Media analysis can be rough, when you dig really deep you got to make sure you remember how and why you got there. This YouTube channel started under a simple banner: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is so good and so smart. But it’s been a few months since I was initially struck by the show’s unexpected good and smartness, “unexpected” measured not by a show that looks like this but by television itself, and in the time since, I’ve witnessed various negativity — one scathing review, a number of issues raised by the fan community, things like that.
Everything kind of came to a head when I began thinking about how to cut together a trailer. The setup is pretty troubling — no aspersions on the CW marketing team, it’s a really hard sell if you play it straight, and you can see that in the reaction to an existing trailer. For the only thousands of people who saw this, almost half of them dismissed it, not for being sexist, but for looking like a chick flick that’s trying to be edgy.
And so with my own prospective trailer in front of me, I thought: how do you interface with that perception? How do you eventually sell the show’s good and smart points? But that’s when it hits me, and the second question repeats with a different intonation. Because really, what are those points? And there we are, down too deep. Have I finally done it? This whole thing, have I been wasting my time talking about this show for no reason? Is it not that good and smart as initially believed?
No. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is brilliant and actually makes me excited about… anything.
So let’s put it out there, so I never lose the entrance — why? Why is it brilliant? And this isn’t an original theory or anything, it’s just something I’d like to reiterate here:
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend addresses that label, and that word, “crazy,” by depicting a character who exhibits traditionally ‘crazy’ behavior, but from her perspective. And “from her perspective” is everything, it’s huge. So each time she does something crazy — sleeping with another guy on a date, burning down her house, stealing a boyfriend, neglecting her best friend — we understand why she’s doing it, and how she got there. We may not agree, but we understand her, and so “from her perspective is everything” because the show becomes an exercise in empathy. It may look like a fun musical with sharp comedic writing and performances, but we are being trained to look at one another and not read a face as informed by stereotypes or labels, because not only do we begin to understand the harmful places where these labels come from, we also care about the person on the other end because they may have the same passions and struggles as a Rebecca Bunch, who’s so relatable — transitive property: they may have the same passions and struggles as us. Anyone in our life at any time could be Rebecca Bunch, could be us, and that is a beautiful idea given shape by the execution of this deconstruction, the writing and acting bringing this character to life, as well as the world that contextualizes her.
So now we have it, and we can begin. Begin what, you ask? Well, look, here’s the thing. We pride the show and the fan community on being inclusive. So if somebody has a problem, no matter how absurd that problem might be, they deserve a voice. And giving them a voice doesn’t mean talk about them on a video behind their backs like I’m doing, but to consider them at all. Hopefully, by the end, we’ll have solved some of these problems, because even if the show isn’t 100% perfect, I think the intent behind it absolutely is, and the show itself comes pretty damn close. Unfortunately, in many cases, the damage has already been done. People have been variously offended or frustrated, and those feelings can’t be erased by thematic analysis. That being the case, the purpose of a video like this is to recognize the potential issues, clarify them if it’s a matter of miscommunication, and take whatever lessons we learn into the future.
I’d like to begin with the scathing article I mentioned. Late one night I stumbled upon this review and it really bummed me out. So I’m gonna tell you about it, in part, perhaps, for petty catharsis. To be clear, what follows is not a real approach to media criticism, nor dialogue — nothing makes you think “this guy’s a robot” faster than when some asshole quotes part of your comment and comments on it. I hate that. But that’s what I’m gonna do here. However, these are not the real quotes; direct references to the article are paraphrased. The article does exist, I’m not making it up, but I will not tell you the title nor the publication for two reasons: one, I don’t want you to read it.
Even if the argument can be sufficiently undermined with a closer read of the show, it is a joyless exercise, and it’s not pleasant to have somebody trash on something we all like. I can’t be alone in thinking I need less of that in my life.
Two, I want to minimize the possibility that a rogue viewer might do a google search and engage with this person, who is a person. Pretty much everyone who watches these videos are solid characters, but I can’t account for everyone, and if for example doxxing was hard, why are people who doxx able to do it? Granted, that would be extreme but I just want to be safe.
Blog within a blog
So, the author, Cogswell Pepperbox, has written an article published by Bagels for Breakfast, let’s call it: “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Sucks, Here’s Why.” I’m usually good with just ignoring these kinds of things, however, this article does touch on what I think is the biggest potential problem with the show, the relationship between crazy and “crazy.”
The thrust of the issue is that the author was told by feminists that this is a smart show attempting to deconstruct the titular term, but contradicts itself by giving Rebecca actual mental health problems, and having her never seek help. That’s troubling because instead of undermining the term, it justifies it — women truly are crazy when Rebecca’s label isn’t completely unfair, and there’s no portrayal of fighting against the label.
To that, we have a note that little of Rebecca’s actions are properly explained, other than her father leaving and her mother’s emotional abuse. To paraphrase:
“The series pays lip service to character development such that you might think it’s a character-driven story. We find out that Rebecca’s father left her as a child and she’s been trying to fill that place with the love of a man. We also find out her mother has been very critical of her in that tough-love sort of way, and as a result, Rebecca now desperately seeks approval. But none of this has been sufficient to humanize her decisions, like planting ten grand in a woman’s suitcase to get her arrested.”
