We have a tendency to think of diversity in film and television only in terms of race, gender, religion, and sexuality. And those are important places to have diverse representations of people from all walks of life. And the early success of ABC's Black-ish and How to Get Away with Murder (to say nothing of the solid ratings for its new Cristela in a tough, Friday night timeslot), it's clear that audiences are hungering for stories about characters other than middle-aged straight, white dudes of unspecified Judeo-Christian backgrounds.
But there's so much more to diversity than just those categories! There's diversity of class, for instance, something TV and movies have actually gotten worse at over time. (Could a show as biting about the struggles of the lower middle class as Roseanne even make it on the air today? Seems unlikely.) There's diversity of geographical location — how many more shows do we need set in New York, after all?
And then there's diversity of political background. Hollywood doesn't like to make its projects overtly political, but when characters express a political point-of-view at all, it tends to default to a kind of mushy progressivism. But maybe just don't ask about it.
What's interesting about the first episode of The CW's wonderful new dramedy Jane the Virgin, which debuted last night, is how thoroughly it smashes the standard models for TV, but without calling attention to itself. The central character, played by the remarkable Gina Rodriguez, is Latina. Much of the show's dialogue is in Spanish. The family is by no means well-off. And, ultimately, the main character's religious beliefs — and how they inform her personal politics — are deeply important to the show's conception of her.
Put simply, this is a show about a virgin by choice (driven by only slightly masked religious beliefs) who is accidentally artificially inseminated, then chooses to keep the baby, because having an abortion is just the sort of thing she would never consider. The show doesn't really make a big deal about this, but it all happens, all the same. Jane the Virgin is a show about people who are pro-life — written and produced by the much-demonized "Hollywood liberals," no less — that doesn't turn preachy or attempt to make much of Jane's choice. It simply is.
Now, to be sure, much of the reason for this is because there is no show here if Jane doesn't carry her pregnancy to term. A story about a pregnant virgin who quietly has an abortion would make for a better movie than TV show, because the latter needs to keep spinning out stories for episodes and hopefully seasons to come. But in not making a huge deal out of Jane's decision — or trying to make a larger political point about it — Jennie Snyder Urman's script is nonetheless quietly revolutionary.
It's all too easy to demonize those we don't understand in the modern political climate. But art can be one of our chief ways to empathize with others who are very different from us and walk around in their shoes for a while. One of the best reasons for diversity in art of all kinds is the way that it essentially forces us to understand other people and viewpoints that we might never encounter in our day-to-day lives.
Jane's choice might not be my choice or your choice, but Rodriguez and Urman get you to understand why it's the only choice she could possibly make. And in that, the show's true strength is evident.
Jane the Virgin airs Mondays at 9 p.m. Eastern on The CW.