All singing, all dancing, all rather toxic
D H Kelly enjoys the brilliant comic songs in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend but is disappointed by the show’s treatment of mental ill health and its reliance on toxic heteronormative romantic messages
This article includes spoilers for seasons one and two of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
“I’m just a girl in love. I can’t be held responsible for my actions,” sings the character of Rebecca Bunch in the theme song for the second season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a comedy show in which twenty-something lawyer Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom, who co-created the show) moves from her high-flying but miserable life in New York to West Covina, California, largely in order to be near Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III), a man she dated as a teenager in summer camp and is still in love with many years later. With the help of her new best friend Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin), Rebecca plots to seduce Josh, break up his current relationship and live happily ever after.
As far as the more toxic elements common to romantic comedy plots are concerned, it gets worse. Rebecca and Paula routinely employ underhand tactics, even breaking the law in order to monitor and manipulate Josh and generally interfere with his life and relationships. Both women fervently believe that Rebecca and Josh are meant to be together and thus any amount of bad behaviour is justified in their pursuit. Rebecca’s love rival, Josh’s girlfriend Valencia (Gabrielle Ruiz) is a beautiful yoga instructor who is shallow, cold and does not have female friends because women are jealous of her. Rebecca herself is something of a Mary Sue who everyone eventually befriends or falls in love with despite her bad behaviour towards them – men who fall in love with Rebecca include Josh’s best friend Greg (Santino Fontana) and a man whose on-line identity Rebecca had selected as a pretend boyfriend. She does very little work, often exploits professional situations in pursuit of romance and even assaults her boss, but is regarded as a very successful lawyer who is indispensable to her firm.
Is the show sending up romantic comedy tropes and all their heteronormative poison , or is the show, at heart, an un-ironic romantic comedy which merely rolls its venomous tongue around its cheek from time to time?
So why am I watching this? Well, two or three times an episode, characters will sing songs which suggest an ironic angle to all this nonsense. Co-creator Rachel Bloom and her team write fantastically catchy and moving comic songs (she was nominated for a Hugo Award for her music video, ‘Fuck me, Ray Bradbury‘) and the production of these magic-realist song and dance numbers is absolutely excellent. This is what I watch the show for, along with a few stunning one-liners and some of the peripheral characters who I have come to care about. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has monopolised my earworms for the last three months.
My big problem is that I’m not sure just how ironic this show is trying to be. This is a subject of great debate in my household; is the show sending up romantic comedy tropes and all their heteronormative poison, or is the show, at heart, an un-ironic romantic comedy which merely rolls its venomous tongue around its cheek from time to time?
Protagonist Rebecca identifies as a feminist and a few songs focus on light-weight feminist issues; ‘The sexy getting ready song‘ describes the very unsexy processes women often go through to look good on a night out and ‘Put yourself first‘ is a satire on how young women are encouraged to think about beauty in terms of their own personal pleasure, in order to attract men.
Other songs express the naive reasoning of various characters, satirising many cultural tropes about love and sex: rather than pretending that Rebecca might love him, Greg sings ‘Settle for me‘. ‘Let’s have intercourse‘ might be the anthem of all those rom com pairings who hate one another but still want to get it on, and Rebecca and Josh enthusiastically sing in ‘We’ll never have problems again‘ after friend Heather (Vella Lovell) counsels a little realism about the ups and downs of all relationships.
Though repeatedly sidelined for the pursuit of romantic love, friendship is very important on the show and these friendships are the relationships I find myself investing in. Some supporting characters who would have remained two-dimensional in most other shows are allowed their own lives and complex narratives, occasionally even resisting Rebecca’s plots and manipulations. However, I’m not sure I am supposed to feel relief rather than regret when one of my favourite characters escapes Rebecca’s orbit by leaving the show.
The trouble is the implication that all of Rebecca’s outrageous behaviour and terrible choices – her ‘craziness’ in the more modern colloquial sense – are entirely down to this unspecified condition
A major problem is, of course, the ‘crazy’ of the title. Rebecca is mentally unwell; she pours medication down the garbage disposal, we hear of a family history of mental illness (“Many suicides,” she explains, mid-song, “many suicides.”) and she acquires a therapist Dr Akopian (played by the fantastic though woefully underused Michael Wyatt) who offers sensible strategies which Rebecca repeatedly ignores.
There is nothing wrong with having a fictional character with mental illness who is also unsympathetic and makes horrendous decisions. The trouble is the implication that all of Rebecca’s outrageous behaviour and terrible choices – her ‘craziness’ in the more modern colloquial sense – are entirely down to this unspecified condition. ‘Crazy’ is a troublesome word because of its use as a slur toward people with mental ill health, particularly in the way it compounds illness with wacky, eccentric and even violent behaviour (for example, ‘wearing those shoes is crazy’, ‘blowing up that building is crazy’ etc.).