But I find that everything she does, while over-the-top, is motivated. She plants $10,000 in Stacey’s car because she wants to help Darryl win full custody of Madison so Greg will think she’s a good person. She wants Greg to think she’s a good person because if he thought she was, maybe she could believe it too.
So if we compress points A and B, she does the “crazy” thing because she wants to believe she’s a good person. And why does she not think she’s a good person? This cause and effect didn’t begin in the previous episode, it’s been going on all her life. In the previous episode, she does another “crazy” thing, which makes Greg say she’s not a good person. And that “crazy” thing comes from the failure to make a healthy choice — her love for Josh is tested and everyone pays for it. Her love for Josh comes from her father abandoning her and her mother denying her feelings out of resentment for that father.
But the author maintains that:
“We’re left with not really an investigation of how the titular phrase, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is used and why it’s so pervasive, but rather, an underlying assumption that the proper combination of devotion and rejection can lead any woman into psychosis.”
It’s not necessarily about investigating the root of the label as it’s applied, like why do people use the term, but investigating the tragedies behind the label. Both accomplish similar goals of subverting it, and so I think it’s a matter of expectation, and Cogswell’s were completely understandable.
I mean, I don’t think the show needs to investigate where the label comes from or why it’s used, because it’s generally accepted that that’s something people are unfairly called in our very sexist world, and with very little provocation. And as we’ll talk about later, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has built a specific world, where even sexism is a lot more nuanced than that — none of the men are outright dicks enough to call Rebecca crazy and dismiss her, but that doesn’t mean they’re not sexist. So the label doesn’t need to be established as ‘unfair’ in the context of the show because it’s obvious, but it is established as such just in case.
And it should be, because as mentioned, a certain degree of the pejorative is accepted as true for Rebecca. She isn’t somebody who has zero issues but is labeled anyway for absolutely no reason, which I think is what the articlist was expecting going in. Cogswell needs to see a falseness with the crazy, rather than just the humanity behind it — needs it debunked rather than humanized. But at that point, it’s kind of down to semantics, really. Because if we understand Rebecca, if she’s human, and we understand why she plants that cash, is she really crazy? I’d say no. So to solve this thematically, we need to gauge the efficacy of the humanization, because that’s what cancels out the pejorative, that’s what debunks it.
“We find out that Rebecca’s father left her as a child and she’s been trying to fill that place with the love of a man. We also find out her mother has been very critical of her in that tough-love sort of way, and as a result, Rebecca now desperately seeks approval. But none of this has been sufficient to humanize her decisions, like planting ten grand in a woman’s suitcase to get her arrested.”
But why? Why is the impact of Rebecca’s parents’ emotional abuse not sufficient? For our purposes, based on our earlier assertion, the measure of humanization is relatability — we need to see ourselves in Rebecca. So the question becomes: do we?
Let’s take a look at episode 110, where we can see the process of how someone might fall into the “crazy,” that being the glamor and patriarchal advice of “Put Yourself First.” At the outset, we see how much returning to summer camp means to Rebecca, and by the end, we see it fall apart. Her heart is broken the same way it was ten years ago, down to the dialogue on Josh’s part — “so weird.” I feel like those words are very deliberate on the part of the writers.
We know Rebecca is haunted by memories, and so we know what’s going on in her head in this moment, but we don’t need to see it because her face says it all, the way her voice breaks. The Instagram picture elicits that perfect laugh-crying response that the show does so well. And then she runs off, pursued by a bear. It may be true I can’t relate to Rebecca doing all the things she does in this episode, I would never do X, I would never do Y — it’s crazy. But I do understand this, the rejection. And that kind of feeling is a constant through her life, rejection by her father, her mother, and every man she’s ever loved, and it loops around to the start and drives everything we see.
Josh is critical among the rejectors, but it’s not only him, it’s about being rejected by society. The devotion Cogswell talks about is the want to be validated, to feel normal and be accepted. Minorities of all stripes can come to this show and relate, because ultimately, this is the story of a person who ought not be. She was labeled, and the plot isn’t about a character who fights against that label, but has to live that label, just as we do with whatever we’ve been burdened with. In a snake-eats-tail-loop, the more she tries to enter society, the stranger she appears. It’s an ongoing struggle, and falling into old patterns and not learning lessons helps other characters and the audience identify problems because they can feel the consequences, and themselves do better.
So, like Cogswell, we might go into a show called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend with a certain mindset if we’ve been told it’s feminist, like omg feminist, not even just regular style. They just can’t fucking win with that title, beset upon by all sides, but again, understandably so. It’s either sexist or it’s feminist, and if it’s feminist, it has to do the job, or it risks being sexist again.
