How ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ Flips the Script on Common TV Tropes

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Upon hearing the name of the CW show, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” that premiered in 2015, I was immediately turned off, thinking it was yet another TV show that would propagate the stereotype of its title. I assumed sexism would be prevalent, but as I started watching, it soon became my favorite show on air. The main character, Rebecca Bunch, is introduced as a depressed, sleep deprived lawyer in New York City who moves to West Covina, California because she reconnects with her ex-love from high school summer camp. Series creator and main actor Rachel Bloom uses her experience as a Saturday Night Live intern and her time in musical theater to influence the show. This leads to random bursts of satirical, political songs every episode that contribute to the show’s title as a musical series.

Bloom also writes the songs and produces “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” so the show comes from the perspective of a Jewish woman who is not afraid to discuss anything, ranging from her experiences with depression and anxiety to her disappointment with the mainstream media. This is shown through songs critiquing many aspects of pop culture and the consequences of the toxic oppression seen in ads, movies, and in yoga studios in Los Angeles. Songs range in topic from body image, mental health, sex, and comedic takes on common sexist tropes in the media.

Within only the first fifteen minutes of the pilot, the show uses satire to draw attention to mental health issues, the way advertisements depict happiness, and how art programs frequently get cut from budgets in public schools. Many of the comedy television shows, “Big Bang Theory,” “Friends,” and “Gossip Girl,” to name a few, that are widely advertised in mainstream media draw on jokes based on racism, homophobia, and sexism in the name of comedy. Much of the humor in these shows come from sexist tropes like women not being able to play video games or sports as well as men, or heteronormative plotlines that heavily focus on the same “desperate girl” needing attention from men. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” does not fall victim to this, and still figures out a way to be unparalleled in its use of satire. The brilliant writing of the show highlights the language we use by satirically over-using it, and brings light to quality female friendships that the media often overlooks.

The nuanced, complicated mother-daughter relationship depicted in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is an example of these often unincluded female relationships. When we are first introduced to Rebecca, she despises her mother because she places severe career pressure on Rebecca, and critiques her daily about body image, talent, and simply not being adequate. The song “Where’s the bathroom?” is an example of the satirical comedy that accompanies the common feelings of inadequacy that young women feel. Within the mother’s first three minutes of screentime, she bursts through the door and insults everything about Rebecca from her house to her weight to her skin to her career to her sex life, as well as questions her about her sexuality. Her mother sings, out of breath with no pauses, exemplifying the nature of parental critique on young adult daughters: “by the way, you’re looking healthy, and by healthy I mean chunky…I see your eczema is back…God, I give you everything and still you just want more, more, more.” She does this all while using a passive aggressive tone that is characteristic of their nuanced, complicated relationship.

Throughout the season, this relationship gets more tumultuous, but at times softens greatly because of the priority that the representation of middle-aged women has in this show. This is an age group that often does not get much screen time unless they are shown as the sensitive, overprotective housewife. But “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” gives mothers agency, and allows them to be defined outside of their title as a mother. It shows them as choice-making characters who are just as complex as any other character in the show. Though sometimes seen as a weight on Rebecca’s shoulders, the complicated love between mothers and daughters is given ample time for exploring, painting a realistic picture that young adult women can identify with. Needless to say, it is refreshing to have so much focus on this relationship that is often not explored, and is one of the most nuanced female relationships in the show.

Other complex nuanced female relationships included in this show are those between ex-girlfriends and current girlfriends of the same man. Rebecca Bunch first despises Valencia, the girlfriend of her ex-love, and this hatred is dramatized in a way that makes the viewer aware of how senseless this common hostility is among women. Rebecca later teams up with Valencia after becoming best friends and they form what they call “#GurlGroup4evah” to show the strength that women can have when they come together despite being pit against one another.

The show also pokes fun at exclusive clique groups from high school and celebrity culture that tends to leave out women who are not white, straight, or who do not fit Hollywood’s idealized body type. Rebecca deals with insecurity relating to her appearance and weight very frequently in this show, candidly showcasing her relationship with her body throughout phases of her depression. She is shown not identifying with images of models in magazines or on TV, even comedically comparing herself to yoga instructors and others who fit the Los Angeles stereotype of being hyper-focused on dieting and weight. It is beyond refreshing to see a main character discuss body image and the exclusion of women shown in media if they do not train and diet for the role. Her best friend in the show, Paula, is a plus size woman played by Donna Lynne Champlin who has discussed that it is very purposeful and powerful that not a single line of dialogue addresses Paula’s weight in the show, and she has a sexualized, humorous, full story-line and arc.

This is all still done with satire and musical numbers, such as “Feelin’ Kinda Naughty” that Rebecca sings about Valencia. In other shows, songs like this might often be accompanied with the subtle nod to characters who are not straight, but in this show, dismantling heteronormativity is a priority. Valencia is a bisexual Latina woman, and her sex and love life with women is given screen time and is heavily focused on. This show gives Valencia the space to explore her experiences with the intersections of race and sexuality and acknowledges both Latinx and bisexual erasure that is common in the media.

People of color, LGBTQ+ folk, and women are not just tokens in this show; the main love interests and best friends are not all white and straight. There is a wide variety of representation and all characters are given ample screen time with each having their own songs and scenes regarding their experiences, identities, sexualities, and families. Rebecca’s Jewish identity is explored greatly, and there are two openly bisexual characters who not only are given the space to come out and openly display their love lives, but also get their own solo songs. Darryl, Rebecca’s boss, comes out as bisexual with his own musical number, “Gettin’ Bi”. This song addresses the common erasure of bisexuality, and satire is used to comedically draw attention to the ridiculousness of this trope. It is also very upbeat and serves as a happy anthem showing Darryl celebrating his sexuality, which contrasts typical coming out scenes, as rare as they are, that are bleak or heart-wrenching.

Latinx characters are often silenced and underrepresented in television and movies, and only three percent of speaking characters are Latinx. To call attention to this silencing, there is a Latina woman in the show who in pantomime fashion, does not speak a word and comedically has no lines of dialogue so she must express herself physically, which is another form of satire that spotlights lack of representation.

This show also tackles issues related to “tokenization”, a term describing a trend where the protagonist is often white and straight, setting up a false, harmful, marginalizing idea that these make the “default” person. Characters who exist outside of this narrow category often are only used to fill the background and serve as a “token” person of color or LGBTQ+ person. These token characters are often cast aside and clearly only included to fulfill a diversity quota because they are not given the space to have complex identities or to explore their own stories. To combat this, one of the show’s main characters is a Filipino man named Josh, and when his friend – also named Josh – is introduced, he is called “white Josh”. His character is addressed as “white Josh” throughout the entire show, turning tokenization on its head.

With a better title, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” could potentially draw in more of its intended audience. But maybe it intends to draw people in who would criticize the title, and then wins them over with its brilliant satire in one quick song. Rachel Bloom’s satirical style allows these stigmatized, taboo tropes and systems of power to be talked about, and mobilizes these issues to come to the table and still be seen as entertainment. Beyond the issues discussed previously, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” also normalizes conversation regarding other often-censored topics such as periods, abortion, mental health, the female orgasm, and toxic masculinity. Of course, this is not the end of the conversation. There are still more issues that could be explored, but there are also more seasons to come.

As I often hear problematic comedy shows being defended in the name of “comedy,” this show is refreshing. As clearly seen in this show, satire can be used to highlight problematic societal issues, name common television tropes as ridiculous, and bring new ideas to the table that need to be talked about on screen. And besides all of this, it is genuinely hilarious.

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