The Damage of ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’

Why we need to ask more from our television shows

Winona Ryder recently did an interview with New York Magazine about acquiring the label ‘crazy’ — how speaking openly about “common emotional challenges” landed her there, how this phenomenon is born of the tendency to “[shame] women for being sensitive or vulnerable.”

Women in and out of the public eye have long been consigned to the rank of ‘crazy’ at rates that should overwhelm our mental institutions and suggest that some staggering proportion of the population is barely making it through the day. In her once-anonymous advice column Dear Sugar, Cheryl Strayed asks the tongue-in-cheek question of the century: “How can it be that so many people’s ex-girlfriends are crazy? What happens to these women? …is there some corporate Rest Home for Crazy Bitches chain in cities across the land that I am unaware of that houses all these women who used to love men who later claim they were actually crazy bitches?”

When I first heard about the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend — from several of my smart, feminist friends and just about every critic at a major media outlet — a glimmer of hope shone through the sea of crazy. Its title suggests the show will be one of two things: either playing into the oldest gender clichés or directly challenging them. And according to the creators, the series is “a feminist deconstruction of the word ‘crazy.’” The theme song and intro credits indicate the same thing. “She’s the crazy ex-girlfriend,” a cartoon cast of characters sing from the sidelines, to which Rebecca, the show’s protagonist, responds, “What? No I’m not.” When the cartoons repeat, “She’s the crazy ex-girlfriend,” Rebecca insists, “That’s a sexist term.” From the outset, the show promises to debunk the notion of the crazy ex-girlfriend and illustrate sexism’s role in promoting it.

Last month, the second season wrapped on the CW, which means it’s now available on Netflix to a new and broader audience. In January, it was approved for a third season. Much to celebrate if, in fact, this show is the feminist manifesto it claims to be, saving grace of maligned ex-girlfriends everywhere.

What I found, though, when I finally sat down to stream it, was a show that does something far more insidious than the worst of the anticipated options — a show that purports to challenge gender stereotypes while actually playing directly into them. Crazy Ex presents Rebecca Bunch, a Harvard-educated, self-described feminist who moves across the country to convince someone she dated ten years ago at a summer camp to be with her — Josh Chan, around whom the show’s characters and plotlines orbit. Once in her new town of West Covina, California, Rebecca befriends character after character who promises to increase her proximity to Josh, while full-on stalking him (think binoculars and web of lies).

The show seems to want to discuss the word “crazy” in regard to mental illness, but it fails to follow through on that either. In the first episode, Rebecca gleefully dumps out her pills, only to later realize that going cold turkey on medication might not have been the wisest choice. But the issue of returning to medication or finding the right one only serves to provide the show with a quick drama — she so badly wants some uppers that she breaks into a therapist’s house to steal some — and then, once it’s no longer narratively expedient, the question of medication vanishes. She does (very occasionally) meet with said therapist — but mostly to complain about Josh while the therapist rolls her eyes, as if to indicate that Rebecca’s a lost cause. Instead of actually engaging with mental illness, the show presents a lying, manipulative, self-obsessed woman with a vague and undiagnosed mental health problem, a woman who takes one or two steps toward getting help and then stops short when it would spoil a plotline. Help is not what the show wants for Rebecca. If it were, any one of the ritualistic epiphanies that she has about her own behavior would stick — but they never do. Like clockwork, Rebecca makes a poor life decision in pursuit of Josh’s affection, realizes her folly and then unrealizes it in time for the drama of the next episode to gather and unfold. In short, it presents nothing more nuanced than the word “crazy” itself, nothing that might make viewers consider the difficulties and realities of living with mental illness or the way the word “crazy” can reduce the wide-ranging struggles to one distant, hazy other.

Even worse, the show attempts this exploration of mental illness while simultaneously attempting to address the sexist notion of the crazy ex-girlfriend, which muddles its message further and ensures that it fails on both counts.

What this leaves us with is not an investigation of how the phrase “crazy ex-girlfriend” gets used and why it is so pervasive, but an underlying assumption that the right combination of devotion and rejection will send any woman into psychosis. The men of the show are nothing to model yourself after, certainly, but their own poor decisions pale in comparison to Rebecca’s. Josh is a little dense and seems incapable of being alone. Greg pines after Rebecca even as she repeatedly treats him like her second-rate plaything. Darryl insists that Paula is his best friend, despite her indifference, if not disdain for him. But Rebecca does only that which benefits her directly. She is seemingly incapable of being a good person if it involves sacrificing any moment with Josh or opportunity to be near him. (She can’t get a crucial recommendation letter written on time for Paula, who is supposedly her best friend, because she spends the week chasing Josh from event to event; when she agrees to babysit Paula’s son, she drags him to a nightclub where she suspects Josh will be and subsequently loses the boy; she breaks into Josh’s apartment to delete a text she regrets sending; she lies to Josh about being pregnant with his baby to get his attention). And with the exception of Paula, who plays out her own crazy ex-girlfriend tendencies enabling and provoking Rebecca, the rest of the show’s women each become the ‘crazy ex-girlfriend’ themselves at some point. Once again, there is no nuance, as the theme song assures us, there is no closer look into Rebecca’s character that reveals complexity and allows us to sympathize. There is only reinforcement that — yup, bitches be cray.

