The Unexpected Feminism of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

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“Paula, I am marrying Josh Chan…”

Trying on a delicate glue-gunned together veil for her upcoming wedding, Rebecca Bunch speaks to her friend in an incredulous whisper. A beat, then the scene spirals into sepia, heavy metal music, and rapid editing. Rebecca and Paula are now screaming, heads and hair thrashing, eyes bulging with lyrics like: “Now I’m his bride,” “I can’t believe you snagged him,” “Forever you will have him,” and “What a rush to be his bride!”

The shift from the demure gestures of trying on a veil to the spectacular aggression of the musical performance sums up the ethos of the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a musical comedy founded on the desire of a young Jewish high-powered lawyer in New York to frantically pursue high school sweetheart Josh Chan, an Asian American elementary school coach. On television the romantic pairing of a white woman and an Asian American man is rare—but it is just as rare to see a white woman embroiled within an unabashed madness, manic desperation, and an obsessive frenzy to belong.

In the series pilot, the story begins with an encounter: Rebecca runs into Josh Chan, her high-school sweetheart, on the streets of Manhattan. But they are older now, in their thirties, and unlike larger popular depictions of white woman and Asian men, race isn’t the wedge between them. In fact, it never was in their teenage love affair, and as young adults, it is Josh—moving away from New York with a different girlfriend—who does not return Rebecca’s interest. But this quirky heroine doesn’t accept no for an answer. In an impromptu decision, Rebecca quits her job and manically follows him across the country to West Covina, California.

I first heard about the show while teaching a course on “Asian American Sexual Representations,” and a student told me about it. There is an Asian guy on it, but the white woman is crazy. I thought, Why is an Asian guy on it? Why is the white woman crazy?

At first, I admittedly found Crazy Ex-Girlfriend unwatchable. As a person of color who studies media, I am selective with my media consumption. The first episode, I recall my feelings were of amusement, anger, and disgust. I have a media vigilance, if you will, built from armoring myself against the stereotypical media representations of Asian American men as emasculated, desexualized, and falsely (so falsely) unattractive. To be sure, Josh Chan is anything but unattractive, and throughout the first episode he is depicted as confident, sexy, and exceedingly handsome. However, if Asian American men are consistently and constantly depicted in stereotypical ways, and a relationship includes two people, if one is an Asian American male and the other a white female, how would the television show depict this relationship in the context of this representational history?

 

I grew up in a world different from any television show. I used to say my high school was the setting for the real Better Luck Tomorrow, the 2002 Asian American film by director Justin Lin (now of Fast and the Furious fame). Because it was. And in high school, the Asian American men coming of age were popular and attractive, never the Charlie Chans or the guy who doesn’t get the girl. I grew up with Asian American men as the prom kings, the kind of guys women would chase across the country. But this reality was always vastly different from any media portrayals of the group, and collectively, these images of Asian American men as “emasculated” takes a toll. As early media studies scholar Felix Gutierrez writes, at the rudimentary level, portrayals of people of color “can become reality in our minds, especially if we have no direct experience to balance them against.”1

So I wondered when first watching the show, when Rebecca chases after Josh, was it supposed to be hilariously inappropriate specifically because he was Asian American? Another thing that made it unwatchable: After moving to West Covina, Rebecca meets Josh’s girlfriend, a Latina woman from the area. The scene, I remember, includes them meeting in the aisle of a super market.  Josh and Valencia are kissing when Rebecca catches sight of them in the freezer aisle. While Valencia is dressed up in a slinky and revealing black dress, Rebecca is adorned in frumpy brown sweats. There is a sharp contrast between the two characters, becoming even more pronounced as Rebecca asks Valencia where she got her name, which draws in the evocativeness of Spanish, whereas Rebecca gestures to the unsexy pronunciation of Yiddish. Rebecca is shocked at how beautiful Josh’s girlfriend Valencia is, and keeps exclaiming that she is “so pretty, she is so pretty, she is so pretty.”

While I thought Valencia was attractive, the repetition of “she is so pretty” from Rebecca made me pause. In mainstream media, women of color and Latina women are not seen as normatively attractive. They are often hypersexualized, or not depicted at all as love interests. I grew up near West Covina, and knowing it well, I wondered if the comedy was relying on an idea that Latina women are not attractive. In comedy, repetition is a commonly used tool, but after three times, the repetition can make the joke tiresome, or a violation. When “she is so pretty,” is repeated four times, is it funny, and whom are we laughing at?  In the triangulation of Rebecca, Josh, and Valencia, the repetition made me feel as if the joke was on Josh.

So, I stopped the show there, planning never to return… But this question of watchability eventually prompted me to go back, as any crazy ex should.

