February 26, 2020

Suffering, Stereotypes, and Psychosis: The Representation of Jewish Femininity in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

By Samantha Pickette

The CW Network’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend finished its final season last spring.  Throughout its four seasons, the series—a hybrid musical/romantic comedy that plays with and satirizes the tropes of both genres—has been lauded for its progressive discussion of mental health, gender, and politics.  The series has also been praised for its depiction of protagonist Rebecca Bunch’s Jewish identity; The Forward, The New York Times, and countless other publications have declared Crazy Ex-Girlfriend as one of the most “explicitly Jewish” series on contemporary television (along with other female-driven vehicles such as The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Broad City, and Transparent).  Yet, while it is certainly true that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is an “explicitly Jewish” show in the sense that its central protagonist is Jewish and does not shy away from identifying as such, the series’ relationship with Jewishness is more complicated than the critical reception of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend would suggest.  

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend revolves around the story of Rebecca Bunch (played by Rachel Bloom), a successful, Ivy-League educated lawyer who abruptly leaves her job at a Manhattan law firm and moves across the country to West Covina, California, the hometown of her unrequited girlhood crush, Josh Chan.  Once there, she actively pursues Josh despite the fact that he is in a committed relationship, manipulating, scheming, and lying to get what she wants in the name of “true love.” The only real connection to her Jewish identity that Rebecca displays while in California is through memories of the old life that she rejected on the East Coast and the two Jewish women—her overbearing and manipulative mother, Naomi (played by Tovah Feldshuh), and her entitled, hyper-competitive childhood rival, Audra Levine (played by Rachel Grate)—who put her on the path to self-loathing, leaving her with a desperate need for attention and love.  In the episodes where Naomi and Audra appear, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend not only perpetuates classic stereotypes of Jewish women and of Jewish culture in general, but actually seems to make the case that Rebecca’s Jewish heritage is at least partly responsible for the personal and mental health problems she faces.

Rebecca’s relationship with her Jewishness, then, is tangled up with her feelings about her past life in New York, and both her memories of and interactions with Audra Levine and Naomi Bunch inform the way that Rebecca understands what it means to be Jewish.  As a result, Jewishness is something that Rebecca views negatively, and, through the relatively one-dimensional depiction of Audra Levine as a stereotypical Jewish-American Princess (JAP) and Naomi Bunch as a stereotypical “Jewish Mother,” Crazy Ex-Girlfriend does little to challenge Rebecca’s negative, stereotype-driven reading of the two women who, for her, personify her Jewish heritage.  The series makes the direct connection between Jewish identity and misery several times throughout its four seasons, but never more explicitly than in the season two episode “Will Scarsdale Like Josh’s Shayna Punim?” during which Rebecca brings Josh Chan (by then her boyfriend) home to Scarsdale to attend a family bar mitzvah.  She articulates the binding legacy of genetic, intergenerational Jewish suffering by telling the non-Jewish Josh:

…you are, forgive me, a non-Jew from the West Coast.  Let me explain how this goes. East Coast: dark, sad.  West Coast: light, happy…these people, they don’t understand what fun is.  Trust me…do you remember the ceremony? They made a 13-year-old boy say the Kaddish.  That’s a prayer for the dead. People like us only know how to be miserable.

This episode embraces the dichotomy between the dreary, depressing Jewish East Coast and the sunny, optimistic non-Jewish West Coast even further through the musical number “Remember That We Suffered,” a hora-themed, klezmer-style number in which the Bar Mitzvah party guests sing about how being happy is “selfish” and that even when celebrating, Jews are expected to acknowledge the Holocaust and the historical legacy of Jewish suffering in general.  Rebecca blames her lifelong malaise on the fact that “Jewish people’s DNA is literally imprinted with our past trauma,” and while the Bar Mitzvah concludes with a conversation between Rebecca and her Rabbi about the importance of self-love and taking responsibility for her own happiness, Rebecca’s assertion that her unhappiness stems from her Jewishness makes sense given her interactions with the series’ only other Jewish characters: Audra Levine, who, as Rebecca’s major rival, is able to find fulfillment and success in the Jewish life that Rebecca rejected when she moved to the non-Jewish haven of West Covina and who appears throughout the series as a reminder of Rebecca’s past self as a New York JAP (a term that the series uses both in dialogue and in two major musical numbers); and Naomi Bunch, who uses guilt as a weapon and capitalizes on Rebecca’s mental health issues in order to pressure her into job opportunities and romantic relationships that Naomi believes will increase her own social standing amongst the other Jewish mothers in her circle. Rebecca’s unhappiness, therefore, is an intergenerational inheritance that she can only escape by removing these archetypal Jewish women from her life and embracing a non-Jewish existence.  

