Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: Satire or Stigma?

Spoiler Alert! This post references plot points for the show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Continue reading at your own risk!

When I first heard about the show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, I immediately had a knee jerk angry reaction to the title because of its use of the word crazy. Crazy is a word I have a complicated relationship with as someone with a mental health condition.  Granted the way that the word is used  and interpreted does depend on context. I don’t tend to mind as much or be offended if it is not being used to reference someone with a mental health condition such as “That was a crazy party last night!” or is more of a positive adjective (e.g. “I’m crazy about chocolate!”) although I recognize these uses have problematic aspects as well.  What really gets to me is when it is used in a way to make another person seem lesser or other.  For example when someone doesn’t like another person’s behaviour so they are referred to as crazy or a person’s who is behaving outside societal norms or who actual has a mental health condition is labelled this way.

When I heard about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend I was turned off by the title and was definitely not planning on watching it. I first became aware of it when Rachel Bloom who plays the main character Rebecca Bunch and who is also one of the  co-creators and writers of the show, recently received a Golden Globe for Best Actress – Television Series Musical or Comedy  for her performance in the show.  A couple of weeks later while listening to a podcast I discovered that the show was a  musical comedy.  Then I felt torn. As a lover of musicals, especially in film and television, a part of me was intrigued. I realized that I couldn’t comment on whether or not this show was stigmatizing or not without actually watching it.  I figured I would watch a couple of episodes to see what it was like.  So I dived in expecting to be horrified and offended but the opposite happened, in fact, after a few episodes I was hooked! More so because of the comedy and the great writing of the music included in the show.  The more I watched the more I wondered if the show was actually trying to point out the stigma that exists in today’s society through the use of satire.  It seems to have a somewhat feminist viewpoint at times that comes through  by making fun or exaggerating certain views towards women.  Check out “The Sexy Getting Ready Song” to see what I mean.  It all made me wonder if it was stigmatizing or satire?  As the show’s catchy theme song says, “The situation’s a lot more nuanced than that”. 

The more episodes I watched the more examples I found that could support either argument. 

Examples of satire, realistic, or accurate views of mental health:

– Rebecca struggles even when everything else in her life seems to be going right.  In the first episode Rebecca appears to have a panic attack when she gets a promotion at work and feels conflicted as she feels sad even though she logically knows she should feel happy about it.  This is a common experience of those with mood disorders ( ).  From the outside looking in, it can appear to others that the person has no reason to be unhappy, especially if they have a good job, loving partner and family etc. The thing is though that those things have nothing to do with it because it is a function of an imbalance in neurotransmitters.

– Depiction of trying to fight off/cope with a panic attack: When Rebecca has a panic attack in the first episode (at least as far as I can tell from my own experience) she runs out of the office in to the alley beside her office building and is shown leaning against a wall breathing heavily and puts her head in her hands.  She is also shown shaking and reaches into her purse and pulls out a bottle of pills, what I would guess to be some sort of benzodiazepine (e.g. Ativan, Xanax).  This moment spoke to me.  I know how it feels to try to fight off a panic attack but also feel it overwhelming you.  The push and pull of feeling it start to go away but then come back with a vengeance is frustrating.  Many times I have pulled out Ativan ready to take it as a last resort measure but then stopped because I started to feel better.  I also like this moment because when panic attacks are shown it is often how it feels inside the person having one. While that is important, depictions of what the outward behaviour may look like can be helpful for those around the person to help recognize that someone may be struggling.  That being said sometimes it’s not visible at all but at least this could help in those time when it is.

– At times other characters in the show use the word crazy to describe Rebecca herself or other people. I can’t remember the specific examples but there are a few times in which Rebecca is in the scene and either hears this or has it said to her and responds by challenging them or getting angry.

– Rebecca isn’t labelled.  In fact at one point she meets a neighbor named Heather who lives in her apartment complex. Heather is a student at the local community college and taking a course in abnormal psychology. When Rebecca comes to her door inviting her to a housewarming party.  Heather isn’t interested in going to the party but agrees to attend so that she can watch Rebecca as she finds her fascinating and thinks it will get her an A if she writes a paper on Rebecca for her abnormal psychology class at the local  junior college.  Towards the end of the episode Heather is shown presenting her findings to her class.  She refuses to give Rebecca a specific diagnosis and says ” I don’t want to label her, I just want to be her friend”.  I really like this moment and I have to say it made me tear up a little.  I think it made me feel that way because this whole plot brought the characters closer together and made Heather more understanding rather than distancing herself and seeing Rebecca as an other to be feared.

