SNARK WEEK: Juana Inés Is a Mixed Bag

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I can’t recall a film or TV series that has such extremes between the quality of the costuming and the quality of the acting and writing. I am seriously torn. On the one hand, the costumes in Juana Inés (2016) are probably some of the most egregious examples of bad film costuming I’ve laid eyes on in years. On the other hand, this series is utterly captivating and well-written and well-acted. So, including it in Snark Week sort of feels wrong, but then again, if I didn’t include it, you all would be missing out on some spectacularly bad costuming.

The series deals with Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the self-taught intellectual titan of 17th-century New Spain (modern-day Mexico), who also apparently had quite the love affair with not one, but two Royal Vicereines. Forced into a convent in order to “save her soul” (the usual line of patriarchal bullshit that smart, uppity women have been subjected to since the dawn of time), young Juana Inés (played by Arantza Ruiz) still has the favor of Vicereine #1 when she takes the veil.

Their relationship is a little confusingly portrayed, since Vicereine #1 comes off as a creepy older woman who is probably mentally ill, trying to seduce the young Juana. Their affair is less convincingly romantic and more like the sort of sexual harassment that would make it a candidate for the #MeToo movement.

Now, I don’t know about you, but that does not look like the face of a willing participant. That doesn’t even look like the face of someone who is conflicted about her feelings towards someone of her own gender. That straight up looks like someone who is being abused.

At this point in the show, I was wondering whether or not the plot was going to take the “she was coerced into a sexual relationship with the Vicereine out of fear of losing her position at court” angle, which would have been a bold move, since everything I’ve read about her earliest relationship with the first Vicereine seems to indicate that it was pretty consensual and probably not physical.

Unfortunately, the show never answers the question it raises about whether or not Juana was at all consenting; and from the constant look of fear and shame on the actress’ face whenever she was left alone in a room with the half-naked Vicereine (which the Vicereine manages to contrive a lot of excuses for in the first three episodes), I’m left wondering if the implication that she was coerced was exactly the intention. Either way, it made me squirm a lot.

Did she go take the veil to escape a weird situation with her patroness?

Oy… That corset.

Eventually, Juana realizes that taking religious orders would put a necessary amount of distance between her and the creepy Vicereine, unless I’m missing something in the translation (again, I’m really going off body language here, so it doesn’t read like she’s at all conflicted about her feelings, just that she wants to get the fuck away from her patroness). She decides to stop fighting the Disney Villain and Confessor to the Viceregal family, Padre Núñez de Miranda, on the issue of taking the veil and manages to secure a compromise with him in order to join the Hieronymite order which is more liberal than the Discalced Carmelites she was originally going to be forced into. She’s able to continue to write and compose flattering poetry for the Vicereine and no longer has to worry about being caught in the same room alone with Virreina Creepy.

Everyone is happy with the arrangement, except for the Vicereine, who ultimately dies of grief when she and her husband are called back to Madrid, forcing a permanent separation from her beloved Juana.

What’s more tragic? Being forcibly separated from the underage girl you’re obsessed with, or that dress?

The show then moves into the second half, with an adult Juana (played by Arcelia Ramírez), and the story goes in a completely different direction when Vicereine #2 comes on the scene. There’s no ambiguity about Juana’s feelings now. Vicereine #2 is young and pretty, and both she and Juana fall for one another hard. Of course, their love is not meant to be, because it’s 17th-century New Spain and one woman is married to the Church and the other is married to a Spanish bureaucrat.

There’s also a disapproving Mother Superior who knows what’s going on between the two and is constantly trying to put a stop to it, lest their affair be exposed and ruin the convent’s standing at court, while at the same time having to tolerate it because of the the patronage it brings from the Vicerregal family.

Sor María ain’t no fool.

A lot of plot happens that I am skipping over because I really want to get to the costumes, so let me sum up: Vicereine #2 gets sent back to Spain after a few years, but takes Juana’s writings with her, ensuring that they are preserved from being destroyed by the Church. A third Viceroy is sent to New Spain and Vicereine #3 turns out to be an utter bitch. Then Juana dies a gruesome death from the plague and nobody lives happily ever after.

Virrena #2 is a damn fine catch. Go, Sor Juana!

What wine pairs well with forbidden love?

I was actually pleasantly surprised that the show actually depicted some tasteful PG-13 love scenes.

So, anyway, enough about the plot. Let’s look at how awful the costumes are. There’s lots of places to start, but I think Virreina Creepy’s Spanish court gown pretty much overshadows all the others. I’ll be honest, this is a tricky look to pull off in real life, but it’s not impossible if you know anything about, oh, I dunno, researching historical undergarments.

I had to make this gif so you could all see this dress in action.

Tighten what now? Also, I’m pretty sure this dress is made from bedsheets.

So, what exactly is this gown supposed to look like? I think it’s going for this:

Diego Velázquez, La Enfanta María Teresa de España, 1652-1653.

Like I said, it’s a tricky style to recreate, but it’s not impossible. For comparison’s sake, here’s my friend Joel, in his recreation of a mid-17th-century Spanish infanta gown, complete with the massive hair (because it’s all about the hair, though, isn’t it?):

© 2016, Joel Reid, Jr.

