Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: Feminism, Mental Health, and Musicals Meet on the Boob Tube
Yet another school year has come to a close. Perhaps you’ve just finished your comprehensive exams or defended a dissertation (if this is you, congrats!). Maybe your vacation approaches. Network TV shows are finishing up their seasons, and you’re looking for some new thing to watch while they’re on hiatus. It may be the perfect time to kick back and catch up on some pop culture.
And goodness, do I have a show for the Nursing Clio readers. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend just wrapped up its first stellar season on the CW, dealing brilliantly, comically, and emotionally with topics like mental illness, feminism, the issues facing professional women, and the tropes of romantic comedy. When I first heard about the show from critics last fall, I was intrigued by the concept – a woman in her 30s is living the dream life as a corporate lawyer in Manhattan, but a random encounter with an old boyfriend from summer camp makes her drop her chance at firm partnership, move to his hometown in California, and try to make a new life by inserting herself into his. All of this plot comes with a healthy dose of musical performance – each episode has usually two or three big musical numbers, following in the footsteps of shows like Glee and Smash.
Many critics and pop culture fans were concerned about the show from the start. With a title like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, on the surface it sounds like it could reinforce gender stereotypes about both mental illness and women in troubling ways. But from the very start of each episode, the viewer is reminded in the theme song that these ideas are exactly what co-creators Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna want to critique.
As the other characters sing “She’s the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” in the opening credit sequence, Bloom’s main character Rebecca Bunch retorts “That’s a sexist term!” and claims “The situation’s a bit more nuanced than that.” Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a truly feminist take on what otherwise could be a tired and offensive trope. Rebecca struggles throughout the season with the ups-and-downs of her mental illness, often in denial about the fact that moving across the country to chase a guy (who is already in a long-term, committed relationship) would definitely be considered “crazy” by some. The show also pushes pop culture boundaries and tropes in other ways. Co-creator and star Bloom grew up in Southern California, where the show is set, and she purposely made the romantic lead Josh Chan an “Asian bro” like the boys she grew up with. There is also incredible specificity in Rebecca’s own Jewish heritage and culture (found in her fraught relationship with her mother and songs like the “JAP Battle”). Actress Rachel Bloom’s Golden Globe award for portraying Rebecca shows just how successfully they’ve pulled off such a concept.
The tropes around women and mental illness are often addressed, satirized, and rejected in the show’s music. Bloom gained notice with funny music videos on Youtube, and this experience shows.1 The pilot episode featured the R&B send-up “The Sexy Getting Ready Song,” a frank and at times gross reveal of the many ways women torture their bodies to primp for a date [probably NSFW].
Bloom pokes fun at Spanx, makeup, and waxing (this is likely the only song you’ll ever hear with a lyric about “ass blood”). A featured rapper is so appalled by what he sees when he enters the video for his bars that he walks off the set to go apologize to the women in his life, a scene hilariously shown in the tag before the episode’s credits. A number of other songs in the first season address the issues faced by today’s modern woman, like the difficulties of having “Heavy Boobs” or how hookup culture has inherent dangers for women — in “Sex with a Stranger” she sings “Please don’t be a murderer!” to the man she’s brought to her apartment.
Aside from the feminist messages of the songs and their performance, the show’s music has an incredible range that helps appeal to the audience. It is impressive how many varieties of popular music that Bloom and her songwriting collaborator Adam Schlesinger (of the band Fountains of Wayne and writer of the music for films such as That Thing You Do! and Josie and the Pussycats) are able to successfully satirize, while maintaining the musical style that makes each genre unique. The first season included a Fred and Ginger-type dance number set to “Settle for Me;” a Piano Man parody called “What’ll It Be?;” a perfect update of The Music Man’s “Ya Got Trouble” that warns that cold showers will lead kids to smoking crack; and a country song Rebecca’s boss sings about how he “loves his daughter, but not in a creepy way.” These are just a few examples, and there’s likely a parody for music fans of every genre – and if not, with a second season on the horizon, they may get to your music soon.2
I could go on and on about how brilliant this show is. Through smart writing, brilliant musical performance, and a pitch-perfect cast, Crazy Ex Girlfriend just works. If you’re looking for something to watch as an early summer break, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend might be the show for you.[Crazy Ex-Girlfriend airs on the CW. It just finished its first season and has been renewed for a second. It can be found on the CW website (with a cable subscription), Hulu, and iTunes. The first season’s soundtrack is also available on iTunes in two volumes, and most of the musical performances can be seen in full on YouTube.]
- Bloom broke out on YouTube with “ Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury.” Nursing Clio readers would probably also like “Historically Accurate Disney Princess Song.” Return to text.
- Pop culture writers are so into the music on this show that there are multiple ranked lists out there of each song. For two examples – the AV Club’s Allison Shoemaker wrote one list and Glen Weldon of the Pop Culture Happy Hour NPR podcast wrote “The 100% Definitive, Empirical, Ruthlessly, Objective, I-Will-Brook-No-Dissent Ranking of Every Song From Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” Pop Culture Happy Hour also dedicated a segment to discussing the show. Return to text.