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The “Crazy” Ex-Girlfriend - A Manufactured Trope

The crazy ex-girlfriend is every guy’s greatest fear: she comes out of nowhere, hell-bent on stirring up drama and ruining her ex’s chances at new happiness without her. The pop culture version of the crazy ex can be terrifying, irritating, or genuinely in crisis - but countless movies and shows present this emotionally distressed woman without context as to the circumstances that got her there, framing her merely as an unpredictable liability and a problem that has to be eliminated. Yet, in reality, men are far more likely to resort to aggressive behavior after a break-up. So why is it that women are painted as universally responding to uncoupling with quote-unquote “insanity”?

TRANSCRIPT

Rebecca: “The verdict’s in, I am officially, medically, certifiably quote unquote crazy.”

The Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is every guy’s greatest fear: she comes out of nowhere, hell-bent on stirring up drama and ruining her ex’s chances at new happiness without her. The pop culture version of the crazy ex can be terrifying, irritating, or genuinely in crisis—but countless movies and shows present this emotionally distressed woman without context as to the circumstances that got her there, framing her merely as an unpredictable liability and a problem that has to be eliminated. The Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a spectre (sometimes even a literal ghost) that also haunts women (perhaps even more intimately), as they strive not to be compared to her.

The age-old myth of the distraught ex-girlfriend who desperately pines for (or violently rampages against) her lost partner reflects the belief that women are more codependent than men in romantic relationships—even though research shows no link between gender and codependency. And in reality, men are far more likely to resort to aggressive behavior after a break-up. So why is it that women are painted as universally responding to uncoupling with quote-unquote “insanity”?

Alex: “You won’t answer my calls, you changed your number. I mean, I’m not going to be ignored, Dan.”

Here’s our take on what the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend represents - and why she doesn’t really exist at all.

Building a Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

In the Ancient Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts, Medea, sorceress and scorned ex wife, seeks revenge when Jason marries another woman by murdering the children they had together. The name Medea—derived from the Greek word for ‘plans’ or ‘cunning’—establishes the longstanding idea that divorced wives plot to seek revenge at all costs. In the 19th century, the crazy ex again made frequent appearances as an unhinged villain with almost supernatural overtones.

Mr. Rochester: “My wife… my own demon.”

In Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester keeps his unpredictable wife Bertha locked away in a secret room—a harsh measure the audience is led to believe is necessary because she is in fact crazy. Before Jane meets Bertha, she thinks a ghost lives in the house, and there’s likewise a spectral nature to the “crazy ex” who’s the title character of Daphne Du Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca. The deceased wife of the narrator’s husband—Rebecca de Winter—at first seems like a beautiful ideal the new Mrs. de Winter can’t live up to.

Mrs. Danvers: “You’ll never replace her. You can’t replace her… no he can’t love you, because you’re not her.”

But it turns out that she was a demonic, heartless, unfaithful woman who still haunts and torments her ex-husband and his new wife—even from beyond the grave.

There’s something universal about the image of a past lover as a ghost that a new couple wishes would go away—but another source of the trope of the “crazy ex” girlfriend or wife you can’t be free of lies in that pesky “until death do us part’’ marriage vow. Throughout most of American history, married couples who sought divorce faced long, arduous processes. Given that obtaining a divorce often meant proving adultery, to simply be an ex wife could mean you were widely assumed to be unfaithful or “immoral.” Moreover, women have not tended to be granted equality on the grounds for divorce. The 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act passed in the UK parliament allowed men to divorce their wives for one act of adultery, while women could only divorce husbands who were physically abusive, incestuous, or bestial as well as unfaithful. Being at risk of losing everything in a divorce, as ex-wives often did, could of course make anyone a little crazy.

Antoinette: “And I’m not rich—everything I had belongs to him, that’s English law.”

The through-line between women who were branded as crazy exes in the past and the women who are branded them now is power. In the feminist prequel to Jane Eyre, 1966’s Wide Sargasso Sea, author Jean Rhys imagines Bertha Mason’s perspective, and shows us a woman who’s been horribly mistreated and cheated on. To a contemporary audience, it’s the unchecked total control Mr. Rochester has over his wife that seems threatening.

