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Jane the Virgin, Romantic Triangles, and Giving Female Characters the Agency They Deserve

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Spoilers to follow for Season 1 of Jane the Virgin!

Growing up with a single mother, a hardcore Catholic grandmother and dreams of being a writer, I found relating to Jane the Virgin‘s Jane Villanueva was as easy as blinking. And while I’ve never been reunited with a famous telenovela actor-father, nor found myself in an odd love triangle with an ex-fiance and a sperm donor, I find similarities even with that. My love affair with TV has been a decade long and from the beginning, I’ve been bombarded with the idea that the love of a man (especially romantic love), is an important part of any woman’s life. Those shared experiences changed the way I watched Jane the Virgin during its freshman season, especially when it comes to that love part.

For those who aren’t familiar with The CW Network series, Jane the Virgin stars Gina Rodriguez as Jane, a 23 year old virgin and aspiring romance writer who goes for a regular check up and walks away (accidentally) inseminated. Jane is about to get engaged to her long-time boyfriend Michael when she learns that the sperm her egg mistakenly co-mingled with belongs to her boss’ son, Rafael. And that’s not even half of it. Rafael is not only Jane’s boss and an heir to a hotel dynasty, but he already has a wife, Petra. Bent on removing Jane — and her baby — from the picture, Petra becomes one in a series of major obstacles in Jane’s life.

Loosely based on the Venezuelan telenovela Juana la Virgen, the series’ zany premise offers its female lead a host of material to work with, including the themes of family, classism, growing up, and fighting for what you believe in. Oh, and you can’t forget police rendezvous that reveal secret bathtub trap doors, multiple (dream) job offers,marriage proposals, marriage rejections, talking bus ads, men impaled on dolphin shaped ice sculptures, not-twin twins, deadly exes, and yes, the infamous love triangle.

To be honest, the writers’ choice to incorporate a love triangle wasn’t all that surprising. Jane the Virgin is on The CW network (known for trapping its female leads in laborious love shapes) and aimed at capturing that 18-34 female demographic — a group that is often assumed to have an unhealthy obsession with romance. That’s on top of being stylized like a classic Latin American telenovela. In short: this show was born to produce dramatic, drawn out love triangles.

In reality, Jane the Virgin doesn’t only utilize triangle development for her two romantic suitors. The series also employs the conflict-generating device in other aspects of Jane’s life, from her family to her career.

And though it may seem hard to believe considering some of the wacky things I’ve just said, I don’t return to the series week after to week to find out how a dangerous crime kingpin was able to operate clandestinely in the hotel Jane works at. Or why that guy that got impaled on an ice dolphin didn’t tell us about his twin brother — who, ironically, also got impaled. I’m sticking around for the human moments. The moments Jane shares with her with her family, her friends,her co-workers, and with her unborn child. The moments that make Jane so darn relatable.

I — and I’m sure other viewers — am sticking around for times when one of the Villanueva women faces a hard life choice or needs someone to celebrate that small victory with. We come back to see how Jane will handle her mother’s lie about her father, and whether or not Jane’s ready to call a man she barely knows “Dad.” We are here for the difficult choice between having a quaint career as a middle school teacher or working a dream job as a telenovela writer.

And for a time, we were even here for the man who lit up Jane’s heart — literally. We were invested in all of Jane’s triangles because those are choices and decisions that we as viewers have had to or will probably make.

But even as the series played on the device in clever and touching ways through Jane’s non-romantic relationships and plot arcs, the ‘will they or won’t they’ slowly but surely lost steam. For a solid string of episodes, those ups and downs resulting from Jane, Michael and Rafael adjusting to their new realities (and feelings) were emotionally, mentally and physically wearing on our lead. By the time the finale rolled around, both Jane and I were pretty much done with both the safe and the exciting options.

To be fair, love arcs for female characters aren’t inherently a bad thing. But when it comes to how women are portrayed in our media, writers should develop women with as much consideration and depth as they portray men. Female characters can experience both action and love plots, at the same time, without needing to sacrifice either. Women live complex, colorful lives. Jane the Virgin is one of TV’s truest reflections of this, and is exactly why, as time and the triangle went on, it became more and more important that the series didn’t fall into that common trap.

So yes, it was endearing that Michael’s feelings were so true and strong that he would love Jane until his last breath. And yes, it was also heartwarming that Rafael strove to be a man greater than his father — a man worthy of Jane’s love — in spite of the many differences between him and the mother of his child. But Jane had so much else going for her that it seemed trite to spend as much time (or any) during the course of a season on angst generated by that triangle.

Which is why the finale of Jane the Virgin’s freshman run made that sigh-worthy screentime worth it. TV series, particularly on The CW, usually demand that viewers commit to storylines that sideline and undermine their female protagonists’ agency and development. Jane the Virgin didn’t quite break form, but it did, after exhausting its audience with the push and pull of romance, utilize that fatigue to nail a surprising and refreshing spin on the age old plot device.

Artfully and intentionally, the series hit the brakes at the end of its first 22 episode run. After bickering over and scheming for Jane’s heart the entire season, Michael and Rafael threw the white flag. The moment Jane went from pregnant virgin to virgin mom, the narrative recognized that she had other relationships that were more important than any romance.

In a season full of well executed drama and much deserved critical praise, Jane the Virgin nailed it (no pun intended). In true series style, the show’s biggest twist was staying true to its core themes and the treatment of its lead. Instead of defaulting to the same old messages girls are always sold, Jane the Virgin took the common and sometimes problematic love triangle and used it to strengthen its main character in surprising and welcome ways.

Abbey White (a.k.a. con by day, binge by night) is currently in the weird in-between of a post-bacc journalism program and grad school. She has only two requirements to meet her definition of “decent tv”: characters with high drift compatibility and a massive amount of monster metaphors. Abbey has written regularly for ScreenSpy, and contributed to Popwrapped and TV Overmind. You can find her on twitter at @tearsandteeth.

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