The marriage plot, which gave so many of the great 19th-century novels and 20th-century movies their structure, has been eulogized countless times. It is impossible, the theory goes, for a marriage plot to have real stakes in this era of no-fault divorces and women’s economic liberation. The marriage plot is effectively dead.
In the 21st century, Mr. Rochester isn’t going to lock his mad wife in the attic; he’s going to send her to an institution and quietly get a divorce, and there goes the plot of Jane Eyre. Today’s Lizzie Bennett doesn’t need to worry about being put out on the street if she doesn’t marry rich. She can get an office job.
Not everyone agrees that the marriage plot’s coffin has been definitively nailed shut. While its economic and social stakes have necessarily lowered since the 19th century, some say the marriage plot can still succeed today on sheer emotional stakes — Adelle Waldman made this argument nicely in the New Yorker a few years ago, and the sheer prevalence of contemporary Pride and Prejudice retellings suggests the same.
But regardless of whether or not the marriage plot can still function in the 21st century, it’s slowly losing its cultural centrality. Today, the marriage plot no longer feels like the inevitable and mandatory form for a story to take. Instead, we can tell stories about platonic love: the love of friendships and families.
@zunguzungu friendship plot has taken over the vacuum left by death of love and marriage plots.— Alexander Chee (@alexanderchee) October 24, 2016
Disney, which 20 years ago could not imagine any satisfying ending other than marriage in films like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, de-emphasized the romance in 2013’s Frozen to give place of pride to sisterhood, and this year’s Moana has created a princess movie without a single romance at all. Taylor Swift, that walking barometer of cultural trends, took a lengthy hiatus from collecting famous boyfriends to collect famous girlfriends. If anything is hot, it’s rejecting romantic narratives to replace them with narratives of friendship.
But the CW’s musical dramedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend — which aired its midseason premiere on January 6 and was just renewed for a third season — isn’t so sure we’ve made that swap as effectively as we think.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has spent its second season ostensibly turning away from its romantic love stories to focus on friendships instead — but the romantic love stories keep wiggling their way back into focus. The show reveals how insidiously the marriage plot affects our ideas of how friendship stories work, and it suggests that as much as our culture might insist that it values platonic friendships, we’re not yet ready to genuinely give them primacy over romantic love.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s stealth focus is its female friendships
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is, in many ways, a complete deconstruction of the marriage plot. Its main character, Rebecca, is convinced that she is living in the marriage plot of a romantic comedy, so she drops everything and moves across the country to pursue a guy she dated for two months when she was 16 years old. In a Sleepless in Seattle–style rom-com, such a move would surely lead to a blissfully happy marriage. On Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, it proves that Rebecca has some emotional and mental health issues she needs to address.
At first glance, it looked as though the show would ultimately destabilize its romantic comedy tropes via a love triangle. Rebecca would think it was her destiny to end up with her old flame Josh, because she was projecting all kinds of ideas about happiness onto him. But in time it would become clear that her true soulmate was Josh’s acerbic, sarcastic best friend Greg, and as soon as Rebecca realized as much, all of her problems would be solved and she could be happy with Greg.
It’s a move straight out of the 19th-century marriage plot handbook: Lizzie Bennet throwing over Wickham for Darcy, Jane Eyre rejecting St. John Rivers in favor of Mr. Rochester. And Crazy Ex-Girlfriend primed its viewers to think it would be following this template faithfully, throwing in endless shots of Greg looking wounded as Rebecca pined for Josh, and endless meaningful closeups of Greg and Rebecca’s charged banter. It seemed obvious that the show’s game plan would be to revolve around a Rebecca/Greg/Josh love triangle. That’s just the way these stories work, because that’s the way marriage plots work.
But in the end, getting together with Greg didn’t solve all of Rebecca’s problems. It added new ones, because Rebecca has a lot of unresolved emotional issues and Greg is a self-loathing alcoholic, and neither one of them is actually in a good place for a relationship. Their romance crashed and burned.
And as Rebecca became absorbed in the delicious rom-com romance of being at the center of a love triangle, the show made it clear that the love triangle is not the key to her story. It is a red herring. “You feel torn between two men, but it has nothing to do with those men,” Rebecca’s therapist tells her at the beginning of season two. “It has to do with your personal issues.”
Instead, the stealth focus of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s second season isn’t Rebecca’s romantic love triangle at all: It’s the platonic love triangle she’s immersed in between her two sets of female friends. As Rebecca’s dream-ghost told her at the end of season one, “It’s not about the guys! Forget the guys.”
