Season three of “Jane the Virgin” starts Monday. According to critical consensus at Rotten Tomatoes, it’s a charming show despite its “dubious premise.” The premise? A girl agrees to remain abstinent until marriage, but then a whole bunch of drama unfolds after she is accidentally artificially inseminated. Doesn’t seem so dubious—but 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 lengths to show that Jane’s commitment to remain a virgin—as well as many of her other decisions—are personal, and not an attempt at moral posturing.
Her commitment is partially influenced by a Catholic grandmother who taught her it was sinful to have sex before marriage. But in season two, episode 14 we learn that Jane’s grandmother Alba actually had sex before marriage. Her “hypocritical dogmatism” was simply the result of her own shame.
Abstinence As Personal Preference, Not Moral Choice
Even though Alba’s daughter (Jane’s mother) Xiomara was decidedly not a virgin, she still feels like her entire childhood was tainted because her mother made her feel guilty about her choices. Jane agrees. Eventually Alba also admits that imposing her beliefs was hypocritical and wrong. They all agree that virginity is a personal decision—one 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 where the mothers all talk about the different ways they’ve balanced work and motherhood. 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 a bloviating outcome.
What outcome did it avoid exactly? It avoids guilt. We hate guilt. We hate when people tell us what is right or wrong. 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 to have sex until marriage—as long as it’s a personal choice and not a moral, or generalizable, belief. Because moral belief tends to offend, inconvenience, or even shame those who disagree.
Why ‘Jane The Virgin’ Avoids Guilt Like the Plague
This is the problem with religious belief, one the creators of “Jane the Virgin” either ignore or sidestep. 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 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, they are enforced within through guilt.
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 “Jane the Virgin” avoids “the potential pitfalls of their dubious premise.” The show replaces religious belief with personal commitment so that no one has to feel guilty about his or her decisions.
Don’t Dismiss the Positive Power of Guilt
But I think we might be wrong about guilt. Guilt is unpleasant. But for most 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. And as this guilt is increasingly taken out of contemporary culture, our dramas become less real, at least according to T.S. Eliot: “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.”
Such is the case with “Jane the Virgin”: the characters seldom deal with internal moral conflict and instead are confronted continuously with external circumstances that become increasingly unbelievable.
Guilt is the internal struggle that makes life believable. In Les Misérables, when Jean Valjean turns himself in to save another man convicted in his place, he takes a step towards sanctification. When Rodion Raskolnikov admits his crime in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, he begins his spiritual rehabilitation. The guilt of The Scarlet Letter’s Arthur Dimmesdale sanctifies him in the eyes of his congregation and finally, once he admits his guilt entirely, his own life becomes more vivid, real, and even sacred.
Guilt Makes Us Into Better Human Beings
There is 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. I am aware of each step. I feel each breath. And I am never more alive.
Guilt likewise comes into our souls, generates regrets, and 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.