Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a brilliant TV show that no one watches. Hopefully, its surprise Golden Globe win will give this show the attention it deserves as it enters the second half of its first season. Its characters are richly diverse and its ethos is unabashedly feminist, and it features satirical musical numbers that would feel perfectly at home in an episode of Inside Amy Schumer. It has also produced one of TV’s most nuanced, relatable depictions of mental illness. But for all of its compassion and wit, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is roundly disappointing in one important area: Its portrayal of romantic rivalry between women.
Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), our unbalanced, plucky protagonist, moves to West Covina, California for—among other things—a chance to reunite with her summer camp boyfriend Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III). Upon arrival, however, she discovers that she’s in competition with Josh’s current girlfriend, Valencia (Gabrielle Ruiz). Even if you haven’t seen the show, you can probably guess how this will go: Valencia is a thin, gorgeous yoga instructor with tan skin, long, impossibly voluminous hair, and a brain full of hot air. Rebecca, by contrast, is a brilliant, Harvard-educated lawyer with an average-sized body, pale skin, and normal-volume short hair. In other words, Valencia is gorgeous and shallow, and meant to seem less worthy of Josh’s love than our beloved Rebecca.
Now, granted, many people do think of their romantic rivals as inferiors—but in real life, those stark differences are usually in our heads. In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the differences between Rebecca and Valencia are presented as reality, not as a figment of Rebecca’s troubled imagination—which is too bad, because the show is at its best when it puts Rebecca’s delusions on full display. Valencia is flatly dissatisfied with Josh when he devotes an afternoon to building her a new dining table, just because it’s not exactly what she wanted. She insists that Josh cut off all contact with Rebecca after she finds out that they used to date. She tells Rebecca that she dislikes humor. Judging from her actions, Valencia is actually as terrible a person as Rebecca thinks she is.
Of course, it’s not just Rebecca and Valencia—this kind of imbalanced romantic rivalry has shown up in movies, TV, music, and books for ages. On Gilmore Girls, Jess’s PDA-ready, brainless girlfriend Shane is obviously inferior to the intelligent, comparatively virtuous Rory. There’s the thin, evil Natasha in the movie adaptation of Bridget Jones’s Diary. There’s the nameless high-heel-wearing cheerleader juxtaposed with Taylor Swift’s sneaker-wearing marching band geek in “You Belong With Me.” The cliché stretches across centuries of literature, from Jane Eyre to Archie Comics to Americanah.
Why has Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a show that so expertly dissects, riffs on, and satirizes stereotypes, bought into one of the oldest tropes in the book?
The optimistic answer is that this is all a long game. Perhaps Valencia has been carefully constructed as a boring cardboard figure, only to be humanized and developed as a reversal of that trope later this season. It wouldn’t be the first time—movies like Legally Blonde have set up evil-stereotype girlfriends, only to reveal their appealing humanity in the final hour. We’ve already gotten glimpses of varying depth into the backgrounds of many characters in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend—from meeting Josh’s delightful family for Thanksgiving dinner, to hanging out with Rebecca’s less delightful mother. Hopefully, in the season’s second half, we’ll finally get a better look at where Valencia’s coming from.
We got a tiny peek at it early on, when Rebecca drunkenly kisses Valencia, who cries out, “Why does everyone want to have sex with me?” The moment is played for laughs, but it’s also a brief glimpse into a serious problem Valencia constantly faces: Being seen as nothing but a sexual object. That problem, of course, doesn’t negate the fact that Valencia is vapid and cruel, but it does hint at an explanation for Valencia’s demeanor. I’d love to learn more about why Valencia acts the way she does—if only because Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has done such a fantastic job of eliciting empathy for the other characters despite their flaws. Rebecca is hard working, brave, self absorbed, and oblivious. Josh is kind, devoted, aimless, and unassertive. Most of the characters on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend seem like real people. Hopefully, the second half of the season will introduce us to Valencia as a real person, too—and not just a plot device that exists to make Rebecca look good.