Rebecca and Paula’s friendship is the heart of the show — but it’s also toxic
Rebecca bonds with her best friend Paula in the climax of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s pilot episode, as the two of them come together in swooning over how romantic Rebecca’s plan to win back Josh is and sing the show’s first duet. At first they’re in counterpoint, but then they come together in perfect harmony:
Rebecca: I don't know what happens next
Paula: Bella and Edward, Carrie and Big
Rebecca: All roads point to this magical text
Paula: Harry and Sally, Julia Roberts and Richard
Rebecca: It's time to kick it into high
As Paula and Rebecca’s voices blend and crescendo on “Gere/gear,” the episode reaches its emotional high point. This is what is going to be most important to Rebecca in her new life in West Covina, California — not her baseless infatuation with Josh or her tortured flirtation with Greg, but her deep platonic friendship and ensuing mindmeld with Paula.
But the problem is that Rebecca and Paula both think they’re in a romantic comedy. That’s how they understand their friendship: Rebecca is the rom-com heroine, and Paula is the enabling rom-com best friend, the one who has no life of her own but devotes herself instead to guiding the heroine through the marriage plot to its culmination. Rebecca is Emma Stone in Crazy Stupid Love, and Paula is Liza Lapira. And as deeply as they care about each other, the dynamic they create is unsustainable, because it revolves around Rebecca’s romantic relationships, not around each other.
So when Rebecca temporarily gives up on Josh at the end of the first season, Paula is outraged and betrayed. When Rebecca starts dating Greg, Paula is so furious that she explodes into an old-school “Rose’s Turn”-style diva number.
This is where the subtext of their toxic dynamic becomes text: Rebecca has outsourced her id to Paula so that she can feel virtuous, and Paula has delighted in taking it on to fill an emptiness in her own life.
While Paula and Rebecca both gesture at trying to recreate their friendship without Rebecca’s quest for Josh as its organizing principle, it doesn’t really take. Paula puts up boundaries about what she’s willing to do for Rebecca in regards to Josh, and while Rebecca understands that decision, she doesn’t like it. So they grow distant. In season two, Paula gets an abortion and doesn’t tell Rebecca. Rebecca starts hanging out with a new girl group.
But Rebecca and Paula continue to pine for each other; they stare longingly at each other; they have tear-stained public fights with each other. It’s starting to become clear that the crazy ex-girlfriend of the show’s title isn’t just Rebecca in relation to Josh. It’s Rebecca and Paula in relation to one another.
Rebecca’s new girl group isn’t really empowering. That’s just what the head of censorship and mind control wants you to think. (Ziggazow!)
When Rebecca kicks off her new friendship with Valencia and Heather in the first half of season two, she has ostensibly learned from the disintegration of her relationship with Paula. This new friendship isn’t going to be about guys, she decides — it’ll be about the absence of guys. They’ll be a Taylor Swift-style girl squad, redefining the world with their hyper-feminine girl-power-friendly #squadgoals.
But the new girl group doesn’t quite go as planned. Instead, Rebecca and Valencia pull away from Heather to recreate Rebecca’s old dynamic with Paula: obsessing over Josh and his girlfriend, and pulling elaborate criminal heists to find out more about them.
So when Paula tearfully confronts Rebecca about pulling away from her to spend more time with Valencia and Heather, the scene isn’t about Rebecca rejecting the old, unhealthy rom-com style of friendship in favor of a new, zeitgeisty girl-power model. It’s about Rebecca’s pattern of using her friendships as accessories to her love life, and how when Paula recognized the dynamic and tried to create healthy boundaries, Rebecca dumped her to do it again with someone else. She just does it more covertly the second time around.
Are we actually interested in friendship stories, or are we just pretending?
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend isn’t saying that all ostensibly platonic friendships between women are really smokescreens for obsessing over guys, and if you say otherwise you’re kidding yourself. It is, to quote the season one theme song, a lot more nuanced than that.
What Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is suggesting is that, as a culture, we have spent so long obsessing over stories in which friendship is subordinate to romantic love — and as a result, our newfound infatuation with platonic love stories might not be entirely trustworthy. Rebecca is a dark mirror for our marriage-plot-obsessed society, and her biggest interest in building a girl squad doesn’t lie in genuine affection for Heather and Valencia, but in convincing her trendy liberal feminist self that she cares about female friendships.
What Rebecca actually cares about — very naturally — is her own happiness. And she is still convinced, deep down, that her happiness lies with Josh Chan, and if not with him then with Greg, because that’s what every romantic comedy she has ever seen has taught her.
Meanwhile, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s structure suggests that Rebecca’s happiness might actually lie in her first platonic friendship, in lying around watching The Wire with Paula and singing elaborate fantasy duets with her. But because Rebecca’s ideas about relationships were built by the marriage plot, Rebecca doesn’t know how to give that friendship primacy in her life. When Paula asks for that kind of commitment from Rebecca, Rebecca abandons the friendship instead.
When you try to work the friendship story into a structure built by the marriage plot, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend argues, you’re doomed to fail. If we want to appreciate platonic friendships as much as we claim that we already do, we have to build entirely new stories for them.
That’s part of the project of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and it’s part of why the show is one of the most emotionally honest and subversive programs on television.