The question we may have, going forward, is when Rebecca Bunch becomes more specific, does that contradict the mission of the show?
In high school, I had a conversation with a friend and I can’t remember what we were talking about, but it must’ve been about gender relations somehow, as often came up between two awkward teenagers finding their voices. And we reached a moment where she said, “Look, at some point, you can’t know my experience, my life,” and that’s something that I feel like everybody hears or has to hear, especially as the armchair liberals we become scrolling through Twitter.
It’s a profound truth but one that nonetheless I wanted to not be true. And maybe it was simply the ease with which I could reject a challenging statement coming from a female person, which is again, our occasion to remember why it’s important: for men especially, we didn’t all graduate with degrees for comparative studies in the lives of literally everyone, so why do we behave as if we did? Granted, recognizing when we must yield to another’s authority on a given subject can be difficult. Which can then be our rationale for yielding by default, to make things less difficult.
But in this instance, I didn’t. And while I’ve grown since then, I partly measure the idealism in my liberal heart by the dream that given enough engagement, enough conversation, we can know somebody’s life, at least to where we can make some kind of difference. In essence, I dreamt of telepathy. Because without this telepathy, how can we solve problems and make things better? Doesn’t this impact our ability to communicate?
Rebecca Bunch is a character who sees the world in a way others don’t. She’s always making these odd observational statements as non-sequiturs, like we’re hearing her thoughts, and nobody ever responds to them. But we do, because we think they’re funny, those tiny moments between the actual dialogue. We’re the only ones who get it. When we feel that Rebecca is a lonely character, we are alone with her.
Rebecca is a crazy ex-girlfriend, which is itself a politically correct revision of “crazy girl,” or just “crazy,” an attempt to couch an irrational claim in the collective understanding that women are from Venus, and that label is the ultimate target of the show we talk about here. The theory presented for how one undermines the term’s power is by invitation. The showrunners create an empathy exercise, to where we see these tiny familiar things in her thoughts and behaviors, all the way up to the big moments, and on this vertical journey of identification, we are all Rebecca every step of the way.
You type “crazy ex-girlfriend” into YouTube and you may see the curious preponderance of this same wavy-haired woman, but far more, you see what look to be found-footage horror short films, and they’re all incredibly popular. What we might have here is confirmation, that for the stray YouTube visitor who happens upon these videos, he or she may believe in the term ‘crazy ex-girlfriend,’ even lightly, without much thought, and then he or she watches a video and sees something like this, and thinks “indeed.”
And I take issue with that indeed. You know, it’s funny to think about this juxtaposition of the awful substance with its very earnest criticism, in the form of music videos and behind-the-scenes discussions of a television show called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. That elements from the show begin to encroach upon the original is a kind of accidental analogue to the mission of retaking the term, and so appropriate considering the show’s origins can be traced back to YouTube.
Maybe those stray YouTube viewers don’t think it’s a big deal, which is again, precisely why things are often a big deal; the subtle potency of implicit bias or collective indifference obviating the apparently enormous challenge of self-reflection. But if language is to function, words must have meaning, and so we ask, what is the effect this term has on people?
An author named Dylan writes this for the Radical Notion:
Even in the break-ups I have experienced, I am constantly examining my behavior towards my ex – will he think I’m “crazy” if I check in on him? Will he think I’m “crazy” if I still want to be friends and work through our challenges? Will he think I’m “crazy” if we still keep in touch via social media? Where is the line and who is responsible for drawing it? I would argue that I have actually felt more insecure in the break-up stage of a relationship than in the relationship itself because I am fixating on not being labeled as the “crazy ex-girlfriend.”
For the woman in this situation, part of it is insecurity. For the man in this situation, it’s dehumanization, and this is a chicken and the egg. An engine driving abuse in relationships or between heterosexual men and women generally is the man’s dehumanizing gaze, that he doesn’t see her as entirely human, granting license to a creative range of violences, as we learn by the end of page one of the Everyday Sexism book by Laura Bates.
In military terms, labels and name-calling are part-and-parcel to conditioning the human mind toward killing the enemy, which is not a human instinct and in fact wreaks havoc upon the psyche by way of post-traumatic stress disorder. Killing is not natural, it is not human, and militaries more than anyone understand this well. They train soldiers in units to develop camaraderie, because while most people choose flight over fight if their own life is in danger, they choose fight if somebody they love is in danger. And on the opposite end, they dehumanize the enemy to make them easier to shoot at. As former Army Captain and peace advocate Paul K. Chappell points out, the Greeks called their enemies ‘barbarians,’ and we’ve called our enemies kraus, japs, gooks, ragheads, and terrorists.
