I dislike when small groups of women decide what feminism needs to look like for all women everywhere. For example, once I went to a zine reading and I overheard one girl talking to another girl about how “gross” it was that their mutual friend still shaved her legs. She said, “It’s just so sad and totally disgust-oid that people feel like they need to appease some patriarchal oppressor by making themselves unnaturally BARE like that.” I was amazed that this girl was able to use “appease,” “patriarchal oppressor,” and “disgust-oid” all in the same sentence and expect to be taken seriously, but there we were. I hate this sort of argument because I really don’t think shaming women who like to shave their legs – for whatever reason they may like to shave them – does all that much for feminism on the whole. Feminism should be about loving and respecting women, period. If they like to wear high heels or get Brazilian waxes every June, more power to ‘em.
So it is with caution that I react to the five-minute-plus-long trailer for the upcoming CW musical-comedy-drama “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” which will air on October 12. I saw an ad for it while I was walking down Michigan Avenue, and my jaw practically scraped the sidewalk. The ad, which stretches the length of a bus stop shelter, features a pretty woman in a push-up bra and a pink shirt, wearing pink lipstick on her open mouth, holding a pink balloon. (There is a lot of pink in this ad, lest we think it is for boys.) The tagline is, “Never. Let. Go.”
I want to love this television show, really I do. Despite the sarcastic parenthetical above, I usually devour anything marketed with a lot of pink. I loved, for example, “Legally Blonde,” and “Sleepover,” and “13 Going on 30.” And “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is created by a woman, produced by a woman, and written by that same pair of women, which is such a rare thing in Hollywood. Writer Rachel Bloom also stars in the series (she’s the crazy ex-girlfriend), and she’s a very impressive person: She’s a comedian, and a composer, and she was a viral YouTube sensation with a song she wrote called “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury,” which is enough to make me practically worship her on spec. And yet, the trailer for “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” sent a surge of disappointment through my entire body, and I cannot see a scenario in which a show like this could go well.
I think a lot about women in television and how they are portrayed; it’s the art form of our age, after all, and from HBO specials to late night talk shows, women are still spectacularly underrepresented. The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film’s latest report says that on screen, women make up only 12 percent of clearly identified protagonists, 29 percent of all major characters, and 30 percent of all speaking roles. That means that, unfortunately, the female characters we do see on TV must necessarily carry a lot of weight. It is important for us to see ourselves reflected back with the same diversity of character afforded to men, because like it or not, we learn a lot about the world from the people we watch on TV.
Granted, I have only seen the trailer for “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” It is possible that “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is a brilliant satire that I can’t yet discern as such. It is possible that “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” will pass the Bechdel Test with flying colors when it airs, and that the lead character, Rebecca Bunch, will be secretly uninterested in her ex-boyfriend Josh (who definitely sucks), while she clandestinely develops a neurobiological advancement that will cure nine types of cancer. Maybe that will happen. But based on the evidence presented, I highly doubt it.
Here’s what I can tell from watching a five-minute summary of this show: Rebecca Bunch is crazy. She’s not institutionalized-crazy; she’s just vernacular-crazy. In high school, her boyfriend Josh breaks up with her in a really shitty way. They’re leaving for school, and she says, “This has been the best summer of my life, and you’re the reason why.” To that, Josh says, “I think we should take a break. You’re like, really dramatic and weird.” Then he leaves. Rebecca says, “I’m not dramatic,” and then, when Josh walks away and doesn’t look back, she screams at a perpetually honking car, “Oh my god, shut up, you stupid c*nt!” We are supposed to infer that indeed, Rebecca is dramatic. We are supposed to laugh because she has been rightfully dumped, and now she is showing her true colors. Never mind that Josh dumps Rebecca with an utter lack of empathy, in front of tons of people, at the end of the summer. Rebecca is the crazy one. She is the one who needs to change.
Flash forward 10 years. Rebecca has several advanced degrees from Ivy League schools, she speaks Mandarin, and she lives in New York where she has a great job. And yet, she’s unhappy. Things just aren’t quite right. One day, she’s crying while crouched on the ground, looking at a billboard commercial for butter (because women love butter), and she realizes that the last time she was really happy was when she was with Josh, that summer in high school. Suddenly, incredibly, Josh just shows up, on the street in front of her; he’s even happy to see her! He even says, “If I had known you’d turn out to be so successful and hot …” and then trails off. (He’s what we call “a keeper.”) But uh-oh, guess what? He’s moving. To Nowhere, California. But hey, Rebecca should look him up if she’s ever on the West coast! So, of course, Rebecca moves across the country to follow him, because, as we learn through a series of songs and dances (“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is a musical), she is still in love with Josh.
The trailer sets us up to understand that Josh is an asshole, only Rebecca is inexplicably unable to see it. Those of us who have watched television before can also deduce that she is ultimately going to end up with the nice bartender who initially helps her reconnect with Josh. This will inevitably take a full half-season: Rebecca will continue to think Josh is the one for her, blinded to the fact that a perfectly nice, thoughtful, doting guy is right in front of her all along. At some point, I’m guessing, she will realize it, but by then it will be too late, and the bartender will be tired of all the abuse. I’m only speculating, and also, I shouldn’t really fault “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” for being predictable.
Its central problem is not bad writing (although, unless I’m missing something, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is exclusively composed of bad writing), it’s the premise that this type of woman could not only exist, but could exist with such ubiquity that we would recognize her and laugh at her.
Years ago, someone told me that I needed to stop calling myself crazy. It was a simple statement, but it was powerful. I had been clinging to the word “crazy” to explain away my sentimentality; my propensity for emotion; my traumatic flashbacks; and all the things that made me not the “cool girl*” that I thought I was supposed to be. When I cried, or cared too much about what a boy thought of me, or lost my temper over the way I was being treated, I would say, “I’m sorry, I’m just crazy. I’m a crazy person.”
Women are not the only people who travel across the country because they are in love. My boyfriend — whom I hope I am not outing here — quit his job and traveled across the country with me just three months ago because he wanted a fresh start, and because he loved me. Dan Savage advocates moving across the country for love — if you can afford it — all the time. When Rebecca says, “I did not move across the country for Josh, because moving across the country for Josh would be crazy,” she’s wrong. It’s not the best decision in the world, because Josh is clearly an asshole, but it is not, categorically speaking, crazy.
The trope of Woman as quote-unquote Crazy Person has to go. Not only have we seen it way too many times before, it’s not a true enough stereotype to be funny. The women I know — and I know a lot of them — are occasionally preoccupied with their romantic lives (personally, I’ve spent a few weeks coiled up with a pint of Haagan Daas because Why Would Alan Leave Me!?) But they are also people who have conversations about their jobs, their families, current events and politics, and even boy stuff like science. It is time for our on-screen leading ladies to have more to talk about than the men who keep ruining their lives.
I hope Rebecca Bunch spends exactly one episode calling herself crazy (even that’s too many, but a trailer usually doesn’t lie), and then goes off into a subplot that’s all about friendship and platonic, sisterly love, sort of like in “The Other Woman” (a deeply flawed but weirdly delightful Cameron Diaz/ Leslie Mann vehicle in which the main characters ditch the shitty husband and end up lifelong besties). But even if that happens, we’re still stuck with this outdated title that reinforces for women that emotional volatility is a problem that needs to be fixed over the course of a character arc. Unfortunately for women everywhere, this season’s TV offerings leave us with one more squandered opportunity for substantial and nuanced representation within the mainstream media. Back to the drawing board, I guess.
* In Gillian Flynn’s wonderful book “Gone Girl,” the narrator describes the idea of “The Cool Girl”: “Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot.”