Roy Herndon Smith
The popular television show, Jane the Virgin (available on Netflix), portrays human reality as forming around a loving community (for a discussion of my understanding of “loving communities,” see wheredustis.com/2019/06/21/loving-communities-introduction-theory-and-method/).
At the beginning of the show, the main character, Jane, is an aspiring young writer who lives with her single mother and her grandmother, a Venezuelan immigrant and widow. Jane is committed to remaining a virgin until she is married. In the first episode, her gynecologist accidentally artificially inseminates her, and she gets pregnant. With the support of her mother and grandmother, she decides to have the baby. The remaining five years of episodes are about how a loving community forms around Jane, her son, her mother, and her grandmother. By the end of the show, this loving community includes at least two other families, five mothers, four young children, and a number of other adults, all of whom mutually depend on and care for each other.
The show illustrates sometimes overlooked implications of sociobiologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s research, presented in her book, Mothers and Others (Harvard University Press, 2011). Many reviewers of Hrdy’s book focus on her well-supported claim that humanity begins in hunter-gatherer communities organized around mothers and others who care for children. Such cooperative care requires individuals to be acutely emotionally attuned to each other. This attunement to each other is, as Hrdy observes, “not simply learned: It is part of us”; we are “’wired to cooperate’” (pp. 4-6). This observation, along with those of other researchers, such as the primatologist Frans de Waal, the psychologist Daniel Stern, the anthropologist R. Brian Ferguson, and the expert on the prevention of violence William L. Ury, marks a paradigm shift in the human sciences.
From the time the human sciences emerged in the mid-nineteenth century to the present, the dominant paradigm governing research has been of human beings as “instinctively aggressive” (Frans de Waal, “Primate Behavior and Human Aggression,” in William L. Ury, ed., Must We Fight? From the Battlefield to the Schoolyard—A New Perspective on Violent Conflict and Its Prevention, Jossey-Bass, 2002, p. 14). This paradigm underlies widely held assumptions that empathy, communication, compassion, and cooperation are learned skills; and that community is a fragile achievement—a non-natural artifact that skilled people construct and must carefully maintain, lest primal aggression destroy it.
Hrdy, de Waal, and Stern observe that, in fact, human beings are born cooperative, empathic, and communicating. The communities that nurture these emotionally attuned beings are not achievements, but are as inherent in humanity as big brains and languages. In the paradigm that these observations imply, aggression is not an assumed primal reality, but a contingent phenomenon to be studied. The question for scientific researchers shifts from, How do innately aggressive human beings learn to cooperate? to, What are the conditions that lead innately cooperative human beings to be violent?
Jane the Virgin portrays the reality that gives rise to this paradigm of cooperation and implicitly provides answers to the question about the conditions that give rise to violence. The community that forms around Jane, her son, her mother, and her grandmother arises out of the patterns of emotional attunement to each other Jane, her mother, and her grandmother have developed through living their lives together and caring for each other. These patterns of mutual support and care create a welcoming social space that nurtures Jane’s newborn son and draws others, many of whom are suffering because of broken family relationships, into it. The community forms, as Hrdy says hunter-gather communities, in which all human beings lived for all except the last thirteen thousand of the three hundred thousand years of human history, do, around mothers and others who care for children.
Threats to Jane’s community come from two related directions. On the one hand, economic and political forces threaten to weaken and break the bonds that bind the members of the community in interdependent patterns of interaction. At the beginning of the show, Jane’s grandmother, who is an undocumented immigrant, faces the ongoing threat of deportation. After she, with the help of her granddaughter’s boyfriend, becomes a citizen, she marries an undocumented man to prevent him from being deported; he eventually becomes a lasting member of the family,. One major member of the community, the biological father of Jane’s child, goes to jail for a white collar crime. Job requirements and the lure of money and fame separate family members and friends. As the show progresses, the core members of the community, Jane, her mother, and her grandmother depend on and support each other and their growing circle of other family members and friends as they struggle to deal with these often seemingly overwhelming social threats.
The other threats to the community come not directly from these economic and political forces, but from the victims of these forces who have become violent criminals. I call these villains “victims,” because the show reveals them to be lonely individuals, isolated from any nurturing communities, who become violent in desperate, inherently contradictory, and doomed attempts to use power and wealth to possess and control others, so that these people, implicitly treated as objects, will provide the villains with the emotional sustenance they need. These isolates attack, kidnap, injure, and murder members of the community. They also coerce and lure members into schemes that threaten to make these members into isolated anti-communal villains like themselves. Defending against these villains leads to ruptures in the trust that binds the community together. The community demonstrates its resilience by continuing to include these isolates in its care and eventually bringing almost all of them back into the heart of the community.
Jane the Virgin immerses the viewer in the experience of being in a strong and nurturing community. We who are committed to strengthening existing communities and to building sustainable new communities can learn lessons from it:
1. Where there is life, there is community. Strengthening and building community begins with attending to how community is happening here and now, to where and how people are nurturing, trusting, and empathically attuning to each other in the present situation.
2. Strong communities form around mothers and others who welcome, care for, and celebrate children and each other. A sustainable community is thus an integenerational one that values and supports all its members, of all ages and abilities, as necessary participants in the cocreative interactions that constitute each of us.
3. Defending against the collective and individual forces that threaten the community and its members paradoxically becomes a threat in itself when it results in weakening and breaking the bonds of trust that constitute a strong community.
4. Resilient communities maintain their members’ focus on their mutually nurturing cocreative interactions with each other and others outside the community, even in the face of threats from social forces and individuals.