“Periodically, Rebecca discusses the beauty standard and the glass ceiling and Roxane Gay, but it doesn’t help the show arrive at its stated destination, which is a deconstruction of the term crazy.” Surface feminism is not good enough, we need to be more specific.
References to the pillars of feminism coming from Rebecca work more as a character detail — she is a house divided; she knows one thing with her brain but feels another with her heart. And that sounds sexist again but it’s why she’s kind of a tragic character — she can’t control her feelings for Josh, but she knows they’re wrong. Love is kind of like that implicit bias we’ve talked about — it’s a psychological thing, it’s about chemicals in the brain — she can’t control her feelings because nobody who’s ever been in love really can.
The deconstruction of the show exists in an interesting space, very much rooted in action and consequence rather than dialogue, which is often a false flag. The show can be saying one thing while doing the opposite. After the rejection on Blowey Point, we arrive at “Put Yourself First,” and this is a perfect example. Rebecca comes in attempting to lecture young girls about the burdens of being a modern woman, and her heart’s not in it. One of the girls throws a tampon at her head, she cries, they show some female solidarity with a song that talks about putting oneself first for him. Rebecca is reanimated by the solidarity, and is rewarded by a peck on the cheek by the man of her dreams. In the context of just the episode, all of that is gross as hell, spoken to literally when capped off by Rebecca’s further inability to understand double entendre.
But this episode is part two of Rebecca beginning to gain ground with Josh, and we might be rooting for her because again, the deconstruction necessitates we relate to her and become empathetic. Kind of like how some people can root for Walter White when he’s gaining ground against Gus Fring. So Rebecca gaining ground is a plot thing, and the deconstruction comes after. But in the meantime, it’s not to say there aren’t warnings: “Put Yourself First” is not even veiled satire, with Rebecca constantly second-guessing the girls’ busted philosophy.
“Aren’t I putting myself second?”
Even when the show is laying unpleasant groundwork for a later purpose, the writers are still taking care to be responsible as they do it.
So now we come to the final point of the first point.
“The show forfeits an engagement with mental illness by depicting a character who lies, manipulates, and is self-obsessed, whose health problem is unclear and undiagnosed, and takes two steps back for every step she takes, on the altar of a plotline. The show is not interested in help for Rebecca.”
Again, I totally get that. The show hasn’t really dealt in solutions to Rebecca’s mental health issues, focusing entirely on the gender relations aspect and the actualization of women. But once upon a time, there was a TV writer who lamented that critics were reviewing shows episode by episode, because an episode doesn’t represent the whole of the work any more than a page in a novel. And that might sound absurd, but that writer was David Simon, and The Wire is often thought of as a novel on TV — arguably, it wasn’t complete until the final episode.
Rebecca’s journey is not over yet, we haven’t gotten to the part where she’s turning things around for herself. In fact, at the end of season two, she isn’t relapsing, she’s revising the crazy ex-girlfriend label. Late season 3 or season 4 will probably see her return to Dr. Akopian’s office, whether figuratively or literally, and deal with the problem as people in reality do. And I trust that will happen because that’s the kind of thing Rachel Bloom talks about — she’s an advocate for therapy and for appropriate medical treatment, even if Rebecca Bunch is not.
It might be easy to to underestimate this show because we don’t expect something thoughtful from a comedy, or a romantic comedy, or a romantic comedy musical. I get it. And this isn’t how I want to celebrate the show’s thoughtfulness because it’s inelegant and defensive. It’s like who hurt you, bro? Cogswell, obviously. There are better ways to do this, but I think the ideas expressed by that article really struck me because of the gravity of the situation.
To the article’s author, the show’s failure to engage with the label meant further stigmatizing, and media can have that power to shape self-image. You can definitely argue that the show has the potential to cause damage to and for women, but what’s inarguable is that it’s already caused a lot of healing. You can look at comments on Reddit, on racheldoesstuff, or even on these videos — listen to podcasts like Crazy Ex-GirlFans and what you read about and hear about is identification and representation. I’ve even seen somebody say that they assessed their own life using the metrics established by the show.
There’s this almost psychic sense of solidarity as Aline Brosh McKenna and Rachel Bloom speak to you through an abstract form. “Finally, my story is being told, and I don’t feel so alien anymore.” I’d say the show goes even further than that, but that’s plenty right there, that’s a profound force for good.
Which brings us, finally, to the next point of criticism. When the inclusion machine stops. And there are a few talking points here, each as uncomfortable as the last.
In the process of working through that article in the way only a demented person would, it was cool to come upon that measure for the deconstruction — the efficacy of the humanization calibrated by relatability, which is obvious in retrospect but it’s funny how ideas find the words and then they exist more strongly. And it’s an important idea because one of the general criticisms I hear, sometimes just off-hand, is that Rebecca and everyone are just awful people. Especially after episode 4, sometimes new viewers can’t take it and stop watching. And I think that might come from their not relating to Rebecca, and so she never becomes human. We like to think identifying with that character is universal, because how could it not be, but in reality, how could it be, right? It’s subjective. I don’t know if there’s anything to be done about that, but I suspect we’ll see more of that rationale for not watching the show as it continues to grow its audience. More of the same criticisms, all the old arguments we’ve all already had.