– The Sexy French Depression Song

This pokes fun at how depression is often sensationalized and glamorized in certain representations. Although I wish the video that went along with the music was a juxtaposition showing what depression is actually like versus the “sexy french depression”.  I liked this song because it reminded me of the emo subculture where depression and self harm is celebrated, not in a way which is supportive but rather a requirement for being part of the subculture.  Don’t get me wrong, there are times when I am feeling low and just want to wallow in it but it is not the same thing as depression.  There is nothing fun, sexy or glamorous about not being able to get out of bed, feeling worthless and hopeless, or thinking of killing yourself just so you can stop feeling so horrible.  At the end of this song  Dr. Phil (that’s right, he makes a cameo appearance) and says to Rebecca “There is nothing sexy about depression”.

– When Rebecca goes to a therapist (not sure what kind of mental health professional) to get more medication the therapist doesn’t give her the medication and wants to set her up with psychotherapy.  This is a nice change because mental disorders are often only shown as being treated with medication, that being said, medication is an important component for managing your mental health and research has shown that combining medication with psychotherapy is the most effective treatment method.  During this interaction Rebecca says  “I’ve been through the therapy wringer and rehashed my childhood a ton”. While this could be seen as perpetuating the idea that therapy is all about reliving your childhood, I saw it as the show pointing out the stupidity of this myth.  Most types of therapy commonly used today which have shown to be effective such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), involve learning coping skills,  how to challenge and change unhealthy thought patterns, education about mental disorders, and practicing self care. The way in which the line is delivered has an air of joking to it rather than real endorsement of this idea.

– When Rebecca is having difficulty after Josh moves in with his girlfriend and is drinking at work, her boss notices that she is not her usual self he tells her to go work from home and come back on Monday as her usual, happy self. Rebecca’s response is great and appears to almost be sarcastic as she enthusiastically replies “That’s great advice! Just be happy, I’ll do that!”.  Her boss doesn’t seem to get that she’s making fun of him.  Her boss’ response mimics the advice a lot of people with mental health conditions, especially those with mood disorders often hear and echoes the stigmatizing idea that people can just snap out of it.

-Emphasis on her “craziness” decreases as the series progresses. Over time her speech and expressions are less exaggerated and the plot shifts from her “crazy” behaviour to Rebecca’s relationship with Josh and the other characters in the show.  There is also more screen time devoted to developing other characters and their plot lines. As the character of Rebecca is very likable I feel that overtime the audience will come to see her as a person rather than a “crazy” over the top character. The audience can root for her as she is kind of an underdog and ultimately want her to be happy and successful. This was certainly my experience as an audience member.

– Paula  says to her son while talking about school, ” You’re in the 99th percentile for kids with ADHD, ODD, panic disorder, and restless leg syndrome”. This is a good example of how many people get diagnosed with many different disorders, often because they are misdiagnosed or different professionals disagree about what is the most pressing issue.  Later on in the same episode her son gets expelled from school because he stole a test.  Paula argues with the principle not to suspend her son and that he just needs help but the principal refuses.  This is a good example of how mental health difficulties are often misunderstood in children and treated as simply laziness or defiance. 

Examples of stigma and inaccurate representations:

– Other characters frequently refer to Rebecca as crazy. 

– Rebecca throws out multiple medications, which are implied to be psychiatric medications, by pouring them down the sink. While she does have difficulty coping following this action, she doesn’t appear to experience any physiological effects from this which is grossly inaccurate.  Anyone who has ever discontinued taking any type of psychoactive medication without weaning off of it can tell you it’s very physically unpleasant.  During my first year of university, I accidentally stopped taking the SSRI (type of anti-depressant) I was on for about a period of one to two weeks. This was not intentional, it was in the period just before midterms and I simply just forgot to take it for a number of days, probably because I was wrapped up in my school work and busy with all the stuff that goes along with being on your own for the first time.  I will certainly NEVER do that again.  I was so sick to my stomach that  I couldn’t keep anything down but at the same time so nauseated and hungry from not getting any nutrition.  After a couple of days of this I went to the campus doctor who asked about the meds and shortly after I started them again I felt much better. 

– Possible hallucinations are depicted as fun and fantastical.  The show is unclear about whether or not the musical numbers inserted throughout are Rebecca day dreaming as part of an active imagination or are meant to be viewed as hallucinations. At times they are not integrated into the action but at other times Rebecca is shown humming or singing the songs to herself at the end of the song or during other scenes in the show.  Another example of this ambiguity is during an episode in which Dr. Phil frequently appears and converses with Rebecca.  At the beginning of this episode I thought she was imagining having discussions with him but at the very end of the episode she starts talking to him at juice bar and he has no idea who she is because it is actually the real Dr. Phil.  Hallucinations are usually not pleasant for those who experience them (check out the links section for some personal accounts of visual and auditory hallucinations). They can be frightening and very intrusive and severely impact the lives of those experience them. Representing hallucinations as fun colorful, musical numbers minimizes the reality of these types of experiences and makes light of something very difficult and challenging.

