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To celebrate International Women’s Day, Ruth Seavers writes about Rachel Bloom and her series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
The musical theatre TV dramedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is now in the middle of its fourth and final season. First aired in 2015, it’s been nominated for an Critics Choice Award, Emmy and won the 2016 Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series. Lauded for it’s exploration of mental illness, perhaps all the more so because it is so rare that a TV show’s premise is grounded in such a contentious and convoluted topic. What does it look like to be mentally ill? What do relationships look like? What does recovery look like? Crazy-Ex Girlfriend is an attempt to answer some of these questions.
The show challenges the idea of women being “too much.” Too emotional, too angry, too anxious, too opinionated, too fat, too skinny… The trope of women being “too much” has been around for decades and fetishised in films such as Fatal Attraction, leading to specifically gendered terms such as “bunny boiler” and “crazy ex-girlfriend.” You don’t hear many women rolling their eyes about their crazy-ex boyfriend. And women – not just co-creator and star of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Rachel Bloom – are tired of the trope.
Inherent in these terms is the implication that these women are write offs. It is the get out of jail free card of dialogue and discourse: “You’re crazy” equals “I don’t have to listen to you.” Crazy might as well be the equivalent to nothing. But Bloom calls this out, giving the crazy ex-girlfriend not just a voice, but a platform to be listened to and a space for her story to unfold – as she tells it. And as she says in the opening scene: “the situation is a lot more nuanced than that.”
Only this week Chrissy Teigen spoke out against the differing of opinions towards her and husband John Legend; “I feel like a very common question when interviewing John is basically ‘how do you deal with your wife’ and … I don’t love it,” she tweeted.
Stylist’s Hannah-Rose Yee, picking this up articulated; “What people mean when they ask Legend this question is how he ‘deals’ and ‘copes’ with being married to someone who has a voice and isn’t afraid to use it on social media. Teigen has spoken out about body-shaming, mum-shaming, IVF, postpartum depression and, of course, the drastic political situation in the US right now … The subtext of that question is: ‘How do you tolerate this mouthy broad you married?’ as one Twitter user summed it up. ‘Truly’ Teigen replied.”
Feminist non grata Lena Dunham also recently Instagrammed: “I’ve spent a lot of time in this life feeling like too much. Too hungry. Too anxious. Too loud. Too needy. Too sick. Too dramatic. Too honest. Too sexy (jk lol.) I was always sent the message, in insidious ways, that I took up too much room and demanded too much from life and sometimes gave too much to people who didn’t want any at all. But something has changed, and it started when I realized: I don’t have to be *for* everybody, and that for the right people, my too much is just enough. My too much also means I have room for their too much and we can take turns too muching all over each other. At 32: I weigh the most I ever have. I love the most I ever have. I read and write and laugh the most I ever have. And I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. Not the frail, precarious happiness of “things are going perfectly.” The big, generous, jiggly happiness of “I think I’m finally starting to get the hang of this.” Not too much… Just enough.”
With cinematic television becoming increasingly ingrained into our everyday lives, shows like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are providing long, long story arcs in which characters are given years to develop inside of. Stories are not just begun, told and wrapped in an hour and a half like in cinema, but rather are being given the treatment of film (production values, budget, talent etc) – all with the luxury of time that TV allows. This gives the much needed breathing space for complex storytelling and character development to occur – Rebecca takes four seasons to even begin to feel a little more stable and three seasons for her to reach a diagnosis.
What is admirable about the skill and insight and of the writing is that, while navigating such a complex character, Rebecca is not follied or “other”-ised by a line drawn definitively between her and the rest of the characters. Of separation between the sick and the well – the “crazy” and the “normal.” Friends and romantic partners are not cast in a mirror role in which to reflect Rebecca’s behaviour back unto herself or the viewer – but are flawed and fumbling characters in themselves.
Indeed, “crazy” is not just reserved for Rebecca. Other characters are not immune from outlandish and hysterical pursuits – Nathaniel at one point tries to take out a hit on Josh’s grandfather – which just about levels up the hit Rebecca tried to take out on his girlfriend Mona.
Looking at some of the things Rebecca does during the the four seasons, you’d be forgiven for recoiling if this was your girlfriend. But the show – based loosely on Bloom’s own life – is a musical. It’s theatrical and it’s dramatic. And although parts of Rebecca are autobiographical, Bloom describes the character as a “heightened version of the best parts of myself and the worst parts of myself.”
