Jane the Virgin and A Case for Guilt

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The third season of Jane the Virgin starts on Monday. I just complete the first two seasons (though I may have skipped a few, okay maybe like ten, episodes). And I have to admit, I enjoyed myself, though I have some serious reservations.

According to critical consensus at Rotten Tomatoes, the show manages to be charming despite its  “dubious premise.” Here’s the premise: a girl has agreed to practice abstinence until marriage but then a whole bunch of drama happens after she is accidentally artificially inseminated. So what’s so dubious about this premise? It risks becoming sanctimonious. People don’t want to watch a show that even hints at religious dogmatism.

But, at least according to critical consensus, the show manages to avoid this potential disaster. It goes to great length to show that her commitment to remain a virgin as well as any of her other decisions are personal and not an attempt at moral posturing. Her virginity commitment is partially the result of a Catholic grandmother who taught her it was a sin to have sex before marriage with an object lesson of crumpling a flower. But in Season 2 episode 14 we learn that even Jane’s grandmother had sex before marriage. Her “hypocritical dogmatism” was simply the result of her own shame.

Even though her daughter (Jane’s mother) was decidedly not a virgin, she still feels like her entire childhood was tainted because her mother had made her feel guilty about her choices. Jane agrees. And eventually her grandmother also admits that imposing her beliefs was hypocritical and wrong. Instead they all agree that virginity is a personal decision that’s right for some people and wrong for others.

Similar messages are repeated so often it would be hard to miss. When Jane is deciding whether or not to pursue her master’s degree three weeks after having a child, she attends a nursing class and the mothers all talk about their different ways they’ve balanced working and mothering. The teacher tells them all that what they choose doesn’t matter as much as making sure they’re doing what’s right for them individually. Sigh of relief. The dubious premise avoids an undesirable outcome.

What outcome did it avoid exactly? It avoids that unwanted emotion that the people who made other choices might feel.  It’s fine for someone to have beliefs, but the minute they attempt to proselyte those beliefs, they cross a line. It’s fine to wait until marriage as long as it’s a personal choice and not a moral, or generalizable, belief. Because moral beliefs are violent. They move outside of use and engender reaction, response, and confrontation. Even within ourselves, any sincere moral belief will no doubt eventually transform into those terrible experiences of moral regret.

This is the problem with religious belief, one the creators of Jane the Virgin either ignore or side step. The deepest forms of religion are not trivial. They are not ideas about the best way to load dishes in the dishwasher—you do it your way and I’ll do it mine. The things we believe in a religious sense are seldom of little consequence. Instead, they feel to us as if they are of vital importance, and perhaps they are. And it is precisely because they are so important to us that, according to Wesley Wildman, “they bring orientation and coping power, inspire great acts of courage and devotion, underlie key life decisions, and heavily influence social affiliation.” Because they feel so vibrant, they are not easily set aside. And because they are believed sincerely, when we fail to live according to our beliefs we are bound to feel guilty.

But Jane the Virgin is not this sort of virgin. She doesn’t really believe it. In place of religious belief she has a personal childhood commitment. And as a result, she starts to wonder whether or not she should just have sex—she has changed a lot since childhood. She even decides to do it and if it weren’t for some helpful MacGuffins, she would have. That is the weakness of personal commitment. It is much less likely to generate “coping power, inspire great acts of courage and devotion, or motivate key life decisions,” and much more likely to be abandoned when it becomes inconvenient. When you own both ends of a contract, it’s pretty easy to renegotiate. But while personal commitment has much less power to inspire, fulfill, or aid, it is also much less likely to cause guilt or offend. And that’s how the makers of Jane the Virgin avoid “the potential pitfalls of their dubious premise.” They replace religious belief with personal commitment so no one has to feel guilty about their decisions.

But I think we might be wrong about guilt. Guilt is unpleasant, but for some of us (I actually believe all of us), it is also sanctifying. One of the oldest Christian beliefs is original guilt. This guilt, rather than being a feeling to avoid, is a tool towards meaning, union, and fulfillment. The regret we feel after failure reminds us that our choice actually did matter, that the internal struggle was real, and that our failure really was a failure. Embracing this depravity opens up the future possibility of victory and directs our hearts toward yearning.

By simply viewing guilt as an unwanted appendage to “living a good life” we castrate our experience. We see this sterilization in Jane the Virgin as her virginity is both unbelievable and rather blasé. Who cares if she does or doesn’t. T.S. Eliot noted a similar phenomena a century ago: “With the disappearance of the idea of original sin, with the disappearance of the idea of intense moral struggle, the human beings presented to us both in poetry and in prose fiction today . . . tend to become less and less real.” Because the characters of Jane the Virgin seldom deal with internal moral conflict they are instead confronted continuously with external circumstances that become increasingly unbelievable.

Of course we’re used to it by now, it’s almost believable again. But a virgin without true belief and without the possibility of failure is a poor depiction of the majority of virgins today. Guilt is unavoidable and to entirely avoid it is undesirable. Guilt is a deep regret that brings validity to our faith. It is when we cease to feel it that life become insufferable. It is when we desire grief and cannot conjure it that we begin to doubt our own meaning and significance. It is then that we must begin our trek back towards the religious. Without it, our choices are trivial. To subtract guilt is to feel that all choices are equally valid which only impoverishes the whole equation—making faith, belief, and life itself less believable.

It is very easy to understand the undesirable aspects of guilt. It is unpleasant, sometimes unnecessary. It can cripple a person and add unwanted stress which can cause choice paralysis in a world brimming with choices.  But there is also splendor in guilt. It is like standing at the edge of a precipice, looking down. We yearn to grab something, to hold onto the earth. And at that very moment we know we are free to step over, and even compelled to fall. There, at the edge of a cliff, I know that my choice matters, and I am almost paralized by the weighty consequences I can already feel attached to my actions. It is there, all around me, before they’ve even happened. I am aware of each step. I feel each breath. And I am never more alive.

Guilt likewise comes into our souls, generates regrets, brings forth profound feelings of awe, significance, and infirmity. It takes us from the earth and elevates us above life and we can either be destroyed or sanctified by the experience. That is the thrill of guilt. I would not wish to live on the edge of a cliff my entire life, nor would I wish anyone to be endlessly engulfed in guilt. It can be unbearable. But I also desire to return to the mountains, to get somewhere high above the world, and to look down and feel that I am real.

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3 thoughts on “Jane the Virgin and A Case for Guilt

  1. The original “Jane the Virgin” was a Spanish telenovela called “Juana la Virgen” – I just started the first episode and already I hear something that sounds suspiciously similar to what my pastor would have preached about gender roles. Perhaps the original was written to challenge it’s intended audience to expand their horizons whereas the English version has to be modified for another audience – it might loose a little in the translation.
    I’ve read up on the stories from some of the more conservative elements of Christianity, how young women are told they’re damaged goods (like a used kleenex) and how young people who didn’t get a choice were doubly shamed as if they had been asking for it. Sometimes Christianity can be so preachy it loses people when it sends the wrong messages. Christianity can shame people into feeling guilt – much as the Pharisees might have done in order to keep everyone else in their debt.

    1. Thanks for commenting. It would be facinating to compare Juana la Virgen with Jane the Virgin. Someone should do that…

      1. My Spanish isn’t *that* good. I understand bits and pieces, but there is just as much that I miss out on. I think I did hear a grandmother chastise her grandson saying: “Aren’t there enough women around here to do the dishes?” (i.e. a man shouldn’t be doing a woman’s job.) Cultural differences are fascinating though.

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