Exploring topics of feminism in television usually goes one of two ways. The first falls into a toned down version aiming to satisfy the public but not become too radical. These programs cover small doses of feminism and other social justice issues as a means to fit in, but more often than not have other themes overshadowing them. The other path that these shows can go down is one that is intersectional and multifaceted. This brings about a revolutionary force of media that changes our own ways of looking at ourselves and bringing greater good to the world. For me, no show greater represents this than Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
While scrolling through my Netflix account about a year and a half ago, I came across a show recommended for me, titled Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. My first reaction was to question if this was even a feminist show at all or one that continues stereotyping women characters. But not long after, my sister started singing one of the songs from an episode, saying how she never related more to the lyrics. So I decided to sit down and give it a chance- and I am so thankful I did. It encompasses everything I love- feminism, musicals, comedy, and at least one predicament that we all can relate to. The reason the show is so impactful is because it does not just tackle a single part of feminism, but rather encompasses a diverse viewpoint from the various characters. While there is so much I can say as to why I love it, there are a few key components that stand out and truly make it a game changer.
Too many times you still hear sexist terms being thrown around such as being labeled a “crazy ex-girlfriend”. Co-creator and lead, Rachel Bloom, uses her own experience seeing women demeaned by this saying and in turn reclaims the phrase.
The series begins with a flashback of a teenage Rebecca Bunch at summer camp where our protagonist Rebecca Bunch (Bloom) gets dumped by her then boyfriend, Josh Chan. Years later, the two meet again on the streets of New York City where Rebecca is a successful lawyer at a major firm and Josh is on vacation from his hometown of West Covina, California. Without hesitation, Rebecca decides to quit her job and move across the country to get back with her first love while gleefully singing in a big number musical-esque tune. However, we quickly learn that the dream women are given in storylines like this can never be reality. Throughout the seasons, we learn that Rebecca has anxiety, a fear of abandonment, and other problems from her past that she never addressed.
What hit me the hardest was realizing her character is not relatable just because she sings her inner thoughts in fun dance numbers, but because she, like any person, has real problems that she has to face day to day. The supporting characters and even the viewers can quickly label her as crazy for throwing her life away for an old fling, but what Bloom really explores are the layers behind why she did all of this. We learn that she did not really want to go to go to law school, but was fiercely pressured by her mother to pursue that career.
Through their personal and professional lives, the women of West Covina tackle misogyny in multiple ways. In one of the musical numbers “Sexy Getting Ready Song,” Rebecca goes through all the parts of what it takes her to get ready to go out on a date. As a rapper comes in on one verse, he steps back alarmed at the patriarchal standards most women are pressured under to achieve a ‘date night look.’ While there is nothing wrong with enjoying makeup or beauty routines, there is an ideal placed on women that they have to appear a specific way for special events.
There have been times in my life when I did not feel like dressing up and getting ready, but felt I would be out of place if I did not act on it. From just this scene alone, I realized that most of us do not actually realize this standard until we step back ourselves. It has made me more confident to go to fancy places without worrying about makeup and even made me more confident to not care if I shaved or not.
One of the best parts that comes from tackling misogyny is exploring women friendships. In the first episode we suspect that we have found the villain to our protagonist - Paula, one of Rebecca’s new coworkers who is wary of her motives. But this show is real life, not tropes built up in romantic comedy movies. Paula finds out soon that Rebecca did in fact move here to become closer to Josh and instead of stereotypically holding this information over her head with hints of blackmail, she happily wants to help Rebecca and becomes obsessed with pairing the two together. Their bond starts out as a ploy to win over Josh, but they come to learn that they enjoy being with each other whether Josh is involved or not. Paula in a way becomes like an older sister to Rebecca, helping her with life advice, and in turn Rebecca pushes Paula to do great things.
A big obstacle in the first season’s story is that Josh is back together with his other ex-girlfriend Valencia. Rebecca still tries to win over Josh knowing he is with someone else and eventually, does end up after another split with Valencia. Josh and Rebecca even make it to the point of a wedding, before Josh backed out and ran off to join a seminary. At first it seems like this could be the beginning of the end for Rebecca. But season 3 comes back with something else this time, a focus on friendship not romance. Rebecca and Valencia both realize they feel dropped by Josh and relate to each other over that fact. They soon realize that despite having completely different personalities, they still become great friends with each other. Valencia in a way joins Rebecca’s girl group with Paula and her college-bound neighbor Heather where they sing about “Friendtopia.”
The fact that Valencia and Rebecca bond with each other shows that women are not just competitors vying over the affection of men. In most cliched versions, Valencia and Rebecca would only be cordial with each other, but instead they both realize that each other have fascinating traits and are good-hearted. However it is not all perfect in the new dynamic: instead of becoming what they think is a perfect utopia , they encounter complications as Paula feels left out and distanced from Rebecca. Like all relationships, there are always tough times you have to get through. This does not mean that they are strained in any way, just that they have real life problems like any other friendships do.