Helen Small, a professor of English Language and Literature writes that, during the 19th century, “tales of women driven to insanity…by the death or treachery of their lovers… were deeply ingrained in the culture’s conception of femininity.” Looking back on all this, we can see how the myth of the vengeful Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was a self-perpetuating one: draconian laws that favored the husband’s rights and governed women’s bodies, and deep-seated, inescapable, untrue stereotypes, caused intense moments and expressions of female frustration, which in turn have been used to “prove” that females are unstable and justify laws restricting them. So what forms does the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend take in more recent and contemporary pop culture?

Spotting a Crazy Ex-Girlfriend


The Mental Health Crisis Ex-Girlfriend

The show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a nuanced and hilarious takedown of the way we so quickly jump to calling women crazy. The first season shows Rebecca performing an extreme of stereotypical Crazy Ex-Girlfriend behaviors—moving across the country to be near an ex she briefly dated in summer camp as a teen and trying to “steal” him from his new girlfriend, all while pretending she just wants casual friendship. But the show unpacks all the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend tropes (like the lies, the instability, and the proverbial daddy issues), humanizing them through a vulnerable, likeable central character and digging deeper into why an ultra-smart, highly educated woman feels compelled to act this way.

Rebecca: “So you’re saying that I moved here from New York and I left behind a job that would have paid me $545,000 a year for a guy who still skateboards? / That would be crazy and I am not crazy.”

Rebecca’s deceptiveness comes from the expectation that —to win over a guy—she must constantly project a likeable, relaxed “cool girl” persona that’s inherently inauthentic. It’s not just in Rebecca’s imagination that guys expect this—after she finally gets the magical night she’s been dreaming of with Josh, she momentarily slips up and reveals just how badly she wanted to be with him—and her full-on expression of passion for him immediately puts him off and causes him to distance himself.

In the next season, Rebecca realizes that her relentless drive to seek the approval of an emotionally unavailable guy like Josh stems from feeling abandoned by her father. So when Rebecca embraces being the vengeful “crazy” “scorned woman” at the end of Season Two, the transformation has an empowering aspect—at least, she’s no longer internalizing the blame for why men have mistreated her.

Paula: “All these men, they are all the ones to blame.”

Still, Rebecca can’t fully heal until she looks honestly at the deeper issues she needs to address. The word ‘crazy’ in the title is a reference to the way we casually demean our exes by flippantly turning mental health issues into an insult—but this assumed stigma and rigid expectations for acceptable behavior from female partners exacerbate very real mental health issues. Rebecca battles severe depression and anxiety, is delusional and erratic, hallucinates when stressed, and is eventually diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. This iteration of the ex-girlfriend undergoing a mental health crisis is nuanced and moving, highlighting that women we label as “crazy” may be acting out because they are hurting or traumatized. In the end, Rebecca resolves her issues by working on herself, turning her musical “hallucinations” into expressions of creativity in the world, and not centering a man in her life.

Rebecca: “When I’m telling my own story… for the first time in my life, I am truly happy. It’s like I just met myself.”

However, this happy ending isn’t always attainable for ex-girlfriends who are genuinely unwell. For Orange is the New Black’s Lorna Morello, a guy she’s only been on one date with comes to represent all of her hopes, dreams, and delusions about romantic relationships.

Christopher: “She left notes on my car, she threw trash on my lawn, she left voicemails yelling about how I wasn’t helping enough with the dog. I don’t even have a dog.”

Without Rebecca’s income and status privileges, including access to good mental health treatment, Lorna’s obsession lands her in jail where her delusions just intensify.

Christopher: “Clearly your time in prison has done nothing to bring you back into reality, you psycho.”

Morello is driven by loving an idea of love, and the more that her life diverges (sometimes tragically) from her perfect dreams, the less she’s able to accept reality. The mental health crisis ex-girlfriend shows how feeding women a traditional, restrictive idea of the “successful” relationship can be traumatizing, since life inevitably doesn’t fit into that box.

