At the very moment bishops from all over the world confer at a synod in Rome, and where the talk is heavy on sexual ethics, and the illumination is dimmed by inaccurateness, superciliousness and writers who use words like superciliousness….
Television gives us the fictional maidenhood of “Jane the Virgin,” and the internet gives us a writer named Ellen Burkhardt who has created a mild tsunami of buzz by staking a claim to her own real virginity and expressing the intention of keeping it until marriage. And Stephen Hawking can’t see intelligent design in this universe?
I wanted to like the new CW show “Jane the Virgin,” really I did. I thought, sure, there would be the prerequisite sexually charged scene, come on, we’re talking about a television program called “Jane the Virgin” in 2014. Still I thought to myself, I’m an adult and sophisticated enough to handle what the show might throw my way.
More prudish types would obviously take offense at just the title and not even give the show a chance. I would be different.
Well, I guess I’m more of a prude than I ever imagined as the first 15 minutes of the pilot episode were packed with enough sexual situations and suggestive moments to fill a sitcom’s smut quota for a week. I not only wanted to write something good about this show and find a kernel or two of moments where a defense of virginity might be heard on mainstream television, I also stuck with it since it wouldn’t be very ethical to have an opinion of an hour television show by watching only a quarter of it.
So I trudged on.
The way “Jane the Virgin” danced so lightly between good and bad taste might have given a lesser viewer vertigo or even worse, high anxiety. The plot twists were contrived to the breaking point and the show could only move forward based on an outrageous act of medical malpractice coupled to an even more spectacular and unbelievable violation of doctor/patient confidentiality.
When Jane is mistakenly artificially inseminated by a distraught OB/GYN who is distracted by her recent break up of her lesbian “marriage,” and who also happens to be the sister of the man who provided the sample for the medical procedure, alleged hilarity ensues.
And to further complicate things, the father of the baby Jane carries is not only the brother of the doctor who performed the medical procedure but is also the same man who owns the hotel in which Jane is employed — and is the same guy that, in a flashback, Jane has already met and shared a magic kiss.
With me so far?
The major difference between the fictional Jane and the real Ellen is their “why.” To Jane, her virginity belongs solely to her and it is her “choice” in a way that if her choice was to be the opposite of a virgin, it would hold equal value as long as it was her “choice.”
Jane’s primary focus on keeping her virginity is to secure her career path and to not become like her mother. And if you saw how her mother is portrayed, you wouldn’t blame her.
Internet writer Ellen’s take, the take of a real young woman living in the real world, is quite different. Offering up her virginity is part of the marriage bond. It becomes an organic component, not the essential element to marriage.
Ellen, a self-described traditionally raised Minnesota Lutheran girl, has a very Catholic outlook on the topic. Yet the overtly Catholic imagery exhibited by the fictional characters in “Jane the Virgin” is only used to distance the characters from any real sense of Catholic spirituality or, God forbid, ethics.
And of course, “Jane the Virgin” adds to my canon of popular culture “misconceptions” about the Immaculate Conception, as the narrator in the pilot episode describes Jane’s delicate condition exactly as an “Immaculate Conception.” When this big “reveal” is made in the pilot episode, Jane’s mother melts into a pastiche of faux piety, kneeling before her daughter as if she were a religious icon, and speaking in a kind of tongues improvising familiar words in familiar Catholic prayers in a pseudo-Catholic etymology — for “comic purposes,” and nothing more.
When contrasted with the real story of the real Ellen Burkhardt and her recollections of how her spiritual commitment to remain a virgin until marriage has affected the “Christian” men she has dated, it is heartbreaking. “Jane the Virgin” and a lot of other television reinforces the notion that virginity is not the norm but the exception and its purpose is to be either ridiculed or dismissed as just plain strange.
The unreal world of television has the power to color the real; just ask Ellen Burkhardt. Where do you think the men who, in her article, pressured her and hectored her about her pure choice got their ideas about sex and marriage?
Real people like Ellen Burkhardt and figments of our baser imaginations like “Jane the Virgin” signify a significant shift in the cultural tectonic plates.
The rift between popular culture and the world we are supposed to dwell in, based on God’s plan and Catholic teaching, makes where we live missionary territory.
Robert Brennan has been a professional writer for more than 30 years, including many years in the television industry. He has been a contributing writer for the National Catholic Register for many years and has also been published in Our Sunday Visitor and This Rock.