I love Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. This feminist-musical-dramedy manages to make me laugh, think critically about society, and hum its original tunes days after watching. The show centers around Rebecca Bunch, a woman with profound mental health problems, who is trying to figure out who she is in love and life. I’ve never consumed a piece of media – book, movie, podcast, TV show, you name it – that more meaningfully takes on mental health issues with this level of compassion, clarity, and humor.
The show is feminist at its core. It centers women with the most important relationships being between Rebecca and Paula. And while both these women are white and straight, the show widens with their circle of friends and coworkers to include the panoply of Southern California’s diversity. The West Covina of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is rich with Latino, Asian, Black, White, and mixed-race characters who also happen to be straight, gay, and bi while of different ages, weights, and socioeconomic classes. You know, like life.
And when it comes to romantic relationships, the show disrupts the usual tropes. Yes, the plot of the first two seasons revolves around Rebecca trying to win the affections of one Josh Chan. An Asian American man, already Josh is not your usual love object: on screen Asian men are more likely to be discounted as possible romantic partners or erased entirely. And while he blessedly does not end up with Rebecca, Josh remains attractive throughout the show. Further subverting the typical romance narrative, his most attractive feature is NOT his bulging biceps (although him carrying a desk with a single arm in a recent episode was impressive) but rather his large heart and sweet nature. And taking it to the next level is the fact that Rebecca and Valencia (Josh’s girlfriend at the start of the show and thus, Rebecca’s primary rival) end up as friends. No women as natural enemies here.
Now in its fourth and final season, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has shown Rebecca outgrowing her obsession with Josh Chan and learning to define herself outside of her relationship status. This progression is central to the show, evidenced everywhere from the show’s title to its theme song, which changes each season. In the first song, Rebecca is called the crazy ex-girlfriend of the show’s title and so defined from the male point of view. In season two, she’s taken the reigns but her identity still revolves around Josh (the refrain goes “you can’t call her crazy, ‘cause when you call her crazy, you’re just calling her in love!”). By season three, Josh is out of the picture and Rebecca’s theme (and the season) is all about what it means to be “crazy” aka mentally ill. Now, in the fourth and final sequence, the opening song doesn’t feature love or craziness at all but rather Rebecca sitting on a bench being somehow hard to define. She’s come a long way baby.
So yes, I’d argue watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is an inherently feminist activity. Particularly because the show remains among the LEAST watched shows on prime-time, network TV three years running. Except, watching this final season, I can’t help hoping that Rebecca ends up with Nathaniel. Yes, I know I just said the whole point of the show is for Rebecca to learn that she doesn’t need a man! And I’m into that. But I still want her to get back together with him. And for those of you who aren’t watching, no Nathaniel isn’t some feminist-sanctioned ideal mate. He may be the exact opposite – straight and skinny and white and rich and an asshole. He’s privilege embodied and has the entitlement to prove it. The show’s creators joked they cast him because they thought having at least one “typical” character (aka a conventionally attractive white guy) would up their ratings.
So how could this woman-centered, gender-equality love fest have me turning to Roxane Gay for comfort about the state of my feminist card? Am I a Bad Feminist? How could I possibly be rooting for Nathaniel to end up with our girl Rebecca? Well, to start, they have a lot in common. For one, he’s just as messed up as she is. They both have done terrible things like ordering hits on people only to back out later. They both have terrible family lives. Rebecca’s deadbeat dad and overly critical mother are matched by Nathaniel’s withholding, perfectionist parents – with both kids still stuck in the trying-to-earn-withheld-love cycle of self-hate. And they both have bought into false narratives about what will make them happy. Rebecca’s spent all four seasons chasing damaging ideas about what love and success looks like for a woman, believing the right guy or promotion will solve her inner turmoil. Likewise, Nathaniel tries all these extreme masculine things to feel better (or nothing at all) like a survivalist camping experience to name just one of the more ridiculous. Obviously none of it works. Fulfillment is not to be found in some sort of gender-essentialist identity script.
This similarity in their journeys makes me think they could be happy together. They could learn how to be better together. Isn’t that type of mutual growth the real relationship goals? Now Rebecca has done more work than Nathaniel. He’d definitely need to start regularly going to therapy for them to have a chance. But I could see that happening. After all, Josh Chan is learning how to turn his sunny disposition and propensity toward kindness into emotional intelligence via therapy – surely Nathaniel can experience similar growth. Also, Nathaniel’s already learning the old patterns don’t work for him and is trying new things. He recognizes that he needs love and that having sex, working out, and making lots of money no longer fulfill him. He’s trying to be kinder, opening up to Heather and Bert in a recent episode, practicing basic human decency at work, learning that doing the right thing can actually feel good. He’s on the path to change.
Now I’m not saying Rebecca would be completed by teaching some asshole guy how to be whole again. Or that she needs a relationship to be happy. BUT one of the things that draws me to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is how it leads with compassion for each of its characters, no matter how silly or unlikable.
In most shows, we wouldn’t be rooting for Rebecca, the crazy ex-girlfriend, not to mention the rest of the misfits that surround her: a middle-aged mom who looks like your neighbor, a bisexual male attorney who’s only real skill is parenting, a beefy surf bro who doesn’t surf. And yet we do because the show leads with compassion while unblinkingly portraying people who make mistakes and do bad things. It’s pretty revolutionary. And what’s more revolutionary than the feminist rehabilitation of the privileged white man? Not much. Certainly if we could change them, we’d have changed the world. So maybe that’s what I’m rooting for when I ship Rebecca and Nathaniel: the destruction of white patriarchal norms, replaced by empathy and hot, consensual sex. Or maybe I’m just a bad feminist.