The showrunner of ‘Jane the Virgin’ on women’s sexuality, words you can’t say and Petra’s coming out
To those who aren’t familiar with the CW meta-telenovela Jane the Virgin, it may come as a surprise that a show with such a chaste title has some of the most progressive depictions of women’s sexuality currently on TV. But fans of the show, helmed by showrunner Jennie Urman and currently in its fourth season, are well aware that the series deftly and compassionately tackles a range of topics, including undocumented relatives, biphobia and evil twins — and its varied and nuanced depictions of the sexual lives of its leading women are given the same level of care.
An episode that aired on Feb. 9 featured no less than three independent storylines tackling female sexuality. In one, Jane (Gina Rodriguez) — still the show’s lead but no longer as virginal as she was in season one — is finally ready to have sex with her longtime love interest Rafael (Justin Baldoni) and by the end of the episode she’s able to tell him what she wants.
Alba (Ivonne Coll), Jane’s grandmother, confesses that she’s scared to have sex again after decades of abstinence following the death of her husband, so Jane encourages her to reconnect with her sexual side and helps her pick out a vibrator. And Petra (Yael Grobglas) has a steamy dream that reveals her romantic feelings for her lawyer, who also happens to be named Jane (Rosario Dawson).
Mic spoke to Urman on Friday about putting this episode together, telling stories about women’s sexuality more generally and whether Petra’s feelings for the other Jane will lead to more.
(Editor’s note: The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Mic: The most recent episode had three parallel stories about women’s sexuality — was that an intentional decision, to put all of those stories together?
Jennie Urman: The initial sort of arc-ing out of the season, you don’t know exactly where things will land, but I did know I wanted, in episode 10, for Jane and Rafael to finally have sex and I wanted Gina [Rodriguez] to direct it. So that was why that was placed there — I wanted her to be able to direct her own sex scene. I thought that would be an empowering thing and also we would have the right gaze on it.
And then from there, you’re never 100% sure that things will line up, but as we started getting closer we realized that those three things could happen in the same episode and that we could lean into it. It was definitely a choice and we definitely wanted to tie those three things together. We’ve been waiting for a chance to get Alba to a place where she would want to discuss her sexuality, but that took a long time because we didn’t want to rush it — we wanted to make it when the character would feel that. As we got closer to that episode it became clear that those three sexual awakenings could happen together.
About Alba’s storyline in particular, do you feel like you have any examples of shows that you think are representing older women’s sexuality well? Or do you feel like you’re alone in this?
JU: I don’t watch all the shows, so I’m sure that there’s good work being done and different iterations of sexually active women — certainly Blanche in Golden Girls was fully in touch with her sexuality. But it was something that we thought about in terms of ... what would it be like going back and seeing yourself as somebody sexual again after such a long period of abstinence. And we wanted to give that story and storyline and character the same considerations that we give to the younger characters. We also knew that Jane’s evolving relationship with sex moves Alba’s needle a little bit in terms of what she thinks is OK.
When it comes to Jane’s sexuality and her journey, at the beginning of the show her sexual inexperience defines her character, and now she’s had a whole arc leading up to this moment where she’s able to go to Rafael and say, “I want to have sex.” Is that a transition you’ve been planning for Jane?
JU: We knew that at a certain moment she was going to have sex, and then once she had sex her opinions about sex and relationships would change. And following the death of her husband certainly she had to reevaluate who she was now, as somebody who has waited. Who is she now as a woman in the world? It’s a slow evolution of the character.
I really believe that for long-running soaps to sustain, the characters have to keep growing and learning and changing. [Jane’s] evolution as a sexual character is something the show was always interested in and then as we started to figure out how she and Rafael would have sex, we wanted to bookend the season. She thought at the beginning of the season that she was going to get into the shower with him, and then at the end of the season she’s ready and he gets into the shower with her.
Let’s talk about Petra. I think viewers have been picking up on the sexual tension between Petra and the other Jane for a while now. Is Petra exploring a queer sexuality or a bisexual identity something you had wanted to do for this character?
JU: It wasn’t something in my head from the get-go, definitely not, but we were talking about where we wanted to see Petra this year and we wanted to have something unexpected happen to her. She’s a character that’s so, so much in control and is so used to wrapping men around her finger. We wanted to see what would happen if she were equally matched by somebody who was also strong and unafraid, and what would surprise Petra.
There have been gay and bi characters on the show before, but we’ve never seen a character go through a coming out on Jane the Virgin. Was that something you felt strongly about representing?
JU: Yes, we’ve had characters that are out and proud, and that’s awesome. We wanted to have as much of that as possible without commenting. But there’s definitely an interesting and emotional, evocative story of someone who’s thought that they have their sexuality figured out and then comes to realize that they had been thinking about their sexuality one way and then suddenly they’re having these feelings.
So can we take it from that that we’ll see more of Petra and the other Jane’s relationship outside of Petra’s dreams?
JU: Oh yeah, for sure.
There are a lot of fans who would rather see Petra and Jane together, was naming Rosario Dawson’s character “Jane” a shoutout to that crowd?
JU: Definitely, and there’s a few things that that name and nickname affords us that will click into place. But definitely there some sort of “Jetra” relationship happening.
Also in Petra’s storyline in the most recent episode, she casually mentions that she enjoys being submissive during sex. Was dropping in a mention of kink without making it a big deal something that you felt strongly about getting in there?
JU: It was more about opening up the character. [Petra] is such a strong character and you can be both strong and not want to be the strongest person all the time. It was something to continue to explore Petra and also embrace a range of sexual preferences.
Jane the Virgin is really clever about getting around the things you just can’t show on network TV, but are there things you’ve had to go to bat for? Any specific words or scenes that you’ve had to push to include?
JU: We’ve never had pushback on storylines or anything like that, [but] you’re always contending with what you can show and how much innuendo you can reveal. You can’t say “I’m gonna come,” you have to say “orgasm,” but you can show women getting raped and beaten up. And that does not sit well with me, so I keep trying to push against that. There’s standards and practices to follow, but for the most part we’ve been able to say and show what we want to.
I would just say, culturally, it’s just stunning how many words about female sexuality you can’t say versus how many different ways you can watch a body being cut up. Something seems to be tragically off there.