Thursday, June 20, 2024

The Villanueva Women and Sex Shame

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This article contains spoilers through all four seasons of Jane the Virgin.

Sex shaming is sadly still rampant in our society, especially towards women. The most common and talked about brand of  it is slut-shaming, but make no mistake, sex shaming does not end there.

See, it all depends on where you are. Women’s sex lives are the object of public scrutiny for all kinds of reasons in different contexts. Women are shamed for having sex and not having sex, for desiring it and not desiring it. An unmarried woman with an active sex life should be ashamed, but so should the single 20-or-more year-old who has not had a sexual encounter. Women are shamed for masturbating and not masturbating, for being too prudish or too sexy. There’s just no winning.

Even some feminist groups, who claim the banner of “no one should be ashamed of sex” can sometimes inadvertently shame girls who don’t have or want to have sex. Some women are simply not ready yet, as “old” as they may be, and they may even be demi or asexual. There’s implicit pressure that women and especially younger women feel to have or not have sex, and sometimes even both at the same time in the different aspects of their lives. When the truth is sexual liberation for women should be about living your best sex life, or lack thereof, with no fear of judgement.

There’s progression, but we’re not there yet. And the progression is slower in some places than others.

Let’s talk about Latin American culture

There is a very particular way that Latin America, and the Latinx community in the U.S., experience sex shaming.

While in the U.S. it would seem that extremely religious communities are separate from “normal” U.S. society, and found in certain regions of the country (and please correct me if I’m wrong). Religiousness is (still) widespread in Latin American culture, which follows immigrant families into other countries, the majoritarian religion being Catholicism.

Most young people I know are Catholic-but-not-really. Catholic by inheritance, if you will. They go to church about three times a year and during important life events like weddings or quinceañeras, but are pretty secular the rest of the time. Yet while many people don’t observe the obligations of a devout Catholic, the church’s morality still permeates a lot of our societal unspoken rules. This means shaming of sex and also repression of sex and sexuality. When I was a kid, schools still taught only abstinence as the correct contraceptive method, while others were brushed over, with a heavy implication of them being incorrect. It has only slightly changed since then.

These ideas become so ingrained in your brain that you develop shame and self-repression that can lead to self-hate if you break the rules. I had never, ever seen this so honestly represented in media. Until Jane the Virgin (JTV).

Self-repression, shaming, self-hate, internalized shame… JTV tackles it all through the three Villanueva women, exploring conservative Catholic morality in the context of U.S. society, which differs and clashes with it. The show addresses these issues in a way that is honest but also understanding. The narrative doesn’t judge any of the three characters, but does call them out when it has to.

Xiomara, slut-shaming, and self-hate

Xiomara, generational sandwich between Alba and Jane, embodies the most typical definition of sexual liberation. She’s flirty, sexually active, and not afraid to say it out-loud. She is shamed for this by her mother, Alba, and in a more subverted way, her daughter Jane. Jane doesn’t say it out loud like Alba, but she is quietly ashamed of Xo’s behavior, something of which Xo is aware.

Xo likes attention from the opposite sex. She’s sexy, she knows it, and she likes it. And, she also kind of hates herself for it. She has guilt about many things: keeping Jane’s father from her, “failing” at her pursuit of a musical career, burdening her mother, not being a good role model to Jane. She does not handle guilt well, and her way of coping is self-sabotage. But she has a very acute and noticeable sense of guilt about her libido, and the way she punishes herself for it is in the relationships she pursues.

At the start of the show, Xo’s been sleeping with a married man, the first and shining example of her bad choices, which are very much conscious on her part. We find out other tidbits of her love and sex life throughout the show. She’s had one serious relationship that ended in tears, and the rest have been casual dates and hook-ups. She argues to Jane that she wanted to spare her the heartbreak of her one serious break-up, but the truth is she wanted to spare herself the heartbreak, too.

Xo claims to be open and liberated, and in some senses, she really is. She unabashedly enjoys sex and withstands her mother’s judgement with an eyeroll most of the time. But despite her best efforts, her mother’s upbringing and her constant criticism of her sex life do get to her.

Young Xo in all her glory.

In season one, when Alba is in hospital after falling being pushed down a staircase, Xo prays out loud. She makes a promise to God that if Alba awakens, she will be celibate until she marries. It is painfully telling that this is the penance she chooses. Some part of Xo, not in her mind, but in her heart, believes that her sex life is wrong, that it’s a sin. She has internalized that sense of shame; she’s not even aware of it, but it’s there, eating away at her. Which leads me to believe most of her self-punishment comes from this brand of shame.