When we call somebody a crazy ex-girlfriend, it’s that same dehumanization principle to a different degree. Women dismissed as such are suddenly vulnerable to certain things, for example, I would imagine, voicelessness. Crazy people are hard to take at their word. And that too is a kind of violence, it’s just a different kind.
So from Dylan’s experience, we begin with the idea that every woman, and particularly those in heterosexual relationships, are at risk of being labeled as a crazy ex-girlfriend, and we understand this implicitly because the work of labeling is not so deliberative or even fully conscious. Which is not to excuse it; it’s just true that evil is so broad as to encompass authored evil and unauthored evil. The usage of the term can be so flip, like it doesn’t matter.
But when we think to Rebecca’s situation in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, after the breakup, Josh didn’t see or hear from her for ten years, and in fact got back with Valencia. The term only comes into play when Rebecca leaves a job that would’ve paid her half a million dollars a year and moves to a completely different place. As Scott demonstrates, we might think somebody who did that is indeed being a crazy ex-girlfriend.
And that’s our oldest complication that may be confusing for us at times, because the label is always used unfairly, but with Rebecca, that’s a little bit more ambiguous. And that’s when we arrive on the element that becomes a recurring theme with the show, which is something like phases of normalization. Going in, we’re meant to assume that the label is bullshit, and so the first phase is accepting a measure of Rebecca’s actions are unusual, but persisting in the belief that the label is still bullshit.
Essentially, that a woman fresh out of a relationship is at no point a crazy ex, and also that the same woman who does something unusual is not a crazy ex, either. The difference between those two is why we have a TV show at all — the former is something we should all accept, but the latter requires those phases, it requires a process. And that process is all about contextualizing Rebecca’s unusual behavior. Maybe she’s doing these things for love, and that in addition opens up commentary on the commerciality of love as packaged to small children. And then, maybe it’s because of a childhood trauma, and so on. The more we can explore, the more we can normalize, and that can’t happen if Rebecca is completely faultless, if she’s been unfairly labeled, by which the only conclusion we would draw is that assumed understanding of ‘this label is unfair.’
In this, what Rebecca Bunch suggests to me is that the term ‘crazy ex-girlfriend’ is in itself kind of multidimensional, something that would then take a multidimensional response to deconstruct and erase, and that job is so hard sometimes that maybe we forget or lose track of how it’s being done. Really, the term should be ‘irrational ex-girlfriend,’ or ‘disagreeable at-all behavior ex-girlfriend’ but then it co-opts that term ‘crazy’ which provides an additional complication. And so, I think the reason why I might lose sight or conception of how the show functions in response is because it’s addressing the ‘irrational ex-girlfriend’ myth as well as our persistent use and abuse of the word ‘crazy,’ and on top of that, discussing mental illness. And I think structurally, the first half, seasons one and two, primarily focus on the ‘irrational’ end of things, while the second half will theoretically lean toward the mental illness.
So there it is again, that confusion of terms. When it’s laid out like that, we wonder: why discuss mental illness at all? It would seem to have no place in a conversation that challenges the myth of the irrational ex-girlfriend and challenges our misuse of the word ‘crazy,’ almost generally. The answer to that myth is definitive, to simply say that women are not irrational, because first of all, individuals of any gender do not represent the whole. And the ex-girlfriend in your life, whether an ex or somebody you know, has her reasons for doing whatever it is she’s doing, and it’s possible those reasons have to do with surviving in a patriarchal society, which would naturally have the inflection of counterculture, drawing resentment as a start.
Along with the observational comedy, another one of Rebecca’s habits is to say “this just popped into my nogs,” which she says when something totally did not just pop into her nogs. She says it to Valencia in her quest to befriend her, and to Josh in her quest to get him to sleep in her bed. She almost says it to Silas but just does the hand gestures. This is interesting because she knows she has to present herself a certain way, that she must pass, appear spontaneous rather than whatever it is she is.
It’s almost insidious, but it’s a blend of manipulation and knowing shame. She can’t express the truth of herself because that would undermine her various missions, and she can’t express that truth because she knows it’s unacceptable. Do we do this, too? Are there things we’re ashamed of, that we articulate with practiced deception? I’m thinking about the different masks we wear depending on where we are in a given day, or who we’re talking to.
