A giant pretzel. A life-changing butter commercial. Kooky coworkers. Spontaneous musical numbers about absurd situations and overlooked topics. Complex and diverse female and LGBTQ+ characters; and…a “crazy” ex-girlfriend chasing love and happiness across the country. The tongue-in-cheek musical comedy series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend truly has it all. Created by esteemed screenwriters Aline Brosh McKenna and Rachel Bloom (who plays the main character Rebecca Bunch), this show tells the story of Jewish law attorney Rebecca Bunch. She leaves a very successful but unhappy life in New York to pursue her first love and ex-boyfriend Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III). Adventures ensue as Rebecca creates a new life, searches for love and happiness while battling mental health issues, and forms meaningful relationships with characters of varying ages, backgrounds, and experiences. The “crazy ex-girlfriend” trope is flipped on its head refreshingly and entertainingly.
First, let’s talk about ‘the female gaze.’ While the term originated in response to a 1975 essay about the male gaze by feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey, films and TV shows have only begun using it prominently in recent years. The show, which first aired in 2015, likely drew its viewers in because of the use of Rebecca’s female gaze on her love interests, as well as the unapologetic depictions and discussions of sex, female pleasure and anatomy, and women’s issues. Rebecca doesn’t hold back from expressing her desires and needs and exhibits total control over a healthy and fulfilling sex life. Something still rarely seen in mainstream media is that Rebecca’s first love interest is a man of colour—a naïve yet charming Filipino man-boy named Josh Chan. This is just one of this show’s many themes and choices that disrupt the traditional media landscape. Not to mention entire songs and scenes about female masturbation, hooking up with questionable strangers, period sex, and the female orgasm. Now, how many times do you see that on your TV screen?
In the first episode, Rebecca strikes up an unlikely friendship with her new coworker Paula Proctor (Donna Lynne Champlin), a whip-smart mama bear who loves schemes and helping Rebecca get close to Josh. Their age difference lends to the relationship dynamic of the mother/daughter duo in that Paula sees Rebecca as a baby bird who regularly needs her guidance and love life support. Unfortunately, since Rebecca struggles with childhood trauma and does not grow up with many friends, she takes more than she gives Paula. Their friendship is rocked a few times, and at some points, Rebecca is faced with the obstacle of gaining Paula’s forgiveness and learning how to become a better friend. However, this relationship is kept fresh and nuanced as it evolves throughout the series. The same can be said for the friendship between Rebecca and yoga instructor Valencia Perez (Gabrielle Ruiz), who also happens to be Josh’s long-time girlfriend. Typically, the viewer would expect Rebecca to hate or envy Valencia because of her relationship with Josh, and they might either be frenemies or act catty towards each other. At first, we get a glimpse of this jealousy, but it is only for a second, and instead, Rebecca is drawn to Valencia. She sees her as this gorgeous, glamorous, and sophisticated person she desperately wants to grow close to. Even though Valencia’s jealousy and suspicion towards Rebecca’s interest in Josh drives a wedge between them in the first season, events in the second season bring them back together and eventually transform their rocky relationship into a tight bond. And last but not least, Rebecca’s cool but apathetic neighbour Heather Davis (Vella Lovell), becomes another unlikely addition to Rebecca’s girl group.
The show appeals to its audience in that there is something for everyone. It breathes life into its viewers by showing them underlooked topics and issues rarely seen in mainstream media. Or if they are seen, they usually aren’t depicted very well. One of the most prominent examples is the portrayal of mental illness and health—namely, Rebecca’s. She makes no effort to hide the fact that she didn’t exactly have a great childhood or the best upbringing with her parents. Her overbearing mother constantly criticizes Rebecca and pushes her towards a life and career Rebecca never wanted. Her apathetic, deadbeat dad left her and her mother on her 12th birthday, which led to Rebecca frequently chasing after his love, acceptance, and validation. Even after moving from New York to California, Rebecca still struggles with her depression, anxiety, and obsession with Josh. She takes medication in the first episode, but once in California, she tosses all her pills down the drain because she believes she no longer needs them. Why should she? She is happy and hopeful and sees meaning in her life after being miserable for many years. The show avoids stigmatizing or romanticizing mental illness and mental struggles, especially while handling Rebecca’s breakdowns and suicide attempts in a later season. There are even musical numbers about receiving a proper diagnosis (after being dismissed and misdiagnosed over the years) and finding the right medication to manage a mental disorder! The impact of these depictions is not to be missed—it shines a new light on these issues without overdoing it or making them feel like PSAs.
