Category Archives: Family

On Jane the Virgin and the terrible wonder of tragedy

I’ve written before about the “reality” of Jane the Virgin, which somehow always roots its soap opera shenanigans in realistic human emotion. Perhaps never have I felt that more than with the midseason finale of season three and its next-week aftermath, which kills off Jane’s still-new husband Michael and then jumps forward three years into the future. Michael’s death was shocking, yes, and well-acted, and though I cried at that episode, it was the next one that really got to me. It opens with Jane’s Alba, explaining gently but firmly, that Jane will always feel different from now on, that truly nothing will ever be the same. And yet, she says, just as firmly, Jane will once again find things to love. She’ll find beauty in her life, find a way to let the light back in. And as impossible as it seems to Jane at the time, it turns out to be true. On both counts.

The episode of Jane the Virgin that showed Michael’s death talked a lot about memories — how we form them, how we perceive them to be absolute truth thereafter, though they’re informed so much by the circumstances and the layers of years piled onto them. Some memories, the episode says, are seared into our brains as brightly as a camera flash, though the parts around them fade into the background. This, I know, is true as well.

The saddest part to me, of this new Jane reality, as well as maybe the most heartbreakingly real, is the show’s efforts to show the true weight of the trauma Jane has suffered. She is no longer nearly the same person she was when we began the journey with her, and she’s changed in a way no accidental insemination, kidnappings, and almost-deflowerings she’s experienced along the way. She’s lost Michael, the person she thought would be there with her for the rest of her life — to share her burdens, her triumphs, her milestones and frustrations — and for something as sudden as it is random. And the loss is twofold: of both Michael himself — a person with dreams and secrets and complications and unknown, untold layers — and of the Jane she was when she had him, a Jane who was complete in ways she will never be again. (Not to mention the knowledge that Mateo, young as he was, will probably never remember the man she loved and lost, who was such a big part of her life.) She has to carry, alone, the weight of every new milestone, every triumph and frustration, knowing that Michael’s life will stay frozen forever in that message on her phone, excited about buying bodega oranges, while hers continues forward, inexorably. Every moment she lives is a moment he doesn’t.

And yet. The true tragic paradox of humanity, the terrible and wondrous secret, is that our losses propel us forward, for better and for worse, for we can never know what might have been but only what is. Jane has lost her husband and her partner, and there will always be a level of guilt in forcing herself to move forward when he cannot, to let in the light and even, eventually, happiness, to realize she can still laugh and love and experience life. And (terribly, wondrously) to know that some of the things she experiences would not have come about if not for his dying: maybe even some of the most beautiful parts of her new existence. The chasm will never fill, but flowers may grow around its edges, with thorns that make you bleed and blooms that dazzle with their beauty. Jane may live the rest of her life wondering why and what if. But maybe she will also wonder at the things that have knitted together in the space between. May all of us be so lucky.

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The hyper-real reality of Jane the Virgin

In case you haven’t gleaned from my previous posts, the CW is my favorite television network (and possibly the only one I regularly watch). True, I am probably a few years removed from its target demographic, but my love for its predecessor the WB, and the shows I watched at my most impressionable age — Buffy, Dawson’s Creek, Gilmore Girls — endures. I’ve gotten older and the hair and makeup has gotten more polished, but the CW still serves up a consistently solid roster of shows that can be popcorn-fluffy yet poignant, completely far-fetched (two centenarian vampire brothers feuding over a high school girl) and surprisingly relatable (a high school girl struggles to understand what her path in life should be after a tragedy).

Lately a show that’s impressed me in this regard is Jane the Virgin, the telenovela adaptation that debuted in 2014 and is now in its second season. The show’s premise is admittedly, and proudly, wacko — a 23-year-old virgin is accidentally artificially inseminated with the sperm of a multimillionaire hottie hotel magnate/cancer patient, then decides to keep and raise the baby — but in some ways, it’s one of the more realistic shows on TV. Few shows bother to even nod in the direction of “blue-collar” lifestyles anymore, especially live-action shows, preferring instead to give their characters massive apartments and vaguely defined but apparently extremely high-paying jobs. Jane isn’t immune to this problem — its title character does have a TV star father and a filthy rich baby daddy, plus an apparently endless wardrobe of adorable day dresses and wedges — but its characters do worry about money, and the trio of women at its center live in a one-bathroom house that Alba, the matriarch, has been in for many years.