–  Rebecca says she is depressed after Josh  moves in with his girlfriend Valencia.  One of my pet peeves is when people use the term depression when they really mean they are sad. While a depressive episode can certainly be triggered by stressful life events  such as a divorce, the death of a loved one, job loss, chronic illness, retirement, or attending a new school Rebecca appears more to be sad and upset rather than depressed. Those who experience a depressive episode have a persistent low mood for most days for a period of two weeks or more, and may also experience changes in sleep and appetite, withdraw from friends, family, and activities they previously enjoyed, loss of energy,  experience physical aches and pains, feelings of numbness, despair and worthlessness, and thoughts of suicide.  In the show her low mood, and fatigue last a period of a couple days and although it affects her ability to perform at work she is able to return to work after the weekend.  However, there are also people who moods cycle more rapidly and experience less severe although still impairing symptoms, such as those with Cyclothymia, and so this could also illustrate that type of experience.

– The therapist Rebecca sees says “Medication is a band-aid solution”. This stigmatizes those who choose to take medication to treat a mental disorder.  No one would say that insulin is a band aid solution for diabetes.

– In the first episode when Rebecca and Josh are at camp she flippantly mentions that she told her dad she was having suicidal thoughts so that her mom would let her go to camp. Suicide is not funny and joking about it in this way completely undermines the seriousness of it. It also perpetuates that idea that those with suicidal ideation or those who attempt suicide are only doing so as a way of getting attention. Later on in the episode, after moving to West Covina, her mother calls and says “I hope this isn’t another stunt like your little suicide attempt in law school. You didn’t even break the skin and you inconvenienced a lot of people.” This depiction is very concerning because it gives the impression that self harm and unsuccessful suicide attempts are not of concern. In fact, previous attempts of suicide increases the risk for further attempts and completion. Attempts should always be taken seriously regardless of the amount of physical harm that occurred.

Given all the points above, I was curious about what Rachel Bloom’s intentions were when creating the show and including these elements. In an a recent interview with NPR’s All Things Considered,  she said the following:

” We always wanted the show to confront her mental illness head-on. The premise of the show is just a romantic comedy where it’s like: Oh, a woman’s unhappy; she’s a lawyer and she moves to try to win back the man she loves. But if you look at the realism in that, it’s like, OK, if someone actually did that, they would be a tremendously unhappy person. That is a not good thing to do. And so inherent in the premise of the show was Rebecca’s depression and anxiety. And the whole show is about her learning to pursue her own happiness as opposed to trying to make other people happy.”

“We try not to view anyone on this show from a lens of labeling them; we try to make sure that you understand where every character is coming from. But yes, Rebecca is a little crazy. And when she comes to West Covina, we realize that everyone else on the show is a little crazy, too. …”

“The whole show is about deconstructing stereotypes and deconstructing people and finding the truth beneath tropes. And so that’s why the title is so, kind of, provocative in that way. You know, using the label “crazy ex-girlfriend” and viewing it from a feminist perspective and how does one come to embody that? What does love do to your brain? When you let love take you over is it because you’re using it as an escape from your real problems?”

I like that Bloom has good intentions and does want to point out the stigma around  mental health conditions.  However, I would like to see the show make this more clear  in the writing.  As someone who lives with anxiety and is educated about mental health, the instances where stigmatizing ideas are echoed by characters as a way of illustrating the stigma in society are obvious to me. Nevertheless, I worry that those who are uninformed will not see this and therefore are only provided with more reinforcement of myths and stereotypes. I also find her use of the word crazy in the second quote above troubling, but like I said before I have a complicated relationship with the word. When speaking to NPR, Bloom also stated that she is trying to reclaim the word crazy, and I can’t condemn her for that, it just doesn’t feel right for me. In the fall of 2015, Bloom was interviewed by Vulture and related her personal struggles with anxiety, depression, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (O.C.D.). Regardless of some of my misgivings about some of the representations in the show, it is nice to know that it is coming from someone with lived experience.

In my opinion, the jury is still out on whether this show is an irreverent satirical look at mental health or perpetuates stigma. I find the show constantly flips back and forth between the two from one moment to the next.  Although Rebecca definitely struggles at times,  it appears her experiences are also not necessarily evidence of a mental disorder.  Is she impulsive ? Sure. Is she a little strange at times? Yes. Does she struggle with social skills?  Sometimes.  Does she day dream, and lie to herself about things? Who hasn’t done that at one time or another. The thing is everyone has things they struggle with at times, no one is perfect. Many people have difficulties similar to Rebecca’s but don’t have mental disorders. As her friend and co-worker Paula says at one point “You’re not crazy, you’re in love!”. So many romantic comedies show women acting impulsively and erratically in the name of love and they are not called crazy, but that’s another issue for another time. It could also be argued that Rebecca is an example of someone living with a mental disorder who is managing the best she can, who struggles from time to time but ultimately is able to be a successful member of society who has a job, friends and is looking to get the most out of life.  When I think about it from that perspective, it is actually a pretty great representation that would certainly reflect my own experience. I will continue to watch to see how the show progresses. If nothing else perhaps it can be a way to start important conversations about the reality of mental health.