Diversity is included, not just for the sake of fulfilling a quota or appealing to a more “woke” audience, but because it feels more aligned with real life. In real life, we interact with and walk by people of all different ages, ethnicities, orientations, backgrounds, and experiences. Rebecca’s Jewish identity is not just a throwaway line or fact; it is embedded into her entire character arc and story with many Jewish references and family events related to Judaism. Josh is Filipino, but also many other things, such as vibrant, loyal, starry-eyed, selfish, immature, and unmotivated. He isn’t reduced to his ethnicity or subjected to Asian stereotypes or fetishization. Neither is Valencia, who is Latina. Rebecca’s therapist is Black. Heather is biracial. Darryl Whitefeather (Pete Gardner), Rebecca’s middle-aged boss, eventually comes out as bisexual in the joyful, colourful musical number “Gettin’ Bi.” He is also a white man who takes immense pride in his 1/8th Chippewa identity, which the show uses to lightly poke fun at. Josh’s friend, White Josh (David Hull), first seems like your typical heterosexual gym rat bro but eventually reveals to Darryl that he’s gay. However, this is not a coming-out moment for White Josh like it is for Darryl because all his friends and most other characters already know this about him. This is incredibly refreshing to have both an already established gay character (but not have it be a big deal or the character’s whole identity) and a character who discovers his sexuality later in life.
Other important topics explored are abortion, toxic masculinity, and realistic body image for women. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend gives a character the freedom to make her own decision about an unexpected pregnancy with zero judgment from the others around her. In fact, she is supported emotionally and mentally. While traits of toxic masculinity in men are shown quite often in mainstream media and even accepted, in the show, these traits are dissected and questioned in various songs and scenes featuring the male characters exhibiting them. An example is Nathaniel (Scott Michael Foster), one of Rebecca’s later love interests and new boss, struggling to keep up with the unrealistically high standards his strict, cold-hearted father holds him to. He is shown in later episodes beginning to unlearn some of the toxic traits his father taught him. Lastly, the body image issue is handled with realism, grace, and of course, a touch of humour. The number “Sexy Getting Ready Song” features the ridiculous and often painful rituals women go through to achieve unattainable looks while also showcasing Rebecca’s “imperfect” figure. ‘Imperfect,’ in this context, is the opposite of the thin, toned, perfect body types advertised in magazines and media. In addition, throughout the series, Rebecca shows that she is secure in her body image and looks and loves food. She never tries to go on a diet or alter her looks to change herself or impress somebody. This can be crucial and sometimes even life-saving to many young girls and women watching this.
While some may see Rebecca Bunch as an unlikeable character, the truth is, the whole point is that she’s flawed, and the audience is meant to root for her despite the flaws and absurd situations she gets herself and others into. The show is a satire and social commentary on many of the issues discussed here, especially the concept of “the crazy ex-girlfriend.” It pokes fun at itself and Rebecca while shattering stereotypes at the same time. McKenna and Bloom show the audience the product of female power in the media. When women are given the reins to tell the kinds of stories they want, they create something magical. They make an impact not only on the world but also on all little girls and women with that fire inside them. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend ran for 4 powerful and hilarious seasons. It told the stories of the underdogs, destroyed stereotypes, delivered originality and authenticity, and inspired a change in the mainstream media landscape. It is truly an underrated show that more people should watch.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend can be streamed in full on Netflix and Amazon Prime
By Shawna Khorasani
Shawna is a film enthusiast and writer/director based in California. After graduating with two English Literature degrees, she discovered her love of filmmaking and kickstarted her career by creating, producing, and directing an independent literary web-series. Fresh, positive, and authentic LGBTQ+ media representation is her jam! She has too many favorite movies to name and countless female filmmakers she looks up to. You can find Shawna on Twitter and Instagram.