That’s Rebecca on the outside, and we also get a strong glimpse of what’s going on inside via the musical interludes. Of course her active imagination would manifest as musical numbers, which have that performative aspect. Rebecca Bunch is an actor, especially in season one where she was balancing a lie about what brought her to the Cove. And when you’re an actor, you have an audience, and sometimes she conjures people to perform to, but is regardless always staring at her reflection, shaping her identity based on how it’s perceived by other people.
And as we learned in episode 115, these numbers are also how Rebecca makes sense of the world. It’s an escape into a familiar language, and it’s also an escape to something that as she says, made her feel a mother’s love. The feeling of performing, even in the background, is emotional sustenance she’s deprived of. So what we find is that numbers are actually a very deep insight on the character, that for Rebecca, these are very personal.
Which also exists on the surface, because they often feature or speak to very personal experiences, the kinds of things we were led to believe are too everyday or undignified to see reflected by television: not having friends, depression, self-hatred, meta-self-hatred, despair, fantasizing about being cool, being haunted by memories, having a breakdown, having friends, being petty, and being desperate for self-assurance. There’s a good chance we can identify with at least one of these, because that’s by design.
Let’s take a closer look at one of these. “Research Me Obsessively” from episode 207 has Rebecca and Valencia Internet-stalking Josh’s new girlfriend for three days straight with an almost sexual intensity.
That’s something we might have thought of as crazy in the way we’d throw that term around. At first glance, it is not rational or healthy behavior, any more than what’s displayed those accidental celebrities of YouTube. So part one is the deconstruction, which is providing context for the actions in question. In this case, “Research Me Obsessively” is quintessential for when people praise the show for being all-too relatable. The number appeals to a near-universal experience, an impulse, and one that’s specifically kind of shameful, which we usually end up regretting later. Rebecca and Valencia are drawn in, essentially seduced by an online persona, and of course it’s really about feelings of rejection and inferiority.
How did they get here, why are they doing this? These are the questions we would ask about somebody embodying “crazy” behavior, and they’re answered here. Rebecca and Valencia’s motives are presented, and again, what’s important is that it’s logical, not necessarily likable. That’s a standard for normalization, which is what may lead to likable or to sympathy later on — understanding presages empathy.
Of course, there are the universal elements and the specific. For example, about three-quarters of the audience saw “The Sexy Getting Ready Song” and most likely identified with it, where the remaining quarter, including me, was as horrified as Nipsey Hussle here. So that’s where “We Tapped that Ass” or “You Go First” come in for me — I identify with those, and the moments I don’t identify with don’t nullify my identification, because I know I’m not this character.
After the season two finale’s big reveal, still Rebecca is not irrational or evil and untrustworthy like the Sharon Stone she imitates on a poster for season three. No, it’s that she suffers from anxiety and depression as we see throughout, and she also has an active imagination and hallucinatory episodes, that kind of dissociation which provides the rationale for endangering herself and others. It is not a justification or an excuse or anything, but a reason why, and it’s something we see. And so that reason, though its substance is as of yet unknown, no matter what it turns out to be, it stands as a replacement to a narrative ascribed for her, by the patriarchal society that isn’t necessarily a physical infrastructure (though it is) but whose blueprint exists to varying degrees in the hearts of each of us.
Where we might be quick to label Rebecca, or anybody like her, we have something that blocks that label from shaping her narrative for her. What’s so remarkable is that we will eventually perceive episode 204 in three different ways, specifically in the relationship between “We Tapped that Ass” and Rebecca burning down her apartment. First, it’s the surface values. It’s an incredibly entertaining dance number and a really funny song. And the comedy is augmented by Rebecca’s reaction — we feel that self-loathing, and so it all makes sense she’s so upset by the number that she accidentally burns her apartment down. Like with “Research Me Obsessively,” we can accept this because of the immediately-provided context.
Second, after the season two finale, we go back to this moment armed with the knowledge that burning down her first West Covina home wasn’t an isolated incident. She clearly isn’t just a girl in love; she has underlying issues to address. And what this changes is the nature of her memory spirits, that they aren’t figurative storytelling tools or instances of magical realism, but hallucinations. But in fact, it doesn’t really change anything at all. It’s still “We Tapped that Ass” that primarily motivates her to this extreme action, we just understand why she takes the extreme action where we most likely wouldn’t do the same.
And each new perception meaningfully builds on the last. We take from the first experience the power of its comedy, and I think it’s okay that the sequence is still funny because that’s our passport to identification.
