For most viewers, the most significant plot turn in this week’s episode of Jane The Virgin was when the amnesiac “Jason” (Brett Dier) happened to puncture the ceiling of the Villanueva porch, causing plaster dust to fall on his head like snowflakes and thus trigger his memories of being Michael, and being with Jane (Gina Rodriguez). Those of us who follow entertainment news, however, might have been more struck by another storyline: a battle over pay equity on the set of a television production.
Xo (Andrea Navedo) reveals the shocking secret River Fields (Brooke Shields) had shared with her in last week’s episode: River is making twice as much money for The Passions Of Steve And Brenda as her co-star, Xo’s husband Rogelio (Jaime Camil). River has, of course, passed this on to Xo so that Xo can break it to Rogelio in a way that will minimize his hysteria about it, and Xo does try to explain to Rogelio that pay parity is “a big issue in Hollywood right now,” with male stars demanding that their female peers be paid more. (Though Xo mentions William H. Macy, it must be noted that he has recently been in the news less for his advocacy on behalf of his Shameless co-star Emmy Rossum than he has for…other things.)
Rogelio urges River to take up the gender parity fight on his behalf. “This is not about you!” she replies. “This is about the fact that I am the bigger name in the U.S. I am why they greenlit the pilot. I have worked my ass off to get where I am, and I’m proud that I’m the rare actress in this incredibly sexist industry who’s actually getting paid what I deserve!” When the stress of their conflict paralyzes half of River’s face, she gives a stunning performance with the other half alone, and even Rogelio must concede, “She deserves every dollar they’re paying her.” But then he keeps talking: “River clearly deserves to get paid what she’s getting. But so do I. This is my project. I fought four years to get it made. It’s my telenovela, my culture, my story I’m bringing to the screen. Yet somehow, with all of that, I’m only worth half as much as her. It’s not right….I did some research, and pay parity affects people of color too.”
The next time we see River, she suddenly announces that she’s had a change of heart following an offscreen conversation with Xo; she goes to bat for Rogelio, gets them equal pay, and appears on the cover of People en Español trumpeting “My fight against racial injustice. How I lifted up my co-star and lifted up my consciousness.”
It’s a happy ending that preserves the co-stars’ working relationship, right? Sure: but what else is going on?
Some background: Gina Rodriguez first became part of the pay equity conversation back in 2017, partnering with a corporate brand to “raise awareness and funds” for a gender pay gap initiative promoted by LeanIn.org. (Whether any of us should heed the recommendation of a white billionaire that women who want to advance in the workplace should try harder is a question for another day.) But late last year, when Rodriguez joined a Net-a-Porter roundtable with fellow TV stars Ellen Pompeo, Emma Roberts, and Gabrielle Union, she drew criticism for saying, “I get so petrified in this space talking about equal pay, especially when you look at the intersectional aspect of it, right? Where white women get paid more than black women, black women get paid more than Asian women, Asian women get paid more than Latina women, and it’s, like, a very scary space to step into.” Those comparisons are accurate across the whole American labor force, but not in entertainment, and Rodriguez was dragged for seeming to pit women of color against one another. Also in that Net-a-Porter roundtable, Rodriguez mentioned a time when a “bigger” performer was offered more money for the same role.
In January, the controversy came up while Rodriguez was promoting her starring role in the English-language remake of Miss Bala — but in attempting to spin, she only made things worse by, among other things, claiming that she couldn’t be anti-black because her father is “dark-skinned.”
Now here we are in April, and the show that not only made Rodriguez’s acting career but on which, as of the current fifth (and final) season, she is an Executive Producer, is tackling the issue of both gender and racial pay parity in entertainment. At first, it’s played for laughs: Rogelio has been well established as a narcissistic diva, and of course he throws a hissyfit in front of River and the whole crew, pouting that if she calls for a five-minute break, it must mean he only gets two and a half. But when he mournfully tells Xo about his findings on how pay inequity affects people of color, he adds, “So this, plus with everything that’s going on in this country– It’s always been my dream to be famous in America. But I’m starting to wonder, why am I so desperate for validation from a country that doesn’t seem to value or accept me?” Directly after this speech, we cut to Jane, reading a hideous headline about Trump’s racist directions to ICE.
The implicit parallel being drawn between desperate migrants fleeing the devastation in their home countries — wrought by imperialist American policies — and an extremely privileged actor being temporarily denied the chance to increase his already considerable wealth is pretty gross. And framing the central dispute as a clash between a white woman and a Mexican man inevitably leaves the viewer wondering which category of historically oppressed person we’re supposed to think is the more wronged overall — an impossible question to resolve but particularly troublesome when the matter at issue is which number precedes the many zeros on their paychecks.
Using Rodriguez’s Instagram as a guide, it appears as though production on Season 5 began around mid-September last year, meaning that “Chapter Eighty-Four” was probably in the can by the time Rodriguez’s notorious Net-a-Porter roundtable went online. Did Rodriguez’s remarks on pay parity take their controversial form because thoughts of her own River Fields were top of mind? Is Rogelio’s take more compelling than Rodriguez’s?
…Aren’t we all relieved that the show is probably done with this topic so that next week’s episode can go all in with the return of Michael’s memories and, with them, Jane’s love triangle?!
Writer, editor, and snack enthusiast Tara Ariano is the co-founder of TelevisionWithoutPity.com and Fametracker.com (R.I.P.), as well as Previously.tv. She co-hosts the podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This (a compulsively detailed episode-by-episode breakdown ofBeverly Hills, 90210), and has contributed toNew York, the New YorkTimesmagazine, Vulture, The Awl, and Slate, among many others. She lives in Austin.