What’s in a Name? Too Often a Gendered Insult

For the past few weeks, variations on a theme of The-Title-Sucks-But-The-Show’s-Actually-Good have repeatedly surfaced in my internet travels around the CW’s new musical dramedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. I debated whether or not to actually watch said series before putting my thoughts to page, but ultimately decided my point was best made while still uninitiated, my point being namely, the name sucks.

I am far from the first person to make this observation. Multiple editorials have surfaced, not to mention Twitter commentaries, all singing a similar tune. The two most predominating criticisms – both very valid – are the use of the mental health pejorative “crazy,” and the title as a whole, which invokes the sexist cultural trope of the irrationally love-struck woman who cannot control herself, and whose unrequited infatuation is quintessentially pathetic.

According to others who have actually watched the series, the show, in fact, subverts expectations by approaching its premise with much more “nuance” than the title suggests. But that’s actually part of fundamental the problem here: you have to accept the invocation of a horrible stereotype before you can get far enough to see that there is more to the show, and its protagonist, than what is listed on the tin. And frankly, I just have not been able to bring myself to do it yet.

In all honesty, I probably will at some point. I am a sucker for TV musicals, and musicals in general. I watched Glee way longer than any reasonable person ought to have and I actually do find the (reasonably sympathetic) female unrequited love-story an interesting one. I can belt out a shower rendition of “On My Own” with the best of them. Though, if the internet is to be believed, that premise is really more of a misdirect than a summation of the show’s actual substance.

For the moment, however, it strikes me that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is actually the latest in a long line of Hollywood flub-ups around naming that have weighed down and even doomed otherwise quality TV shows. Shortly after Cougar Town began airing, the The-Title-Is-Deceptive disclaimer also started circulating around it fairly quickly. While the show may have kicked-off with a slightly older female divorcee dating and sleeping with younger guys, that turned out to be a short phase of what was actually the more grounded, if still comedic, exploration of a middle-aged single mother learning to do romance and relationships all over again. Her cougar stage was quite short-lived relative to the full span of the series.

Don’t Trust the B—in Apartment 23 is another prime example. I avoided that show while it was still on the air because the profoundly silly, bleeped, rhyming title was just so off-putting I could not bring myself to actually tune in. However, when Netflix gave me a second chance to overcome my skepticism, I found it was just as many critics and fans of the show had said all along – the series was actually quite funny, and explored a female frienemy-turned-actual-friendship in quite an engaging and entertaining fashion. In many ways, it was a more sitcom-y version of Broad City, and I mean that as a sincere complement.

While pondering when or if I should take the leap with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, I have been simultaneously contemplating how these titling mishaps also seem to be uniquely gendered, in that they invoke archetypes of femininity – and fairly negative ones at that – to lay their foundational premise: the bitch, the cougar, the crazy ex-girlfriend. Even shows like Jane the Virgin and New Girl, which have not necessarily been substantially weighed down by their titles, still utilize stock feminine tropes (the virtuous virgin, the female novice) to brand themselves, despite the fact that such characterizations are destined to become outmoded fairly quickly. Now approaching its fifth season, I doubt anyone could call Jess the “new girl” anymore, and I somehow suspect Jane will not stay a virgin for her full series run.

I have attempted to brainstorm male-equivalent examples to compare and contrast with the aforementioned titles, and frankly I have struggled to offer up a single one. While there is certainly no dearth of TV shows sporting masculinized monikers – Two and Half Men, Sons of Anarchy, Mad Men, Men of a Certain Age — none come to mind which specifically invoke negative tropes of masculinity, or even masculine gender norms per se. We do not have shows that try to attain visibility and audience attention with titles like Neckbeard, or Manchild, or Lazy Schlubby Husband, or Dumb Jocks, or Walking Midlife Crisis. We do not use reductive masculine clichés as a way to explicitly brand our TV media, in the same way we repeatedly seem to do with certain female ones.

This is not to suggest that those masculine stereotypes don’t exist in our media at all. They certainly do, or they would hardly qualify as cultural stereotypes, by definition. However, rarely do those stereotypes become emblazoned on the title card as the primary selling-point of the piece to audiences. We are demonstrably far more willing to brand media about women by invoking harmful stereotypes which, even if they are subverted in the text itself, still come to us packaged with the most reductive and sometimes downright insulting kinds of gendered rhetoric.

No matter how good or bad a piece of media is, I should not have to feel disrespected by it before the theme music even has a chance to strum up. They say you should not judge a book by its cover, but titling it one of the ways in which media makers create expectations in audiences about their product. Bad titling can weigh a show down, give a false impression of its actual content, and even be offensive enough to dissuade people who would otherwise want to be audience members.

I have a DVR backed-up to the gills with shows I need to catch up on, and a whole list of other series I have not even gotten around to starting yet, but would like very much to peruse at some point. Can media producers stop making it so easy for me to by-pass what might be very engaging and enjoyable pieces of entertainment by saddling them with offensive titles? (gendered or otherwise) On top of being bad for the public discourse, it is also just bad for business, and the second point should at least be of some consequence to the boy’s club that is Hollywood, even if the first is not.

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