The failure to differentiate between Rebecca’s illness and her outrageous behaviour implies that a certain stereotype of a young professional woman with mental ill health – erratic, narcissistic, preoccupied, jealous, broody – is what mental illness actually looks like
Rebecca sings “You’ve ruined everything, you stupid bitch” in ‘You stupid bitch’ but not after an innocent mistake or moment of weakness has sent her into a spiral of self-loathing; she’s sad because she has failed to seduce Josh, having staged a crime to gain his sympathy. The song ‘Sexy French depression‘ which satirises the glamorisation of low mood, is sung when Josh and his long-time girlfriend Valencia move in together. In this world, depression is caused by romantic frustration and cured by romantic fulfilment. Rebecca’s therapist Dr Akopian counters this central theme during her occasional appearances, but her sessions nevertheless pathologise Rebecca’s foolish behaviour, allowing Rebecca to frame her stubborn wishful thinking as “delusions”, describing a lie as “a dissociative episode”.
This failure to differentiate between Rebecca’s illness and her outrageous behaviour implies that a certain stereotype of a young professional woman with mental ill health – erratic, narcissistic, preoccupied, jealous, broody – is what mental illness actually looks like (it is, of course, what one person with mental illness could look like, but these traits are not usually about mental ill health). Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is, as the theme song of the first season acknowledges, a sexist term used to dismiss and stigmatise women who have any kind of complaint about male behaviour. Gendered mental health stigma is often the very first port of call for anyone who wants to silence and control women. So these stereotypes, though employed here for gentle comic effect, are not merely offensive but dangerous.
Meanwhile, the combination of this stereotype with toxic romantic tropes where stalker behaviour is justified by romantic destiny presents another serious problem. These narratives more often feature a man who seeks to win a woman’s love as a prize for his tenacity, but Rebecca could give Christian Grey a run for his money. To connect this behaviour with mental ill health is not only stigmatising people with these conditions, but also plays into the idea that sexual aggressors can’t help themselves, having been “driven mad by love”. Reinforcing such ideas puts women, who are more likely to be victims of stalking and harassment, at greater risk.
I’m not suggesting that every fictional depiction of mental ill health should be an object lesson in disability discrimination, but the juxtaposition of this extreme if comical stereotype of a mentally ill young woman and a world in which mental illness holds nearly no stigma is particularly grating
Fortunately for Rebecca, her universe is almost without mental health stigma. Of course, people call her ‘crazy’, but even those adversely effected by her bad behaviour (including those who might find it really very frightening) come to accept this as a morally neutral quirk, with no sustained doubts about her competence, reliability or safety. There’s just a hint at the fetishisation of women with mental ill health, when one character observes, “I get that you want to sleep with crazy. Sex with crazy is great.”
I’m not suggesting that every fictional depiction of mental ill health should be an object lesson in disability discrimination, but the juxtaposition of this extreme if comical stereotype of a mentally ill young woman and a world in which mental illness holds nearly no stigma is particularly grating. In the real world, far more virtuous people face mental health prejudice in situations where their conditions are all but invisible and entirely inconsequential to others, let alone when their conditions manifest in behaviours which effect or upset other people. Partly because of the messages enforced by TV shows like this.
All this is made more exasperating by the show’s rather better – though imperfect – depiction of alcoholism. We mostly only meet Greg – Josh’s best friend – when he is at work or with Rebecca, and several minor characters have described him as an alcoholic before we see anything more than the fact that he frequently uses drink as a way of coping with awkward social situations. In TV and film, there is a very common stereotype of the heroic but troubled masculine addict who drinks and gets into fights because of the social impossibility of expressing his feelings in words, but Greg is far more human than that. We don’t see him raging against the world or slumped under a bridge and we don’t need to; he describes alcoholism eloquently and details the ways in which drinking is causing him real life problems. The way others react to this – although very gentle and comical – seems fairly realistic; his boss tells him that Greg’s story has inspired him to give up Kettle Chips and his friends struggle to comprehend that no, Greg won’t be having even one small drink.
Otherwise, disability gets a pretty dreadful treatment here. The other disabled characters are all very minor roles, such as Rebecca’s colleague, the non-verbal but infinitely wise Mrs Hernandez (Gina Gallego) whose communication through looks and smiles is a running joke, and Paula’s son Tommy (Steele Stebbins) whose list of diagnoses – ADHD, OCD, SAD, a panic disorder and restless leg syndrome – is no more than a punchline. Medical labels are thrown around as if these terms are inherently funny and largely without meaning. During one song, there’s a casual reference to an eccentric character having “a manic episode”. In another, Rebecca explains the repetition of lyrics with the claim she’s had a stroke and there’s a baby-voiced Marilyn Monroe parody where she explains her inability to understand the negative implications of a love triangle due to “my learning disability”.