And another really troubling criticism that hasn’t necessarily lent itself to an argument, given the puny size of the current audience, is racial diversity, and racial diversity is so obviously important, but specifically for this show, it’s another thing that may impact one’s ability to empathize and identify, which again, can be crucial to one’s enjoyment.
Now first of all, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend isn’t just racially diverse, it’s unusually so. Yes, Rebecca has a black best friend, but Heather is black and she is also mixed-race, and it doesn’t ever come up because there’s never been a reason for it to come up. And of course, you have Josh, an Asian guy in a leading role, but also an Asian guy as a romantic lead, that’s very unusual.
Second, I can tell racial diversity is something Aline Brosh McKenna takes very seriously. I saw her once on a panel at a tiny bookstore where she was speaking with three other TV writers, who were all men, and I think all white, and one of the audience members asked about diversity on TV, as the panel itself didn’t represent diversity. And McKenna was like give me the mic.
She has not only cast a racially diverse show, but cast a racially diverse production team — two of the writers, the editor, a number of directors have been people of color, and that’s so important too if it creates an environment where multiple perspectives can generate and interface with ideas. This is partly why the show doesn’t make any obvious stumbles, but also because the two showrunners actually care and don’t think people of color are aliens.
I think Josh was the only character where ethnicity was specified on the casting call. They saw Gregs of all kinds, and Paulas, I think, too. The cast they ended up with is clearly “right for the job,” because we all love everybody who is cast.
But it is true that the show is majority white, with a white lead, and I have heard at least one dismissal of the show being tantamount to: I don’t need more of that. Essentially, that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend exhibits white people having white people problems, and in a world where the needle of progress vacillates wildly as it inches, or even millimeters forward, that’s a hard bargain.
Because the truth about the needle is that it is moving, and as a result, our standard for progressive television has changed, now that we have shows like Chewing Gum, Jane the Virgin, Insecure, Dear White People, most of which are on Netflix. I totally get it, especially if you’re a white liberal, why you’d rather at least start with Jane the Virgin.
This is a very tricky area, because I don’t want to minimize that women of color are finally beginning to have the opportunity to tell their stories, though I fear I’ve already done that, and I don’t want to apologize on behalf of white people, knowing all the harm they’ve caused many people watching this video, but it’s kind of the thrust of this channel that the story of Rebecca Bunch is a very important story to tell.
And for a number of reasons, she’s a character who’s very easy to identify with. She’s very flawed, exhibits very real symptoms of anxiety and mental health issues, she doesn’t necessarily conform to the outrageous Hollywood body standards or decorum, and she is definitely marginalized.
So is Crazy Ex-Girlfriend a very white show or is it diverse? In a strange way, it’s both, and the latter does not necessarily cancel out the former. There are shows with a similar proportional makeup, but don’t make much of their black best friend or Asian co-worker or female wife. Quality is like 68% of what makes the difference with diversity, and so although most of the characters in the main cast are white, the characters of color count just the same.
I hazard to say I’m completely fine with the show as is, just because I am represented as an Asian person — that’s not fair. There’s one black guy, and he’s not in the main cast. Mrs. Hernandez is the only older Latinx woman, and she didn’t verbally speak until late season two. It’s one area of the show that could definitely be improved, and it has time to do that.
However, it should also be stated that this is the case with almost every single show out there, with the exception of things like the recently canceled Carmichael Show or Fresh Off the Boat, which are depicting a cast of one ethnicity, but still represent a “diverse perspective.” And as we move into the future, into a more egalitarian society, you will always end up with white people, because they exist, there are a lot of talented white actors and actresses in Hollywood. So I think Crazy Ex-Girlfriend can be a good model for when that happens: care enough about your characters that even the people of color are explored, such that even if there’s disproportion, there’s that quality. Think about the opposite of what that exploration is and realize it’s not much of an assignment.
It’s not perfect, and saying that nothing else is perfect doesn’t necessarily cover for it, but I think we’ve just hit an impasse, because I wouldn’t change anything about the show — it is perfect, it’s just not as racially diverse as it can be, and that’s the complication of art. If there’s ever a remake or a theatrical adaptation of the show, a different and more racially diverse cast could also produce a perfect Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. When no one can possibly be right for the job in a creative work, that means a lot of talented people can be — even if the character is written to the actor after a while, the performance will always be an interpretation of the character. Which brings us to the next point.
And speaking of race-bending, when the American Ghost in the Shell movie cast Scarlett Johansson, people were understandably upset, especially Asian-American people who imagined maybe they could be in a movie, I don’t know, just a thought. But the arguments for why the Major had to be Japanese didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Essentially that because the Ghost in the Shell manga and the 1995 movie depict a Japanese character, the American version must also depict a Japanese character.
