One of the great things about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is how it surprises you, setting you up for one thing and then giving you the ol’ shim-sham, beginning with the title. You have a character like Valencia, who you might think you’ll hate or have to hate, and that’s proven false over the course of the season. Furthering the greatness then is how the surprises don’t stop at hello. Valencia continues to reveal compelling layers and do unexpected, hilarious things, and somewhere in the back of our minds we think, she’s supposed to be the bad guy. The vain yoga instructor.
When first we meet Valencia in episode two, “Josh’s Girlfriend is Really Cool,” we’re led to think that Valencia is everything Rebecca is not, because that’s how Rebecca feels. This episode is so remarkable in part because of how many different looks of Rebecca we see, now in contrast. It’s possible that she visually appears differently in each scene of the series, but we’re flirting with It’s Always Sunny levels of self-deprecation here — most notable being her sweaty breakdown after claiming to love yoga. Nothing like being caught in a lie and also offending. And that’s of course when she decides to ask her out on a date.
The premise for this episode is underlined by the remark that it’s assumed women do not and cannot get along. Paula puts it in specific terms, noting that it’s about competition.
“Women of equal sexual viability hate each other– even if they pretend to like each other…”
When you go to corroborate this online, one of the first hits is this article written by Sasha Brown-Worsham for Cafe Mom, which puts it out there straight-shooting:
“If you’ve ever been around a woman and felt like she was judging you based on your appearance, then you were probably right. She probably was. And it’s all about competition for men.”
The article cites a study by the Daily Mail done in 2011, which sampled 2,000 women between the ages of 18 and 45 on how they formed first impressions.
And the popular impressions include:
How fat the other is
Skin and spots
How tall they are
If they have overdone the fake tan
How big their boobs are, and other things of that nature.
“It’s stupid, I’m stupid–“
Theory goes, once we’ve created this internal rivalry, it’s hard to then becomes friends with that person. Brown-Worsham puts it succinctly:
“After all, who really wants to hang out with someone who thinks they’re fat. And if you’re the thinner one? Well, then you can really forget it.”
Now, unfortunately, some people hear about this kind of division and conclude that the war against women is not in fact led by men. I think that’s a little strong, because in a variety of ways, those who benefit from this division of women is men. The Daily Mail article has a quote from one of the researchers, who says,
“It’s obvious … that women put a lot of pressure on each other.”
The pressure to dress better, to be thinner, to have nicer skin, to smile more, to not… overdo the fake tan? Talk about a thin margin of error. To even have bigger boobs. And in service of each of these, there exist industries. Not to sound pat or Internet cliche, but this thinning of what’s acceptable or preferable as appealing in women reflects on the male gaze.
Determined to prove that women can overcome this, Rebecca has lunch with Valencia, and here continues to prove she’s a great listener. She does however perform a lot of work effortlessly, because that’s nothing to her. The hard part is the friendship. And yet, this too appears effortless, maybe too effortless.
As we see, the walls come down pretty quickly. Valencia explains that she didn’t have girlfriends growing up. Her friends were alienated by the rapid development of her body and her sexual experience. Modern-day Valencia has seemingly doubled down on at least the former, building fitness into her career.
This night with Rebecca is a glance at the life she could’ve lived, and we see how much it means to her. A little part of Rebecca even rubs off on her.
“I’m starting to like humor!”
And as a result, it’s pretty impactful when everything falls apart at Spiders’s, West Covina’s hub for horrifically awkward things.
Even if she’s more upset that Rebecca is now clearly trying to swipe her boyfriend, she’s also upset by the subterfuge. This is the catalyst for Valencia’s quote unquote villainy throughout the first season, and it’s a sympathetic moment. As people will inevitably say, a great villain is the hero of their own story. Even with the subjectivity lens of Rebecca, Valencia is consistently understandable, even if she goes on to do or say pretty horrible things.
The character is additionally interesting coming in large part from Rachel Bloom, who said in an interview that she identifies most with Greg, and all the other characters are the douchebag Southern California bros and beach babes who were essentially her bullies growing up. We see this the most with Valencia, and it’s just incredible that the entire cast of characters, not just Rebecca and Greg, are layered and sympathetic.
Memorable Delivery: “What’s… the real… REASON?”
So, by the end of the episode, is seems that Rebecca is proven wrong — that women can’t be friends. That left me a little bit confused going back on a rewatch and seeing this early moment , how much they framed it with this real world sexism. Rebecca attempts to prove Paula and the magazines wrong, and instead proves them right. That is, reasonably, our interpretation of the episode, if we take everything at face value.
This is the complexity of season one, that we’re not meant to take everything at face value. Like a Paul Verhoeven movie in the 80s and 90s, intent and interpretation can be ships in the night if we’re not careful.