Finally, there’s Greg’s father (Robin Thomas) who is less a character than a narrative device we should all recognise by now; the disabled family member whose existence stands in for another character’s goodness and frustrated potential; Greg’s Dad’s chronic illness is the burden which keeps Greg tending bar in West Covina despite being smart and capable of being elsewhere doing other things.
Representation of other identities and minorities is fairly good. Rebecca is Jewish, observes Jewish holidays and enters into a rather brilliant JAP (Jewish American Princess) rap battle with another lawyer. By TV standards, there is a high level of racial diversity and this is a rare show where characters of colour are both related to and friends with many other people of colour; Josh is a Filipino American with a large Filipino American family and a Filipino American priest, as well as a Mexican American girlfriend and a Hawaiian boss. Unfortunately, the only Native American character is a white person, Rebecca’s boss Daryl Whitefeather (Pete Gardner), but there is no pretence that he has anything but a vague family connection and a personal affinity to Native American culture. Unlike in The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt the joke here is on a white person who aspires to an ethnic minority identity, as opposed to being on a Native American person – played by and written by white people – who is desperate to be white.
There is a gay character, two bisexuals and – miracle of miracles – the word bisexual is not only explicitly used, but there’s a song about it! It’s a little ridiculous that the mere mention of a word should have elicited an involuntary cheer from this viewer, but this is such a rare thing. In fact, the show perhaps inadvertently presents queer identities and relationships as exponentially more sensible, stable and healthy than straight ones. There is even a brief appearance of a polyamorous triad who explain to Rebecca that polyamory (again, the word is actually used!) is not a simple solution to being in love with two people at once.
Rachel Bloom who plays Rebecca is white, young, extremely pretty, slim, cisgender and without visible impairments, but she is “fat” in TV terms; her body-type, being of short stature, big-breasted and not model-thin, yet she is frequently dressed in sexy underwear and revealing dance outfits, once even performing an impressive pole-dance. Her body-type is not quite the same as mine, but it is still great to see someone who looks an awful lot more like me than the vast majority of female protagonists, especially on American shows.
However, we do hear far too much about Rebecca’s supposed weight problem and comfort eating. While the character does not have quite the miraculous metabolism of a Gilmore Girl, it’s rather disheartening to have a character who is slimmer than the average woman being portrayed as an overeater who is regularly mocked by herself and others for being fat.
Donna Lynne Champlin, who plays best friend Paula, is a larger woman in her forties who also gets to sing and dance and be seen as both sexual and sexy. Blessedly, I can’t remember any jokes about her weight or appearance, although I wonder if not being the romantic lead, the writers don’t feel the same need to apologise for the character’s failure to be thin.
The writers have failed to avoid re-enforcing many toxic heteronormative romantic messages, whether about happy-ever-afters, the thrill of the chase or just how much power romantic love should have over a person’s life, happiness and personal fulfilment
I stuck with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend for two seasons because most of the songs are fantastic, some of the characters are very nicely drawn and there are some great jokes. Meanwhile, I have developed an almost morbid fascination with that question about irony and quite what the writers are trying to achieve. However, the fact I’m still asking the question at this stage suggests that they have failed to avoid re-enforcing many toxic heteronormative romantic messages, whether about happy-ever-afters, the thrill of the chase or just how much power romantic love should have over a person’s life, happiness and personal fulfilment. By the end of season two, Rebecca remains our heroine and she rarely concerns herself with anything but male love and attention – there are several episodes which, despite a large cast of named female characters who talk with one another, only edge past the Bechdel test.
Had the creators changed the title and not compounded Rebecca’s outrageous behaviour and her mental health, I would have enjoyed the whole thing very much more; the ubiquity of romantic comedy tropes in popular culture has built up my tolerance for them when the jokes are good, but this was the subject that made me wince and cringe time and again. Mental ill health and comedy have a long history together – even mental ill health, comedy, magic realism & musical numbers has been combined to great effect before, such as in The Singing Detective back in 1986 – but outside the serial killer genre, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is one of the most disappointing depictions of mental ill health in recent years.
You can watch seasons one and two of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on Netflix.
Image description: The image shows Rachel Bloom, who plays Rebecca Bunch looking directly at the camera on the right hand side of the image. She is wearing a pink top and pink make-up. Her mouth is slightly open as if she is surprised or about to speak. She is holding a pink heart shaped balloon with a tight fisted grip. The words ‘Never. Let. Go’ are written in the middle of the image with the show’s title, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, beneath. The image is used under fair dealing.