There is no closer look into Rebecca’s character that reveals complexity and allows us to sympathize. There is only reinforcement that — yup, bitches be cray.

It’s a show that nods at character development in a way that might allow you to mistake it for character-driven narrative. We learn that Rebecca’s father abandoned her as a child and that she has since been hell-bent on filling his place with the love of a man. We learn that her mother has been critical of her in a tough-love kind of way, so that she now desperately seeks approval. But none of this is sufficient to humanize decisions like planting ten thousand dollars in someone’s suitcase before she leaves the country in the hopes of getting the woman arrested and charged with a felony. Or breaking into Josh’s new girlfriend’s salon to delete footage of Rebecca running over the new girlfriend’s cat. The plot is a series of lazy narrative choices which the writers try to counteract with questions like, “But why did you really do that?” in reference to the latest unbelievable action of a character who is not fully human, who exists more as stereotype than individual.

What makes the whole thing so infuriating is that the show is not without its merits — there are plenty of norms it does subvert. It casts an Asian male, for example, as the show’s romantic lead — a shockingly rare occurrence in network television — and takes care that his Filipino background is never used as grounds for cheap comedy. The second Josh in this group of friends is referred to as “White Josh.” The white character, for once, is the “other,” while Josh Chan is simply Josh. Once Darryl comes out as bisexual, his orientation fades into the background and becomes just another feature of his life. It never drives the humor of a scene, as for so many sitcoms it would. In the second season, Paula has an abortion and the drama relies on her failure to share the experience with Rebecca, not on the morality of the procedure. Throughout, Crazy Ex is making plenty of careful decisions to undo harmful cultural assumptions and at times can do so quite gracefully. It’s so explicit and clearly capable in its aims that, when it comes to the one in the title, the omission is glaring. For the biggest promise of the show, the one it premises and sells itself on, we get essentially a giant, narrative shrug.

It’s so explicit and clearly capable in its aims that, when it comes to the one in the title, the omission is glaring.

Me, My Anger, and Jessica Jones

So why has this shortcoming been bothering me since the earliest episodes, when I first lost confidence that the show would make good on its promise? Why does the series matter? Several of the smart, feminist women I spoke to who like Crazy Ex admitted that they had fairly low expectations and were able to enjoy it on those terms. Or for its songs, which are catchy and often smart. Or its pockets of effective satire. The show certainly has its charming moments and, stylistically, is downright groundbreaking. Why, then, is it important that it rise above sitcom standards when it comes to depicting women? That we not meet it where it currently operates, in the world of boring, recycled gender presumptions?

Because in light of what the show does challenge, something dangerous is being conveyed about gender: that this stereotype — the crazy ex-girlfriend — does not warrant challenging, that this might be something society has right. Or right enough.

And because the word “crazy” is not harmless. With regard to mental illness, it flattens and others. And with regard to women more broadly, it insists that emotions and motivations are rooted in something illegitimate, that they are inhuman tendencies not to be taken seriously. And when women are not taken seriously, as for so much of history they haven’t been, as so often they still aren’t, their safety is at risk. Based on the theme songs (there’s one per season), I suspect that Crazy Ex is aware of these things and imagines itself to be helping. But the result is a show which presents itself as “a feminist deconstruction of the word ‘crazy’” and in reality suggests that, even from that angle, you can only expect women to act so rationally. It accepts a premise of women as irrational in order to point fingers at rom com culture and societal expectations for making women that way. The effect is even more damaging than the rom coms Crazy Ex wants to blame because it’s cloaked in feminist ideals. At various points, Rebecca explains body dysmorphia to Valencia and laments beauty standards for women. She even cites the work of Roxane Gay as transformative. But none of this gets the show where it wants to go — a deconstruction of the word ‘crazy.’ In fact, the pockets of effective satire or commentary are all undermined by a basic premise in which the woman is little more than a stereotype. (If you are about to argue that she is Harvard-educated and well-read and a good lawyer, then note the important client meetings in which Rebecca texts Josh instead of paying attention or the fact that she devotes herself to “the largest class-action lawsuit LA county has ever seen” so she can spend time with Josh and he’ll be proud of her).

