Edited by Carolina Palacios
Art by Cat Faulkner https://www.jellyarmchair.com/
“The situation’s a lot more nuanced than that!” shouts the series’ protagonist in the first season theme song from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. The Emmy, Golden Globe, and Critic’s Choice Award winning series focuses on highly successful and deeply unwell Rebecca Bunch, who, after running into Josh Chan, her ex-boyfriend from summer camp, decides to move across the country from New York City to West Covina, California, to pursue Josh again. Rebecca spends much of the first season attempting to both fit into Josh’s life and convince the people around her that there weren’t any ulterior motives in her moving to West Covina. Meanwhile, Josh struggles with his parents’ and girlfriend’s expectations of him, while trying to figure out Rebecca’s place in his life.
I stumbled upon Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on Netflix in my ‘Top Picks’ section and decided to give it a go after hearing that a main character was Filipino. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was a refreshing and honest take on the romanticized SoCal lifestyle, while representing racial diversity, mental illness, and a wide array of body types. But it was Josh Chan, the romantic lead of whom the series main character is the “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” that solidified the show’s genius for me and many other Filipino-Americans.
Growing up, representation of Filipino-Americans was few and far between. I remember watching Degrassi: The Next Generation because Cassie Steele, the actress playing Manny Santos, is half-Filipino, half-British. Manny’s narrative, however, focused much less on being Filipino, and more on her scandals. I searched for all that lacked in popular media in my studies. During high school, an American History teacher told me that the Filipino-American War was, “just not that important,” to the overall course. While at University, I dedicated my senior thesis to exploring Filipino-American Literature and Cultural Identity Formation, for which our English department was vastly unprepared and had little-to-no resources. My academic search for representation was a dead end as well. None of the institutions that I so valued had any value for me.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend changed that. The show’s Filipino characters, most notably Josh Chan and Father Brah, speak truth to the Filipino-American experience, while also moving beyond racist stereotypes of Asian-Americans. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend makes a concerted effort to highlight Filipino traditions and make jokes with instead of at the expense of Filipino-American culture. When Rebecca makes dinuguan (a dish made by stewing pork in pork’s blood) for the Chan family’s Thanksgiving celebration, the joke is not about how disgusting the food might be, but about how Rebecca is going to such lengths to try and impress Josh and his family (“My First Thanksgiving With Josh!”). Crazy Ex-Girlfriend shows Filipino-Americans as real, whole people, and Filipino culture as something to be embraced and respected—a thing that many shows do not even attempt.
Had Crazy Ex-Girlfriend been on the air when I was writing my senior thesis, it would have been my primary source regarding Filipino-American identity. When I first began my thesis, there were no shows airing that focused on Asian-Americans. ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat premiered the same month my first draft was due, and both ABC’s Dr. Ken and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend premiered after I graduated. While these three shows all have Asian-Americans in starring roles, each show focuses on a different ethnicity (Taiwanese, Korean, and Filipino, respectively), and thus, different lived experiences of each culture. I hadn’t studied anything like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend before simply because nothing like it existed.
Even if Crazy Ex-Girlfriend had existed, it would not have been included in any courses I would’ve taken. My alma mater, Saint Joseph’s University, has no faculty with academic focuses in East Asia or Asian-American studies. If we diversify the study of Postcolonial Literature to include that of countries affected by the United States’ Imperialism and the hyphenated identities of Brown and Black Americans, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend fits nicely within the realm of Postcolonial Studies.
For many Asian-Americans, literature and media from both our “motherland” and North America exist but don’t intersect. Asian-Americans are left with a No Man’s Land of an identity that is ignored by popular culture, academic curricula, and the people we live alongside every day:
Asian-American is a distinct identity, distinct from our ancestors’ nations of origin, and distinct from our current countrymen. It’s not a bungled merging of two identities, not a failure to be authentically American and a failure to be authentically Asian. Not ‘caught between two worlds,’ as we are often said to be, but its own world altogether. (Fu)
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend doesn’t shy away from writing that distinct Asian-American identity, as well as hiring a writer’s room that reflects the diversity Southern California. Rene Gube, an actor and writer of the show, is Filipino-American, and wrote the episodes that focus on Josh’s family and Filipino culture. The show itself is an example of how diversifying casts and creators can represent a more realistic version of the world.
Including Crazy Ex-Girlfriend in the curriculum of Postcolonial Studies courses would allow students to explore narratives surrounding Filipino-Americans created by Filipino-Americans whose sole focus is not the characters’ “Filipino-ness”. It would also allow for students to explore a multi-generational Filipino family affected by American Imperialism. Though not explicitly stated, Josh’s parents’ accents imply their immigration from the Philippines to California. Exploring Josh’s relationship with his parents and their life in California from a Postcolonial lens would allow students to unpack the expectations and realities of first generation Americans, and their hyphenated cultural identity.
Including Crazy Ex-Girlfriend in Postcolonial Studies opens up the field to American Imperialism’s current effect on the hyphenated identity designation that many people of color in North America are forced to assume. The Philippines is a country of islands, each island with it’s own distinct identity, coupled with almost five hundred years of Spanish and American Colonization; to bring that identity to America and leave it unexplored in our studies would be willful ignorance at best, and a perpetuation of American Imperialism at worst.
Bloom, Rachel and Aline Brosh McKenna. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Lean Machine, Warner Bros. Television and CBS Television Studios, 2017.
Fernandez, Maria Elena. “How Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Gets Filipino Culture Right.” Vulture. 19 Nov. 2015. http://www.vulture.com/2015/11/crazy-ex-girlfriend-filipino-culture.html. Accessed 14 March 2017.
Fu, Kim. “The Year in Hyphenates.” Hazlitt Magazine. 29 Nov. 2016 http://hazlitt.net/feature/year-hyphenates. Accessed 1 March 2017.
“My First Thanksgiving With Josh!” Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Season 1, Episode 6, The CW, 16 Nov. 2015. Netflix.
About the author:
Emily Miller is a social worker at a shelter for survivors of domestic and sexual violence in Arlington, VA. Emily holds a B.A. in English Literature from Saint Joseph’s University and researched transformative works, identity formation, and mass incarceration and justice during her time at SJU.