Her relationship with Rogelio is the shining example of this. After Xo reignites her romance with Jane’s father, she comes to believe she does not deserve this potentially healthy relationship. So, she pushes him away on the pretense of not interfering in the new father-daughter bond. It’s Jane who ultimately pushes her towards Ro. At the first sign of trouble, Xo assumes he will not side with her, so she kisses an ex. She soon confesses to it, and it puts a dent in her and Ro’s relationship. Later, when they break up for perfectly adult reasons, Xo sleeps with his arch nemesis to hurt him, and hurts herself in the process, too.

Her behavior points to the fact that she doesn’t believe she deserves a stable, adult relationship, let alone marriage. She had teenage sex and got pregnant, and there’s no coming back from that, not in her mother’s or God’s eyes, and for a long time, in Xo’s heart.

Xo comes to a boiling point and confronts her mother about slut-shaming when she finds out that Alba had premarital sex herself, a monumental moment for Xo. It was only then that she could begin to shake her internalized shame, both because it pulled Alba off the pedestal she had her on, and because she was able to understand Alba better. But more on that later. First, we need to talk about Jane.

Jane, self-repression, and shame

Jane the Virgin opens with the iconic scene where Jane’s grandmother Alba gives her the sex talk. The “don’t have sex” talk, that is. Alba gives her a flower, tells Jane to crush it in her hand and then to fix it. Jane can’t, of course, and Alba proceeds to explain that this is what happens to a woman after she loses her virginity (I hate this word, by the way).

Unlike little rebellious Xo, Jane turned out to be a goodie-two-shoes. She lives by Alba’s ‘teaching,’ and even has the flower, now dry, framed and hung in her room. No sex before marriage is something that very much defines Jane, the way she lives her life, and the relationships she chooses to pursue. She is a devout Catholic and a family girl, an upstanding citizen. But she is also a citizen of the United States, where being a 23-year old virgin is considered weird.

Jane is used to men fleeing from her, because for the average 21st century man, no-sex can be a deal breaker. Michael, who accepts the no-sex rule without issue, is actually a unicorn, by any standards.

Her grandmother’s black and white ideals and her mother’s lifestyle clash in Jane’s life as well as in her mind and heart, creating contradictions and mental and physical blocks she has to overcome in order to take control of her sexuality. Various times throughout the story, Jane decides to have sex. She thinks about it, talks about it, rationalizes it, and even sets a date. But she just can’t bring herself to do it.

After Jane is accidentally inseminated, she realizes waiting for sex doesn’t make much sense anymore and decides to do the dirty with her unicorn fiancé. In the moment, she just can’t do it. Later she decides to just have sex with Rafael, since she’s having his baby already. It’s Rafael who stops it, and later Jane expresses shame about her desire. After Mateo’s born, she resolves that she should have sex with her teacher-turned-squeeze, but again, can’t go through with it, and actually bursts out crying. After Michael’s death, she decides she won’t wait for her next future husband, but she still has trouble coping with it. The flower comes back to haunt her, literally.

Jane knows, from the get-go, that there’s nothing to be ashamed of about sex. She knows it in her head. She’s a bit ashamed of her mother’s immature behavior, but never ever shames her for sex specifically. She doesn’t judge her friends, or Michael or Rafael for having had sex before dating her. The problem is that just doesn’t compute with her honest belief that God would not approve of her having sex. It’s like a short circuit of internalized shame that runs deep into her core. Even after she’s married, Jane has trouble adjusting to her sex life with Michael. There’s been so much anticipation that by the time they actually have intercourse, they kind of fail at it.

Jane may not realize that what she’s experiencing is actually self-repression and internalized shame caused by trauma, but that’s unequivocally what it is. It goes back to that flower from the beginning. That is the metaphor I learned about sex, too. Jane can’t help but think that sex will change her forever, that she will lose something once she’s had it, something precious and ‘pure’ that she can never get back. That is why I hate the stupid “V” word.

And if that isn’t the realest, most relatable depiction of a Millennial raised by Catholics, I’m the queen of France.

Whose fault is it? The church’s? Xo’s? Alba’s? The easiest target of blame is of course the devout Catholic, stern abuelita. Just like Baby Boomers love to blame Millenials for the world’s problems, it is also rather easy to pin the whole blame of our generational traumas on the people who raised us.

But it’s not as simple as that, and JTV knows it.

Alba, slut-shaming, repression, self-repression, and shame

Alba Villanueva, queen of my heart.