Rebecca Bunch is the show’s exploration of the “desperately seeking” woman so often characterised (particularly in rom coms) where a woman’s irritating lack of self respect and constant unrequited love is marred by the constant rejection of the cool, calm, collectedness of the male ego. But, again, Rebecca has a flip side. She’s often caught rolling her eyes, dismissing or scoffing at someone who wants to be her friend – or remarking at how sexy she is (she is). So although her behaviour comes across as desperate in some areas of her life – it doesn’t mean it encroaches all areas of her character. And slowly – we begin to unearth something that appears to be something other than just “desperation.”
These nuances in representation of mood and motivation transform Rebecca into an all encompassing and contradictory character that is much more of an actual representation of a real life human than the one dimensional and damaging representation we often see of women on screen (often written by men) when it comes to mental illness. Bloom gives a nod to this in ‘Sexy French Depression’ – which slams the resoundingly indulgent trope of romanticising melancholic women – roaming around their mansions with lithe limbs, lethargic and dressed in lace, probably exposing a nipple because gosh darn-it – she is just too depressed to dress herself.
In ‘A Diagnosis’ – Bloom tackles head on one of the most debated issues in treating mental illness – the topic of diagnosis. Very often people get misdiagnosed. Each diagnosis looks different on each patient – how can we pin it down if it varies so much? Do labels help or hinder? And – should the doctor tell the patient their diagnosis?
Again, Rebecca’s story is not over-simplified into a digestible journey where once receiving a diagnosis – she now has the tools to get better – but stumbles and falls and slips and trips and it’s pleasing to watch. Because frankly, most of us aren’t buying the sexy French depression anymore.
Educate and Entertain
Self-deprecating, timely and feminist af – Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is on a mission to educate not just entertain. Every episode is filled with nuggets of real life information from referencing actual statistics on female pleasure to exploring toxic masculinity in songs such as ‘Sports Analogies’ – the show is blisteringly feminist. And unapologetically so. Comically so.
Rather than just an odd inoffensive reference, the word TAMPON is plastered all over the background of her video for ‘Ladyboss’ and honestly – as a woman – one of the most welcomed songs is ‘Heavy Boobs’ where Bloom hysterically draws attention to the very real plight – of heavy boobs. When Nathaniel asks where the underwear he bought her is, Rebecca says: “Yeah, I donated that to the West Covina Middle School Drama Department because only a 13 year old girl could fit into it. Also we’re not even going to discuss the lingerie you gave me. The bra was like two delicate tissues held together with dental floss…and the panties sliced my muffin top into a hamburger bun.” She’s got sass.
The oxymoronic position of being confident in your insecurities is disarming. It’s almost revolutionary. Women (and men) are taught to be ashamed about any sensitivities or emotion. So if you stick a big middle finger up to that – what happens?
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend delightfully lives in the grey. Bloom gives voice to the scorned or shrugged off woman – a narrative we have been told is not worth listening to. Standing staunchly amongst a barrage of questions it launches at you, it refuses to move for answers. No, you’re going to have to find those yourself. Where is the line between illness and insanity? What does crazy mean? Is Rebecca crazy? And most importantly of all (let’s face it)…are you?
In throwing around this leper-like label we convince ourselves we are immune from it. That’s “them,” not us. But Bloom seems to step into that shade and say; “Hey, yeah, I might be a bit crazy. Probably. But so what?” Which takes all the power out of it.
Again, it must be impossibly difficult to create an show in which the narrative is based on the relationship to the self. Philosophers alone have struggled with this since the birth of rational thought. Because when all is said and done, this was partly Bloom’s journey. She has poured her heart and soul into this project and it shows. But the important thing to remember is it’s a journey. It is not the journey. There is no one size fits all for the loony lonesome. Each story is different, but in telling them we start create a landscape to bounce off of. A web in which to crawl from one gossamer to another, where on might overlap with the other. And the more stories we tell, the more they will overlap.
Rebecca’s story is just one fragment in the broken mirror that is our lack of understanding of ourselves, our psyches and why is it we do the things we do. But each time someone picks up a fragment, polishes it off and gives it back to us – a gift – the mirror becomes that little bit clearer.