Rachel Bloom and the last stand for feminism on television
Rachel Bloom doesn’t need you to like her onscreen alter ego, Rebecca Bunch, all of the time. In fact, she’d prefer you didn’t. For Bloom and her Crazy Ex-Girlfriend co-creator, Aline Brosh McKenna, creating a sometimes-unlikable female protagonist wasn’t an accident because, in their opinion, “the last stand for feminism is female characters to be assholes.”
And sometimes, Rebecca Bunch is an asshole. The lead character on the CW series is impulsive, obsessive, and a whole slew of other less-than-flattering -ives. But she’s also brilliant, an accomplished lawyer, a loving friend, and a whole slew of other wonderful things, as well. These traits, negative and positive, are often at odds for Rebecca as she navigates life in her new residence of West Covina, California (a place where Josh, her ex-boyfriend from summer camp, just happens to live).
“She’s not always making the right decision because that’s truthful,” Bloom explains. “She’s a nuanced person and just because she’s a feminist and [Brosh McKenna and I] are feminists, it doesn’t mean she’s always going to make the right decisions, because that’s not the show. The show is about someone stumbling around looking for happiness.”
And Rebecca Bunch is nothing if not nuanced. Bloom’s portrayal of the deeply-flawed and equally interesting character earned her a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a TV Series — Comedy or Musical (and, hopefully, an Emmy nomination as well). Bloom describes the show as being about the pursuit of happiness and says much of the premise is based on her own fears, “of not having control over my own mind and my own actions, of doing bad things for the sake of love.” And Bunch does bad things for the sake of love. She does lots and lots of objectively terrible things, but at the end of the day, all for the sake of love — a motivation that makes her actions understandable and relatable, if not imitable.
“When Rebecca fails, that’s not the show saying you should emulate Rebecca,” Bloom explains. “She’s at the end of the day, somewhat of a bubbly antihero. She’s like a sunny Walter White.”
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend challenges viewers to look beyond the surface of all of its characters. Part of the show’s brilliance and innovativeness is in its choice to present characters who seem two-dimensional, even borderline reductive on the surface, and to leave the impetus of looking closer on the audience. Rebecca is the crazy ex-girlfriend, to be sure, but she’s also a woman struggling to manage her mental health (and often in denial of those issues herself).
Bloom says many of Rebecca’s mental health struggles are inspired by her own experiences, as well as those of others in the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend writers’ room, who see mental health, on the show at least, as an obstacle that keeps characters from being their true selves and finding happiness.
“Mental problems run very deep in my family,” Bloom shares. “I’ve been dealing with anxiety and depression since I was a kid, and didn’t want to talk about it because it feels so — especially when you’re going through, like, weird like looping thoughts OCD anxiety — it feels so like dark and shameful and you don’t want to talk about it. And when I found out later in life that other people have this this weird set of compulsions that I had as a kid, [I didn’t] feel so alone and it doesn’t feel so dark and shameful…Comedy comes about as trying to make light of something or trying to understand something that feels like secret.”
Rebecca’s struggles with anxiety and depression inform even the bubbliest moments of the series in subtle, but impactful ways. In one early moment, Rebecca, elated by her move to West Covina and completely confident in her rash life choices, empties bottles of medication into her kitchen sink. For Rebecca, it’s a joyous moment. For viewers who have struggled with similar mental health issues, it was a jaw-dropping decision — and it was meant to be.
“From the beginning, we took this premise that sounded like a bad romantic comedy,” Bloom says, explaining that she and Brosh McKenna were interested in what would happen after the romantic comedy. What would happen if someone actually uprooted their life in a big gesture of love? Bloom’s guess? “They would be very unhappy. It wouldn’t be like, ‘I’m sad at work. I love this guy and I want him back.’ It would be somebody who’s deeply depressed.”
Bloom credits writer Doug Mand with the idea that Rebecca would go off her medication, a drastic step that immediately establishes not just Rebecca’s mental and emotional state, but the tone for show’s first season, which finds Rebecca on a winding road to self-discovery (although not one that she necessarily realizes she’s on).
“She has no real sense of inner life, inner self,” Bloom says. “So what she’s doing is trying on different types. She’s trying on different roles. It’s what the musical numbers are. She’s like, ‘Maybe I’m Britney Spears. Oh, no maybe I’m a French lady.’ She’s playing dress up.”
Other characters, too, are more than they appear or even realize themselves that they are. Greg is an adorable person, but he’s also an alcoholic and deeply insecure and damaged in his own right. Even Valencia, the show’s would-be villain, is more than she appears. On the surface, she’s a familiar combination of vapid, catty, and gorgeous, but on closer inspection, she’s one of the most reasonable and honest characters on the show.
