How the trope of the 'Crazy Ex-Girlfriend' protects abusive men

Roe McDermott sat down to write an email to another woman, warning her about the man she was dating. She soon realised that the fear of living up to a misogynistic trope was preventing her from protecting another woman. Here she examines the “crazy ex-girlfriend” and why the trope still has a hold over us.


I recently found myself sitting at my computer, struggling to write a message.

“I’m sorry to bother you…I know you probably won’t believe me… I’m sorry…. You probably think I’m crazy… Please trust me, I’m not doing this because I’m jealous, or bitter… I’m sorry.”

With all those apologies, you’d be forgiven for thinking that I was doing something terrible. The truth is, I was trying to message a woman to warn her that the man she was dating was a known serial emotional abuser, who used his social power to target more vulnerable women and deliberately destroy their self-worth and esteem. This wasn’t just my opinion or my experience (though unfortunately, I had some); he had lost friends over his treatment of women, had been banned from attending certain social events to protect the women in those communities – but he showed no accountability or remorse for his behaviour and would just look for women elsewhere, women who didn’t know about him, who would fall prey to his abusive techniques. Women just like her.

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I just wanted to warn her, in case it made her be a bit more careful with her heart, in case it let her recognise signs of emotional abuse if they emerged, in case she did end up abused and needed to know that there was someone who would believe and support her.

So why did I feel like I had to apologise for that impulse, like I was the one who was doing something wrong, like I was the one who shouldn’t be trusted?

Simple. Because I was scared of being labelled as the “crazy ex-girlfriend.”

The “crazy ex-girlfriend” trope is a misogynistic stereotype where men refer to any woman who they have treated badly as “crazy”, as a way of minimizing women’s emotions and needs, and refusing to acknowledge their own bad behaviour. It also undermines the credibility of women who have been abused or treated badly, so that other women won’t believe their warnings.

This is of course different from addressing women who have abused their partners, which is a real and often overlooked problem. The “crazy ex-girlfriend” trope isn’t about holding abusive women accountable for their behaviour – it’s a vast and common stereotype that ensures that abusive men aren’t held accountable for theirs.

“Psycho”

My awareness of this trope is heightened by my personal experience of it. I’ve previously been labelled as a crazy ex-girlfriend, when I finally left an emotionally abusive relationship after 18 months of being screamed at, belittled, slut-shamed, cheated on, gaslit, controlled and threatened. When I finally ended the relationship, my ex immediately went into self-preserving PR mode, telling all of our mutual friends and colleagues that I was a “psycho” – a depressingly effectively technique that painted him as the good guy, and me as a bitter pathological liar who couldn’t be trusted. It worked; everyone accepted his labelling of me, no-one he told ever asked me what happened, I lost most of my friends, and a huge chunk of my work and income as he spread his version to professional peers and told them not to work with me.

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This is the power of the “crazy” label; it’s simultaneously damning and vague, playing on pre-existing prejudices against women’s emotions. It rarely results in a follow-up question, allowing the friends and acquaintances of men who call women crazy to just accept his word for it, and never consider that maybe, she wasn’t actually the problem.

The “crazy” label is an amalgamation of all the ways that men can undermine women’s emotions and paint them as irrational or illogical by using dismissive language. Women who want their boyfriends to stop cheating aren’t asking for a basic modicum of respect, they’re “paranoid” and “needy.” Women who ask for commitment from the men demanding their attention and emotional support are “clingy.” Women who get upset when they’re insulted are “oversensitive.” Women who express anger, or disappointment, or sadness when a man treats them poorly are “hysterical”, “unreasonable”, “psycho.”

In short, “crazy” is often used by men as shorthand for “a woman who expressed her emotions in a way I didn’t like.”

But the “crazy ex-girlfriend” trope doesn’t just play into misogynistic ideas about women’s emotions; it also relies on and perpetuates the idea that women are always in competition with each other for men, and so women should always treat each other with suspicion. This attitude also protects abusive men, as women who try to warn others about them are dismissed as having ulterior motives. Tell a woman that the man they fancy is known to be abusive? You’re just bitter that he doesn’t want you. You’re just jealous of their new relationship. You’re just a crazy ex-girlfriend who can’t mind your own business.

“Minding your own business”, incidentally, is another way of policing women’s communication with each other, often to the benefit of abusive men. Some feminist scholars have studied how, throughout history, women have utilised conversations with each other and whisper networks to warn each other about abusive men. However, the use of the word “gossip” to dismiss women’s conversations as frivolous, unworthy, and inaccurate undermines women’s communication, allowing abuse to thrive undetected and unacknowledged.

“You're not like other girls”

These misogynistic messages are easily visibly in the era of #MeToo, where women who accused powerful men like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and Louis CK or abuse and harassment spent years being dismissed as being crazy, lying, oversensitive, or a combination of all three. It’s also telling that modern whisper networks, such as the ‘Shitty Media Men’ list which allowed women to anonymously name men who had sexually harassed them so that other women could be cautious around them, were dismissed as “gossip”, “a witchhunt”, “alarming” and “a bloodlust.” Again, it was assumed that women must have an ulterior motive for trying to warn each other about potentially dangerous men – it couldn’t just be that we just want each other to be safe.

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And women can internalise these messages, automatically believing men’s declarations that women are crazy, treating women’s warnings with suspicion. When a man tells you that his ex-girlfriend is “crazy”, it’s easy to believe him, because it makes you feel powerful in comparison. You’re not crazy like her - you’re rational, reasonable, low-maintenance. You’re Gillian Flynn’s Cool Girl; you’re great because you don’t have unruly emotions, you make his life easy. But like the phrase “you’re not like other girls”, these comparisons only work if a woman has internalised the misogynistic belief that being like other girls is a bad thing; that a woman who expresses emotions is undesirable; that men should automatically be believed over women.

And so I struggled to write my message to a woman I just wanted to protect from an abusive man, knowing it was likely that he would deny it all, dismiss me as a crazy ex-girlfriend, that she would believe him over me.

And then I remembered that before I had been anyone’s ex-girlfriend, before I had been anyone’s girlfriend, I had been a feminist, a woman, a girl who cared about other girls. I realised that my fear of living up to a misogynistic trope was preventing me from living up to who I actually am: someone who doesn’t think abusers should be protected and enabled.

I pressed send.

Let him call me crazy. If she is even a little bit safer, it’ll be worth it.

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