Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Masculinity

The bros and alpha males and studs of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are like the vain yoga instructors, dreamboat fantasies and crazy ex-girlfriends — not what they seem. White Josh is the responsible friend, Hector loves his mom. But unlike specifically the crazy ex-girlfriend label, are men so desperately in need of a second look?

I read an article in Forbes sometime last year about DC Superhero Girls, an action and TV show franchise, and this was a follow-up to an earlier article. The underlying argument from that earlier article is that this separate but equal line represents a positive step forward as superhero property marketed to girls, but it’s a flawed one. Author Scott Mendelson has this to say:

“Girls don’t need a whole new “girl-powered” universe just for them, they just need to be included in the universe that already exists.” His concern is that segregation suggests ‘this is unusual.’

In the follow-up article, he elaborates: “It’s teaching women and girls to feel confident and empowered (that’s good) instead of dealing with the mentality of (many) boys and men that creates the need for “female empowerment” in the first place.”

I buy that, and he continues with: “I would argue that male de-empowerment narratives (or less overt male empowerment stories) will treat the disease better than female empowerment narratives that emphasize how unusual it is for a woman to be the hero of her story.”

Now, my reaction to this article was one of incredulity, because women empowerment narratives of any stripe are so rare in my genre, science-fiction, and as such are precious gems no matter their various defects. Take for example Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, which features a woman of such physical and professional supremacy it makes me legitimately angry she’s unique and not a default where it concerns other stories and storytellers. I wouldn’t trade the Major or Balsa for male characters at the center of masculinity deconstructions.

To be fair though, Stand Alone Complex does both, and with Saito’s characterization of the Major, we see how women being super must exist in a context — she is made believable and realistic by the calibration of that context, which required a masculinity deconstruction. In essence, sometimes we don’t have to choose between empowerment and deconstruction. Both contribute to a healthy ecosystem, and that’s an ecosystem for the ages.

In the case of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the women’s empowerment is more about emancipation from patriarchy, it’s about exploring the eponymous term, and seeing women follow their dreams. Running parallel but underneath this is perhaps a feminine gaze toward men, so it’s a little bit different than the Stand Alone Complex approach.

So much of the show is about rethinking roles and demolishing stereotypes, and it’s that ecosystem again — if you’re gonna critique the crazy ex-girlfriend, it’s likely a criticism of its patriarchal architects will be part and parcel. In thinking about the egalitarian future Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s world suggests, we may ask questions like: what will the future of masculinity look like? What will men need to become, and will it be a radical change? Regardless the degree, what’s the process? For the men in the audience, can we become like the bros of West Covina, or is that a fantasy too unrealistic to achieve?

One of the things I’ve noticed about Rebecca is that she’s very complimentary when it comes to sex. She compliments three out of the four guys she has sex with in the show, and that didn’t ring odd to me until I heard about The Centerfold Syndrome, by Gary R. Brooks.

This is a book I saw referenced in a random research paper, the author of which gives it a succinct intro: “Brooks (1995) has proposed the ‘‘centerfold syndrome,’’ a phenomenon wherein exposure to media that objectify women substantially influences heterosexual men’s sexuality and disrupts their ability to form meaningful relationships with women.”

In his investigation of men’s psychosexual dysfunction, Brooks discusses the need for validation. Heterosexual men are obsessed with performance, and that’s measured by tactile responses of a woman’s body, but also something as basic as compliments. Another research paper provides us some examples: “when a woman says for example, “That was fantastic,” “You’re a stud,” or “You satisfy me like no one else does.”

It also says that a “need for validation encourages men to be promiscuous in order to have multiple women approve their sexual performance.” This heterosexual male insecurity in tandem with women’s socialized conditioning to be supportive and encouraging works against relationships.

Now, this might be an odd note to raise, but Rebecca and Greg’s relationship starts out predicated on sex, because anything else would be too complicated and then existentially threatening, and this is interesting when we consider “Settle for Me,” and Josh as the basis for Greg’s insecurity with all things Rebecca.

“Settle for Me” is primarily about emasculation, which we find directly in the lyrics. Rachel Bloom notes that Rebecca and Greg’s relationship is all about power dynamics, that in the makeout interrogation scene in the pilot, she’s pleasuring him but he’s at her mercy. “Settle for Me” invokes traditional masculinity — a gentleman’s seduction of a dazzling dame, in nostalgic black-and-white. But of course, the theme of the number is “Yes, there’s a better guy out there but I’m here at the moment.”

When Greg’s finally made it, Rebecca’s no long settling and he’s a man. It is that language and that mindset, even if he pushes against it when voiced by Hector. It is a score, he’s been validated, reassured he’s “awesome at sex” — how much of this is competition with other men the way Valencia competes with women, how much of it exists in reaction to Josh? Those are things we can’t know, but it is the competition that put the final nail in the coffin.

We begin with “Settle for Me,” and end with the Centerfold Syndrome — just as the back of the classroom needs to hear that feminism benefits men and women, the related but newer idea being processed here is that toxic masculinity, even when it’s cute (in a way that’s not cute), is self-destructive as much as it is destructive.

Again, and this turns out to be our refrain when talking about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, it’s so important that the character is sympathetic throughout. Men are so sensitive; we consistently demonstrate we must be spoon fed feminism, at a glacial pace, and so this criticism of traditional masculinity, traditional gender, is inviting rather than alienating.

