The CW’s critical darling “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” wraps up its first season Monday night. The musical dramedy follows Rebecca Bunch, an unstable New York lawyer who impulsively follows her summer camp boyfriend to a small town in California. Writers have lined up to declare it an important piece of feminist pop culture.
That’s true, but the show is also evidence of a growing divide between young women and the older generation of second-wave feminists, who are increasingly feeling millennials have abandoned everything they worked for.
The pilot of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” opens with Rebecca, played by YouTube star Rachel Bloom, becoming the youngest-ever partner at her high-powered New York law firm. Instead of being thrilled, she has a panic attack, then coincidentally runs into an old boyfriend on a street corner. She impulsively abandons her impressive, powerful job (and its high earning potential) to move to West Covina, California.
Society’s Expectations Versus Happiness
The first half of the season followed Rebecca as she made friends, settled in at work, and arranged a series of hijinks aimed at winning her ex back. The second half of the season has been far more interesting: Rebecca abandons her scheme and instead tries to focus on simply being happy.
For an episode, she considers moving back to New York to resume her old job, and enjoy the perks it comes with (status, prestige, a whole lot of money), but she abandons that plan and decides to stay at her lower salary, less-prestigious job in West Covina. To use Sheryl Sandberg’s language, instead of leaning in, Rebecca is leaning out. Way far out.
But there is worth in it, because she’s happier. In one episode, Rebecca goes head-to-head with the woman who replaced her at her old firm. The contrast showed viewers, and Rebecca, just how miserable she would have been in New York, even if she did have a corner office. The happiness she has in West Covina is worth something.
While Rebecca’s new life doesn’t meet traditional views of “success,” the way her old life did, it does make her happy. At its core, the show argues that taking a less prestigious career path is fine, even smart, for young women, if it makes them happy.
Not everyone would agree with that message. Friends recently have told me about pressure they’ve received from older women to take on job opportunities they don’t want. Second-wave feminists, they say, are arguing that women have a duty to the feminist cause to continuously climb the corporate ladder, even if it’s not right for the individual.
Another woman described being judged by self-described feminists for choosing to stay home with her children. Never mind that the decision was right for her and her family: she was damaging the feminist cause.
I’m In This for Myself, Not Women En Masse
In spite of this pressure, millennial women, including self-described feminists, are following the Rebecca Bunch model, doing what’s right for them even if it’s not going to fight the patriarchy. As one friend told me: “I’m not going to sacrifice my happiness on the altar of feminism.”
The resentments are starting to build on both sides. Look at the backlash Gloria Steinem and Madeline Albright faced for stating that young women should be obligated to vote for Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. For Steinem and Albright’s generation, not supporting a woman because she’s a woman is anathema. For millennials, being told they must restrict themselves to the codes of old feminism, instead of following their hearts, is just as problematic.
Bunch and non-fictional millennials recognize that without second-wave feminism they wouldn’t have the choices they do today. But, fortunately, women today do have those choices. And they’re prioritizing their happiness over professional success.
“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” establishes early on that Rebecca is a classic, liberal feminist. She’s pro-choice, speaks extensively about “women’s empowerment” and votes Democrat. But she doesn’t have any guilt about putting her own happiness above the cause of women in general. For a generation that’s embraced the “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” model, Steinem and Albright’s views just seem antiquated. In most cases, the individual’s needs will come before the needs of feminism as a whole.
Second-wave feminists said they fought for future generations to have more choices than they did. Thankfully we do, but the same people can’t now try to dictate how we should make those choices. As a friend said recently, so-called feminists who tell women how to live their lives are no better than the patriarchy they’ve spent their years fighting. The message of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” might just be to ignore anyone who tells you how to live your life, and just do you.