Why I Keep Coming Back to Jane the Virgin: The Haunting Catholic Guilt
When I first watched Jane the Virgin, I wasn’t sure what to make of it.
A pious writer who was accidentally artificially inseminated, and had to navigate the ups and downs that came along with it.
Well, the ups and downs that also included the whole international crime lord arc.
If you asked me back then, I definitely wouldn’t have thought that years later, in 2019, I would have been waiting on the couch for hours. Fidgeting, trying to keep myself busy because I was so excited to see the final season, the conclusion to this story that had captivated me in the weirdest way.
There is however, one specific theme throughout the series that I really, really relate to. Why I keep coming back to it, why I keep having discussions with myself surrounding it, and why I sometimes use this theme to reflect on how I’d grown up.
It was not the race or culture — I did not come from a Latin American background, nor do I have an American background in any way, shape, or form. I am Southeast Asian, raised from birth in a Southeast Asian country (though I moved elsewhere later in my life — something to save for another discussion).
It was not the language or relationships — I’m quite distant from my family for several reasons, and as a result they are not the first people I come to when the downs of life decide that, “Ah yes, today is a good day to mess with this person”.
And it was definitely not the romance — Though I do acknowledge the hopeless romantic that had lodged itself in my heart since either the movie Stardust (2007), or the multitude of Disney movies that had portrayed romance in such a way, so much so that I remember telling my parents that I don’t ever want to date anyone who doesn’t like Disney movies.
What caught my attention was the portrayal of religion in the show. Particularly, the religious guilt. The Catholic guilt.
How important it is to Alba Gloriana Villanueva, who practically lets it guide every single thing she does and how she reacts.
How almost trivial it is to Xiomara Gloriana Villanueva, who sees it as something quite archaic and not something she lets guide her actions.
Most especially, the struggles of Jane Gloriana Villanueva who was stuck in the middle. How she recognises that she is still Catholic even if she isn’t as pious as Alba, and the Catholic guilt that’s haunted her constantly throughout the show (especially the flower. That flower!). There’s almost always something that can tie a seemingly mundane event to the flower that Alba had told her to crush all those years ago.
I keep coming back to Jane the Virgin because of this portrayal of the Catholic guilt.
Now this is in no way an intention to bash on Catholicism in any way. Not at all.
But I relate to Jane. I really, really do. And the seemingly mundane, or even annoying parts such as the one where she couldn’t even be intimate with another although she was a ‘pregnant virgin’, and how the guilt seems to be able to trump any and all justifications she would tell herself whenever the opportunity arises for her to sleep with someone.
I get that.
Not the being a pregnant virgin part, but I get how the guilt affects you growing up.
Because the smallest things really do affect you.
My parents weren’t really devout Catholics while I was growing up. They introduced me to the basic stuff, at least. Sent me off to Catholic school for 12 whole years, made (forced?) me to come with them to church every Sunday and other special occasions, made me go through the rite of confirmation, et cetera. Pretty much the bare minimum, I suppose. They were my Xiomara.
But the Alba in my life were my maternal grandparents. Devout Catholics who lived three hours away from the big city, and we would always visit them twice a month. I’d always try to spend as much time as possible with them, and I remember crying every time I had to go back to the cacophonous concrete jungle come Sunday afternoon.
My grandmother would always read the bible before bed, and she recounted to me about the values that I should take into my daily life. Be modest, be attentive, listen and respect.
My grandfather was a bit different, in a way where he always discussed it using philosophy — one deeply enrooted in religion. He introduced me to the philosophies of others such as those of Buddhism or Shintoism and sometimes, more specifically, he’d bring up Confucianism. But he would always come back to Catholicism.
Then they would always take me to the church nearby their place every Sunday. A short ten-minute ride, then a turn to the left into a small alleyway with battered asphalt roads and houses with exposed bricks and fading paint that had given in to the whims of the rain and the heat.
Within seconds, the church comes into sight. It’s a simple church, really, but unfortunately I don’t remember much else besides the wrought iron fence that surrounds the beige building that stood tall and glorious. For 7-year-old me, it was a symbol of greatness, of notability — more or less, it was of what I’ve always understood religion to be.
But as I got older, I started to grow sceptical of it all. In the grand scheme of things, what is it really? Who is it for? The questions started early, and the consequences of questioning them turned me jaded. I no longer found comfort in reciting the Hail Mary, and Our Father in Heaven lost its meaning for me when I really started questioning it all.
First, I stopped attending the after school lessons that were mandatory if you were Catholic. They were meant to cultivate my faith in the religion, and yet it seemed as if I learned nothing and instead cultivated my inquiries into the legitimacy of it all.