At that point however, it might not be indicting enough to actually register. With regards to the relationship’s end, we might still blame Rebecca for being in love with Josh, for example. We’re not conditioned to recognize where toxic masculinity lies like a snake in the grass, and compounding on that, we are conditioned in so many other ways which run directly opposite regardless.

So, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend doesn’t pile its basket with the eggs, it follows up on this criticism as part of offering further areas of exploration. Greg was convinced he needed to become the bad boy, rather than talk to Rebecca. He makes a hasty escape after the hospital, leaving Rebecca to talk with Heather rather than go straight to the source. Bros before tables, tables before bros — Greg and Hector, Greg and his Dad, Rebecca and Heather — it’s only Rebecca and Greg when it’s too late.

Part of the masculine mythology is that actually talking to Rebecca about this anxiety, being emotional or opening up to someone, is a sign of weakness. Granted, as we see in season two, Greg’s difficulty with emotions comes in part from his alcoholism. This remarks upon something unfortunate, that it isn’t just about we recognize men’s shortcomings and the job’s done, but that society has been laid in such a way everything is connected, and one does not simply excise any individual piece of a problematic institution. Patriarchy, in this way, is like the opposite of Jenga. Greg’s tendency toward toxic masculinity, however relatively benign, required a holistic solution, to all of his problems.

As an example of a man who doesn’t need to be the bad boy, we have Darryl Whitefeather, a fan favorite who struggles with emasculation throughout the show — his wife was cheating on him with a man who (doesn’t cry at cat food commercials), he’s depowered as the boss of Whitefeather, and apparently, this goes all the way back to his childhood.

And yet, he’s a stronger person for it. Although off to a rocky start, his approach to countering Nathaniel’s alpha male dominance is by building a bridge. And it works, whether it’s always being open to someone’s potential good, or balladeering for napping in the middle of the day.

I suppose a nap is somewhat infantilizing, and “Man Nap” is another example of constructive criticism, or whatever, where it isn’t a complete satire on manly man culture, but posits that even manly men could use a rest sometimes. Of course, admitting life is hard backfires for Nathaniel in one sense, but humanizes him in the eyes of his co-workers. The show doesn’t really ask us which is more valuable, because it should be obvious by now.

God bless Darryl — he’s just so open, but he kind of hates himself for it. Understandably, because it leads to so much rejection, mostly by Paula, which in turn leads to “I’m Your Best Friend,” which is Darryl’s version of “Settle for Me.” Like Rebecca though, he works very hard and often behind-the-scenes to accomplish his intrusive mission, which is “make Paula admit she’s my best friend.”

What he ultimately settles for is the number two spot in a hierarchy, and he’s okay with that. But this is such a moment of vulnerability we don’t often see with men in media, especially on television. Because it’s not Darryl shedding tears because they burned down the Shaolin Temple or kidnapped his girlfriend or any number of okay reasons for men to break stoicism in the name of further stoicism. He’s just navigating the complicated world of friendships, which may also require communication, no matter how vulnerable.

Greg shows us the hazards of not communicating well, and Darryl the benefits of finally communicating well. It isn’t easy for either of them, to reiterate that earlier point, crossing between what we see as gender roles.

I remember, a few years ago, when anime fans were really hype about Kill la Kill, and people were describing it, half-jokingly, as the manliest thing ever, likely on the inertia of its forebear, Gurren Lagaan. And critics pushed back on that, like, the idea you’re going for is super-intense and extreme and emotional, and those things shouldn’t be gendered.

This may also be the case with heavy metal. The humor of “What a Rush to Be a Bride,” if I could continue explaining jokes, is the juxtaposition between heavy metal and delicate femininity. You could probably make the case it’s reductive to either or both, but I think the earnestness shines through. It’s the reclamation of something we gendered — high intensity, screaming, strobe lights. It’s the perfect expression for Rebecca and Paula’s “Ecstasy of Gold” as interpreted by Metallica.

And then there’s the JAP Battle, and setting aside the problematic aspects, at least for this video, at the end of the day, we do have two women engaging in a rap battle. By and large, speaking to Americans at least, we are and shouldn’t be strangers to women rappers. It’s another male-dominated space, but that didn’t occur to me when Rebecca and Audra went at it. There’s that same subtlety of subversion consistent with, for example, Key and Peele, where these two black guys insert themselves into all kinds of genres and it was just instantly normal, despite being the creation of a new image.

Hollywood is still a place where a certain type of person is at the center of the poster, and certain types of other people stand to the left and right and that’s normal. It’s one thing to say of course I know women and black people can be anything in movies and TV shows, and another thing to see it.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend addresses an array of men, and treats them as fully developed people. It is mathematically unfair, because we haven’t had 100 years of women-driven Hollywood where men are disparaged, brutalized, absent, or objectified. And so while I won’t celebrate this aspect of the show, it is a net positive.

There’s a kernel of truth inside male anxiety about feminism, that accommodation and various compromise are required by gender equality. We can lean back and say “women’s voices need to be heard,” but that requires listening to those voices, and that means diverting attention from wherever it was previous — that’s a compromise, laughable it might be.

But if we as men enjoy being seen as multidimensional in the way this show does it, I think we have to earn that. Actually be complicated and complex, and more than our libidos, as a start. We have to care about emotions, we have to talk to people.

Can we do this? I know it won’t be easy. As a journey, it will be long and hard. And the balls are in your court. If you thought any of that was funny, stop proving my concern.

Originally published to A Generic Wonderful on 05/14/2017

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