By Lindsay Steele
Most of what I see on television and film regarding Catholics is not positive. Priests are seen as aloof, creepy and eager to offer a healthy dose of “Catholic guilt.” The “rebellious Catholic schoolgirl” is a common stereotype. I’ve seen Catholics portrayed as anti-Semitic, prejudiced or judgmental on comedy programs. Religious sisters are often seen only as cruel schoolteachers and caregivers.
Media portrayals of virgins aren’t always respectful, either — it’s usually seen as something to be embarrassed about. Whole movies have been dedicated to a storyline involving a somewhat nerdy or “unlucky” man hoping to lose his virginity. If someone chooses to wait until marriage to have sex — and usually the character is female — there is some plotline about trying to spoil her innocence.
So when the television series Jane the Virgin popped up on Netflix last month, I figured it was just another show trivializing and poking fun at Catholicism and the idea of purity. But I also knew that the lead actress, Gina Rodriguez (a real-life Catholic who is waiting until marriage to have sex) earned a Golden Globe award for her portrayal of Jane, so I was curious.
I binge-watched the first season during a free weekend. What I discovered was one of the most remarkable portrayals of a Catholic person that I’ve ever seen — television or movie — and it happens to be on a show that is neither religious in nature nor suitable for children. It’s part of the young adult lineup on the CW and has storylines so implausible that the viewer is often required to suspend disbelief. One of the most believable aspects of the show is Jane’s faith and how it affects her actions.
Jane Villanueva is a 20-something woman of Latino heritage living in Miami with her mother, Xiomara, and grandmother, Alba. Jane and Alba’s lives and actions are centered around their Catholic faith. While Xiomara has strayed a bit in her personal life, she supports her mother and daughter and is seen attending Mass with them. It is established early on that Jane made a decision when she was young to save sex for marriage — a commitment she maintains despite pressure from friends and the difficulties of staying pure in the midst of a loving, passionate relationship with boyfriend Michael. To give Michael’s character — whose religion is never specified — credit, he is respectful of Jane’s decision and believes she is worth waiting for.
“Innocent” Jane’s life is turned upside down when, due to a freak medical mistake, she is accidentally artificially inseminated during a routine female check-up and becomes pregnant. Despite Jane’s shock and fear for the future, she decides not to terminate the pregnancy. She keeps the baby because she believes it is the right thing to do. She makes many such decisions throughout the series; she always tries to do the right thing even when it is hard.
Once the father’s identity is revealed, Jane is suddenly thrown into his world of chaos — murders, love triangles, illicit affairs and blackmail are commonplace. Jane turns to faith, prayer and family to help get her through. Jane is steadfast. She is a light in the dark world surrounding her.
At the same time, she does all of this with humility; she doesn’t think she is better than anyone else. She is an excellent judge of character, but she is also kind and compassionate, which surprises Jane’s nemesis Petra most of all. Petra is the person who has tried to hurt Jane the most, while Jane is the only one who offers her any kind of encouragement, love and mercy.
So often, Catholic religious traditions are portrayed as over the top and even a little ridiculous on television shows and films, but some of the most emotional moments of the show revolve around such traditions. Jane crying while praying the rosary as her grandmother lay unresponsive in a hospital room made me tear up, too. And don’t even get me started on the baptism scene after the baby is born.
While this show is certainly not for everyone, especially based on its mature content and wacky storylines, it is refreshing to see a Catholic person portrayed in such a positive light. I credit the writers and producers for allowing this to happen, especially when Hollywood as a whole seems reluctant to do so. I credit Rodriguez for her understated, respectful portrayal of the character, whose faith is not always heard but always seen in her actions. Her Golden Globe was well-deserved, in my opinion. Hopefully, more characters like this can make their way into television and film in the future.
(Editor’s note: Lindsay Steele is a reporter for The Catholic Messenger. Contact her at email@example.com or by phone at (563) 888-4248.)