Now, I’m not somebody who’d claim there’s too much essentially Japanese about Ghost in the Shell, of all anime. The 1995 movie takes place in Hong Kong, the series’ geopolitical themes are Japan-focused but are absurdly relevant to contemporary America, but this same argument was also used to keep Iron Fist white in his adaptation. Whether from Japan to America or comic to Netflix, one must stay true to the source material, although that’s never before been the case.
So what’s changed? Well, that should be obvious: we simply need more Asian people on the screen, as we do many kinds of people. A Japanese-American actress should have played this part, because giving representation to Japanese-American women is a far greater good than ‘serving the story.’ And if you saw that movie in the theatres on opening day like I did, your prediction was proven accurate — the story was not worth serving to begin with.
Closing the book
Anyway, the Ghost in the Shell situation and the ongoing whitewashing harangue has introduced a new idea to the conversation, that we’re now considering who can play who, or more so, who can’t play who. And this should go both ways, like the water in West Covina. If a white actress can’t play the Major, it’s because characters mean something significant, and that significance can be positive or negative.
So, the question of “could Crazy Ex-Girlfriend be more diverse?” takes on that additional complication that I think is worth noting here, because in fact, each character means something significant, and sometimes that specifically has to do with race.
So what if we race-bend the existing characters and kind of just see what happens? We immediately stumble upon the problem: something happens. Something changes. A new narrative is created every time the race dynamic changes. I mean, think about it from the very beginning, before Aline Brosh McKenna suggested to Rachel Bloom that Josh was Asian, and Rachel Bloom said but of course. If Josh was white, race would exit the conversation and it would be a different power dynamic, one simply between genders. And it would be very uncomfortable, more so than it is now. But when a white Rebecca is obsessed with a guy of color, it’s not the traditional image of an alpha male and a hapless lady by his side. The image is still problematic, but again, we’re only two seasons in. We also celebrate the meta-narrative, of a white person uplifting a person of color who doesn’t see a lot of leading roles.
So let’s keep going with this, looking at the existing love interests. If Josh was white and Greg was Asian, we’d all be complaining that Rebecca never goes for the Asian guy, maybe because she’s racist. If Josh was Asian and Greg was Asian, the narrative wouldn’t change and “whiteness” is canceled out, because again, white people are not generally defined by race, they just are.
On the flipside, if they were both Asian, we might also think Rebecca had a thing for Asians. And in the primitive year 2017, that’s a distracting narrative which confuses the point. It would have to come up in the show, because it would come up in reality, and it would also become a gross thematic element — we think Rebecca doesn’t really love Josh or Asian Greg because she hasn’t discovered herself, and to put a pin on it, they’re interchangeable. It really isn’t Josh’s personality, just his race. And that would be a weird way to express that.
But we might say that Rebecca has a thing for white guys. For heterosexual guys of color, and especially Asians, our purchase into the European standard of beauty is a recurring but not insurmountable curse, turning white women into trophies, sexy passports to societal acceptance, which objectifies women and marginalizes women of color. I don’t know if the reverse is true, that white guys are a thing and that’s a problem for heterosexual women, but it has been noticed here nevertheless.
I saw on Reddit, somebody had raised the issue of Rebecca’s love interests and people she’s had sex with, and how they’re predominantly, repeatedly white. So this time, it’s not just about quantity, but the quality of the role. Going chronologically with sexual or romantic partners, we have this kid, the college guy, the other college guy, Audra’s fiance, the professor, the taco festival guy, Greg, Trent, and Nathaniel, with Josh as the sole exception. Now, the only other time I’ve heard this criticism generally is with Mindy Kaling on The Mindy Project, where the eponymous Mindy is a woman of color, and I think when color is introduced at all, the issue stands out. Because the other TV shows I’ve seen with a woman and male interests have also been exclusively white but I didn’t hear word one. Veronica Mars, Revenge, and as far as I saw of Orphan Black.
So then we think, well, let’s try to diversify these love interests, like we race-bent Josh and Greg. And the problem we run into is with Trent and Nathaniel. Now, Nathaniel is the only character on the show who has to be white, because that’s an element of the character. Trent is a character who probably should be white, because he’s an undesirable identification. If he was any kind of Asian, which Americans generally think of as weird, Trent would become a very offensive stereotype. Bad with women, socially awkward, predatory. Let’s also not forget Audra’s fiance, now husband, who was either “small dick, rotten lay,” or “finished quick, rotten lay,” but is regardless, another undesirable character and one who specifically could not be Asian because of the small dick thing — that’s one of our bugaboos, if you weren’t aware. So instead, the writer Doug Mand steps up. I don’t know if there was a formal casting process there.
And Trent is a similar way. He isn’t a deconstructive character like Nathaniel, he’s just not someone you’d want to be. So the creators burden white men with Trent, and again, while “right for the job” is a misnomer in the creative arts, obviously Paul Welsh is killing it. Or is he? (Trent is so hot comment). When somebody provides a supposition like this, a now lengthy rationale against a positive force in society, saying “sometimes you just can’t cast diversely,” it’s terrible — it’s ammunition for the anti-progress side and it doesn’t really help anything. I’ll try to address that later.
