by Holly Genovese
It’s not every day that a CW drama features a storyline about power dynamics and romantic relationships in academia, but Jane the Virgin did just that in its March 2, 2018 episode “Chapter 75.” The depiction of Jane’s (Gina Rodriguez) former relationship with her professor Dr. Jonathan Chavez (Adam Rodriguez) gets at many of the complications that arise when the boundaries for acceptable behavior are blurred.
Much of what happens in academia is far more than “skeevy,” the word used to describe student-teacher relationships in the episode. In fact, rape, sexual assault, and threats are all relatively common, which was made clear by Dr. Karen Kelsky’s harrowing spreadsheet, an anonymous record of encounters with sexual assault, rape, and other types of violence in academia. But many other issues in academia fall somewhere in the problematic middle ground of “skeeviness”: consensual relationships fraught with inappropriate power dynamics, seemingly “harmless” flirting, the graduate student-professor relationships that (happily?) end in marriage (these always seem to involve a male professor and a female graduate student).
Much of what happens in academia is far more than “skeevy,” the word used to describe student-teacher relationships in the episode. In fact, rape, sexual assault, and threats are all relatively common.
Jane the Virgin perfectly illustrates these dynamics in “Chapter 75.” In a flashback set four years before the episode’s main plot, Jane has a fraught but consensual relationship as a graduate student with one of her professors (whom she admits to pursuing). Now, years later, she meets with him about a teaching job, struggling to find a middle ground when pursuing career advancement from an ex-boyfriend. Jane the Virgin is quick to point out the problematic power dynamics at play here. Is Jane flirting? Does he expect her to flirt? Will he avoid hiring her because of their past relationship?
Her current boyfriend Rafael (Justin Baldoni) and her mother (Andrea Navedo) tell her the relationship was “skeevy” at best and comment on her flirtatious email to him, though Jane quickly retorts that she actively pursued him, that he wasn’t her advisor, and that it wasn’t against university policy for a teacher to have a sexual relationship with a graduate student (but it should be!). Jane was adamant that she wasn’t a victim and that her relationship with her writing professor was more about forbidden love than institutionalized gender dynamics in academia.
Jane’s perspective on the whole situation changes when she sees Professor Chavez with another young female graduate student. After some internet sleuthing, she finds that this is a veritable habit for him. When she dated him, Jane thought they had undeniable chemistry and a chance at real romance (Jane is the author of romance novels, after all.) But now that she realizes she was one in a long line of graduate students, she realizes that her relationship was more than a brief inappropriate transgression and feels a moral obligation to warn current graduate students.
Jane’s attempt to talk to Professor Chavez’s current graduate student girlfriend doesn’t go so well and the episode doesn’t end with any grand revelations or confrontations between Jane and Professor Chavez. It ends in a middle ground, with a sense of confusion. Was Jane a victim in a relationship without realizing it? Was her former professor “skeevy”? And how should she balance her own conceptions of her former relationship with the knowledge that he habitually dates other graduate students?
This fuzzy ending is a shockingly realistic (and uncomfortable) representation of the instability that these sorts of student-professor relationships can create. That instability in turn creates a powerful argument for concrete policies about student-teacher relationships. It should never have mattered that Jane’s professor wasn’t her advisor, that they had a powerful connection, and that it wasn’t against the rules. These loopholes shouldn’t have existed for Jane, or for the real-life women who have found themselves in this situation. A lack of clear policy and hierarchical power dynamics make graduate school a treacherous place for many students, particularly women.
It should never have mattered that Jane’s professor wasn’t her advisor, that they had a powerful connection, and that it wasn’t against the rules.
This episode of Jane the Virgin is both an uncommon portrayal of academia in television and a realistic depiction of these dynamics in Academia. Some departments and universities have specific policies barring student-teacher relationships (even at the graduate level) because of the power dynamics and propensity of abuse. But many schools have nothing so concretely articulated. Rape and sexual assault by professors is of course illegal, and banned, at universities across the country. But as Karen Kelsky’s spreadsheet and the #metoophd academia hashtag make clear, it’s far harder to prevent this behavior than it should be. At the basic level, people are unlikely to believe women students. Women (and men, too) are unlikely to speak up if the professor can impact their future career or they are afraid to create a reputation for themselves. HR departments often protect professors. Even in clear cut cases of sexual assaults, justice for students is often difficult to obtain; and when we are talking about technically consensual relationships (though I question whether a professor-student relationship can ever be truly consensual), they are even more difficult to handle.
Holly Genovese is the Outreach Coordinator for the Field Family Teen Author Series at the Free Library of Philadelphia and an incoming Ph.D student in American Studies at UT Austin. She is contributing editor at Unsweetened Magazine, a Contributor at Book Riot, and a blogger for the S-USIH blog. Her work has been published in Teen Vogue, The Washington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Bustle Books, The Rumpus, and Scalawag Magazine among other publications. Follow her on twitter @hollyevanmarie and find her website www.hollygenovese.com
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