Friday, 23 August 2019

Why Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Is a Modern Feminist Cult Classic

It’s no secret that I am a massive fan of the TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. At this point I probably know at least half of the songs of by heart (if not more… there are a lot), all of which my flatmates are probablydefinitely fed up of hearing – and I won’t lie, they do sound super weird without context – and I’m still rewatching episodes here and there to try and get over the series coming to an end. I love sharing my love for this show, and when anyone asks me for a new TV recommendation (feminist or otherwise), I will always mention Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. It’s viewing figures have never been all that impressive, despite its critical acclaim, but I believe that this show will live on for a long time as a feminist cult classic. We are saturated with so much TV at the moment that sometimes it can feel overwhelming by all the content we have thrust at us constantly, and that means that sometimes gems such as Crazy Ex-Girlfriend can be pushed aside and forgotten about. So what is it about this show which makes it so special to me? I thought I’d explain.

**(There will be a spoilers ahead, although I’ll try my best not to go into too much detail, they’re necessary to get my point across)**

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Crazy Ex-Girlfriend centres around just that: the ‘crazy ex-girlfriend’ trope. Analyzing what it is, the societal ideas and preconceptions of it, and, most importantly, the real women and circumstances behind it. We start off with Rebecca (payed by creator and co-writer Rachel Bloom) being broken up with by Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) at the end of a summer camp they attended when they were 16. We then rejoin Rebecca ten years later as she is about to be asked to become partner at the law firm she works at in New York. After having a panic attack the moment before she is given her promotion, she sees Josh on the street outside and a switch is flipped in her mind. Following Rebecca through a series of rash decisions (moving to West Covina as a means of following Josh, quitting her job and trying to break up Josh’s long-term relationship to name just a few), we see how the prospect of an idealized version of love is seen as a quick-fix by Rebecca for her so-far undiagnosed mental health issues (she has to wait until series 4 for a correct diagnosis).  Many of Rebecca’s actions throughout the show (particularly in the earlier series) are outlandish, ridiculous, often illegal and nearly always unhealthy and damaging to both herself and the people around her. However, with her diagnosis and willingness to learn and be kind to herself, she learns to reign those in and, through practicing self-care and treatment for her illness, is finally able to love and value herself and her relationships. 

The fantasy ideal of romance along with the idea that without that “perfect” person you are not complete is broken down entirely by this show, made especially prominent by Bloom and McKenna’s satire on the romcom genre through twisting its tropes and by making the show a musical black comedy. Rebecca’s obsession with the classic Hollywood fairytale romance leads her to ignoring the underlying issues she needs to address (yes, I sang that to the tune of the second season theme song) and means that she makes unhealthy choices in an attempt to achieve these unattainable standards. And whilst it may take four series for Rebecca to completely understand what is the overarching message of the show: romantic love will not “fix” you, although you still deserve it, but you have to solve your problems yourself. 

At first, the show’s humour may seem a bit full on and weird, which can put some people off (I know some of my friends have been a bit confused at my recommendation initially because of that), but as you get to know the humour and the characters, they serve further to promote the messages the show is trying to convey. The points they make become more poignant as part of the juxtaposition which is so intrinsic to many of the musical numbers. Some of my favourite songs which are the perfect examples of this is Maybe This Dream and The Miracle of Birth - both performed by Donna Lynne Champlin and both contrast the unpretty side of what many women experience (starting periods on a run, a weak pelvic floor, childbirth, etc.) the first with a stereotypical Disney princess song and then the latter with a Stevie Nicks-esque feminine folk song.

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Throughout the 4 series we watch as Rebecca’s relationships to all of the characters change, along with her declining mental health, and then again as she is able to rebuild herself through her own acknowledgement of her situation and taking responsibility for her actions (yep, again I sang that). And whilst the show is primarily about Rebecca Bunch, the show doesn’t sideline any of the other characters at all. Each and every one of the “side” characters has their own arc and is developed in a realistic and beautiful way – they remain their own person no matter their connection to the main character. Valenica, Heather, Greg, Josh, Nathaniel, Darryl… even Rebecca’s mother becomes more sympathetic as we get see more of her.