And while ammunition is dangerous in general, we have to remember that stereotypes are harder to avoid than we might think. As someone else on Reddit had pointed out, Josh represents a Filipino stereotype. He’s kind of a dumb guy, he’s a bro. And while the bros of West Covina are multilayered, Josh is a perpetrator of emotional violence as well as being generally uncouth.
Now, I should say, as a reminder to what’s gone unspoken, I don’t necessarily agree with any of these criticisms, and this is the one I’m least allowed to make. So I hope you get that this is not me speaking, but it’s not Cogswell either — as much as I’d like to distance myself from this area, the refrain for this episode is “all things considered,” or as much as I can think of, anyway.
So is Josh written as a dumb Asian because he’s Filipino? I read this on the subreddit, and I don’t think the post exists anymore. So that tells me other people had a similar reaction to mine. I’m a strong believer in baby steps — progress can be subtle, moving so imperceptibly we get frustrated, although in the case of Josh Chan in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, it’s a great leap.
Regardless, let’s take a look. Our first reaction might be to say that Josh Chan was originally written as Chinese. But here’s the thing, it’s intent and interpretation again — it doesn’t matter how the character came to be, but how he is. The thrust of the reaction, which was a real thing that happened and is not up for debate, is that Josh is a stereotype for Filipinos being dumb Asians, and that’s what we have to address. The problem doesn’t go away simply because it’s inconvenient.
Whoever raised this issue raised the broader issue of this Filipino stereotype, although I could not confirm its existence online, and I imagine there are Filipino people who would contest its integrity. But is it so hard to believe that among Asians, Filipinos would be marginalized? You notice the first thing: they’re of a darker skin color. Compounding on that, certain East Asian cultures, Korea, are into skin bleaching and buy into the European beauty standard which evidently reaches beyond just beauty.
But to counter the potential stereotype, it’s important and super surprising that there’s a range of Filipino characters to demonstrate this isn’t an equation of “Filipino” and “being dumb,” but just “Josh” and “being dumb.” Both Father Brah and Alex are variously dumbfounded by Josh, and are themselves put-together, accomplished in their respective careers. We also have Josh’s family, who can’t really be boiled down to single character traits despite relatively minimal screentime.
So even though characters like Trent and Nathaniel have to be white to avoid making stereotypes or insulting whichever racial group, if they were cast with performers of color, you’d simply have to compound that with more diversity, to balance out the statement being made. That’s all. It would be imperfect, but I guess it’s just always imperfect. The game isn’t reaching for perfection, but to include as many as possible, I think.
And for the record, this isn’t to say Josh can be boiled down either, or that he’s even necessarily “dumb.” I have complete faith in the writers, that as they continue to explore Josh, he’ll move beyond his arrested development. Because here’s the thing, Josh hasn’t really begun to change yet. In the first season, he mostly exists from a distance, within Rebecca’s perspective, and struggles with feelings for Rebecca despite a path of seeming least resistance with long-time girlfriend Valencia. In the second season, he comes to realize he has a commitment problem and flits from one woman to the next when things get difficult.
The character is compelling in the moment-to-moment rather than over the course of an arc — more Don Draper (intricate) than Walter White (broad), so far. I expect that at some point, though I don’t know where, Josh’s cluelessness will be contextualized beyond Rebecca’s use (or detriment), toward utility, to where he expands on the subtle intelligence he already has. He may not know what an “algorithm” is, but he has an essential kindness to him that comes less from naivety and more from self-assurance I think. I wouldn’t say Josh is an idiot, he’s just kind of a sleepyhead, and he’s been sleeping in the world he made for a long while.
So in the last few sections I’ve covered a number of different points but keep arriving at the same conclusion which is: sometimes a character just has to be white, which is anti-diversity. The reason is to avoid stereotypes, and you may be able to mitigate those stereotypes (Father Brah, Alex) but they still remain and they must because you’re deconstructing them. But that’s a very specific story, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is that specific case. Not every show is doing this, and so while this is a point to keep in mind, it’s certainly not universally applicable.
And it won’t always be applicable here. At some point in the future, any role, no matter how undesirable, can be played by anyone regardless or race or ethnicity in part because those bugaboos we were talking about earlier won’t exist or won’t matter. For example, the small penis Asian thing will only be a factor in society so long as society continues to fixate on the penis and use it as shorthand for its weird power games. And although this is farther off, we may not always see the white man in a suit as the office alpha male archetype. But that’s the far future, and I’d say that while Crazy Ex-Girlfriend exists in a contemporary setting, it’s heart is set in the near future.
The fictionalized world of West Covina posits a post-racial culture, where Rebecca’s Jewishness is only mentioned when plot relevant, and the same goes for Josh’s Filipino identity. Rebecca passingly speculates at Valencia’s race once and it only comes up once more, and Heather is never verbally identified as a black woman. Now, obviously, there are positives and negatives with this. Heather is a black woman, and in our current society, that’s something to be celebrated and not ignored like it is here.