The Jealous Ex-GF

Her ex has moved on, but she’s not even close to ready to see him with someone else. The jealous ex-girlfriend just wants to make her old boyfriend feel as terrible as she does (if only for a short time), and takes action in the form of (mostly) harmless pranks. But when stories align us with this character’s perspective, her behaviors (however petty or childish) become almost universally relatable. Throughout Friends, Rachel seeks to destroy any relationship her ex Ross becomes involved in, in one episode manipulating Ross’s new girlfriend Bonnie into shaving her head because she knows Ross won’t find it attractive, but of course, the narrative situaties us on Rachel’s side, and ultimately uses this as a catalyst for Rachel to admit she still has feelings for her ex.

Ross: “You’re the one who ended it, remember?”

Rachel: “Yeah, because I was mad at you not because I stopped loving you.”

Ultimately, the wild behavior of the insanely jealous ex reveals a person who is hurting.

The Genuine Psycho Ex-GF

Unlike the relatively tame jealous ex who a narrative more often aligns us with, women like Alex Forrest, Amy Dunne, Madison Bell, and Holly Viola are genuine psycho exes—devious, deceptive, reckless and bloodthirsty. This cold, calculating (but deeply delusional) Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is determined to either have the guy all to herself or ruin his life if she can’t. She often lures the unwitting man with the promise of strings-free sex—a cartoonishly heightened version of that faux “cool girl” whose casual act gives way to a deadly obsession with possessing the central guy, thus fueling the cliché that all women are secretly desperate for male commitment, no matter what they say.

In Fatal Attraction, after Dan Gallagher ends his affair with Alex Forrest, she calls him at work, stalks him, threatens him, boils his daughter’s pet rabbit, abducts his daughter, and tries to murder Dan’s wife. Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne goes on an equally brutal, but much more elaborate rampage after to punish her husband Nick’s affair and his plan to divorce her by framing him for her murder (taking on a “Crazy Ex-Wife” from beyond the grave vibe when he initially thinks she’s dead). Amy’s thorough dedication to details plays into the idea that crazy exes are master manipulators who play on their ex-lover’s weaknesses to hurt them post-break up.

Amy: “Meticulously stage your crime scene… with just enough mistakes to raise the specter of doubt.”

In stories like Fatal Attraction and Gone Girl, an affair, emotional callousness, and terrible behavior by the guy spark the woman’s fury—in light of which, Fatal Attraction’s depiction of Alex as an unstoppable psychotic force was met with criticisms from feminist writers. But this character’s just causes for rage are overshadowed by her extreme violent overreactions—making her the gold standard archetype of the irrational, jealous, dangerous ex that both men and women are conditioned to condemn and avoid.

Gone Girl examines this situation through Amy’s perspective, and actually originated the modern discussion of the “cool girl” act specifically to explain why Amy goes off the deep end after her years of trying to embody her husband’s fantasies just led to him trading her for a younger woman.

It’s in large part because of the persistence of stereotypes like the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend that many women try to present themselves as her opposite, “the cool girl”—an exhausting performance that can lead them to tolerate mistreatment or repress legitimate anger during the relationship or as it’s ending. And ironically, this may make it harder to process the usual breakup feelings in a healthy way and lead to more dramatic “crazy” outbursts of pent-up emotion.

The Crazy-In-A-Fun-Way Ex-GF

The crazy-in-a-fun way ex, frequently seen in comedies, is super bad for her ex-man but he can’t stay away—toxic, yet intoxicating.

In Parks and Recreation, the only threat to Ron Swanson’s stiff upper lip is his smart, sexy, and seductive ex-wife Tammy. And though she’s not a crazy ex, Claire from 30 Rock only needs one hook-up and a few hours to set the fiercely independent business mastermind Jack Donaghy on a rollercoaster she’s driving.

Jack: “I can’t help it. I’m under a lot of pressure and Claire is my escape. She is like a drug, I crave her all the time even though she’s bad for me!”