And the third perception is essentially the same as the second, but with an even better understanding of the situation. As it’s been teased, we will know Rebecca’s psychiatric diagnosis, as Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna have spoken to a therapist to figure it out. And so this is a discretely new step despite that what’s important is that, again, it doesn’t change anything. That you the viewer have understood Rebecca’s pyromania twice over in different contexts. Adding the third, with specific real-world analogues, should not change that understanding. And that’s the mission of the show, as far as I see it. Phases of normalization, a little bit more discovery each time, testing your tolerance will also training it.
When I rewatched episode 204 most recently, I had this realization armed with that deeper knowledge of Rebecca, and watching her face, that she reminds me of people from my life, people who seemed to have problems under the surface. And the number one characteristic about these people, which they obviously did not choose for themselves, is they’re very easy to ignore and avoid. And the older the become, the more I think back to those missed opportunities to reach out to someone.
And maybe it’s unfortunate that I need fictional characters as intermediaries for real people. But works of art are the abstracted medium for communication between artist and audience. Rebecca Bunch is not a perfect one-to-one to Rachel Bloom, but she represents a truth that Aline Brosh McKenna and Rachel Bloom wanted to express. Life is short and busy, and for the Americans watching, we’re apathetic. We can’t depend on school to teach us about the nature and existence of every perspective on Earth, despite that each of those perspectives should be considered. That’s where art comes in, with the power to connect our emotional response to an effective narrative with an important and suddenly compelling subject matter.
And in this case, that subject matter is mental illness. As this Everyday Feminism article points out, one out of every four adults and one out of every five teenagers in the United States will experience mental illness in a given year, and that’s tens of millions of people. There is such a stigma around mental illness to where people don’t seek help, and if their symptoms were more normalized in society, maybe people would seek help.
Also, maybe if the word ‘crazy’ wasn’t used so flippantly, as symptomatic of a general insensitivity when it comes to those with mental illness. And a lot of it is a matter of education, and it’s hard to educate oneself in a vacuum. So we go to school and we experience works of art, we talk to people, we research as those armchair liberals scrolling through Twitter. We’re faced with an overabundance of information on any given subject, and I think that to optimally navigate that abundance, to stay focused, we have to begin with the right motivation. In this case, it behooves us to learn enough about mental illness to at least not be insensitive about it, even accidentally. And what the fictional Rebecca Bunch does is provide us that emotional motivation. She helps us understand why it’s important, and she connects us to the other in question.
When we arrive upon Rebecca’s diagnosis, we’ll be arriving there with her, having witnessed and understood her various motivations through the first two seasons. But as the character narrows with specificity, moving from the universals of “The Sexy Getting Ready Song” and “Research Me Obsessively” to stays at psychiatric facilities and arson, we are in one sense moving away from her.
So I think that there’s a line, where identification and empathy stop and only empathy persists. But the equation still holds true: the focus of the show is threefold, being the “irrational” + the “crazy” pejorative + mental illness, the problem area being the mental illness, and the mental illness and the irrational parts of this equation interact to solve the “crazy” pejorative in a definitive way. And because of that interaction, the arrival we make, I don’t see this divergence of identity and empathy as a problem. In fact, it’s probably more potent to describe as an alley-oop, and it feels, actually, all too natural, and then, embarrassingly, maybe obvious. When the mission of the show is to make you the viewer feel solidarity, feel less alone because somebody else has had similar experiences, you’re then vulnerable to the next thought, feeling that solidarity and then realizing so many others could be just like this, and just like you. Ultimately, that “you are not alone” is a two-way street.
I have to level that perfect one-to-one telepathy may never happen. Until it literally happens when Samsung puts a phone in our brains, but even then, we may never fully know the experience of someone else, the experience of an other. But when we try, when we find an inroad to identify with an other, when we work the muscle of empathy and humanize instead of dehumanize, the results can be surprising, and depending on you and the Rebeccas in your life, could be the difference for somebody in need. Somebody who, like Rebecca Bunch, can pass pretty damn well, for whom things just pop into her nogs.
We are all Rebecca Bunch until the moment we are not, and that line is different for each viewer, but what that identity does is make us care, and caring is remarkably essential to the functioning of a society.
I don’t have any speculations about season three, but do have one for season four, and it’s that the “Josh” in the episode titles will be replaced by “Rebecca.” Not that Josh will exit the show, but I think that’s what they’ll do, seeing as they’ve run out of punctuation, except for the ellipses. But we’ll see.
Originally published to A Generic Wonderful on 09/03/2017