What Gina Rodriguez & 'Jane the Virgin' Can Teach Modern Television About Diversity
I knew, by the time I finished watching the pilot episode this fall, that the Gina Rodriguez-starring Jane The Virgin was going to top my list of shows worth watching this year. What I didn't know then, however, was just how thoroughly the show and the people making it would win me over — from the many charms of Jane Villanueva to the many wise words of the actress who plays her, Rodriguez and showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman. They've got a lot to say, and they never shy away from saying it. I wouldn't have it any other way.
Between the blockbuster ratings success of Empire, the continued love for Orange Is the New Black, and the astoundingly solid first season run of Jane The Virgin, this has been one of those years that's proven (yet again) that it pays off to expand the stories seen on television to include a more diverse variety of people. It's the kind of year in television that says: "Hey, yeah, when you broaden your umbrella and portray more types of people as human on television, people flock to it." It's the type of year that has me hoping that Hollywood executives are paying very close attention. In fact, studio execs, if you're reading this: Take notes. You should be listening when Jennie Snyder Urman and Gina Rodriguez open their mouths, because they're the kind of people breathing life into a medium that needs a lot more stories that follow their guidelines.
Here's a bit of what everyone making stories should be learning:
Write For Human Beings
As Rodriguez said at Paleyfest on Sunday:
You need to write for human beings — that goes for any underrepresented ethnicity. We’re human, we all want the same things, we all want love and success, we’re afraid of failure, we want people to like us… You write for a human being, that’s cracking the code, for any ethnicity…
It pairs well with a comment Shonda Rhimes also made recently, about how one of the main goals for diversity should be the normalization of a wider variety of stories. As Rodriguez remarked:
As an actress and as a woman of color I’ve been talking about this subject so much because it seems like such an algorithm, people are like, ‘how do we do it, how do we get into the Latino mind?!’ Like it’s different. I’m like, ‘Is it different?' Because I don’t feel like my mind is different.
Write To More Than Race
This goes hand-in-hand with what was said above: A character's ethnicity cannot be all that they are. It can be an aspect, and it can be an important one, but there are so many other aspects that affect a person: Their gender, their sexuality, their relationship with their parents, their goals, their education, their socioeconomic standing, their religion — those last two are particularly prevalent in Jane The Virgin and discussed onscreen far more often than the fact that the characters' ethnicities. We need more people of color in major roles onscreen, and having shows that do address race is important, but it's also important to remember that we need those characters to feel like fleshed-out humans. As Rodriguez told Maureen Ryan in an interview with The Huffington Post:
[Showrunner Jenny Snyder's] clarity on Jane wasn’t skewed by the misconceptions we have from society on Latino culture, Latinos in America. To finally read a script where I was just a girl, and everything that was the byproduct of being Latino was just part of it. It wasn’t something you had to explain. It wasn’t something you had to dive into. It wasn’t something you had to blow up so that everybody knew that she was brown.
Which leads us to...
Get Specific To Avoid Stereotypes
This tip actually comes from showrunner Snyder Urman, but still very much falls under the Jane The Virgin umbrella:
I set out to create very specific characters… the more specific you get with characters, the less they become stereotypical.
This is something that's definitely been said before: Specificity breeds universality. Every character needs their own specific ticks, otherwise what is there to make them their own and not just a part of the herd of one-dimensional supporting characters out there?
If You Cast Someone With Range They'll Take Your Show To The Next Level
This is something Rodriguez touched on, but let's expand on it: It's less than a full season in but it's already hard to imaging Jane The Virgin starring anyone but Rodriguez. She brought the show to life around her, and it's her ability to seamlessly move between the different modes of the show — drama, comedy, telenovela satire, straight-up telenovela — that allows Jane to feel like a real person even when the world around her is ridiculous.
If rampant whitewashing is any indication, Hollywood sometimes seems to think white actors are the people most likely to sell the most movie tickets or rake in the most viewers. Shows like Empire prove that's patently un-true — if you build a compelling story and cast people who can bring it to life, just as many people (if not more) will flock to it. There is a huge untapped well of talent out there when it comes to people of color — actors, writers, directors, you name it. Rodriguez is one example of what happens when you let them show you what they've got.
Images: The CW