The fun-crazy ex may appear like just a wacky stock character, but the way she strips males of their power goes back to the idea that women gain power and prestige through snapping up high-status men and blinding them with sex and mind games. Ted Lasso offers an update to this type in Jane, Coach Beard’s constantly on-again-off-again girlfriend who sounds like that demanding, erratic toxic presence, but—once we actually get to see her with Coach Beard—is clearly the love of his life in a relationship that may be unconventional but works for them.

The Misrepresented Crazy Ex-GF

All of the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend examples who are framed as one-dimensional tropes are actually being misunderstood by the audience. This intentional misrepresentation also extends to real life. Journalist Vicky Spratt wrote in Refinery 29 that even Princess Diana was, in media treatment of her time, “a particularly notable example of the “crazy ex” trope… she was regularly dismissed as “bonkers” for doing things like calling out the royal family or her ex-husband on national TV because he had an affair.”

To this day, this type of portrait can be used to discredit women in political and professional spheres—Intelligencer wrote that, Stephanie Grisham’s publishing a tell-all about the Trump White House led to “Statements by Donald and Melania Trump and a whisper campaign from their allies” that “make Grisham out to be like a crazy ex-girlfriend who never had any power to begin with.”

In fiction, this type of male power play is explored in works like The Girl on the Train, where the (spoiler alert) plot twist of the movie is that the female protagonist had been gaslit by her husband into thinking she was a hopeless, violent alcoholic.

Rachel: “You told me I got you fired. But I didn’t. / You were fired because you were f***ing everyone in the office!”

And all these examples illustrate how impressions are completely shaped by how writers (or real people) frame women in a certain light to make their responses to situations seem crazy. In Friends, Janice Litman is Chandler’s annoying, overbearing, and crazy ex, reviled by all of his friends. But in the early seasons, he uses her, toys with her, dumps her repeatedly, and generally just treats her horribly.

Even if they women a break-up really well, sexist ideas about female emotion still haunt how their behavior is interpreted. So, can ex-girlfriends ever really win? And how are the emotions of male boyfriends and exes dealt with in film and TV?

The Crazy Ex…Boyfriend?

As much space as the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend takes up in Hollywood scripts and in the public consciousness, realistically, women are at far greater risk of being assaulted or harmed by a Crazy Ex-Boyfriend. From Henry VIII’s murdering two of his six wives, to countless headlines and true crime shows detailing the horrible deeds of vengeful men, the aggressive, unhinged ex-boyfriend is a very real phenomenon. For women in abusive relationships, deciding to become an ex is perhaps the greatest risk to their safety.

Leslie Morgan Steiner: “Why doesn’t she just leave? It’s incredibly dangerous to leave an abuser, because the final step in the domestic violence pattern is kill her.”

Both the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s and Boyfriend’s actions are guided by misplaced ideas about love and relationships that don’t match reality. But the ex-boyfriend or husband’s aggression represents a grave actual danger to the woman.

Conclusion

The Crazy-Ex-Girlfriend is a manufactured or imagined threat; a trope based on sexist ideas of the female mental state, patriarchal marriage practices, and written into popular movies for the sake of drama by men who can’t see past their own self-centered point of view. This may explain why feminist re-imaginings of classic texts and the music of Taylor Swift and Olivia Rodrigo resonate with so many women: their songs don’t shy away from the intense emotions women feel during breakups, but flip the familiar script by not giving the guy the last word, instead lending the emotional, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend a real voice with nuance and without any shame about what she’s felt.

Taylor Swift: “I like writing songs about douchebags who cheat on me…”

In past eras, a character like Morello would have been framed as just another Fatal Attraction copy—just as Christopher paints her—but today’s stories are increasingly reflecting our interest in better understanding the complex mental health problems that underlie her destructive behavior. And recent female characters like Rebecca and Alexis from Schitt’s Creek, have shown us how a struggle with jealousy and negative thought patterns can be a catalyst for self-improvement. These more realistic depictions offer respect and understanding to the people on both sides of difficult relationship trials, and make it abundantly clear that the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has just been in our heads this whole time.

Rachel: “Those terrible things, I didn’t do any of them. You made me think that everything was my fault.”