The show is not alone in understanding female emotion and motivation through the blurred lens of irrationality. This is older than Aristotle, who insisted that women lack the rational capacity to control their irrational impulses and for this reason require subjugation to men. Older than the word ‘hysteria’ which, of course, has its roots in the Greek word for ‘womb.’ It’s a millennia-resistant cultural mainstay that landed women in institutions or attics when the emotions they exhibited exceeded the understanding of the men around them. Our current, wildly pervasive use of the word “crazy” is a direct descendant of this impulse, if not, at its core, the very same one.

It’s a millennia-resistant cultural mainstay that landed women in institutions or attics when the emotions they exhibited exceeded the understanding of the men around them.

A few months ago, I was visiting my boyfriend at the time in Washington, D.C. It was December 2016 and there was worse news every day coming out of Aleppo. That morning, the BBC ran an article about the collapse of the ceasefire and how, contrary to Assad’s claims, tens of thousands of civilians were still waiting to leave. Embedded in the article was a video of evacuees crying and running amidst the sounds of gunfire, interviews with families separated, a photo of children who could see the evacuation convoys from their home — convoys that would do them no good now that evacuation was halted. Heavy, horrible things.

That evening, I was working at my computer while my boyfriend played a video game on the couch — a first-person shooter game, set in a monochrome, rubble-strewn landscape. I have never liked first-person shooter games, the realistic depictions of human beings that you can set your crosshairs on and imagine killing. Growing up, my brother and I weren’t allowed to play video games like these, and I’m sure that has something to do with my distaste for them. As kids, violence and simulations of violence were strictly forbidden from our play — toy guns were never allowed in the house, our Halloween costumes were blood-free. Even now, violence as play causes me some discomfort. With real human destruction such a constant in the news, with our increasing ability to dissociate from that which doesn’t directly touch us, this crossover of violence into entertainment represents something deeply sad to me about the human condition. But this particular video game, that so strongly recalled the terrain of Aleppo, especially unsettled me. My boyfriend had been ill that year and video games were one of the few things that helped distract him from an otherwise constant nausea and pain. So I decided to take my computer into the hall — the only other available space — and work there. On my way out, he asked if something was wrong. I was having trouble focusing, I admitted. He offered to put the game on mute. It wasn’t the sound, I said, it was just bumming me out. “You should keep playing,” I told him. “It’ll be easier for me to focus in the hall.”

The next day, during an argument, he brought it up: “That was some crazy shit last night.”

“Last night?” I asked. I wasn’t sure what he was referring to.

“The video game,” he said. “I mean, only an insane person would react that way to something so trivial.” A month later, he would stand by this interpretation.

I walk you through the minutae of this interaction because, in my experience, this is so often how the word “crazy” gets used. By men engaging in the most superficial way with the externalized emotion of a woman. It is not only men doing this, of course — women are plenty disposed themselves — but in my experience it has often been gendered. When people don’t take the time or energy to imagine why someone might be feeling or acting a certain way, they arrive at a faster conclusion: she’s crazy. She’s acting crazy. When another’s emotions are different in nature or degree than one’s own, how easy it is to arrive there.

When people don’t take the time or energy to imagine why someone might be feeling or acting a certain way, they arrive at a faster conclusion: she’s crazy.

I should stress that the person in question, my most recent boyfriend, is a brilliant, thoughtful person and a feminist. That in group settings, he made sure to amplify my voice and never talked over me. That he values women as human beings and values women’s rights. So, yes, his comment was made in a moment of anger, but the fact remains that even my thoughtful feminist boyfriend was susceptible to this kind of thinking. That all of us are.

And this is only the petty, everyday use of the word. The experience I described is inconsequential compared with the experience of sexual assault survivors whose stories are not heard, whose testimonies are not believed. The experience of women who are murdered by spouses or coworkers after someone did not believe them. But they are built of the same failings of empathy, the same disinterest in parsing emotions or actions we don’t understand.

So, yes. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend does harm. It may be a mere formulaic sitcom, but there’s plenty of ground that it is breaking and none of that ground involves the word ‘crazy.’ Hundreds of thousands of people watch the show and receive the message that — yes, their ex is crazy, they always knew women were secretly plotting their every move around a man, manipulating freely and irrationally. The underlying assumptions about gender are of a piece with the forces that kept Hillary Clinton from office, that made it so easy to paint her as calculating and untrustworthy and not rational enough to lead. We still have a problem with the word ‘crazy’ and this show, despite its feminist packaging, is doing nothing to alleviate it.

If Crazy Ex won’t do the work, then someone else write the show — The Ex-Girlfriend Labeled Crazy by Lazy Thinkers and Empathizers, Who is in Fact a Complex Person with Human Motivations. That’s a show I want to watch.

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