TV comedies Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend centre and celebrate women’s experiences heralding a bright, new future for the romantic comedy genre.
This spring, CW comedies Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, airing on Netflix in the UK, will both wrap up their final seasons. Neither show is a conventional comedy. Indeed, audiences have come to expect both to subvert the formula – that is their formula.
Jane takes inspiration from Latin America telenovelas and, with this, comes melodrama and a need for suspension of disbelief. Nothing is impossible in Jane’s universe – from its unlikely premise of a pregnancy via accidental artificial insemination to frequent hijinks involving an involved drug lord stepmother who uses plastic surgery and masks to rival Face Off – but at its core, Jane is the story of three generations of women helping each other through life’s trials and tribulations. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the story of Harvard and Yale-educated lawyer Rebecca Bunch (played by the show’s co-creator Rachel Bloom) who turns down a partnership offer at a prestigious Manhattan law firm to follow her middle school camp boyfriend Josh Chan (Vincent Rodiguez III) to his unimpressive hometown of West Covina, California, after a panic attack and a chance encounter, has its feet planted in the world of musical theatre. Characters frequently break into song-and-dance sequences – a device that allows the show to heighten everything and capture the interiority of protagonist Rebecca Bunch who is later diagnosed with Bipolar Personality Disorder. Jane is described as a show with “a dubious premise [that] has become part of its unlikely charm”. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is similarly described as an “unlikely cult success story”. Both shows have been described as surprising and unlikely, as has their cult successes. It is not easy to imagine either being green-lit even earlier this decade, yet both have survived and even thrived.
This January, large swathes of the Internet went up in arms over a Gillette ad that centered on asking men to do better in aftermath of #MeToo. This Oscars season, discussion has once again erupted over the dearth of female directors in Hollywood. What do either of these things have to do with these CW romantic comedies? Quite a bit, it turns out.
Indeed, Crazy Ex- and Jane are not the most expected members of the romantic comedy genre but that is a good thing. Where the classic rom-com served female audiences even as it undermined them, these new television romantic comedies are unapologetically celebrating them. Crazy Ex- is determined to overturn stereotypes about women – tackling everything from the ubiquitous figure of the crazy ex-girlfriend in the pop culture to the pervasive idea that women don’t support each other (“Women Gotta Stick Together” and “Friendtopia” are excellent examples of the latter). Jane, meanwhile, takes three very different women, daughter Jane (Gina Rodriguez), mother Xo (Andrea Navedo) and grandmother Alba (Ivonne Coll) who have disparate worldviews but nonetheless always show up for one another. Even Petra (Yael Grobglas) – the initially mercurial ex-wife to Jane’s baby daddy and on-and-off love interest Rafael Solano (Justin Baldwin) – who would have been an easy villain for most shows is allowed to develop into a complex character.
It should come as no surprise that both shows are led by women. Crazy Ex- is the brainchild of producer and screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna and Golden Globe-winning actress Rachel Bloom of YouTube musical parody fame. Over at Jane, TV writer Jenna Snyder Urman who has previously worked on Gilmore Girls and 90210, among others, helms the ship. So what is it that allows these shows to capture something so refreshing and trenchant?
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s McKenna, an industry veteran with the hit film Devil Wears Prada (2006) under her belt, may have the answer. As she recently Tweeted,
“The explosion in TV series has really benefitted female writers. Many women I know who got spat out from movies when the studios become tentpole factories have found happy purchase telling stories for small screen with way less creative interference and younger women I know are breaking into the biz more quickly, including WOC. So when people say there is too much TV and not enough qualified writers…don’t worry, women from all backgrounds are rising up the ranks and they are ready.”
McKenna’s claim makes sense. Television is noticeably more welcoming to women than the silver screen (consider here the successes of Shonda Rhimes and Mindy Kaling – are there equivalents in the film world?). In this, the golden age of television, this has allowed female-driven stories to find their audiences without interference from Hollywood execs who continued to doubt the profitability of women-led films as late as the early 2010s.
