TV's De-Romanticization of Bad Female Behaviors

A recent wave of series signals a welcome change in the depiction of women and mental-health issues

Storytelling has long had some issues to address, and this year saw the end of three series that did it best. During their multi-season runs—all of which ended in the last few weeks—You’re the Worst, Broad City and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend helped right a few wrongs by attacking, head-on, the oft-romanticized characterizations forced upon female characters. All three shows tackled, in their own ways, frequently tread archetypes: Manic Pixie Dream Girl, female best-friend duos and the, well, totally crazy ex. By dissecting those tropes in their own particular ways, all three series showed us how often entertainment, and in turn society, romanticizes dysfunction, codependency, mental health and behavioral issues in women, and how amazing it feels to subvert that narrative.

How we represent people in entertainment has long informed the social framework through which we understand ourselves and each other. If Gretchen (Aya Cash) and Jimmy (Chris Geere) were fueled by less anger and more whimsy, and creator Stephen Falk and his writing staff were less thoughtful and nuanced writers, a series like You’re the Worst could have very easily morphed into another chirpy rom-com about a cantankerous writer and his manic-pixie girlfriend. But Falk and Co. subverted all of that, particularly when it came to directly facing Gretchen’s dysfunctional behaviors and relationships.

They named her depression for what it was. Gretchen's love of partying and drinking and last-minute late-night romps weren’t signifiers of a carefree attitude and adventurous spirit: They were impulsive decisions, attempts at self-medication, fueled by paranoia, self-sabotage and the occasional, full-blown manic episode. That is mental illness, and should not be depicted as some bubbly joie de vivre. Every character on the show had their shit, but through Gretchen, the audience sees the far more likely reality, and presented a cold, hard mirror to what these sort of stories usually present to the world.
Let’s be real: You could probably name several dream-girl characters off the top of your head right now—I don’t need to name any, as there are tons of google-able lists. “Manic Pixies, like other female archetypes, crop up in real life partly because fiction creates real life, particularly for those of us who grow up immersed in it,” explained Laurie Penny in her 2013 New Statesmen piece. And she’s right—the early aughts, when I was in my teens, was chockablock with girls styling themselves in the more twee fashion because, as Penny wrote, it “was the story that fit. Of course, I didn't think of it in those terms; all I saw was that in the books and series I loved … there were certain kinds of girl you could be, and if you weren't a busty bombshell, if you were maybe a bit weird and clever [...], there was another option.” Thankfully, with weird and clever Gretchen, they made sure every arresting, heartbreaking detail was very real.

Though there may be little that is realistic about the oft-fantastical and outrageous New York of Broad City, the TV friendship between lead characters—played by the show co-creators—Abbi (Abbi Jacobson) and Ilana (Ilana Glazer) came to a close on the realest note of all: declaring themselves problematically codependent. True to form, the girls had the realization while high on molly, dancing in an alley following a series of compounding hijinks involving a couch, a concert and an air-duct scurry, on the eve of Abbi taking leave of the city. For the first time in forever, the women would have to live separate lives.

I love Abbi and Ilana’s touching, hilarious, empowering friendship, but the sentiment they landed on in those moments was absolutely reflective of so many of our stories: that all women have one close, best girlfriend they do absolutely everything with, all the time. The female friendships we mostly romanticize on-screen regularly revolve around a deep codependence, inhibiting the the women as individuals. Doing the same things with the same person all the time doesn’t leave much room for personal growth. Nor should that be the sort of relationship dynamic for which we tell young girls to aspire. Not only will that sort of imbalance trickle down into other relationships, it can make women feel as if there’s something wrong with them if they didn’t. I’ve spoken to several of my female friends who’ve felt as much. Relying on one person to do every single thing with and call all the time, however, isn’t a good thing. Healthy relationships of any kind allow for the people involved to grow and evolve—and that often means changing dynamics, and doing things alone or with new and different people. Or, as was the case with Abbi and Ilana, someone moving cities in order to pursue their dreams. Healthy relationships have boundaries, to everyone’s benefit.
Watching someone try and set new boundaries in semi- (or often very) dysfunctional relationships was part of what made Crazy Ex-Girlfriend so relatable (well, one part of many). The series itself was a subversive commentary on romantic comedies, effortlessly and hilariously skewering toxic relationships, habits and un-dealt-with mental health issues via Broadway-song fantasy sequences. In one light, Rebecca Bunch (co-creator Rachel Bloom) was a manic sorta dream girl, chasing every meet-cute; in another, she’s a titular villain. But that’s because Rebecca was mostly just a villain to herself when she didn’t deal with her issues.

Once she finally came to terms with her own mental illness—in this case, borderline personality disorder—with her lessening stumbles came empowerment and true character growth. And it helped to destigmatize a diagnosis that comes with a lot of negative ones, as those with the disorder are often stereotyped as manipulative, evil people. Or, as was the case with Kyli Rodriguez-Cayro at Healthline, her old boyfriend’s “face beamed with excitement” when she told him about being borderline, so infatuated as he was with the women from films like Garden State and The Virgin Suicides because of their “risky” and “sexual” ways. Which is exactly why the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, once dated, is so often considered the crazy ex-girlfriend.
One-dimensional characterizations of women’s feelings and actions and emotions have lasted this long because our behaviors have overwhelmingly been socially codified through Hollywood’s lens.
“We wanted to take that stereotype of a crazy ex-girlfriend,” Bloom explained in an interview, “and [say], ‘What does that even mean, [and] why do we let love overtake us?’” When the interviewer noted Rebecca’s similarities to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, Bloom, herself someone who lives with mental illness, went deeper on what often lies underneath. “You see a lot of Manic Pixie Dream Girl tropes, … [b]ut the fact is, when someone is that quote-unquote adorkable or quirky, there's often a social anxiety or there's a social disorder.”

When it comes down to the “why” of it all, the answer’s fairly simple. Women still aren’t writing, or the focus of, the majority of stories being told. Men are still the protagonist most of the time and also still write the vast majority of books, TV and film—you know, the things that make up our culture? Men are the ones who have, for so long, dictated what certain characteristics, traits and behaviors “mean” about the women who display them, whether we agree with them or not. Often with their own unchecked dysfunctions running the show—around which the rest of the world must operate—men decide which aspects of a woman are desirable or not, and why. This shapes how people see and define each other, and ourselves. The reason these tropes and one-dimensional characterizations of women’s feelings and actions and emotions have lasted this long is because our behaviors have overwhelmingly been socially codified through Hollywood’s lens: Manic Pixie Dream Girl, crazy ex-girlfriend, obsessively too-close best friends.

And it makes things worse for everyone.

Which is why shows like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, You’re the Worst and even Broad City felt (and still feel) like such a welcome disruption to the normal narratives. They humorously, and humanely, showed us the reality behind characters’ actions, no matter how dark and how vital it is for all of us to express how we feel, who we are and learn what our behaviors mean. And as someone who recently came into her own diagnosis in the last few years—and is doing her best to work through all her quirks and shit—it has helped me tremendously to see it on-screen. No matter how fantastical, drug-induced magical or downright musical the situation the casts of these shows found themselves in, they all stopped and said, Hey, wait—actually, maybe we do have some underlying issues to address, and should consult professionals to ensure maintained success. (Only Crazy-Ex would’ve rhymed it like that, though.)

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