It is a truth universally acknowledged that an unhappy woman in possession of a promising career must be in want of her summer camp sweetheart…
So would go the opening of Pride and Prejudice if Jane Austen had written her beloved novel about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom). At first glance, Jane Austen and a musical comedy television show might not seem to have much in common, but the work of the acclaimed English novelist and this whip-smart CW critical darling share DNA.
In her own time, Austen’s novels and genre were dismissed by male authors as women’s writing—nowadays, even many of Austen’s most devoted fans fixate on the romance plots. However, Austen would have never called her novels “romances,” and the most compelling part of her work is not the handsome heroes or the happy endings. Austen was a master of satire, and she used her biting wit to comment on the sobering realities for women in her era. Her novels explored the complexities of our search for happiness and romance, but they dug deeper to depict the dynamic nature of sisterhood and female friendship, as well as to satirize concerns of class, education, and opportunity—particularly how they affected the fairer sex.
Though much has changed since Austen’s heyday, early audience responses to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend seem to suggest slow progress in regards to female-driven content. While the show has been a tongue-in-cheek and vital look at contemporary dating, female friendship, and mental wellbeing since day one, it chugged along underappreciated until it was rightfully thrown into the spotlight with a Golden Globe and Critic’s Choice award for star Rachel Bloom. Many dismissed it outright for its “sexist” title, which the show quickly pulls apart in its theme song with quips like, that’s a sexist term and the situation’s a little more nuanced than that.
With its title and theme song, the show sets a winking, self-effacing tone that demonstrates a willingness to use comedy and satire for cultural commentary. The title and theme song are the television equivalent of Austen’s immortal opening line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of good fortune must be in want of a wife.” They pull you into the narrative with an overblown exaggeration for the sake of later commenting on it, easing audiences into a more subversive and self-aware text. The show undercuts assumptions about femininity, obsessive love, and mental illness—all by acknowledging and reveling in the ludicrous nature of characters’ behavior. It sets itself up to do so by mocking its title from the word go.
Some might ignore Crazy Ex-Girlfriend for many of the same reasons critics dismiss Austen or contemporary women’s fiction—it’s frothy, funny, and driven by a romantic narrative, known in Austen’s day as “the marriage plot.” Yet, like Austen, the show is groundbreaking and pertinent in its use of these tropes and assumptions as a means of calling out ridiculous expectations and commenting on our relentless tendency to label women as crazy. Bloom and company push back against contemporary beauty standards with the “Sexy Getting Ready Song.” Rebecca shoves herself into Spanx and waxes multiple orifices, while her date Greg (Santino Fontana) lies passed out on the couch. Like Austen, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend uses exaggerated satire to call attention to the weighty expectations and double standard women face when it comes to securing a life partner.
Class and social standing run through all of Austen’s novels as barriers to romantic happiness. In the world of sitcoms where unemployed twenty-somethings live in spacious, centrally-located New York City lofts, it’s rare to see class addressed in any meaningful capacity. But Crazy Ex-Girlfriend continues to channel Austen with its ability to portray characters in a way that realistically depicts class and how it can affect perception. What makes Rebecca truly “crazy” to her mother and her colleagues in New York is not her pursuit of a man, but her abandonment of a six figure job and lucrative promotion.
In her new home, Rebecca easily finds a new job but working far less glamorous cases at a smaller salary. However, over the course of the series, she comes to realize that money and the accompanying class status are not the markers of success and happiness her mother insists they are. Instead, she finds herself on a path of fulfillment from doing meaningful work and interacting with those she values for her interpersonal relationships. The show makes clear West Covina’s status as a middle class neighborhood with its shots of the city and its characters’ occupations as paralegal, bartender, and electronics store worker. Rebecca finds fulfillment beyond the bounds of class—an ending Austen wished for her heroines, but typically rectified by pairing her protagonists with rich husbands who were also intellectual equals.
The show also echoes Austen in its romantic relationships. Rebecca’s journey from her infatuation with Josh to her realization that Greg is a more ideal match mirrors that of many Austen heroines who, through romantic entanglements, come to know their own minds and find inner growth. Rebecca’s change of heart is akin to that of Lizzie Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, and Marianne Dashwood who realize that the men in their lives with whom they share a relationship of mutual understanding and growth are far more suitable matches than their romantic fantasies.
Rebecca and Greg’s relationship most closely resembles Austen’s most famous pairing—Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. They fall for each other only after moving through a series of false starts in which they both hurt each other’s pride. At first glance, with his curmudgeonly personality and general air of disdain, Greg seems the picture of a modern Darcy. However, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend flips the roles on their heads with Rebecca filling Darcy’s role of standoffish prejudice and Greg embodying Lizzie’s wounded pride. It is Rebecca who initially insults him when she uses him to get to Josh, and he who rejects her vulnerable advances, in contrast to Lizzie’s rejection of Darcy’s proposal. Like Darcy with Lizzie, Rebecca fights her attraction to Greg throughout until she sees the sharp wit, kind heart, and deep well of feeling beneath his sarcastic personality he uses as a defense.
Their relationship, from its witty repartee to its values and vulnerabilities, presents a romantic narrative for the sake of exploring gender roles and the limits of our abilities to admit our feelings. Just as Austen uses relationships to demonstrate expectations for female behavior, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend allows Rebecca to hold agency as she navigates the perils of what is romantically acceptable for women in the 21st century.
Furthermore, rather than portraying anyone’s extreme behavior as romantic, as do most rom-coms, the comedy tackles mental wellbeing head-on and addresses obsessive love with a gimlet eye. Rebecca’s behavior is satirized for humor but also to demonstrate how media narratives have distorted female perceptions of love and romance. She believes if she pursues outlandish romantic gestures, Josh will come to fall in love with her. Yet, when she does she embodies what we deem “crazy” behavior—by trying to adhere to one socially prescribed narrative, she falls victim to a different stereotype. Just as Austen critiques gauche, social climbers driven to extremes by the pressures to make a good match, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend demonstrates how society warps female behavior to align with expectations and pre-existing narratives. Only when women break free from these constraints and recognize the unhealthy behavior they encourage can they find their true equal and ideal match—in the Regency era or now.
Finally, and perhaps, most powerfully, the show asserts female bonds and friendships over romance. Rebecca’s friendship with Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin) is predicated on romance—Paula rivals Austen’s Emma Woodhouse in her matchmaking fixation. She fears that without matchmaking pursuits Rebecca will abandon her, but Rebecca values their friendship over all other new relationships in West Covina. Paula is a confidante and friend, one who goes to outlandish extremes to protect and support her friend. Rebecca has no siblings, but her relationship with Paula is one of sisterhood. Like sisters, they also quarrel but ultimately are in each other’s corner. The true romance of the show is their bond, and their desire to protect each other as well as their ability to challenge and better each other.
Austen resided solely in the world of women—writing of their fears, hopes, dreams—but above all, their attempt to make a life of meaning in a world stacked against them. Despite romantic happily-ever-afters, the most important relationships in her novels are those between women—the sisterhood of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, Jane and Elizabeth Bennet, Catherine Morland and Eleanor Tilney. In Austen’s world, women compete but they also protect, support, and rely on networks of sisterhood to succeed. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend echoes Austen in its use of satire to critique societal expectations for women, but it more powerfully reinforces her voice by providing a space where female stories are told and sisterhood is celebrated as a force of renewal and strength.