause her to lose touch with her body and her sexuality.

Alba and Xiomara’s plotlines are remarkable because they are so rarely shown on television. While progressive television has begun to explore female sexuality, few shows have navigated the challenges faced by mothers and grandmothers, and by ill and older bodies. Both women have real insecurities. They wonder how they can experience their sexuality when they don’t fit the narrow social box of what is considered sexy. At the same time, these insecurities do not deprive them of their agency—Xiomara with respect to her surgery and Alba in her rediscovery of her own body.

Jane, of course, is the perfect complement to both her mother and her grandmother. Like Alba, she experiences the dating-as-a-widow dilemma after Michael’s season three death. Most of Jane’s relationships reflect the sex positivity that contemporary feminism champions. As her conversation with her grandmother reflects, she comes to view her sexual desires as normal. She dates shallow telenovela star Fabian knowing she would never marry him, and pursues a relationship with an old fling, Adam, who is revealed to be bisexual. But if sex positivity promises women that sex is liberating, Jane the Virgin swoops in with the reminder that reality is a bit more complicated.

In season four episode eleven, Jane has a run-in with Jonathan Chavez, another former boyfriend. Neither Jane nor the audience has seen Chavez since season two, when he was introduced as her creative writing professor and the two later pursued a relationship. In season two, Chavez was portrayed as a good guy—when Jane told him she wanted to have sex but then started crying, he insisted on stopping. In season four, however, Jane finds out he’s dating another grad student, and begins to wonder if he preys on young woman who admire him and are eager to please. (Her intense Facebook stalking reveals he’s hooked up with four other students, too.)

Blind sex positivity would find nothing wrong in Jane and Chavez’s relationship. She had a crush on him, and he respected her physical boundaries while they were dating. But Jane the Virgin isn’t blind, and with the benefit of hindsight, Jane does take issue with what happened.

“Even if a student thinks she wants something, she might really regret it later when she’s older and smarter and has more information,” Jane remarks when confronting Chavez at the end of the episode. It’s a reminder that relationships always occur in a social context, and that context is never free from power dynamics—gendered, economic, age-based or otherwise.

The words “me too” are never spoken in the episode, but it is obvious that the discussion comes in light of ongoing social discussions about consent; a showrunner said as much in an interview. Both Jane and Chavez know that their relationship didn’t violate university policy; they fall in a gray area of conduct that is allowed, but might not be ethically correct. The #metoo movement has created room to acknowledge the prevalence of bad sex, consent out of obligation, and abuse of power.

On a personal level, Jane’s reassessment of her involvement with Chavez is a reminder that the meaning of relationships change over time. Although she once had feelings for him, Jane admits that she regrets the relationship after learning of his liaisons with other students. Realizing that Chavez may have abused his power in their relationship doesn’t make Jane a helpless victim; instead, she expresses her concern about the university’s policies and reaches out to Chavez’s current girlfriend, giving her the information that Jane wishes she’d had. She’s not downtrodden; she’s empowered to speak up. For the millions of women rethinking their own relationships in light of #metoo, that’s a powerful message.

Jane the Virgin draws inspiration from many places. It is a bilingual telenovela which begins with the premise of Jane’s accidental artificial insemination and has twice played the secret-unknown-twin trope. It is not shy about killing off main characters (RIP Michael!) and seamlessly switches between showing Jane’s daily routine of raising a four-year-old and narrating a story of murder and blackmail. It’s the kind of show that’s easy to dismiss as a soapy cable drama about love triangles and a plastic surgery cartel, but it’s so much more than that.

Despite the show’s title, sex is only small part of Jane’s personality and her storylines. Other plot arcs have addressed abortion, living undocumented in America, and how to parent a misbehaving toddler. Still, when it comes to discussions of sexuality, the show’s writers have nailed it.