This symbiotic relationship between Rebecca’s mental health and her Jewishness is troubling on multiple levels.  Most importantly, it plays into the historical connection between Jewishness and psychosis that pervaded the study of psychology in the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-centuries, a myth cultivated by racial scientists in an effort to further “other” European Jews living within assimilated European society.  Additionally, the specifically gendered villainization of Naomi and Audra, as well as Rebecca’s desire to separate herself from anything that tethers her to the women of her Jewish past, contributes to the idea put forth by Sylvia Barack Fishman that “Jewish femaleness is pictured as a kind of pathology” in American film and popular culture.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, of course, does not fully attribute Rebecca’s mental health problems to her Jewishness in the same way that European psychologists racialized the diagnosis of psychosomatic diseases like hysteria and neurasthenia in Jewish patients as “proof” of their difference.  But, by drawing a connection between Rebecca’s Jewish background and her struggle with anxiety and depression, by investing in the East Coast/West Coast dichotomy of Jewish misery and non-Jewish happiness, and by confirming the role that Rebecca’s stereotypically Jewish Mother has played in making her “crazy,” Crazy Ex-Girlfriend does essentially endorse the idea that there is something about the Jewish mind that sets it apart from the minds of “normal” people.  

In the middle of season three, when Rebecca is diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), her perception of the world around her begins to change.  It becomes clear that much of her erratic, destructive behavior throughout seasons one and two was the result of her undiagnosed and largely untreated mental illness, and the latter half of season three and season four introduce a new Rebecca, one who still struggles with her mental health, but who is keenly aware of the fact that she needs to take responsibility for her actions.  Consequently, the series’ representations of many major and minor characters shift as it becomes clear that Rebecca’s subjective point-of-view (largely driven by her fluctuating mental health problems) shaped the way that the audience was encouraged to see her friends, colleagues, and romantic partners. As Rebecca moves forward with her treatment, her perspective becomes less skewed, and the people around her become rounder and more three-dimensional.

However, Rebecca’s post-diagnosis clarity does very little to shift her perception of Naomi or to challenge the stereotypes embodied by Audra, and the representation of both women as flat, stereotypically Jewish villains persists throughout the duration of the series.  And, since Naomi and Audra are the only conduits of Jewishness that the series provides, the fact that they remain largely unchanged puts forth the message that while Rebecca’s perception of everything else was skewed when she was struggling with her undiagnosed and untreated BPD, her negative feelings about her Jewishness were accurate and justified.  Naomi and Audra personify Jewishness in their stereotypical qualities and the negative impact that their “Jewish” behavior has on Rebecca’s life. The version of Jewish femininity that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend upholds presents Jewish women as stereotypical Jewish Mothers and Jewish-American Princesses.  And, as a Jewish woman herself, Rebecca has inherited some of these same traits. Moreover, her hysteria, anxiety, and need for control are all further exacerbated by the biological reality of her Borderline Personality Disorder.  Rebecca, Naomi, and Audra are actually very similar in nature—each of the three women are hypercompetitive, over-dramatic, manipulative, and self-centered, all of which the series portrays as characteristics that are “Jewish” in nature—but the crucial difference that sets Rebecca apart is the fact that she rejects the negative parts of herself that are coded “Jewish” while Naomi and Audra embrace them wholeheartedly.  In other words, Rebecca rejects “Jewishness” by rejecting “craziness”—her BPD is a manageable illness that she can control with therapy and self-care, but her Jewishness, and the craziness that it brings into her life, can only be controlled by suppressing it and running away from it.

Jewishness in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, then, is less of an ethnic or even cultural identity and more of a series of stereotypes underscored by the implication that there is, in fact, an innate difference between “normal” people and “hysterical” Jews.  While Rebecca is “Jewish” in the sense that she was raised by a Jewish Mother in a Jewish environment, she becomes increasingly less “Jewish” as the series goes on and she is more entrenched in her life in West Covina, more aware of the negative impact her Jewish Mother has had on her life, and more cognizant of the Jewish misery, survival instinct, and “craziness” that is her ethnic birthright.  The fact that any attempt on the part of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to explore her Jewish heritage results in a negative portrayal of Jewish femininity that draws a connection between Jewishness and misery is inherently problematic.  Furthermore, by endorsing the caricatures of the Jewish Mother and the JAP and by only exploring Rebecca’s connection to Jewishness through the lens of her toxic relationship with Naomi or through her girlhood rivalry with Audra Levine, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend ultimately plays into the same stereotypes of Jewish femininity that have dictated representations of Jewish women for the past 50 years.

 

Samantha Pickette is a Ph.D. Candidate at Boston University and the intern coordinator for the Gilda Slifka Summer Internship at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.  Her work focuses on the representation of Jewish women in American literature and popular culture, and her dissertation explores female-driven responses to the Jewish-American Princess stereotype in literature, film, and popular culture from the 1960s and 1970s.

This essay is based on an article published in Vol. 19, Issue 1 of The Journal of Modern Jewish Studies (January 2020).

HBI is currently accepting applications for our 2020 Gilda Slifka Summer Internship. Apply today.

 

 

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