Also realistic (or at least more so than most series) is how the show deals with parenthood. In this show, pregnancy is not just fodder for either complete, unreserved joy or juicy scandal (though it is both of those at various times); it’s also rightly presented as a massive, life-altering event that carries with it huge implications for both present and future. Jane has to navigate all the ways her “life plan” is derailed by a pregnancy out of her control; Xiomara, her mother, a grandmother at 39, decides firmly that after raising a child to adulthood she’s ready, finally, to focus on herself. Neither woman is villainized or lionized; they’re two sides of the same coin, examples of the choices and trade-offs that all women have to weigh. Plus, there’s the messy, stinky, frustrating reality of parenthood itself: Jane the Virgin may have some of the shiniest hair on TV, but its characters change their fair share of diapers and talk about the physical reality of motherhood (leaking milk, peeing yourself) in ways that are uncommon for a primetime show.

Similarly, it’s a peek at a family dynamic you don’t see much of on TV. Families typically mean young children; shows centered on twenty- and thirtysomethings generally all revolve around groups of friends, with parents showing up for the occasional holiday episode or guest appearance. Jane the Virgin, on the other hand, is all about family — the one you’re born into and the one you decide, at some point, to create for yourself. And the Jane family is strongly, beautifully women-centered. Jane still lives with her mother and grandmother, and while they all usually get along, occasionally long-running tensions about choices and lifestyles boil over. Three generations and two countries of cultural differences are represented, and they form the base of all the women’s conflicts even as their deep love for one another cements their bond. Their polar opposite is Rafael, who feels his family has always been deficient; his love of Jane stems largely from his view of her as the one who can give him the picture-perfect nuclear family he feels he was denied. Women run the show on Jane the Virgin — literally (it has a woman showrunner) and within the various character permutations. Even Petra and her mother, who have been pseudo-villains for most of the show, have a dynamic that, while twisted, is also rooted in the kind of deep familiarity that only family members can share.

What’s interesting about all this is that Jane the Virgin otherwise operates in an extremely heightened world. The colors of the Miami scenery pop off the screen, the plot lines often detour into magical realism, and there’s even an omniscient (or nearly so) narrator who chats directly with the audience. On a lesser show this contrast could cause tonal whiplash, but Jane the Virgin somehow manages to balance its continuous telenovela hijinks and its more grounded reality while also occasionally having the characters comment on the wackiness of it all, without taking you out of the moment. It’s an impressive balancing act, with the bonds between the characters keeping everything from tipping over into total ridiculousness. For every highly choreographed Britney Spears cameo there’s a moment of realness in which a character expresses uncertainty about her choices or fear for the future. It all adds up to a show that’s highly entertaining while also insightful about the human condition — it’s merely a bonus that those humans just happen to be ridiculously attractive.

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The things I can’t put on Facebook

It’s been said a million times, but I’ll say it again: We live in an age of oversharing. There are myriad platforms through which to share your every thought, no matter how banal, constant temptations to express your joy or outrage or fatigue to your own social media world. And despite being a writer, that self-involved breed both naturally inclined and trained to share their views about the world, and to promote those views, I have always been somewhat uncomfortable about communicating certain things. I’ll happily tell you how much I liked (or hated) that episode of Scandal, when it comes to the deeply personal things, I have this feeling that sharing it with the world—writing about it, even talking about it, sometimes—cheapens it somehow.

When my sister died I refused to talk about it for a long time. At first I was too sad, too angry, too crushed to put into words how ineffably my life had changed. Then as time passed, it became a way of holding on. People say talking about it makes it easier, and I didn’t want it to be easy. I wanted to hang on to my pain and my memories, to keep them fresh and raw, because to do otherwise felt like a betrayal. I still feel that way.

I’m thinking about this now because a friend of mine recently had someone very close to him pass away. He’s young; she was young too. He wrote about it today on Facebook—about her, about what he’s going through, and about the same things I’ve struggled with: whether sharing personal memories of her would have made her happy or angry, whether his tribute to her was his selfish way of dealing with the situation or whether it was simply what she deserved. He’s also a journalist, and his note was beautifully written—but I couldn’t get through it. His pain brings back mine just as I wished, in all its raw, bleeding strength, but this time mixed with a new feeling: guilt. I feel guilty that I can’t talk to him about it for my own awful reasons, guilty that going through hell has somehow not made me any less godawful at comforting someone going through the same thing. And guilty, in some way, that I didn’t do the same thing for my sister. Maybe not talking about her more, sharing my memories of all the things I loved and admired and even sometimes hated about her and forcing her back into people’s minds is the ultimate selfish act. Maybe it was just easier for me not to talk about it. And maybe because of me, people forgot sooner.

I know I will never forget Anjali. But when I’m really honest with myself, I’m terrified that I have already forgotten some things, like the way it felt to hug her or the exact cadence of her laugh when she found something particularly hilarious. And the longer I live the further away those things get from me, until one day when I have children of my own I tell them stories of their Aunt Anjali and all that’s left are the wisps of a relationship that was once such a bedrock of my life I took it completely for granted. So maybe writing personal things about someone when they’re gone is selfish, in a way. But it could also be one of the most valuable things you can do.