But when you ignore it, it’s true that she is Heather apart from anything else, and that frankness can interface with our racist brains in an important way. She is utterly normal. Now, ideally, the perfect post-racial culture would have it that we recognize Heather is a black woman, because we can’t erase heritage, but it only denotes character if she wants it to, because we would control what defines our character. So it’s not ‘we have to go colorblind,’ but something a lot more nuanced and beyond our current psychological capacity, but not beyond the human race as we continue to progress as a civilized society.
And this is why I have a bone to pick with, say, period pieces. Not only do they elevate mediocre shows in the eyes of critics, they can also be so dreadfully limited. And witnessing that limit, that stopping point, time and time again, it calls to mind how these shows are just a reflection of our own limited perception of history, and our selective interest.
Somebody on Twitter said this:
…and it’s so true. On repeat, you’ll have the minority character and their tale of victimization because history was indeed awful. That’s true, and it’s important. But it’s not the only thing that’s important, or true. Where are the stories of triumph? And that’s a pretty advanced question anyway, because when you’re at that point, at least there is inclusion. One of the questions floating around Game of Thrones has always been: where are all the black people? And the answer might surprise you.
Putting aside that Game of Thrones is a fantasy story, it is based on 12th or 15th century Britain, in which black people were around. But we don’t want to think about that like we don’t want to think about women warriors ever existing. Selective interest, whitewash. On the other hand, it’s high time we retire the argument that “this is a show about dragons but black people are too much?” because dragons are a given in fantasy, which is a genre specifically about the establishment of rules, not their abandonment. Our approach to the genre needs to be fixed, not the genre itself, though I wouldn’t complain either way.
So that’s one side, where a discussion of race comes from a discussion, though as we know, television may not always be ready to have that discussion. I prefer the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend method, where people of color simply are, and they can have narratives beyond marginalization. But at that point, you run the risk of not recognizing and respecting that marginalization.
We see Heather and she’s so easygoing we might conclude it’s easy to be Heather, where in our reality, a person like Heather is black, she’s a woman, she’s a black woman, and she’s mixed-race, that’s four — at least, I can only imagine how hard that is. So Crazy Ex-Girlfriend feels like an ambassador from the future not only because it’s helping us become our improved, futuristic selves, but because it also rids itself of these complications. So maybe it’s an ambiguous future.
We’ve saved a pretty big one for last: cultural appropriation. Now, it seems almost impossible to not appropriate a culture when you’re surveying every genre of music, and while I think the show’s been pretty above board so far, that’s because for me, cultural appropriation is one of the social justice talking points I have the hardest time wrapping my head around. I can and do accept it’s bad, but have never fully understood the various rationales why. I’m happy to take your word for it, but I’ve never been able to logic it out. Like when somebody says, “they borrowed elements of a culture without reciprocation,” for example that taco truck who studied Mexican cooking (sometimes through windows) and replicated it in America without cutting those Mexican cooks in, that’s kind of complex to me. Ripping those people off is definitely shitty, but it seems like the answer is the reciprocation — so would paying them make it not cultural appropriation, just because it makes it not shitty? I just want to know the connection between appropriation and reparations, aside from being morally correct, because otherwise, cultural appropriation isn’t as well-defined as other things have been.
But I can very easily put that aside and take it at face value: if one is going to appropriate another’s culture, they shouldn’t try to call it celebration and they should at least consult with an appropriate representative of that culture. And that’s only ever hard because then you’re employing someone on the basis of their cultural connection, and as someone who’s at least believed he’s been on both ends, it’s a weird feeling. But bringing in the actual perspective you’re trying to emulate can prevent some early pratfalls.
But I think another part of it is intent, and context. I’ve never read Crazy Ex-Girlfriend as trying to pay homage to another culture, or try to speak for someone else, they’re using the numbers as cultural remix. While this may create a problematic or at least a complex image, like two white women in a rap battle, you also get a country song by a Latinx woman, a Disney princess song with someone who isn’t 19, and a punk rock song with an Asian frontman. These are new images that do the work of normalization apart from what’s going on thematically.
And so that’s the other part of these numbers and their context, is that a lot of them make a point of cultural criticism in themselves. Not all of them, but some. “I’m So Good At Yoga” is said to be satire on how American yoga has appropriated Indian culture to where somebody might have a sanskrit tattoo bespeaking anal sex. My fundamental disagreement with satire is actually perfectly represented here, though I’m not personally offended by the number: the message can be compromised by the lengths taken to get there. They’re making fun of how America bastardizes another culture by partaking in that bastardization.
