Watch & Listen

From Period Sex to Borderline Personality Disorder: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The CW Show Transcending the Normative Discourse on Mental Illness & Femininity

"Rebecca isn't a victim-- nor is she a villain. She is dynamic. And above all else, she is human."

By Annika Bjerke

When my roommate recommended a TV show produced by the CW, a network known for its overly dramatic, albeit highly addictive, TV shows (@ Riverdale), called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, I thought it was going to be like every other reality TV show. Don’t get me wrong—one could argue that reality TV is fine  (a debate for a later time), but it isn’t the kind of entertainment that I catch myself spending hours watching. 

In a severe TV drought, following a binge of Broad City and Russian Doll, I decided to finally give Crazy Ex-Girlfriend a go. Much to my surprise, the show was incredible. A real Jewish female lead (@ Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) who embraced realistic body standards? Check. A show that bridges musical theatre, dramatic TV, and sitcoms? Check. A powerful discussion of mental illness cradled by comedy?  Check.

I think back to why I was less than enthusiastic about starting the show and recall my distaste for the stereotype of the crazy ex-girlfriend—a trope that seemed to be embedded in the show’s title. After watching all four seasons,  I realize the show’s mastery is in its ability to deconstruct the very core of this stereotype, intentionally including it to dismantle any preconceived notions the viewer might have had. 

Olivia Bono for Crazy ExGirlfriend
Art by Olivia Bono

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend breaks down societal boundaries, airing and provoking conversations that we feel uncomfortable confronting like mental illness and intimate feminine issues, and does so in a way that is sensitive and considerate. 

Season one’s theme song nicely sums up the premise of the show in a cheery number; the protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (played by the show’s co-creator and writer, Rachel Bloom) is a New York corporate lawyer who was “making dough but it made [her] blue.” So after running into her ex-boyfriend, Josh Chan (played by Vincent Rodriguez III) from band camp on the streets of New York, she decides to follow him to West Covina, California. Here, Rebecca joins the relatively unremarkable Whitefeather & Associates law firm, where she makes “brand new pals.” She tells everyone that the law firm made an offer she couldn’t resist and that “it happens to be where Josh lives, but that’s not why [she’s] here!”

While it may not seem this way at first—with the happy musical numbers, and the constant visits to the local boba pop-up shop—the show is complex: dark at times, happy at others, serving viewers a radical dose of realism. As the show progresses, we see Rebecca struggle with OCD, anxiety, and depression, until finally, in the third season, we see Rebecca unpack her diagnosis with Borderline Personality Disorder. Unlike other depictions of mental illness, Rebecca isn’t a victim—nor is she a villain. She is dynamic. And above all else, she is human.

However, Rebecca’s journey doesn’t end with a diagnosis. 

Despite her hope that an accurate label for her struggles might end her suffering, as played out in the most moving musical number of the show which is aptly titled “Diagnosis,” Rebecca finds that her diagnosis is only the first step in the direction of self-acceptance and healing, a journey wrought with struggle. Unlike other TV shows in which characters with mental illness are miraculously healed within a couple of episodes, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend kneads the issues over several seasons. 

When Rebecca attempts suicide in season three, the show doesn’t glorify suicide as a tool for social manipulation. Do we all remember 13 Reasons Why? To bring you up to speed, it is the show about a high schooler, Hannah, who commits suicide and leaves behind 13 tapes to 13 people that she feels were responsible for her decision to commit suicide. In this light, the resulting tapes are portrayed as a tool for exacting revenge, a deliberate way to make those left behind feel guilty. The death of Hannah is triggering and gruesome. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, on the other hand, depicts Rebecca’s suicide attempt in a less triggering manner. Unlike 13 Reasons Why, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend also goes into the specifics of mental illness through Rebbeca’s struggle with profound symptoms. Viewers of the show are also able to witness a recovery process. We see Rebecca seek help in the midst of her suicide attempt, as well as the guilt and shame that followed in subsequent episodes. We see her supportive friends stick by her side during the hospital stay and the aftermath. And we see the complexity of suicide in a way that most other shows do not even dare try to explore or try, but then fail.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend doesn’t just shine an honest light on mental illness. The show is also groundbreaking in its depiction of bisexuality and nuanced masculinity, as well as its honest portrayals of female issues.

In the first season of the show, the owner of Whitefeather and Associates, Darryl Whitefeather, comes to terms with his sexuality. After his divorce with his wife, he realizes that he is also sexually attracted to men. The hit song, “Gettin’ Bi,” in which Darryl comes out to his office during a meeting, features lyrics that dispell commonly held myths about bisexuality: “Now some may say ‘Oh you’re just gay, why don’t you just go gay all the way?’ But that’s not it, ‘cause bi’s legit. Whether you’re a he or a she, we might be a perfect fit.” 

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend also challenges tropes of masculinity in a comedic way, with songs like “Fit Hot Guys Have Problems Too” from season three. Here, the three “fit hot guys” of the show are heartbroken after their love interests have left them, leading them to feel emotions that society has told them are not meant for men. “We’re expressing our pain through the art of dance, but we’ll express so much better without these pants. There’s so much pressure when you’re a fit hot guy, so just let us ugly cry! Let us ugly cry!”

Finally, the show provides a breath of fresh air with its honest portrayal of female issues that are otherwise largely ignored by public television. The episode, “To Josh with Love,” marks the first time that any live-action television network has used the word “clitoris,” according to Rachel Bloom on a Late Late Show interview with James Cordon. While there has been some debate about whether this is true—Dwight from The Office may have said it once—this is still some groundbreaking stuff! Not to mention the show’s continuous comedic riffs on period sex, normalizing the act that makes so many people uncomfortable. With a whole song dedicated to the act, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend creates a space for women to be whoever, act however, and do so with confidence.

And if none of the above reasons are enough to convince you to watch Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, then hopefully this will: name one other show that casually drops Jeff Sessions in the middle of a musical number with neon 80s blazers and choreographed dance moves.

By challenging gender norms, grappling with mental illness, and pushing against societal stigmas, the TV show makes a statement and raises the bar for other shows catered towards women.

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