The Sobering World of BPD in ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’
Rachel Bloom’s hit show ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ has garnered a modest cult following since its premiere in 2015 to its end in 2019, especially praised for its portrayal of female sexuality, parenthood and genre-bending storylines. However, the show is most revered for its handling of mental illness – the symptoms, behaviours and treatments of which many of the characters undergo, most noticeably the protagonist Rebecca Bunch. While the show often presents as a rose tinted musical romance, it doesn’t often stay there, making it one of the most uncomfortable, realistic and hopeful portrayal of mental illness on television.
After moving from New York to the small town of West Covina, California to pursue her ex-boyfriend (Josh Chan) she had as a teenager, the show immediately sets up that something is… odd about Rebecca Bunch. The immediate stalking signs we are used to emerge – frequent social media refreshes, showing up places where he may be, befriending his acquaintances for information – however the show also slips in a few subtle nods that Rebecca is not just ‘crazy-ex’ crazy but perhaps genuinely mentally ill. She pours a seemingly excessive amount of medication down the drain at her new Californian home, deletes a message from a stereotypically overbearing mother who mentions a past suicide attempt and confesses to friend Paula momentarily that she thinks she has lost her mind. This, intercut with songs such as “The Sexy Getting Ready Song” and “West Covina” where she draws blood from waxing her butthole and flies on a giant pretzel (respectively), makes it very easy to gloss over the warning signs. It is comfortable to put Rebecca into a box of a loveable though admittedly unstable ex-girlfriend who we hope will stop being so darn crazy!
Fans of the show may be hesitant to place such heavy meaning on the plot lines of ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ dealing with mental illness. Sure, the showrunners want to discuss the importance of attention and treatment for those struggling with anything from depression to coping with a loved one’s suicide attempts, though its a comedy, right? Right?? Right. But its also extremely hard to watch on occasion. Before Rebecca’s diagnosis in Season 3, many of her behaviours can be troubling though still quite easily chalked up to a deep romantic obsession with Josh. She goes through bouts of depression which are acknowledged as recurring though seem to be mostly triggered by romantic endeavours. Rebecca self medicates, makes rash and impulsive decisions that don’t often pay off and experiences phases of lucidity concerning her behaviour that can be immediately abandoned in the face of a mood swing. Perhaps this sounds like you, or your less than reliable friend but the show builds the nuanced case that this isn’t your average unlikeable protagonist. She’s neither a depressive nor a boundless irritant. Something is wrong with Rebecca. Or as a savvy mental health advocate would suggest, Rebecca is simply suffering from some unnamed mental illness and hasn’t been given the proper tools to prevent the fallout.
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The most significant moment of the show’s third season is undoubtedly Rebecca’s suicide attempt. While on a plane heading home, considering the latest emotional distress she had placed on her loved ones, Rebecca decides that her return is not worth the embarrassment and overdoses on her anxiety medications. It would not be out of place for the creators to make this into a shiny dance number, perhaps a suicidal Rebecca singing about her woes to a man dressed as a bottle of pills. This seems callous, but would have been far more welcomed than the actual scene which features no music, no jokes and no television magic, instead making us sit in the lack of comfortability. Rebecca begins to fade, looking up to the ‘help’ button above her before it morphs into the word ‘hope’. She presses it, saying simply “I need help” when the stewardess appears. Its hard to watch but offers something – literally projecting the word ‘hope’ to Rebecca and us. Things are getting better.
Oh wait. Mental health doesn’t work that smoothly.
Rebecca is taken to a hospital to recover, and given a second bout of hope with the promise of new diagnosis. She muses (through song, obviously) about her sense of belonging that will come with this official confirmation – Schizophrenic, bipolar disorder, OCD? She can work with any of those as long as the right pill can be prescribed. But Rebecca has something a little different to a chemical imbalance. She has borderline personality disorder. After being told to not research this condition, she immediately researches this condition, shocked to see the hard to manage and unattractive symptoms that come with it, even stumbling on the statistics that 1 in 10 people with BPD will eventually commit suicide.
Anyone with a mental illness understands the difficulty of diagnosis, even when expecting the result. Not only is Rebecca surprised, in her eyes she’s been given a ticket for a lifetime of “craziness”. And this is where Crazy Ex-Girlfriend shows something we aren’t used to. Recovery isn’t easy. It often doesn’t feel worth it. Those who actually suffer from mental illness don’t dramatically take a few pills, survive and then get a boyfriend who saves them. They buckle under diagnoses, new medication, new therapy, the fallout of broken relationships and complicated situations that arise from their behaviour. It comes with health risks and disappointment.
It’s uncomfortable but where else can we see it?
Rebecca Bunch isn’t immediately a better or worse person following all this, even leaving the show with some pressing goals to work towards for her mental health. She isn’t perfect now but everyday is a step. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend can make us worried, scared and sad – just like the world. But sometimes that same universe is kind and features a few hilarious musical numbers. Love is a part of it, friendships, family, pretzels, but ultimately you aren’t a “stupid bitch, who doesn’t think and deceives the people you love”. Rebecca will be okay and you’ll be okay.
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