“A lot of people say [Valencia is] an anti-feminist character, but I’ve known girls like her,” Bloom explains. “She’s not a villain. Valencia’s scared. Any time we present something that’s a stereotype, we’re always going to deconstruct.”
And Rachel Bloom has a lot of stereotypes to deconstruct. Valencia gets some well-deserved love in the musical number “I’m the Villain in My Own Story,” in which Rebecca realizes that Valencia isn’t the bad guy in the Rebecca-Josh-Valencia love triangle. She’s just a girl who was already dating the boy Rebecca happens to like (okay, ~love~).
And love triangles, while captivating onscreen, are toxic in real life. Onscreen, love triangles are a broody werewolf and a broodier vampire brooding for the same girl’s love. In real life, they’re messy, painful, and wrought with emotional bloodshed — something Bloom knows from personal experience and that she incorporates into her show with brutal honesty.
“I was in a horrific love triangle in college — and neither of those guys I’m married to — and whenever there’s a love triangle, chances are it’s not going to work out with either of them,” Bloom says. “It just creates this horrible dynamic. My love triangle was with two good friends and they were at fault, I was at fault, and the whole thing was just fucked from the beginning.”
So is Rebecca’s love life doomed from the beginning? Only time will tell, because, as Bloom points out, she’s just getting to the heart of her own story.
“Season one is so much of like the prologue because half the season she’s lying to herself. And so what is it like when you fully admit to someone you love them and they reject you? What is that?”
What is that? And, specifically, what is that on a show that aims to subvert the way we think about rom-coms and love stories and our own love stories? Part of a generation that grew up on an endless stream of romantic comedies and pre-Frozen Disney princess movies, Bloom has a lot of material to work with and deconstruct.
“Our generation grew up in a particular unironic time of teen movies — of Never Been Kissed and She’s All That and Disney princess movies that were smart, but still [perpetuated the message that] a man is the solution. You know, I’m interested to see how Frozen will shape like little girls growing up because, for us it’s Beauty and the Beast, it’s Aladdin and Jasmine, it’s Ariel and Prince Eric.”
And those unironic, but also unrealistic, love stories that helped shape a generation of young women are pivotal to the point Bloom and company are trying to make. Rebecca, who is herself a product of this generation, expects life to play out like it does in the movies, which is why she sometimes turns a blind eye to obvious red flags — like the Greg situation.
From a distance, Greg kind of feels like Rebecca’s OTP (One True Pairing, for those of you who don’t spend much time on Tumblr or in the comment sections of TV recaps). He’s sweet (sometimes) and self-deprecating (all the time), and smart (just ask him). Most importantly, he’s available and interested and hits the rom-com notes. But he’s also damaged and, fundamentally, not what Rebecca wants (at least not right now), as made abundantly clear in the brilliant episode four song, “Settle for Me.”
“That’s a song I’ve been wanting to do for years now, a subversion of the happy Fred and Ginger thing about a realistic relationship,” Bloom explains. “It’s funny anyone who’s like Team Rebecca and Greg, it’s like look at their [history], look at what she did to him. She fucked another guy on their date. It was horrible. You can’t have a healthy relationship, at least not now.”
It seems rational enough, but Rebecca isn’t always (or often) rational. Even though she’s an intelligent, feminist woman, she believes, somewhere deep down (or not-so-deep-down) that love and a soulmate are the solutions to her problems. And Bloom understands that, because love is intoxicating and can make even people much more emotionally stable than Rebecca Bunch go a little, well, crazy.
“I remember I was in a relationship with this guy and we were both head over heels in love and he said, ‘I get what love songs are now.’ He’s like, ‘I get it. I get wanting to listen to a love song and just like swim in love.’ To feel these feelings, it’s anti-feminism, it absolutely is because all you wanna do is eat and breathe and sleep this person and it’s hard to be a feminist while in love. And I think that [for] men it’s okay…[but for women] it’s automatically stigmatizing. If you’re too into it, then you’re crazy because men want to pursue and women should be demure and pursued. So it’s different for guys, the idea of being in love, when it comes to the pressures.”
And that is the heart of what Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is trying to get at. It’s the theme that it sets up and knocks down every single week in its anti-feminist-on-the-surface title and winking theme song. “She’s the crazy ex-girlfriend!” the supporting cast sings at/about Rebecca in the opening credits. “What? No, I’m not,” she insists. “She’s the crazy ex-girlfriend!” they repeat. “That’s a sexist term,” Rebecca chides. “She’s so broken inside,” they finally declare, prompting Rebecca to rebut: “The situation’s a lot more nuanced than that!”
The situation is a lot more nuanced than that. The show is a lot more nuanced than that. And the themes Bloom and her team are exploring are nuanced as hell.