No Warning Sign or Symbol“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” Exposes the Double Standards of Mental Illness

In the opening credits of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s third season, beleaguered protagonist Rebecca Bunch (show creator Rachel Bloom) turns into Carrie Underwood à la “Before He Cheats” when she sings “crazy’s when I go off the rails, this is what you’ve done to me” as she bashes in a car window. In the same scene, a brooding melancholic evening-gowned pop princess sings about how deliciously “crazy” her lover makes her, a boy bander praises his partners who get “crazy in bed,” and an Eminem doppelganger warns other men about girlfriends who are “crazy in the head.”

“You do—you don’t?—wanna be crazy,” they sing, leaving the show’s protagonist, and all of us, more confused than ever. More pointedly and explicitly than ever before, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend conjured the myriad ways that Hollywood has mined the the anxious woman trope for profit, and the mixed messages that we receive about applying the term “crazy” to women. The common factor? Romantic coupledom, which Bunch uses to justify self-sabotaging pathological behavior. The opening credits explicitly call out the double standards aimed at women who display toxic or non-normative behaviors: It’s okay to be “crazy” in bed, for example, but not angry about being mistreated. “Crazy” is only tolerated when it’s in service to a man’s ego, therefore Bunch is not the “right” kind of crazy.

Characters like Bunch are often plumbed for their dramatic potential, serving as the object of the protagonist’s erotic obsession before being discarded for a presumably more suitable romantic partner. However, in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the villainous mentally ill woman serves as neither warning nor sex symbol.

Rachel Bloom as Rebecca Bunch in Crazy Ex-GirlfriendRachel Bloom as Rebecca Bunch in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (Photo credit: The CW)

Instead, Bunch’s negative and disordered emotions are explored without her being reduced to a trope. At the start of the third season, Bunch is missing after vowing to exact revenge against Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) for leaving her at the altar. The show’s promotional posters featured Rebecca posing as “crazy” cultural icons, including Walter White, Don Draper, Catherine (Sharon Stone) from Basic Instinct, and Alex (Glenn Close) in Fatal Attraction, indicating that the show would address the vilification of people with mental illnesses. While all of these characters are troubled, White and Draper were elevated to anti-hero status while Alex and Catherine were villains at the center of erotic thrillers, their struggles fodder for the pleasure of others.

Fittingly, by the time she appears in the season premiere, Bunch has undergone a personality makeover, presenting herself as ripe for revenge and emotionally unassailable. Her simmering rage, thirst for revenge, and iconic white dress are partly inspired by Fatal Attraction—a choice that suggests that cultural representations of mental illness have a lasting impact on how mental illness is perceived and performed. The initial diagnostic criteria for psychiatric disorders was shaped not only by the observation of patients, but also by the posed postures of psychiatric images shot by professional photographers and disseminated through textbooks.

Unlike her predecessors, though, Bunch has female friends who inject realism into her attempts to “ruin” Josh. Valencia (Gabrielle Ruiz), Heather (Vella Lovell), and Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin) quickly kabosh her plans to mail him feces-laced cupcakes and make fake revenge porn starring his British lookalike. While Bunch doesn’t always take their advice, she’s never juxtaposed against an idealized female counterpart. Instead, she’s surrounded by people with issues—diagnosable or not—of their own. Josh has always been aimless, using romance—and now religion—to avoid his own feelings (in “I’ve Got My Head in the Clouds,” he sings that God is his “EZ-Pass,” the carpool lane down the road of moral complexity); ex-boyfriend Greg struggled with alcoholism; and Nathaniel, her sometimes-lover, has his own issues with parental abandonment and abuse.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend season 3 promotional postersRachel Bloom as Rebecca Bunch in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s season three promotional posters (Photo credit: The CW)

Rebecca Bunch’s troubles aren’t a one-way street; instead, her toxicity is often shared, mirrored, and influenced by the partners she attracts.

Ordinarily, revealing Bunch’s history of being institutionalized would be the show’s climactic moment, but she’s intercepted by her friends as she tries to escape to Rome with Nathaniel on a private jet. Rather than incarceration, institutionalization, isolation, or abandonment—the usual ends for female characters with mental illnesses—they offer an intervention. “We don’t hate you, not at all. We love you,” Paula tells Bunch in response to her claim that her loved ones want to “get her out of their lives.” Despite their good intentions, the intervention catalyzes a downward spiral, with Bunch stalking Chan’s house in a parody of Swimfan, using a carnival outing with his mother as bait for a final confrontation, and having sex with her ex-boyfriend’s father after a night of boozing. Still, her friends recognize her destructive behavior as self-sabotage and commit to helping her.

In “The End of the Movie,” Josh Groban chides us for wanting a simple answer (whether positive or negative) to Bunch’s mental health problems. “Life is a gradual series of revelations that occur over a period of time” and “doesn’t make narrative sense,” he reminds us, suggesting that unlike her erotomania-plagued cultural ancestors, Bunch’s fate isn’t already sealed. And after one of the least sensationalized, most empathetic suicide attempts that’s appeared on television, Bunch finally seeks help. Her request for assistance—from a flight attendant, no less—suggests that, though she might not achieve the romantic comedy “happy ending” she’s imagined, she may seek out a better ending on her own terms.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has always drawn from familiar cultural material to draw in viewers and turn ableist and sexist stereotypes into meaningful cultural critiques. By probing the stereotypes about how women are expected to experience and express symptoms of mental illness, Rebecca Bloom’s show forces viewers to confront their own preconceived notions about the lasting cultural figure of “the crazy ex-girlfriend” and reexamine our expectations of mentally ill characters.

by Laura Dorwart
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Laura Dorwart is a Ph.D. candidate at UCSD/UCI with bylines existing or forthcoming from VICE, SheKnows, AfterEllen, Catapult, Dilettante Army, and elsewhere. Follow her on Instagram at @girlreadsblog. Her blog, girlreads.com, is launching soon.

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