So that’s a case where it’s ambiguous, at least. But I think that the intent is always pure, and the methodology is very clever. “A Boy Band of Four Joshes” is a boy band song because that choice of genre optimizes the story beat of Rebecca’s childhood dream. Just the same, when Rebecca uses an aggressive rap song for her bizarrely sexual “I Give Good Parent,” it’s because that popular rap subgenre best facilitates the sexuality and energy. This is the use of musical genres as language, which is really wonderful, but may not perfectly interface with our world, where the language is still uneven.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s themes of inclusivity are really inspiring, and I like how the fan community has clearly been inspired, and is in turn very inclusive. And if I believe those themes could change minds, then the show represents a wonderful opportunity for that inclusion. In terms of rhetoric, it’s our ultimate answer to engaging with people who are basically bad and don’t respond well to logic or conflicting ideas, but who can be saved. I mean, take me for example — I can’t even tell you the horrible things I’ve said in the past three years about, like, women or trans people. Surely it hasn’t been recorded and made publicly available online anywhere as part of my continued penance. But watching this show not only taught me so much but instilled the lasting value of motive and maybe even urgency, that I genuinely care enough to learn more, and I fucking despise learning.
When you fall in love with this show, you’re falling in love with the ideas and the precepts, and those are invaluable lessons. Asking for a friend, but you also might fall in love with Rachel Bloom, who seems so real, like a real human being, and to know there’s a real person on the other end of media, that’s what we should always assume going in, but maybe they don’t make it so easy. She does. That’s what’s at stake when we recommend the show: at the very least, the inner universe of a human being otherwise abstracted by still images and soundbytes and TMZ.
So when people have problems, and they find themselves suddenly teetering on the fence, we have to do everything we can to hold onto them, especially if they’re guys like me who don’t know how sexist they are (nobody does), but at least they’re watching the show. I mean, when you see that, you gotta push for it, not push them away. And in some cases, my first thought is to react with snark or sarcasm, but what does that really accomplish, especially when there’s this much at stake? Just something to keep in mind, as we continue to campaign for people to watch this fucking show already. When they’re teetering, you got to be the boat. Don’t be the hole.
Unfortunately, this is by no means a comprehensive look at problems both voiced and latent in a show so ambitious with its sociopolitics. But as mentioned earlier, that’s true of any show, or anything, that there will always be problems, because works of art are created by human beings, and human beings are problematic as part of their multitudes. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend less than most, and that’s part of why I do feel odd about this video.
In fact, lately, I’ve been feeling odd about this whole channel, if you’ll indulge me. So I’ve been doing this since January, but technically December, and it’s been really great. I’ve actually met cool people because of doing this, and I read all the comments, even the spam, and everyone here is really encouraging and has been so receptive. But after a while, those insecurity cracks begin to form. Much like with the show itself, when I’m not taken emotionally by Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, I can be a bit more objective, which is to say open to more perspectives.
And with a running analysis of the show, it started out as kind of a half-joke, like wouldn’t it also be kind of be funny to be unwaveringly serious about one thing, but then I just became that, so the joke is literally on me. It raises some concern, and it’s why I’ve tried to talk about other things on occasion, but the truth is that I’m really not compelled to talk about anything else, unless it’s really important.
Is it weird to focus entirely on one show? Absolutely. I’m not fishing for anybody to tell me it’s not, and that’s because all I need, I think, is to remind myself why I’m doing this in the first place. The channel did not begin with any kind of overarching plan, so in the early videos I feel like I kept referencing “utopia” and how Crazy Ex-Girlfriend will help us evolve as a culture and a society, where I should’ve structured the idea better across a narrative. I’m gonna try to explain what I mean by all that.
It does sound funny, but especially given our current cultural circumstance, we wouldn’t take much to improve, and I believe very much in the power of media. I’d been looking for a work or works of media which would kind of fulfill a vague checklist I’d had in my mind for years, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend checked almost all the boxes and even drew some new ones to check those too.
It came down to a moment that was really stunning, and it was in episode 4. the scene following “Sex with a Stranger,” where Rebecca turns down sex with a stranger. The emotional attachment I have in this scene is to the woman character, having followed her story for three episodes now. I understand her thought process, what she wants in this moment, and I agree with it. So my thought here was: “Wow, that is a terrible position to be in.” And then I thought, “Oh, my fucking God. I just did the thing, the thing that we always ask men to do but they never do, which is just think about it from her perspective.”
That it had to be purchased in me with sophisticated characterization and intricate musical numbers is kind of sad, I couldn’t just be told, but nevertheless, I did think about this situation from a woman’s point of view, and this situation depicts one of the most dangerous moments in a woman’s life — the rejection of sex. And so that doesn’t make me somehow smart or better, and I hope to God it doesn’t, because if everyone in the world, or at least, more than half a million people, could have that thought, it could change everything. It’s a TV show, and it could change everything.
So that’s why I spend so much time thinking about this show. In that moment, all my theories about the influence of media and how we will become egalitarian were validated. And a show that provides that moment, or chooses an Asian guy as a romantic lead, or says that bi is legit, will certainly do even more, and that’s been proven true. For the creators behind the show, “inclusion” is not a corporate mandate, it’s not a fad you one day have enough of, it drives you. And so for whatever problems we might have with the show, I have no doubt those creators are aware of them, and improve all the time, and we should try to follow that example.
Originally published to A Generic Wonderful on 08/05/2017