Jane the Virgin has never shied away from the realities of motherhood. In between its more soap-opera-esque elements, it’s dedicated a lot of time in its second season to the difficulties Jane faces, from balancing Mateo with graduate school, to endless sleepless nights. She was the hero rushing from the hospital to save her son immediately after giving birth with adult diapers in tow. She threw any thought of “proper mothers don’t want epidurals” under a bus. She loves being a mom, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t hard a lot of the time.
And now there’s Petra, the unexpected frontrunner for Most Sympathetic Character in the show. Petra’s had her own difficult journey, from morning sickness that’s definitely not just in the morning to doctor-mandated bed rest, and she and Jane are so different that it’s natural they’d have different stories relating to their newborns.
At first this seemed like it would be a no-nonsense, work-focussed, to-do list oriented attitude. But instead, we’re seeing something I’ve never seen on TV before — a story of post-natal depression. The plotline built slowly over the past couple of episodes, first with Petra feeling a lack of connection to the babies, then her dazedness and insomnia, before the heartbreaking scene where she admitted that she thinks the twins would be better off without her.
And despite the telenovella twists of the plot, the series takes a very sympathetic and pragmatic approach to Petra’s illness. Jane the Virgin has always focussed on female characters helping one another, even through their differences, and so we quickly see Jane expressing concern and stepping in, convincing Petra to go to a mother’s support group where she can admit her insecurities. Petra denies that anything is wrong at first, as she’s unwilling to be “weak,” but her depression isn’t treated as any kind of failing by anyone else, and even Petra soon accepts that seeking help is the right thing to do.
It’s a completely different story from Jane’s, which is good from a narrative perspective, but also from a representation perspective. Different women have different experiences, and so many shows stop exploring that after the Very Special Birth Episode. And Petra is shown as practical, capable and determined, a character who keeps fighting despite all the terrible things that have happened to her. If she suffers from post-natal depression, despite surviving so many horrors before, then it suggests anyone can suffer from it. About 15% of US mothers suffer from post-partum depression, but very very few fictional mothers ever do, and as something of a taboo topic, it really needs tackling.
Of course, the plot needs to take a dramatic turn, because this is Jane the Virgin. Petra doesn’t just think about running away — she actually does flee. But even this develops from her character background, and is portrayed in a highly sympathetic way. Her relationship with her mother involves a history of people being murdered with hook-hands, but it’s also a history of control, manipulation and emotional abuse. So when her mother dismisses the idea of post-natal depression and instead tells Petra that she can never be a good mother, that she should give up the twins for their own good, Petra believes her. She abandons her newborns, which could, in many shows, be portrayed as a “villain moment.” But it’s not villainous, it’s sympathetic, because we know where she’s coming from, emotionally, and her sickness is portrayed as something awful that’s happening to her, and not a character flaw of her own.
Jane the Virgin has always worked because, while the plotlines are over-the-top, the emotion and character reactions always feel deeply genuine. Among the kidnappings and crime lords and family-bonding hostage situations, we see characters like Petra struggling with very real issues. And because of the show’s tradition of tear-jerking emotional gravity, it’s far more effective representation than many more “serious” shows ever achieve.