One of the better gowns in the series was the dress Juana wears during her examination before she’s allowed to become the tutor to the viceregal children. It’s based on the portrait of Juana done by the 20th-century artist Jorge Sánchez Hernández, who did a series of paintings featuring Juana Inés throughout her life. However, I am contractually obligated to point out that this is not a period portrait, and the recreated dress fits badly. Like almost every dress in the series, it is way too long in the waist and has virtually no boning or stiffening built into it. The painted floral design is nice, though.

Apparently, this is complicated.

The long-waisted bodices are definitely a thing with this show.

The Viceroy’s mistress and the previous “tutor” to the viceregal children. She has a series of trashy dresses for the two episodes she’s in, but this one was the least awful. That wig, tho.

Just … why? Why would you do this to me?

Even when the costumes are obviously referencing portraits, they veer off into What The Frock territory.

I’d love to be able to tell you who was responsible for the hot mess, but IMDB doesn’t list costuming credits. Though it’s pretty obvious that the budget was almost entirely allocated to shooting on location at the many fabulous extant palaces and churches in Mexico City. The scenery is fabulous, the acting is good, the writing is compelling … If you can ignore the costuming, definitely watch it.

These interiors deserve better.

Have you tried to watch Juana Inés on Netflix?

 

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12 Responses

  1. Susan Pola Staples

    I enjoyed the series from an acting viewpoint, but I have headaches from cringing over the costumes.
    Regarding Vicereine Creepy, I was left with the impression that she was of the Trump School of Sexual Harassment to Underage Girls. I felt very uncomfortable just watching VC harass young Juana. Juannaso exam dress was just too weird a fit with your aforementioned too long bodice and poor fit - kinda like ABs dresses in Wolfe Hall.
    Now I really appreciated the PG-13 relationship with Vicereine 2, it was beautifully done.
    I have a query why are some of the recent well-acted costume dramas so poorly costumed? Didn’t the designer do research? There are gorgeous dresses in the Mexican Historical Museum, is it too hard to make an appointment to view those not on view?

    Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      Thank you for confirming my feelings wrt to Virreina Creepy. There was nothing about their relationship that came across as anything approaching consensual. I also felt like the first half of the show (which deals with young Juana) has a lot of gaping plot holes that never end up addressed — stuff like how her illegitimate birth was A BIG HUGE DEAL, but instead it’s barely mentioned until it serves as some half-assed explanation for her boyfriend dumping her. And then basically it’s never mentioned again.

      Oh, and clearly the budget went to securing good actors and locations. That’s the only reason I can come up with for the costumes being as bad as they were.

      Reply
  2. Susan Pola Staples

    Didn’t you feel that boyfriend was a point to state Juana was not gay? All it proved to me is that she might have been bi and/or 1 love knows no gender bias 2 she was conforming to what ppl believed all young girls wanted –marriage.

    And one thing I did enjoy was how Juana decided on actions to preserve her writings & intellect.

    Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      Dude, yes, that random boyfriend plot line that lasted all of 5 minutes… “HEY EVERYONE, SHE’S NOT TOTALLY GAY! LOOK! SHE’S MAKING OUT WITH A GUY! AND SHE ONLY WROTE LOVE POETRY TO THE VICEREINE BECAUSE SHE HAD TO KEEP HER POSITION AT COURT!”

      And then the entire second part of the show is dedicated to her intense, burning, forbidden love affair with a woman.

      Reply
  3. Trystan L. Bass

    Seriously the SHITTIEST attempt at 17th-c. costumes I have ever, ever seen. I wanted to like this, really I did, I was excited by the premise! She’s a fascinating figure from history. And I was SO DAMN DISAPPOINTED by the eye-searingly bad costuming I couldn’t make it thru the first episode. GRRRR….

    Reply
  4. Kathleen Norvell

    I’ve seen the first 2 episodes and am inclined to watch the rest because of the interesting story. I agree that the costumes are cringe-worthy and look like they were made by clueless amateurs. I’m sure you’ve seen and I certainly have seen, much better SCA costumes. I think the costumers mistook the elongated bodice front for an entire elongated bodice. Bad research, if they actually did any.

    Reply
  5. MrsC (Maryanne)

    That court dress! I saw the Hurly Burly show in the West End where Polly Rae is meant to be Marie Antoinette in a huge ridiculous dress to Lady Marmalade then Five show girls appear from under her skirt. THAT dress looked looked more authentic than the one in this movie. Perhaps there are five courtiers under it? Though it is tilting fit to bust when she walks so probably not!

    Reply
  6. Jindra

    What on earth is Viceroy’s mistress even doing with that bolster? She’s definitely not making bobbin lace (which I suspect this was supposed to depict). Lace of this width would take 30 pairs of bobbins at the very least (could be 120 pairs just as well) and innumerable pins. Where are her pins? Where are the bobbins? What is she doing with her hands?! I need to go hyperventilate somewhere….

    Reply
  7. Erin English

    How disappointing that they decided to make that first relationship so creepy and nonconsensual. I haven’t seen this yet, but am certainly disappointed that it seems that they used the adolescent-abuse-explains-same-sex-love trope.

    Reply
  8. emano421

    If you want to see Sor Juana’s story with a better costume, i think, you can watch a movie from my own country called “Yo, la peor de todas” (I, the Worst of All), although i dont know if there is any version with subtitles

    Reply

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