Please note I have watched precisely two episodes of this show. Don't spoil it for me. :)
Once upon a time, the height of womanhood was the housewife. A soft figure, she was entirely responsible for running the household, managing her children’s upbringing, and satisfying her husband’s every desire. In return, he would earn his wages in his office with the boys and together, in the nuclear family, everyone knew their place. Some men chafed under the stress of being the sole provider, removed from their children and judged by their income. Other women self-medicated to dull the impulses of an ambition they were denied.
Gender is reaffirmed through performance, actions signalling externally and internally one’s adherence to ever-changing societal norms. The theatre is the world, the audience, ourselves, and the script, fuzzy and familiar. Feminist theory has rightfully deconstructed gender, and yet it persists not because of enduring roles or arbitrary classifications based on various genital parts but because we can recognize it. We can’t say exactly, “This is what a woman is,” but we can say, “I am a woman.” Queer, wrote Judith Butler, emerged as “an interpellation that raises the question of the status of force and opposition, of stability and variability within performativity”. Every time she acts in a way she believes a woman is to be, she is reaffirming her womanhood for herself and for the world. The behaviours of a woman are not random. Empowerment is redefining women past what we’ve seen before, and in every iteration, it is somewhat new, but never less fully feminine than it was before. Queerness, in particular, has defied the heteronormative and brought into the mainstream new opportunities and performances. She, they, he, ze, we are developing vocabulary for identities as rich and varied as the people that claim them.
One vision of progress and modernity is the modern, western woman. She is sexualized and sexual, an object and a player, depending on her mood. She is a mother and a boss, a bitch and a queen, and no longer do these identities conflict. Perhaps you’ll recognize her best with a glass of wine, a blowout, and a trace of daring red on the heels she wears so well with her little black dress. This trope of womanhood is powerful due to its subversion of the housewife. She is openly ambitious because the housewife couldn’t be, sexual because she likes it as much as he does (and maybe more), and in control of her destiny. She chooses the person she fucks and the flowers she treats herself with money, her money.
It’s a marvelous vision of modernity that Jane the Virgin smartly subverts. This modern woman’s inherent independence is fortified through sisterhood, the connection between the multi-generational female support system that is her family, influencing her every decision and encouraging her to new heights. She makes the decisions, after careful analysis and advice from the people she loves best. If woman are independent and don’t need no man, that doesn’t mean they don’t need women, and her household is not so much devoid of a male influence, as she kindly tells her well-intentioned but obviously ignorant boyfriend, but perfectly complete. She is sexually liberated by her refusal to have sex, a choice both traditionally conservative, and just as empowering as her mother’s fling of the week. She shares her faith with her grandmother, and her faith does not constrict who she is; it enhances her.
Still, she fails as the modern woman in the most real way women fail at being tropes: she is not in complete control. She tries valiantly; she has plans, and goals, she is educating herself and cultivating her dreams. When a doctor accidentally inseminates her (it happens), she is faced with a preposterous situation: she is pregnant, despite never having had sex. She can abort or she can move forward, she can keep the child or she can give it away; she is confronted by decisions she did not want to face. Jane’s decision not to abort is a triumph of the pro-choice movement and she keeps the baby.
Despite the modern woman’s best efforts, she is never invulnerable to unplanned events completely uprooting her life. She gets through them with her community—the girl gang, her best friends, her sisterhood, her family. The modern woman is independent. That doesn’t mean she’s alone.