Then, I got sent to the principal’s office at some point for questioning God’s intents and motivations. Why save us? What is it for in the long run? How is it that the son of God was willing to do so much, and what was it that truly motivated what I thought was excessive altruism as portrayed in the bible?
Not sure if the two-day suspension was worth it, actually.
What really sealed the deal for my lifelong scepticism was the fact that I got kicked out of Sunday school for questioning the motives of the Catholic Church.
As I’m writing this, I remember Alba and Jane’s discussion on God’s resurrection.
“You can poke holes in anything. But I believe He died and then rose again.”
I remember this scene because the way Alba had said it was with the exact same tone my grandmother would tell me when it comes to questioning faith.
“But what if he…”
And almost as quickly as I was kicked out of Sunday school, Alba stopped her in her tracks.
“No buts, no ifs. That’s what faith is… the banishment of doubt. Don’t let your head get in the way of your heart.”
Though I can tell you that not going to church or not going to confessionals no longer bother me, and that I no longer care for my grandparents’ and parents’ obvious invitations for me to once again participate in anything involving the church, I cannot tell you that I’m freed from it in all aspects. It’s a complex relationship, and some actions still invoke the guilt in me for not having stuck to the norm, for not having let the small gaps and details slide, for not having enough faith to simply listen and stick to it.
It’s easy for me to pinpoint two significant events in my life when I realised how much the Catholic guilt runs deep in my heart and soul. The first time I’d slept with someone, and the first time I entered a same-sex relationship.
When I was first intimate with someone, I remembered thinking, “This isn’t as bad as they make it out to be. Nothing wrong with it.”
When I entered that same-sex relationship, at that point I had already known how to tell the internalised homophobia to leave me alone.
Honestly, I didn’t think of my grandparents as much as Jane thought of her abuela, so that could be why I wasn’t haunted throughout.
Then whenever I came back during the summer holidays and realised that I had to see my grandparents again, I’d feel an invisible hand pull at my heart down to my stomach, tugging at my heartstrings like gravity to a paper plane.
And this wasn’t just once. It’s happened to me multiple times.
“What if they know?”
“They definitely know.”
“I shouldn’t have done that.”
“I didn’t think this through.”
It was nowhere as comical as Jane’s experiences were. No, no statues came alive in the process. I wish it did. Probably would have made the whole thing easier.
Instead, it was being too afraid to look at my grandparents in the eyes for a certain amount of time. It was hesitating and shaking my head and terrible attempts to digress when they teasingly asked, “Is there anyone cute at University?” and “Did you meet anyone?”
For the longest time, it was my own personal hell. It was excruciating to even think about whether or not they knew, or even if they had an inkling of what I had done.
Unfortunately, at this moment, I can’t tell you that it’s completely gone away.
It’s easy to perceive Jane’s struggles between what she wants and how she was raised as nothing, or even trivial, or even as “some sort of Hollywood ploy in order to further oppress women’s sexualities and an excellent highlight into religion and its oppressions”, as written by this one very angry review I saw online.
But the Catholic guilt is alive and real, and this is why I keep coming back to Jane the Virgin. This is why whenever the topic comes up in the show, I can feel my heart being crumpled up.
“Crumple the flower, Jane.”
And then I try to make it new again, I try to tell myself it’s okay.
“Now try to make it look new again.”
And sometimes it really is okay. Sometimes I can stifle the internalised homophobia, the internalised misogyny, the inherent seeking of external control over my actions and validation when it is right or invalidation when it is wrong.
“You can never go back, and that’s what happens when you lose your virginity.”
But it really is one of those things that’s difficult to completely extinguish.
“You can never go back.”
“You can poke holes in anything.” is one of the few sentences from Jane the Virgin that I think about whenever the topic of religion resurfaces into my mind, whatever the reason behind it.
It’s true, and it’s easy to. And I did.
Do I blame my upbringing for the Catholic guilt that still manifests itself in the form of various shapes of dark blobs that holds on tight around my chest whenever I kiss my partner, whenever I blatantly say I’m no longer a Catholic to someone, or whenever I tell my grandparents I went to church when I didn’t?
Slightly. Only because I’m starting to accept the fact that it is something I’m going to have to work through as I keep on keeping on.
And Jane the Virgin is one of the ways I can tell myself that I’m not alone in this. That I’m not the only one going through this. And that it isn’t an isolated experience.
It’s why I keep coming back to the show, and will always speak highly of how they portrayed the Catholic guilt.