Even the theme song of The CW's new musical comedy, "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend," knows the show’s name is problematic.
The Broadway-style number narrates the backstory to heroine Rebecca Bunch’s (Rachel Bloom) exploits in West Covina, California, a tiny backwater two hours from the ocean: After 10 years, she runs into her beefcake summer-camp ex-boyfriend, Josh, and immediately quits a lucrative job at a big NYC law firm to move to West Covina for a relaxing change.
Oh, and Josh just happens to live there.
A chorus kicks in: "She’s the crazy ex-girlfriend! She’s so broken inside!" Lawyerly Rebecca, every bit the irate feminist, bridles: "That’s a sexist term," she snaps. "The situation’s a lot more nuanced than that!"
Many critics have taken issue with the show’s title, from HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall to The Hollywood Reporter. "It feels like there's a very good show trapped inside here, with funny performers and a distinctive comic voice, but first it, like ‘Cougar Town,’ has to move beyond its dumb initial premise and poorly-chosen title," Sepinwall opined. Audiences, these critics point out, don’t care if the title or story is ironic; they won’t stick around to find out which way things are going.
Others, including The Huffington Post’s own Emma Gray, have applauded co-creators Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna for reclaiming the "crazy ex-girlfriend" trope and spinning it into a hilarious and even feminist show, which critiques the cliché of the hysterical woman in the show’s funny song-and-dance numbers.
It can be uncomfortable, as Sepinwall put it, to watch a show about a troubled woman who drastically alters her entire life for a man she barely knows. It feels unfeminist. But frowning on all TV show characters who paint women as something other than strong, girl-power icons only limits what women in comedy can do. Rebecca Bunch is a strong character because she’s weird, self-centered, insecure and deeply in denial. She probably looks very little like most, or all, women we know. But she reveals more about us than we’d like to admit.
In fact, "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" is doing something far more complicated than simply ironically reclaiming, or accidentally reinforcing, a sexist insult: It’s limning the gap between how far women have come in our ideals and expectations, and how far society has actually progressed. Rebecca is a bad feminist, in the Roxane Gay sense; she holds feminist beliefs, and can easily articulate them, but her entire social self is at war with her ideals. She wants things she knows a feminist "shouldn’t," and she admires qualities she knows define traditional femininity.
Take "The Sexy Getting Ready Song," which features a Spanx-clad Rebecca spotlighted under unflattering bathroom light as she waxes her butt, plucks her nose hairs, pumices her feet and burns her neck with a curling iron to the smooth tones of a seductive R&B jam. Popping in for a macho rap interlude, Nipsey Hussle notices the torturous beauty implements strewn around the bathroom. "This is horrifying, like some scary movie or something," he says uneasily, "like some … nasty-ass, patriarchal bullshit."
But even with this clear argument against risking an eyelid pinch by curling her eyelashes, Rebecca continues to bob along sunnily throughout the rest of the song -- hearing the message of empowerment doesn’t erase her desire to seem nipped, tucked, polished and smoothed.
Rebecca’s entire move to West Covina speaks to this tension between many feminists’ ideal selves and our actual selves. Much of society still sends the message that a woman finds purpose and fulfillment in a man -- romantic comedies, wedding-themed reality shows, older family members who inquire whether a young woman is "seeing someone yet" at every reunion. Meanwhile, entire publications have sprung up to analyze endemic sexism; women today know exactly how to articulate our equal rights to opportunity, education, freedom and a self-guided path.
Some women fully embrace traditional womanhood, and others fully embrace radical independence, but most of us are caught in a limbo somewhere between. Like Rebecca, we conceive of ourselves as strong, independent and far too cool to sacrifice ourselves for male attention, but, also like Rebecca, we weren’t exactly raised in a world that fostered those qualities. Instead, here we are, caught between what we’ve been trained to want and what we’re not embarrassed to say we want.
The people around her only exacerbate this confusion: Rebecca’s new co-worker Paula hates her until she realizes Rebecca basically stalked an ex to California -- it turns out she admires the hopeless romanticism of the decision. Others, like Josh’s friend Greg, are only comfortable with her presence when she manages to convince them she didn’t move for Josh.
Her mother relentlessly pushed her to succeed in school (Rebecca went to Harvard, and yes, she mentions it frequently) and then to make partner at her high-powered firm, but when she calls to reproachfully tell her daughter another woman got the promotion Rebecca turned down to move to California, she also remarks, pointedly, that her replacement is newly engaged.
The result of feminism, it seems, hasn't been to free us from the old expectations, but to add more: the expectation of a high-powered career, and the expectation that we not actively try to find the picture-perfect marriage we are nonetheless expected to end up with, as if by accident. It's not just effortless perfection, but almost unwilling perfection, that women feel pressured to achieve.
With these expectations, it's no wonder women can go a bit off the rails. We're raised up to define ourselves by romantic attention, and then dubbed crazy for struggling with rejections or breakups. Though Rebecca genuinely handles her situation very inappropriately, the show allows her to be a sympathetic villain, a comic anti-hero, while exploring the bizarre, conflicting forces that shape the behavior of modern women.
So far, "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend," like any brand-new show, still clearly needs to find its rhythm, and with each of the first few episodes guided by a perky, stalker-in-denial theme, it remains to be seen if the show will be able to maintain momentum beyond a few Josh-centric episodes. Already, it's held up a dark mirror to the empowered image feminists present the world, and the suppressed, internalized sexism we can't all banish, at least not as easily as we can skewer misogynistic representations of women in lady mags.
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