This experience helps Rebecca identify Paula as a true friend, and so with Valencia, the statement being made by proxy and never explicitly laid is that it’s not the principle of what Rebecca’s doing that’s wrong, it’s the way she goes about it. Even if Rebecca comes to care about Valencia as a friend in this episode, which is ambiguous, this didn’t begin for the sake of friendship, and that’s bad enough, but that it also began to steal time with her boyfriend, that’s really remarkable.
This is the alley oop for season two to provide an answer, and is partly why Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is not satire, a genre or approach to storytelling and social criticism I irrationally despise so please forgive me, but inside that intolerance is a defensible kernel I hope, that identifying a problem is only one step in a process which could be longer, yet your satire overstays its welcome when we’re drowning in the unpleasantries fundamental to the criticism.
Is something like Robocop satire? In part. But it ends up being far too earnest and actually demonstrates a process of discovering one’s humanity as extrapolated out to this once preposterous story about full body prosthesis and the privatization of government.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is also too real and too human, where Rebecca, critically, is not a detached allegory for our criticizing pleasure, but instead she’s all of us, even more intensely if we’re women and/or Jewish. And doesn’t that make the messages of the show all the more powerful because were invited to think whether the destructive behaviors exist in ourselves, these behaviors which have so much weight and actual consequence in the show. But Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is also too interested in providing solutions to these problems, rather than leaving us hanging.
“We saw each others vaginas!”
So looking at it on paper, logically or mathematically, the episode is saying that yes, women can’t be friends. If the often damaging competition between straight women comes from the battle for men, Rebecca’s attempt to befriend Valencia has to fail because she’s playing into this bullshit precisely.
So this is a reiteration of the central critique of the show, subscription to a patriarchal narrative, but it’s a different angle on the matter and as a result, we’re granted a different takeaway. On a storytelling level, this is a healthy way to reiterate the critique, by showing its effects on characters beyond Rebecca. So what, then, is this much-vaunted solution?
The episode “Josh Goes to Hawaii” puts things front and center for Valencia, and so it’s critical that enough has been established before this point that we buy what we’re about to see. The thrust of the episode is that Rebecca realizes her increasingly successful pursuit of Josh has a price, that being Valencia, in addition to the primary victim of Greg. Rebecca is at her heart a good person, and although initially enthused by the prospect of Josh breaking up with Valencia, does see what that will actually mean and is profoundly moved. Heartbreak is something universally understandable.
Rebecca’s “I don’t feel so good” face
This is a subtle but very important exercise in step with the more direct deconstructions of stereotypes at the heart of the show, that we make different choices about how to interact with people when those people in question are flesh and blood as opposed to abstract, or even worse, already spoken for by our preconceptions. In this conversation at the beginning of the episode, Valencia is Valerio or Venezuela, she’s an idea. Here, Rebecca can clearly make out a human form with thoughts and feelings, antagonistic they may be.
This scene is potent despite that it hinges on a revelation we’re already privy to. It expertly moves between perspectives, from those involved to the observers (Rebecca and audience), dividing our sympathies. Rebecca is witness to the consequences of her actions, but we the audience are also seeing the effect it has on Valencia, that this clearly agitates insecurities about herself we didn’t really suspect but which make complete sense in hindsight.
For Valencia, primarily it’s about her body, as we’ll also see with Jayma’s wedding dress. But what really got me here was this line:
“I knew something was going on. I mean, she’s smart and different and… interesting. So I get it.”
Which would seem to indicate that Valencia doesn’t think of herself as interesting.
Which then teleports my mind back to the character as abstract, as stereotype, our perception of her in the early goings. She’s the pretty girl who’s fixated on her body to the extent she’s been starving since 1998. Is this the commentary the show is going for, that when we pressure young girls to be a certain shape, we rob them of what the rest of us are privileged to appreciate as personhood? That for us, there’s a binary between beauty and personality.
So what we have here is an important deconstruction, and the criticism doesn’t come from saying Valencia does have a personality, because that would actually undermine the point. It’s a very specific thing they’re going for, which is gradually introducing us to Valencia such that we come to sympathize with her, and as such subscribe to the criticism they’re making, that in some regard, Valencia was robbed of a certain level of self-acceptance because the self-acceptance she chased after was written by a patriarchy refined and codified over hundreds of years.
Again, the criticism doesn’t work if Valencia does have a personality at that moment, and so from that point, that becomes the focus. They build Valencia up, and we follow her as she does legitimately develop that sense of self. And it starts with being connected, refreshed, and healed; inducted into the friendtopia.
Valencia sacrificed her actualization for being the prom queen. She had entered a competition we maybe think of as only relegated to childhood and school. This is why she’s obsessed with looking great and is vain, because she has to be the most desirable. If not her, somebody else will be. When Rebecca first sees her she’s only seeing the product of that and it’s overwhelming. But we the audience go on to get that behind-the-scenes look, and then see the cost it’s taken. The cost of the internal rivalries, of wanting a thinner waist and a reasonable fake tan.