I personally think women friendships are the most powerful dynamics. All of my female-identifying friends have had an impact on my life in some way or another and make me feel happy when I am around them. It is great to see the powerful female characters of this show bond together instead of what many men invision where girl friendship groups are drama-filled and toxic. I went to an all-girls high school and when I tell others that, I sometimes hear them saying I wouldn’t be able to be around just girls that long. That was something I never even really thought about. All the friendships I made in high school were meaningful and supportive. Shows like this help prove that women together are strong in their own unique ways. With all this said, showing the bad times that Paula and Rebecca experienced is groundbreaking too. Usually when there is an obstacle a relationship between two characters, it is just a romantic one that they decide to figure out together. Friendships also have bad times too, and finding ways to work together and fix them shows females working together. This is especially important to me because I have never had a serious romantic relationship and have been told before that I do not know what it’s like to love someone. But I have different friend groups of mostly women that I love so deeply so seeing that platonic love displayed on our screens shows the power of female friends.
Abortion on TV
Rarely do we get to see abortions on TV portrayed in a way that are not overly dramatized. Paula becomes pregnant at a time where she is going to law school, working full time, and taking care of her family. In the episode Paula decides to get an abortion as she realizes she has other life goals she wants to prioritize. The only thing we see as viewers is Paula resting peacefully with her husband at the end of the day and the subject is never brought back up again.
I cannot recall a time from any other show I have seen where a character gets an abortion without it being any issue at all for anyone- which makes this portrayal such a big deal. This shows that having an abortion does not mean you are any different of a person than you were before. Unfortunately there are still groups trying to defund safe operation spaces, but showing how natural life can be having an abortion opens up the dialogue that reproductive health is vital and just like any other health service. While 36% of others who have gotten one for the same reason as Paula, no person needs to explain or justify why they got one.
Mental Health Issues
Rebecca Bunch lets us see the parts of her inner dialogue through lyrics that are contrasted with upbeat melodies. We learn right away that she has mental health issues that she buries and does not let everyone see. At her lowest point however, she comes to the realization she needs help and her life depends on it. She is told that she was misdiagnosed with anxiety and learns that she has borderline personality disorder. This brings to light a mental disorder that is often grossly misinterpreted by the public. Rebecca is still herself- strong, resilient, smart- and has this disorder. It does not define her, but it is a part of her life. We get to see the issues she faces and situations she deals with in this process. Rebecca is confused when she does not feel relieved getting a proper diagnosis like she thought she would. Like a real world situation, her doctor tells her that this is not something that is just going to go away because you were diagnosed. What matters is learning how to deal with these issues in a healthy way, instead of focusing on the unrealistic expectation that they will all just disappear.
Having a mental disorder myself, I find this to be one of the most relatable representations of going through a psychological and personal process. While I have it managed, I still have days where I don’t feel like my best, even though I am doing everything by the book to combat the mental issues. And that is why I’m glad I could see a character go through their own health and realize it is not something that goes away just like that.
West Covina is a town just like your own community that is full of diverse backgrounds. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend depicts diversity in a truthful manner that highlights the stories of the residents. They have been credited for accurately depicting Filipino culture in Josh’s homelife. There are no racial stereotypes added to Josh’s character, rather there is a real view of what life is like for someone whose story isn’t often told on TV. The times when Rebecca and Josh were dating brought great representation to interracial couples. Both learn about each other’s cultures as Rebecca spends Thanksgiving with his family and Josh attends a bah mitvah with many of Rebecca’s relatives.
There is also an exploration of sexuality for many of the characters as well. Rebecca’s boss Daryll realizes he is bisexual when he has feelings for Josh’s friend with the same name who goes by White Josh. Many have praised this portrayal for showing that sexuality does not look one way. Just because he is a middle aged man with kids does not mean his bisexuality isn’t valid. In fact, he and White Josh later go on to raise a child together. Valencia also begins to date a woman in season four showing that it does not matter if we knew that she was not straight before that. Her sexuality matters to only her and she is allowed to share that is any way she likes.
I am a white cisgender woman and as one, I see characters reflecting similarities of my life quite often. However, many people are not given this privilege. There is still sadly so much exclusivity in what is broadcasted in our media. Sometimes shows will claim to be diverse, yet only feature one minority and barely give them interesting backgrounds. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend not only gives every character a dynamic storyline, they even touch on everyday issues facing minorities. Rebecca herself even addresses her privilege and instead of first pitying herself and turning herself into a victim, Valencia reminds Rebecca that it’s good she recognizes it, but instead of weeping, she should act on it and use her privilege for the greater good. This is critical because it is an extremely important step for being an ally of any sort. It is essential to realize the issues others face and privilege that you hold, but doing nothing to change society is just as bad as not knowing at all.
With all these components that make the show so groundbreaking, there is only one word to say to everyone involved- thank you. Rarely does a show come around with true representation tackling our greatest social problems of today in full force. I’m so grateful Rachel Bloom shared a part of her mind with all of us to create a dialogue for narratives that are often presented as cliches or not touched on at all.
Whether it be another show, a piece of literature, a movie, or anything else, look for narratives that are intersectional, that are diverse, that tell stories often left out of usual dialogue. There are so many stories to be shared that can truly change the world by challenging societal norms and the status quo.
With Crazy Ex-Girlfriend coming to its finale, I can only hope that there will one day be another program that has the same amount of impact. Until then I’ll be rewatching episodes with a smile on my face, happy to see truthfulness and authenticity.