Urman, like McKenna, understands this. As she told Vulture last fall, she eschews “the signifiers of deep, important television,” where “you’re going to talk really slow, and there’s going to be a lot of pauses, a lot of men. And they’re going to get really upset a lot” in favor of Jane’s telenovela energy, really a device that allows her to celebrate women’s stories. Telenovelas – and their English-language counterpart soap operas – like romantic comedies have been associated with female audiences, and low-brow-ness, arguably to an even greater extent.
If most shows are subjected to the male glance – that easily dismisses art aimed at women as frivolous – then, Jane and Crazy Ex- fix their audiences with an unwavering female gaze. Consider how the Crazy Ex– team is never afraid to take a wrecking ball to convention. Season One alone tackles multiple women’s issues. The Sexy Getting Ready Song exposes the painful realities of beauty expectations for women (it ends with a male rapper character apologizing to women and becoming something of an ally) and Put Yourself First, featuring sly nods to Pussycat Dolls and Fifth Harmony’s faux-empowerment anthems, considers the idea that beautifying yourself for yourself in accordance with normative beauty standards can be a way to feel in control while capitulating to the demands of the male gaze – patriarchy in girl power’s clothing as it were. Rebecca asks “If it’s just for myself, shouldn’t I be comfortable?” as a group of girls sing “Put yourself first in a sexy way” and” put yourself first for him”. Season Two’s 80s ballad “Let’s Generalize About Men”, meanwhile, cautions against the opposite tendency of reducing all men to villainous stereotypes, or, in the words of the show, “[to] take one bad thing about men and apply it to all men”, leading to hilarious lyrics such as, “All men are completely repressed/ All men only want to have sex”.
It would be amiss to discuss Crazy Ex-‘s brand of feminism without addressing the crazy woman trope with which it begins. From its title, the show is not obviously feminist but as the Season One theme song goes on to explain, “it’s a lot more nuanced than that”. Indeed, since it premiered in fall 2015, its title has been as much bait-and-switch as the show itself. A premise that echoes Felicity (1998-2002) and promises a much simpler love story, Crazy Ex- instead is a nuanced exploration of love, life and mental illness. In the show’s deft hands, the word “crazy” is subject to interrogation. The figure of the crazy ex, after all, has been very gendered in popular culture. This craziness, as the Season Three theme song points out, is simultaneously desirable and repulsive: “You do, you don’t wanna be crazy”. Recall here such pop culture sensations as Beyoncé’s Crazy in Love (2003) – “your love’s got me looking so crazy right now” – and even Taylor Swift’s Crazier from The Hannah Montana Movie (2009) – “I’m lost in your eyes/ You make me crazier” – as examples of craziness as a desirable trait. Compare these to a later Taylor Swift song, Blank Space (2014): “Got a long list of ex-lovers, they’ll tell you I’m insane”. Here, Swift leans into the role of the crazy ex into which she has been circumscribed; gleefully mocking the figure with the beginnings of the biting energy that she has gone on to perfect in her Reputation era.
The word “crazy” is fraught in modern culture – and has been, for centuries. Historically, “crazy” was a deeply gendered term, frequently used to silence women. Hysteria, a legitimate female disease in the 19th century, was a diagnosis given to women perceived as difficult. A 1915 TS Eliot poem aptly titled “Hysteria” documents a women laughing, in a very disturbing manner; laughter itself becomes menacing. It is important to note here that hysteria and its associated craziness were tied to a woman’s reproductive organs (Crazy Ex- nods to this in a recent episode where Rebecca plays on the word over-reacting, instead saying “ovary-reacting”). In modern culture, the Hot Crazy Scale (or Matrix), a graph that compares levels of female hotness and craziness, has popped up from time to time, from an appearance in television comedy How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014) to a viral video from 2014 (now deleted) on the subject. The figure of the crazy ex-girlfriend, of course, looms large in film and television, notably providing fodder for a number of thrillers over the years, the latest being Netflix’s You Get Me (2017). With Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Bloom and McKenna interrogate what all this actually means – expertly navigating both mental illness stigma and misogyny in one fell swoop.
