CW’s New Show Exposes The ‘Crazy Woman’ Stereotype As ‘Patriarchal Bullshit’
As Harris O’Malley wrote for The Washington Post in 2014: “’Crazy’ is one of the five deadly words guys use to shame women into compliance. The others: Fat. Ugly. Slutty. Bitchy.” And, true enough, I have often heard this slur thrown around all too casually to drive home the patriarchal norm that men are always “rational” and women are always “too emotional”. [envoke_twitter_link]Women are not crazy for the things they are most often labelled crazy for[/envoke_twitter_link], and this description has become a catch-all phrase for ignorant men who are unable to recognize or understand the fact that women can be complex individuals with complex wants and desires. Which is why, when I heard that the CW Network had picked up a show titled ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’, I was wary of approaching it even with a ten-foot pole, despite being an avid watcher of American television. However, last night, mostly prompted for my search for a show that might be something different from the formulaic staples of this year’s fall TV line-up, I braced myself and thought of giving this a try — and boy, was I pleasantly surprised! Quite contrary to what I was expecting, ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ takes its title and sharply dismantles the aeons of sexist connotations that come associated with it.
What Goes Down
The pilot episode of this musical comedy follows protagonist Rebecca Bunch (played by co-creator Rebecca Bloom, who rose to youtube fame through satirical music videos), an ambitious but miserable real estate lawyer who is on the verge of getting a big promotion. However, when she runs into an old summer camp boyfriend, she decides to leave her comfortable New York life behind and follow him all across the country to Southern California. She ends up in West Covina, a suburb that is in stark contrast to the urbanity of New York, and as far away from her swanky, loubotin-wearing lifestyle as can be. Here, she gets a new legal job at a much smaller firm which gives her plenty of time to casually stalk Josh (aforementioned summer camp boyfriend) on social media while insisting that, “I did not move here for Josh because that would be crazy and I am not crazy.” Created by Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna (two women showrunners! what an utter rarity in American primetime television), ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ is not just sharp, but also darkly funny and intelligent, and cuts through numerous stereotypes through its unique narrative and musical style.
Exposing ‘Nasty Ass Patriarchal Bullshit’, Through Music
Unlike ‘Glee’ or ‘Smash’ or ‘Empire’, [envoke_twitter_link]this show uses its musical format to create incisive satire[/envoke_twitter_link]. The satire is not just directed at unrealistic (often sexist) romantic comedy tropes, but also at the exacting male gaze. There is one particular song sequence (which stole the entire show, for me), called ‘Sexy Getting Ready Song’ where we see Rebecca dancing in Spanx while going through an excruciating beauty routine as she’s getting ready to go to a party which her love interest is supposed to attend.
This is a brilliantly satirical take on how painful it is for a woman to actually ‘get ready’; to look good enough to meet patriarchal standards of beauty. It even shows her waxing her butthole, and the blood that comes because of it, further highlighting the lengths to which women often have to go to be considered desirable in the heterosexual male gaze. This is all further driven home by a stereotypical rap interlude in which, after seeing the horrifying state of Rebecca’s bathroom during this beauty routine, the rapper pauses and says, “This is some nasty ass patriarchal bullshit. You know what? I gotta go apologize to some bitches.” To further emphasize how this little interlude is far from being a throwaway, the episode actually ends with this rapper calling up various women and apologizing for the sexist treatment he meted out to them — even inviting them to read and discuss Simone de Beauvoir with him.
The Real Crazy in ‘Crazy Ex Girlfriend’
The pilot episode is peppered with similarly interesting social commentary, but, the reason why it really succeeds in deconstructing the ‘crazy woman’ trope is its subtle treatment of the term’s connotations to mental health. The usage of the word ‘crazy’ is so lax in our daily vocabulary that we often fail to examine why a word, that in its simplest meaning denotes a mental ailment, is considered derogatory. There is almost a double stigma that is being addressed by this show — both associated with mental health and women. Rebecca is seen taking medication for her mental health from the very beginning of the episode — and the fact that they never explicitly mention what ailment she suffers from is extremely interesting, because it allows her character to not be defined by her mental situation. There is also a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it mention of a suicide attempt. “I told father I was having suicidal thoughts”, Rebecca says in the opening scene; but at that point, the tone is so flippant that you almost cringe, thinking that she is either kidding or exaggerating. However, later, after she has moved to West Covina, her mother, in a phone call, disparagingly says: “I hope this isn’t another stunt like your little suicide attempt in law school. You didn’t even break your skin and you inconvenienced a lot of people.” Again, the moment is a light-hearted one, so it doesn’t even register until you really think about the fact that, here is a woman who is suffering from a mental health issue and who has previously attempted suicide, and has now moved all across the country for an ex-boyfriend whom she dated for only two months nearly ten years ago. The term “crazy ex-girlfriend” then, is all too real when applied to her. And yet, this show handles this with great sensitivity and humour. [envoke_twitter_link]Instead of ‘crazy’ being a slur, Rebecca reclaims it, revels in it even[/envoke_twitter_link]. In fact, its interesting to note that the only person who explicitly uses the term ‘crazy’ to refer to her is no one but herself.
Her decision to move, which in a typical social perception would be labelled “crazy”, is actually a quest for liberation and happiness. While in New York, she is constantly haunted by a billboard ad which says “Are you Really Happy?”, and it is this that ultimately leads her to make the spontaneous decision to abandon a life which, if you look closely, is something that is forced upon her — somewhere she never really fit in. Beyond the pills and the referenced attempt on her life, the ‘craziest thing’ Rebecca does in the first episode isn’t actually moving to California or stalking Josh via social media or making out with his friend Greg (Santino Fontana) while looking for him, but choosing the possibility of real happiness over perceived (and in her case, certain) success — something many people might not have the courage to do. Though on the surface, there is much ado about the fact she followed Josh, but despite appearances, Rebecca’s decision is also very much about her. There is a brief moment in which she almost sees herself the way other people d0 and thinks “Yes, maybe I am crazy”, but ultimately, with help from her co-worker Paula (an excellent Donna Lynne Champlin), she realizes that what she did is actually “brave”. [envoke_twitter_link]She thought she was chasing the fantasy of Josh, but what she is really chasing is the possibility of being happy[/envoke_twitter_link] for the first time since the summer she met him. This makes her mistakenly correlate happiness with being with him — which could eventually be a storyline that the series explores, but could also be something it just as easily discards. It’s true that Rebecca spends the majority of the pilot worrying about and talking about Josh, but the final moments of the episode somewhat hint at a different future, one in which Rebecca uses this situation to bond with Paula and have a strong female presence in her life.
It is significant that, once she reaches West Covina, she is seen emptying her pills in the sink and flushing them away; something that is always a big step for anyone who has faced mental illness. I also see this as a symbol of her trying to flush down the cultural baggage that comes with the term ‘crazy’ and trying to reclaim the word as something empowering. The show is ambitious in what it has set out to do, yes, but I sincerely hope that the writers and actors maintain the tonal brilliance they showed in the first episode. ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ is fresh, imaginative, and finally satisfies my thirst for unique content in an otherwise disappointing fall premiere season. I hope the spirit of the show is not easily tamed, and that it continues to topple problematic stereotypes with its distinct, inimitable, razor-sharp voice.