Goodbye "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend", the show that revolutionized popular depictions of mental illness

By Ylva Söderfeldt

The musical sitcom Crazy Ex-Girlfriend just finished its fourth and final season. Up until the end, fans were biting their nails and debating which of her three love interests the main character Rebecca would end up with. Throughout, we got to enjoy the creative, funny, and intelligent song and dance numbers the show has become known for. But there’s more than the musical element that sets Crazy Ex-Girlfriend apart from other sitcoms. In particular, it’s an unusual series in that it makes mental illness a central topic.

Of course, mental illness in not an uncommon theme for film or television. But characters with psychiatric illnesses are rarely the heroes, usually the villains. The idea we get from media about people with psychiatric disorders is that they’re either dangerous, ridiculous, or both. Even in a story set in a psychiatric clinic, such as One flew over the cuckoo’s nest, the patient-hero is not “truly” mentally ill. For all its criticism of oppressive system and practices in psychiatry, that narrative centers not on people who experience psychological suffering, but on someone who in “reality” does not belong in the clinic. The uniqueness of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is therefore that it allows a person actually suffering from a psychiatric disorder to have agency and gain audience sympathies.

The series centres on Rebecca Bunch, who impulsively leaves a successful career as a lawyer in New York City to pursue Josh, who was her boyfriend during a youth summer camp. She moves to a small town in California and starts building a new life and tries to win Josh back. This, she believes, will make her “truly happy”. The way she goes about her mission, however, is extreme and manipulative – that’s how she fulfils the sexist and ableist stereotype of the “crazy ex-girlfriend”. She breaks in to apartments, sets fires, stalks, and plots murder. All the while, the series is asking: is Rebecca “just a girl in love”, is she a criminal, or “crazy”?


Still, while recognizing her lack of boundaries and often appalling behaviour, it’s easy to root for Rebecca. This sets her apart from arguably the most classic fictional “crazy ex-girlfriend”, Alex Forrest from Fatal Attraction (1987). While Alex is closer to a horror movie monster than an actual woman, Rebecca gets to be a complete character. Early on in the series, it becomes clear that her obsession with Josh has a deeper root than just a typical love story. Her involvement with him, and the other men she ends up dating in the series, is motivated by a profound lack in her sense of self-worth. Through flashbacks, we learn about her childhood in a dysfunctional family, with a self-centered mother and an absent father, and that she previously has been hospitalized in a psychiatric clinic after having a violent mental breakdown.

The series, thus, becomes a narrative of living with mental illness. We get to follow Rebecca through different coping- and treatment strategies: going on and off medication, individual and group therapy, building a supportive social network and reassessing her career choice. We see her sink into a deep depression, deal with intense anxiety, and even attempt suicide.


This sounds like harsh topics for a musical comedy, and they are. But we also get to know Rebecca as a talented, funny, and clever person – and this is what makes the character unique as a portrayal of a person with mental illness. Whereas the role of “the mentally ill” in popular culture – in particular “crazy” women – is usually stereotypical, one-dimensional, and negative, Rebecca is a full person, and someone to relate to and identify with. Her mental illness is neither over-emphasised, nor erased. Rather, the series relentlessly examines the ambiguities surrounding narratives about love and shows that there is a thin line between what, in our culture, is considered romantic and what pathological.


Late in the series, Rebecca gets diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), one of the most stigmatized mental illnesses. The cultural stereotype around BPD is prevalent not only in the public but far into the community of mental health providers (Knaak 2015). The way that the disorder is often characterized reads like a catalogue of the most undesirable, even immoral, personality traits. BPD patients are described as manipulative, unlikeable, violent, attention-seeking, not possible to treat and unable to have healthy relationships. The destructive effects of this stigma become clear in the series when Rebecca falls into despair after she reads up online on her new diagnosis. And at the same time, the entire series destroys the stigma. It’s impossible to dehumanize Rebecca based on her diagnosis when we get to see her as the full person that she is. It’s also abundantly clear that the fact that she has a personality disorder does not disqualify her from meaningful relationships – here, it’s worth noting that the way that the series portrays female friendship is also particularly refreshing.
The series has been praised for its diverse cast and the way that it addresses and challenges stereotypes around mental illness, gender, sexuality, and race. However, it’s a shame that the series never took the opportunity to extend its clever take on these issues to other disabilities as well. A broader disability perspective is absent and actors with visible disabilities almost non-existent.

Nevertheless, there is a lot to be learned from the series about how to think about and present the social and medical aspects of disability. In the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend universe, mental illness is inseparable from the social and cultural context in which it emerges. At the same time, however, it does not write off emotional pain as “just a social construction”, but presents it as as a very real, tangible, and common type of suffering. Medicine does provide some answers to it, but not all.

This is a perspective that could be extended to disability in general: we don’t need to make a black-or-white choice between social construction and medicalization. Medical interventions and services are valuable, but cannot alone explain or remedy disabling experiences, physical or psychological.





Ylva Söderfeldt is associate senior lecturer at the Department of History of Science and Ideas at Uppsala University.
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References

Knaak, S. et al. (2015): Stigma towards borderline personality disorder: effectiveness and generalizability of an anti-stigma program for healthcare providers using a pre-post randomized design. In: Borderline Personal Disord Emot Dysregul 2: 9.

Recommended citation

Ylva Söderfeldt (2019): Goodbye "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend", the show that revolutionized popular depictions of mental illness. In: Public Disability History 4 (2019) 5.