Indeed, the theme songs of the show – a new one every season – provide a case study for its evolution: “the cycles of being a quote-unquote “crazy ex”?” as Bloom puts it. Fittingly, the final season’s song insists on how people cannot be reduced to easy stereotypes, struggling to characterise Rebecca before coming to the conclusion that “she’s too hard to summarise” and, so, celebrating complexity instead.
It is no surprise, then, that the show insists on a portrayal of healthy masculinity too, in the vein of Gillette’s viral ad. One of the standout songs of the current season, “Sports Analogies”, features Rebecca’s exes Nathaniel (Scott Michael Foster) and Josh, two men who purportedly don’t have a lot in common but end up bonding over a shared love of sports. The song departs from its jovial tone with a bridge that is a striking critique of the stoicism on which traditional masculinity insists:
“Sometimes when we watch sports, we get sad/
And we make it seem like we’re sad about the sports/ But we’re not really crying about the game at all…We’re sad about our dads/
We couldn’t talk to our dads/ Unless we used sports analogies
Sports analogies/ Men feel safe with these empty generalities.”
It makes sense then that Nathaniel’s final arc is very much about breaking free of his father’s more traditional ideas and becoming a more decent, compassionate person.
Earlier in the show, Rebecca’s former boss Darryl Whitefeather (Pete Gardener) – awkward, unapologetic and lovable – fights for sharing custody of his daughter during his divorce and sings a country song titled “I Love My Daughter (But Not in a Creepy Way”) – openly expressing the affection Nathaniel and Josh’s fathers were not able to voice. On Jane the Virgin, Jane’s father Rogelio de la Vega (Jaime Camil) shares this ability. As Jordan Calhoun noted in the Atlantic, Rogelio “challenges the slippery concept of acceptable manhood without qualifying labels to define him”. Indeed, Jane’s telenovela star father has never been afraid to express himself – embarking on a delightful bromance with Jane’s fiancé Michael (Brett Dier), unabashedly feuding and making up with frenemy Britney Spears and, most importantly, supporting Jane and Xo through various hardships. It is no wonder, then, that Rogelio has been a fan favorite, winning a Teen Choice Award last year.
Strip away all the soapy lacquer (but it’s so delightful, why would you?) and Jane is a show deeply concerned with women’s issues. Over the past four seasons, it has taken great care to give due attention to topics that could have been easily swept under the rug. Take, for instance, the challenges of managing childcare. A common criticism of television plotlines featuring babies is that the baby hardly seems to feature in the parents’ on-screen lives. After Jane has Mateo, however, he remains a central part of her story: there are stories about juggling childcare and university, stories about the near-constant state of exhaustion new parents endure and stories about differing attitudes towards rearing children. The show has also tackled single motherhood, the intricacies of breastfeeding, the pain of widowhood and even the harsh realities of breast cancer over the course of its run. Its final season, premiering next month, will bring the Villanueva saga to its final chapter and it promises to do its characters justice.
After an almost pitch perfect three seasons, meanwhile, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend struggled to find its feet last fall but returned in the new year with its patented brand of critical feminist comedy. Recent episode “I’m Almost Over You” struck a perfect chord parodying the conventions of the romantic comedy genre and nodding to all major rom-com tropes – and specific Devil Wears Prada tropes. In the episode, Nathaniel imagines himself as a down-on-his-luck rom-com lead after Rebecca rejects him. His character unexpectedly finds love with Esther Povitsky’s millennial stereotype Maya and the episode culminates in, what else, but A Gratuitous Karaoke Moment. After this masterful deconstruction of the genre, the remaining season seems to be dedicated to Rebecca’s efforts to reconstruct her own life – and this should make for some important television and a fitting conclusion to Rebecca’s mental health journey.
Crazy Ex- and Jane are testament to the fresh perspective that female-centric stories can offer. In eschewing convention and shaking up old formulae, they have struck gold. They offer a new direction for the the romantic comedy, a genre that, though pronounced dead only a few years ago, is enjoying a renaissance – if the runaway success of Crazy Rich Asians (2018) and Netflix’s various romantic comedies is any indication. The new romantic comedy promises to entertain audiences without condescending to them and its future looks very bright.