She is a very accurate, typical abuelita. She is devoutly Catholic, old fashioned, stern, and soft at the same time. There is no one who is stricter with Jane, but she is also the first one to spoil her rotten. I have known many Albas in my lifetime—and though she is not exactly like either of my abuelas, she does share many characteristics they have.

There’s no one like grandma to cook your favorite food, but there’s also no one like grandma to hold you up to outdated morality. Alba clings to many of the standards she grew up with… in 1960s Venezuela.

It is Alba’s flower metaphor that comes back to haunt Jane. But Alba has her demons, too; that flower didn’t just come from anywhere. We learn Alba’s history bit by bit throughout the four seasons, and by now we’re able to form a somewhat clear picture of what made her the way she is. Turns out she wasn’t a saintly rule-follower like Jane. Alba had premarital sex with her small town’s playboy and was publicly shamed for it at her own wedding, after her sister spread the information. Her husband Mateo’s family didn’t approve of their marriage because Alba was no longer a virgin, and Alba and Mateo ended up running away from it all, and from Venezuela.

This judgement, the slut-shaming she was a target of, ended up tearing her away from her family, both physically and emotionally, as we learn later she became estranged from them.

And Alba does not just blame Mateo’s family, or her sister or the small town, not completely. She blames herself, too. She believes she committed a grave sin and all ill that came to her and her family is hers to bear. Furthermore, she reveals she does not wish to have sexual relations outside of marriage, still. She is scandalized and even a little scared when Jane tries to help her feel more comfortable with her sexuality. When a man she loves proposes to her, she is unable to accept because she feels it would be a betrayal of Mateo. And while part of that is an inability to let go, I am convinced it also has to do with the shame she feels. Because she should not be allowed to be happy again, or so it would seem.

In the end, Alba doesn’t want to shame Xo or traumatize Jane. She genuinely believes she is helping them, that what she preaches is correct. She wants to protect them from the shame and the scrutiny she once endured. This does not excuse it, of course, but it certainly creates empathy.

It also makes a point I’m desperate to make in today’s climate. That being biased, sometimes even bigoted, does not make someone a bad person. And until we stop polarizing people, seeing things like sexism and racism in absolute black and white, we’ll not be able to change anything. Not the people who are racist, and even less the society they and we are a part of.

Alba’s not blind; she can see that Miami is not the same as 1960s Venezuela, but trauma is hard to shake, and the ideals and morality she learned to follow the hard way are burned into her heart. Understanding it is the first in to Alba’s mind and heart for Jane, Xo, and the audience.

What I love the most about the portrayal of Alba is that the show refuses to go the typical way regarding her acceptance of new morality. In many movies and shows, there’s two soups. The elder either completely accepts and supports the younger generation or they remain stubbornly clung their ideals, refusing to see reason and condemned to never change. Alba does neither. Slowly, she has learned to adapt to this new world, and while she will never fully accept or agree with Jane and Xo’s lifestyle, she does find a way to live with it and makes a conscious effort to stop judging.

Acceptance and Growth

I don’t think JTV is a perfect show, and I have my problems with it, but the writing of Alba, in my opinion, is nearly impeccable. The creator and writers clearly care deeply about her, don’t judge her, and also understand her flaws. They represent the perspective of a true Latinx abuelita without sugar-coating her; they’re honest about her sternness and close-mindedness but keep her softness and loving nature.

It is interesting that the writing for Alba, more so than the younger characters, showcases the change we need to see when it comes to stopping sex shaming.

She coexists with Xo and Rogelio, with Jane and Rafael, even Petra and their way of living their romantic and sexual lives. She does not have to understand them, nor agree in order to tolerate. It will never stop bothering her on some level, because upbringing leaves a mark forever, and she truly believes—can’t help but believe—that her daughter and granddaughter are doing something that will condemn them in the eyes of her God, and it would be her obligation to lead them in the right path. But she fights this.

She has to take a serious look at her past, come face to face with her hypocrisy, which is not an easy thing to do. She realizes what she risks losing—a good relationship with her daughter—and puts her priorities in order. What is more important, her ideals or her daughter’s happiness? What’s more, is she willing to risk losing her relationship with her daughter? By asking herself these questions, she’s able to swallow her pride and apologize to Xo, which is something even many 20-somethings are unable to do.

The process is not instantaneous. It’s hard and meandering; there are setbacks and roadblocks, but Alba is learning to respect, to stop criticizing, to stop asking questions that don’t concern her. She’s learning to accept she did her best to teach Xo and Jane, and that now she must see to herself and accept that what was best for her might not be right for her family. That’s inspirational writing.

Images courtesy of The CW

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