Christians tend to take the subject of virginity very seriously. So it’s a little weird to admit that The CW’s new show Jane the Virgin—based on a Spanish telenovela with a ridiculous premise (we’ll get to that later)—might be one of the best depictions of a life of abstinence I’ve seen in modern pop culture.
On first take, even the title is a groaner. Great. Another fictional character defined by what sexual “club” she’s in. Beyond TV, our culture loves to label and lump together anyone brave enough to admit their virginity, as if having that in common makes Tim Tebow and Lolo Jones basically the same person.
In Hollywood, virginity usually gets played for laughs; infamous examples range from The 40-Year-Old Virgin to American Pie. Or it’s a romantic obstacle, as on Nashville (last season’s flat guest character Sean Butler) or Grey’s Anatomy (April Kepner, who almost everyone disliked before she decamped from virgin territory). Virginity is almost invariably portrayed as an abnormality, even though the percentage of people not having sex in our society is actually growing.
Jane’s virginity is sometimes an obstacle, too, and no doubt will be the show’s biggest dilemma when it comes to her long-term character arc. In flashbacks, she struggles over whether or not to tell boyfriends that she’s “waiting.” And now, her reasons for staying a virgin remain the heart of the show and definitive to her character, rather than interesting secondary complications to the plot.
The motives for adult virginity often get overlooked in pop culture; perhaps it’s because they defy the social expectation (and reality) that most people will become sexually active before marriage, or perhaps it’s because virgins often struggle to find the words to explain something we’re self-conscious about. Discussions of virginity often rely on jargon-y defaults like “saving myself for marriage” or “because I’m a Christian.” When abstinent adults can’t offer a compelling explanation for why, at some point we’re going to have a hard time with the why not. No wonder most surveys indicate high numbers of self-defined Christians are having premarital sex.
In the CW show, Jane (Gina Rodriguez) is a virgin for many reasons: She’s Catholic. She wants the “fairy tale.” Her grandmother (Ivonne Coll), who helped her mother raise her, scared her as a child with the “losing your virginity is like destroying a beautiful flower” trope. She is trying to be different from her loving but somewhat sexually promiscuous unmarried mother (Andrea Navedo).
A recent episode (“Chapter Three”) hilariously broke down the strengths and weaknesses of every one of Jane’s reasons, along the way exposing why such relatively easy answers are more speed bumps than self-enforceable roadblocks to sexual activity. Jane’s grandmother is the biggest influence on her decision to remain a virgin, though the show also contrasts Jane’s romantic relationships with those of her mother Xiomara, who still has feelings for Jane’s father (a secret sexual tryst she never married but recently reconnected with, at least in bed).
“My whole life, I didn’t want to end up an unmarried pregnant woman like my mom,” Jane tells her fiancé. Jane has been accidentally artificially inseminated at her doctor’s office—which isn’t a spoiler, but in fact the main conceit of the show. So, as she continues, “the big bad thing” happened anyway.
Jane got the consequences without the sex, while in a committed relationship (with a man who, while not a virgin himself, was willing to wait for her) and headed for marriage. Confronted with such a ridiculous hypothetical situation, I think plenty of Christians would struggle to come up with a reason to keep waiting, which underlines the fact that circumstances alone cannot proscribe sexual action (or temptation). So Jane decides to stop waiting — note this key word we all use when talking about virginity — and go for it.
Meanwhile, Grandma is encouraging Jane’s mother to start waiting. “You will get the fairy tale,” she promises when Xiomara is bemoaning a general lack of something-more-than-sex in her current relationship. “You just have to close your legs.” Grandma Alba has a traditional Catholic perspective on chastity that most evangelicals would contradict with a more grace-centric perspective: She calls premarital sex a “mortal sin” and gives Jane the impression that God will “forsake” her unless she lives “a life that is honest and pure.”
But here the extreme moral character of the show is also equating waiting with holding back. Equating sexual withholding — a power play — with saving a “gift” for our future spouse is yet another great example of why the idea of “saving yourself for marriage” doesn’t work.
The idea of being guaranteed a fairy tale romance is another common trope, especially encouraged for girls in conversations about chastity. Jane and her mother both want this fairy tale; they just have different ways of pursuing it and different ideas about what it looks like. Neither approach provides a well-marked path to the ideal relationship or happily ever after. “Perfect does not exist, especially in telenovelas,” the narrator humorously notes on Jane the Virgin, but the same applies to real life.
And then there’s fear as a motivation. Fear of the consequences could hold plenty of us back from sexual experience, especially combined with a respect for creating life, terror of divine punishment, or aversion to disappointing others. Fear instilled in youth can even extend well into adulthood in many cases, but fear of sex is not healthy, especially when it can often encompass every natural sexual instinct in the human body.
Jane’s relationship with her grandma on the show is her fallback deterrent, not because she’s afraid her grandma won’t love her anymore if she “destroys the flower,” so to speak, but because she knows Grandma Alba’s desire that she “keep your legs closed” comes from a place of deep love for her not just based on whether her behavior qualifies her as a “good girl.”
How much more true is that of an expressed direction from One who knows every cell in our bodies and can see the future in all its complexity? But to follow such a directive — especially when it can appear to contradict logic, circumstance, opportunity and desire — requires trust rooted not just in the issue of sexual activity, but in relationship.