We see characters of all kinds, and the diversity of the characters really brings something special to the show. I mean what other show can you think of which had at least four episodes in a row without including a straight white man?? We have a Filipino man as a romantic lead, who takes up the role of Gene Kelly in one of his main songs. We have a middle-aged man discovering his bisexuality and singing about its legitimacy to his whole office. We have a mixed race black woman rising up the career ladder, being a great friend and having a loving, healthy relationship at the same time. I could go on. It’s true the show isn’t perfect – it could do better in various means of representation but it’s pretty damn good for the general standards of TV. In many shows, the character’s race or sexuality becomes a huge part of their character arcs. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend creates the characters’ arcs and development separate from their race, gender and sexuality, although at times they do come into play as they are significant in real life. The writers flip this in the character of Nathaniel, who’s whiteness, straightness and richness is basically his whole thing – at least in the beginning anyway. 

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One of my favourite characters is Paula, Rebecca’s best friend and colleague. Paula represents so much and I love her. She is hilarious, caring, loyal as hell and wants to do her best to help make the world a better place. There are loads of reasons why I love Paula, those mentioned previously just some of them. As a woman a little older than Rebecca, she is a great avenue to explore a whole world of other issues and themes, and the creators take full advantage of that. For example, through Paula we see the gradual gender-equalization of a previously stale marriage and how her and her husband fall back in love with each other, being a mature student, motherhood, the sometimes over-obsessive nature of best-friendships… When I think of Paula’s arc, however, one of the biggest messages which I at least take out of it is that of ‘you can do it’. She faces a multitude of obstacles – her struggling marriage, taking care of her kids, an unplanned pregnancy and consequently going through an abortion almost in secret, as well as her own self-doubt. I could write a full essay on pretty much all of the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend characters, but for me, Paula is perhaps the most inspirational. Her story is that of the empowerment of a woman who didn’t see activism as something ‘for her’ but takes steps to ensure that it is and makes a hell of a difference despite what she is told. 

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend subverts any and all genres it takes on and the expectations we get from that. And nothing exemplifies this than the last few episodes and the final ending. As Rebecca is faced with the choice of her three main suitors throughout the span of the show, we are lulled into expecting her to end up with a traditional ‘happily ever after’, but the last episode goes against this entirely. Yes, she does get a happily ever after, but with herself. The love of her life is music, her friends, her own company. As Rebecca says herself in the finale: “Romantic love is not an ending, not for me and not for anyone else here.” Instead of the reward for the female protagonist being a man to “complete” them, Rebecca gets personal fulfilment and growth. And Paula? Well, she has both. For both of these characters, their arcs are really about self-growth, improvement and maturing. This is demonstrated and celebrated throughout the entire of the last season. The episode titles change from being focused on Josh or Greg or Nathaniel to ‘I’. Rebecca’s focus has shifted from the men around her to her own priorities. The final song, ‘Eleven O’Clock,’ summarises this beautifully. Rebecca finally opens up completely to Paula (and subsequently her other friends) by showing her secret happy place where she is at her most vulnerable. The song goes through the past four seasons and we go through her journey to self-growth and self-improvement on fast forward. And then in the reprise we have a musical reference back to Paula and Rebecca’s first duet in the pilot – an emotional reminder of just how far they have come since then. 

Now, whenever I need a little bit of comfort, a bit of motivation and empowerment, a reminder of what women can do when they’re given the opportunity, I pop on the show’s finale and feel a bit better about the world. 



You can watch Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on CW and Netflix (among other places if you can find - I watched on Netflix).

If you liked this post you might like: 5 Women-Led Shows You Need to Watch

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