Mine is an evil slurping
To the point that when this ambition falls through at the end of the first season, A) we don’t miss it, and B) holy crap we care. The criticism embedded inside this arc comes from the positioning of actualization against conforming to the male gaze. And this is very, very tricky commentary, because it’s taking to task real world lifestyles that actual people actually have. There are those out there who, like Valencia, want to look as sexy as possible and attract a man. Who are we to say that those people are wrong? But what if progress toward gender equality cannot contain them?
So the theory presented by Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is one of diplomacy, that these kinds of people may not be truly happy, that maybe they’re lying to themselves, just the way Rebecca does. It’s not so much that the life they chose is wrong, but check to see if it’s the product of a choice made immediately. If you’ve been doing the same thing for the last 15 years or more, you might not know what else is out there, and it’s possible you could find something that fits you even better. I don’t think there’s anything too wrong or overtly offensive with the encouragement to explore, especially if it comes packaged with the idea that you can explore everything, your options are limitless in direct contrast to the previous orthodoxy.
Now, you might’ve raised a brow with “these kinds of people,” because who knows if Valencia is meant to be a symbol for any kind of person? This is largely just theory, but more specifically, Nathaniel is a real outlier because with him, they led with signage. He started out defined by his race and sexuality the way even White Josh was not. A character like Valencia too is not this way, and so identification between viewer and fictional character works a la carte. The character presents a set of features, and if you the viewer feel a sympatico with any number of them, you might find yourself identifying with the whole.
In other words, Valencia is not, after a fashion, presented as the Tragic Beauty Queen Bitch You Absolutely Should Not Be, which I think would be too harsh, but if you see a bit of yourself in this fully realized character, and you’re emotionally engaged with the narrative, you might too be encouraged to find happiness elsewhere, without feeling like you’ve wasted your life or you’re an idiot for believing what you were taught at an impressionable age. I don’t even want to tell you what I still believe from an impressionable age. Letting go of those beliefs would be parting with pieces of my identity, even if I know they’re not helping me. It’s not easy.
So what we have now is the solution to Valencia’s distrust of other women, and the broader issue of competition for male attention. Valencia was limited by her adherence to the patriarchal narrative, and now into the story comes the expression of that solution, in season two.
Heather and Valencia are everything
Something that’s stuck with me through the years is the incredibly disappointing character from the Star Wars cycle, General Grievous. Theme-wise, the character exists to presage Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into Darth Vader, being also a cyborg. Otherwise, the character exists to look cool and do nothing. But for whatever reason, that idea was strong with me, a character who embodies the device of foreshadowing. I don’t know if it’s a good or bad approach to characters.
But I think mitigating the potential bad with Valencia is that certainly her thematic relationship to Rebecca does not encompass the entirety of her being. This is true for everyone in the show just as it’s true for everyone in life. Our friends and family are not simply extensions of us. But when shows don’t do this, don’t demonstrate that characters have lives beyond the protagonist, sometimes we forget, and can fall back on our solipsistic selves so lovingly nurtured by American culture in a myriad other ways. Checks against that predilection are always welcome, and that might be the strangest way I’ve yet found to say “Watch Crazy Ex-Girlfriend!”
One of the questions I have about the future of the series is specifically how Rebecca reaches a manifestation of the conceptual happiness Dr. Akopian tries to coax out of her. The show thus far, and based on the premise, has been about peeling back the prescribed happiness as socially dictated, and in its place, I’m curious what we’ll discover.
In this regard, I think that Valencia is Rebecca’s General Grievous, though it’s not necessarily about turning into a robot. Instead, we saw Valencia overcome her fantasy, overcome her rut, and identify the next stage, becoming a wedding planner. This is how the writers answer the troubling void left by function of the earlier social criticism, giving her a fully realized self, with a greater sense of agency and little diminishment of her personality beforehand.
And the performance by the actress Gabrielle Ruiz has also shifted. In season one it was more about identifying the relatable inside the heinous, that she’s believably despised by a whole family of people, but you don’t hate her the way they do. In season two, she’s playing somebody who’s fallen apart, and gone back on a lot of stone-set principles. We have an interesting structure with Valencia’s arc, where if you’d just seen her at the end, you’d only detect a subtle change. But we see the behind the scenes of that process throughout the season. A great range is on display where we also see how vulnerable she can be, during that middle arc.
The interesting thing is that we saw this development from Rebecca’s perspective, as we do most things. So we didn’t see as much of the behind-the-scenes turmoil, but the actualization is the same. Valencia has already gone on Rebecca’s journey, making her exactly the kind of person Rebecca needs in a gurl group squad heading into Season 3 a.k.a Sympathy for Lady Rebengeance.
I must say, though, as much as Rebecca and Valencia have such an incredible dynamic, I’d be really interested to see Valencia and Paula do things together. If you go back to season one, Paula hated Valencia, despite having met her maybe once. I don’t know, I think it would be interesting how a relationship might be forged coming back from all that secret resentment.
Originally published to A Generic Wonderful on 03/03/2017