Jane the Virgin: Beyond the Bechdel Test
Jane the Virgin, the honey-sweet telenovela on the CW has been earning praise from critics for its sharp writing and wonderful acting (which garnered star Gina Rodriguez a Golden Globe for her first season). Jane plays with a concept each episode, often in a tongue in cheek way. The episode "Chapter 37" attempted to tackle feminism- specifically what feminism looks and doesn’t look like. The episode uses Jane’s new faculty advisor (played by episode director Melanie Mayron as a cliched portrait of a second wave feminist) to explain the concept of the Bechdel test to Jane. We see a green check flash on the screen when a scene passes the Bechdel test, and a red cross when it doesn’t. It’s a clever conceit which encapsulates Jane the Virgin's ability to gently mock a trope while embracing it at the same time.
There are definitely scenes that don’t pass the Bechdel test- Jane and her mother talking about Jane’s fiance, Michael or Jane’s abuela’s love interest, Pablo. But to argue this show is not feminist because of its genre or ability to constantly pass this one standard is silly and dismissive. Which is what the writers were ultimately aiming for, and underline with Marlene (is her hair getting frizzier in every scene?). The Bechdel test is just one measure after all. Even when Jane’s storylines revolve around her love interests, her sense of agency is never undermined. That the Bechdel test is not always useful because it can be reductive is a valid assertion.
However, the show can struggle when even when it does pass the Bechdel test. By pitting Jane against Petra, Jane's foil and her baby daddy's other baby mama, in the “who’s the better mother” competition, the show falls into an anti-feminist trap. Instead of exploring Petra’s valid decision to hire nannies and return to work as a choice she can afford to make, it is portrayed as her way to avoid contact with her twins. I’m glad the show introduced the concept of the Bechdel test to a larger audience and tried to grapple with some of its themes, but it fell short of the mark in this episode. If the show really wanted to compare Jane and Petra as mothers (which it really shouldn't) it would have to take into account their support systems. Jane’s mother and grandmother will always be there to support her, she has Michael, she has Rogelio, she has her friends. Petra has…..Rafael, kind of?
I should have had more faith. The next episode "Chapter 38" directly addresses these issues. Petra has never been the most maternal or nurturing and thus, becomes a vehicle through which the writers explore postpartum depression. Not every mother immediately bonds with their child, and this was a great way to depict that dilemma while being true to Petra’s character. By bringing back Petra's almost cartoonishly evil mother, the audience is once again sympathetic towards Petra. In fact, Petra is the episode's saviour when she secretly buys a house for Jane and Michael. This character development proves necessary when we see Petra do the unthinkable for a mother; abandon her children.
Jane the Virgin attempts to deconstruct lofty concepts and is not always successful. But that’s half the fun. After all, the show uses complex and interesting characters to introduce the Bechdel test to a wide network audience. Even within conventional soapy plotlines, the writers find new angles and stories to tell. By pushing past the boundaries of a telenovela, this show shines brighter than most network shows currently on the air. For that, I’m grateful.
Jane the Virgin airs on the CW Monday nights at 9 PM