Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Core Response 3: Female-Identified, Non-White Bodies as Sites of Contestion and Jane the Virgin

It’s a pretty common notion in critical theory that women of color’s bodies are sites for contestation. With regards to this week’s readings specifically, Viviana Rojas (via Esposito), states “It seems as if Latina bodies act as a contested zone where cultural, political, and racial struggles take place.” (8) When Esposito published her essay, the television show that typified this practice was Ugly Betty.  Jane the Virgin, on the CW, has inherited that tradition. A young Latina’s accidental insemination serves as a space for discussions of reproductive choice and immigration reform.  

In the pilot episode, Jane is discussing the feelings that are shaping her impending discussion whether to have an abortion or carry the baby to term with the man whose sperm she was inseminated with (who happens to be her boss and former crush). She tells him:

“I know that the reasons for me wanting to end the pregnancy are so selfish.  That I’m not ready, that this wasn’t the plan. That I’ve worked hard every second so that my life is different than my mother’s….I know that in some ways I derailed her life. I don’t want my kid to feel like that...ever. I want to be ready. (28:20-28:52)

It seems to me as if the show is performing a duty (female-created and led show actually shows the audience the protagonist’s decision-making process as to whether to have an abortion or keep a baby! Woo-hoo choice!), but fumbles a bit in the execution.  If would be more radical if Jane didn’t describe her (possible) decision as selfish, but rather as just her decision, which she is completely within her right to make.  Trying to decide whether a decision to have an abortion is selfish or not undermines what choice should be.

In the tenth episode, “Chapter 10” (the show is adapted from and framed as a telenovela), we get explicit (and non-diegetic) discussion about immigration reform. Jane’s abuela Alba is pushed down the steps and ends up in hospital. The hospital discovers that Alba is undocumented (the i-word is used, actually), and informs Jane’s mom Xiomara that they will tell ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) as soon as the tropical storm lets up. Xiomara’s exclaims that this type of action can’t be legal and using the show’s onscreen text commentary, we get an immigration reform plug at 19:21:


The internet rejoiced. Yay! A critically acclaimed mainstream show talked about immigration reform, OMG! Look at this badass show! But wait, are our expectations that low? We don’t expect a show centered around a Latina family (albeit one created by a White American) to address such an important issue? If it didn’t, it’d be pretty ridiculous. As an audience, we should hold such important cultural products more accountable, so that something like the immigration reform bit is the bottom of the barrel, in terms of our (read: people’s who ideologies start, at the very least, at liberal) expectations.

Women of color’s bodies’ are a site for people to figure stuff out, which is dangerous, hard, messy, and burdensome.  But I’m waiting for a television show that really rises to the challenge (base rules: not created by a White person and doesn’t cast a White man as one of the main Latino love interests...because...really?)
Esposito, Jennifer. What Does Race Have to Do with Ugly Betty?: An Analysis of Privilege and Postracial(?) Representations on a Television Sitcom. Television & New Media. 10:521. 2009: 521-535.  

Rojas, Viviana. The Gender of Latinidad: Latinas Speak about Hispanic Television. Communication Review. 7:125-153.


  1. Jheanelle!

    I love your critique here. As to your last point about about waiting for a TV show that rises to the challenge - I'm wondering to what extent this is really possible without a complete reconfiguration of the economic model entertainment (and society as a whole for that matter) is based on? For as long as shows are dependent on private corporations, and to an extent even consumer subscriptions, for funding, it is doubtful that any of them will be able to offer a truly sustained systemic critique (though there may be slivers of hope and consciousness raising here and there). I wonder how the UK model of public broadcasting compares; are UK shows more willing to address their race and class issues because the TV programs are taxpayer funded? By having public broadcasting, TV networks don't have to worry about appeasing certain (dominant) demographic populations; citizens will be taxed regardless of whether they tune in to a particular program or not. This arguably allows UK shows to take greater risks with the content they create. The real question is - are they taking advantage?

  2. Jheanelle -

    I agree a need still exists for shows about a given community to be created by members of that community. I’m wondering how the hiring on a show like Transparent might figure into this practice. Though the show is about a white Jewish family (its representations of Black characters are incredibly sexualized and problematic), the show’s writers give voice to an underrepresented group – namely, trans* and genderqueer individuals. When creators and producers from the show came to USC campus, they discussed their policy of what they called “trans*firmative action” – hiring at least one trans* person in each of their major departments in order to foreground these voices, historically invisible, at every level of television production (the show’s creator is a cis white woman). I’m curious as to how this hiring process and the collaborative nature of the writing on the show might fit into our larger conversations about both “affirmative action,” which is clearly being punned on here, and larger issues of the representational politics of production and reception.