 

Since the pilot, two seasons have occurred and a third has begun. When the second season concluded, I cheated and skipped to its last episode. Much had happened since the first season. By the end of the first season, Rebecca sleeps with Josh, and they maintain a romantic relationship. By the last episode of the second season, Rebecca Bunch and Josh Chan are set to marry.

Re-watching the last episode of season two demonstrated a few more things—but most importantly, the complexity of “crazy” and the politics of desire. While at first I watched focused on the desirability of Asian American men in the show, I realized the question really is about the craziness of white women. In this episode, we are introduced to Rebecca’s long-lost father, a “dead beat” dad who comes back abruptly wanting cash from Rebecca. Prior to his asking for funds, Rebecca is needy, crazy, and frantic for her father’s attention who just returned to her life. She clings to him, like Josh, and her desperation is unruly—like a person who has never known what it meant to be unconditionally loved. It is her Black woman therapist Dr. Akopian who gently tells her that her father is not okay, but still Rebecca cannot listen. She doesn’t want to lose him, even if he is never there for her. Another flashback reveals that Rebecca was let down by another man in her life—her former lover, a Harvard professor who was married, and breaks up with her cruelly. Rebecca refuses to take no for an answer, and promptly lights a fire in his office, her eyes wide and ablaze.

Madness has been written about by feminist theorists. Feminist writer and theorist Gloria Anzaldúa famously wrote, “I am mad—but I choose this madness.” For Anzaldúa, madness permeated the racist and homophobic worlds she and other women of color were forced to navigate in the 1970s and 80s. But madness was also a mechanism to embrace, and to empower herself, and others, and their “wild tongues.” In a feminist sense, madness reconfigures subjectivity and agency. Sandra M. Gilbert’s and Susan Gubar’s 1979 classic The Madwoman in the Attic points out how nineteenth-century women writers negotiated the angel/monster trope through the figure of the madwoman, and while Anzaldúa’s, Charlotte Brontë’s, or Ophelia’s madness may seem far from West Covina, understanding Rebecca’s so-called “craziness” through a feminist lens reveals how feminist representation is complicated. The romantic pairing of a white woman and an Asian American man may be rare on television, but it is just as rare to see a white woman in unabashed madness, manic desperation, and depressive manias.

While women are differently and intersectionally oppressed, the characterization of the “crazy ex-girlfriend” is more complicated on the show than I initially thought. The final episode of season 2 not only prompted empathy for Rebecca, and also explained the cause of her frantic craziness: not only Josh, but the history of abusive white men—her father and her former professor—in her life.

It is at the threshold of craziness that Josh Chan fails to show up at the wedding. Literally at the edge of a cliff, Rebecca taunts herself repeatedly that it was her fault, almost about to jump. But she doesn’t. Paula gently reminds her that it is not her fault; it is their fault—the men’s fault, most especially her “garbage father,” one of the many bystanders watching who lackadaisically announces that he is going to leave. In a moment of triumph, Rebecca tells her father to leave. “Go,” she says. Her father agrees, but with an insult. “You’re crazy,” he says, to which Rebecca responds, with a half-smile, “A little bit.”

Perhaps it’s more productive then to think about Rebecca’s craziness as a source of sanity in a crazy world in which women are routinely disregarded. She is smart, successful, and yes, crazy. While she and Josh Chan ultimately do not get married, the episode leaves us hungry for what will happen to Rebecca as she chooses to embrace her craziness. Its finally a characterization of an Asian American man that is desirable, alongside a white woman who is learning to come to terms with her own power.

The third season has erupted in breakthroughs in the depiction of mental health as Rebecca is diagnosed with a mental illness, commented upon in an array of think pieces and analyses. It is through Rebecca Bunch’s journey that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has been able to provide one of the most poignant depictions of women mental illness, depicting race and desirability in ways that reflect our contemporary moment and it continues to gain nuance by every episode.

While the show may not be perfect, it’s complicated, provocative, and daring—and it’s the kind of musical comedy we haven’t seen before.

I, for one, can’t wait to watch again.

***

1. Clint C. Wilson, Félix Gutiérrez, and Lena M. Chao, Racism, Sexism, and the Media: The Rise of Class Communication, (Thousand Oaks, Sage): 36.


Margaret Rhee is the author of poetry collection Love, Robot (The Operating System, 2017), named an Entropy Magazine Best Poetry Book of 2017. Her writing has been published in the Barnard Scholar Feminist Online, GLQ, Cinema Journal, and "Hacking the Black/White Binary," which she co-edited with Brittney Cooper. She received her PhD from UC Berkeley in ethnic and new media studies. Currently, she is a visiting assistant professor at the University at Buffalo SUNY, and a visiting scholar at the A/P/A Institute at NYU. More from this author →