7 years later, Being Erica is still dismantling myths of young womanhood
On the anniversary of the series finale, writer Gwen Benaway celebrates the show's 'vibrant emotional heart'
On December 12th, 2011, the last episode of Being Erica aired. A CBC series focused on a woman in her 30s who has a time-travelling therapist, Being Erica spanned 49 episodes between 2009 and 2011. The show was saturated in Toronto love, featuring exterior shots of Casa Loma, Little Italy and the ever-present CN Tower while red and white streetcars zoomed by. And it remains one of the few shows in Canadian TV history that focused its entire plot around the inner life of a single woman — exploring Erica's fears, past experiences and interpersonal struggles throughout each episode.
While Being Erica has more than its fair share of ridiculous moments, there is a vibrant emotional heart at the centre of the show. I remember watching the very first episode when it aired, struck by the idea of a show entirely devoted to Erica's growth as a person.
The idea of a therapist who sends clients back in time to relive mistakes sounds like a bad commercial premise, but Being Erica makes it work over and over again. The episodes where Erica returns to visit with her now-deceased brother in the past examine the role of grief in a more nuanced way than most television shows allow, while Erica's frequent visits back to the early 1990s are a nostalgia-inducing binge fest for viewers like me who grew up in that decade. I try to forget about the awkward product placements, like the ill-fated Tetley infusions which Erica's coworker drinks or the episode where a Ford Focus acts as a secondary character.
Seven years after the last episode aired, I still return to Being Erica. The reason that the show has a lasting impact with me is simply because no Canadian television show since has centred a woman's interior life so consistently. Over the course of four seasons, Erica unpacks her grief over her brother's death, her parent's divorce and her complicated relationship with a college crush and learns how to live courageously in pursuit of her dreams. The entire narrative arc of the show is about Erica learning how to be herself, taking risks and setting boundaries about what she wants and needs from others. And while her romantic life does take centre stage, Erica often makes decisions which lead her away from the safety of romantic partners and bring her back to her own development.
[The show is] a love letter to every woman who has no idea what she's doing in life. It does something which very few popular culture television shows are willing to do: it gives us permission as women to not have all the answers and to make mistakes.- Gwen Benaway , writer
It's easy to write Being Erica off as chick flick television without much substance. I can make criticisms of the show as well, focusing on the fact that Erica is attractive, able-bodied, middle class, white, heterosexual and cisgender. She has tremendous privilege and is often able to find success because of that privilege. On my darker days, I could argue that the idea of a woman with so much privilege and opportunity struggling in her life isn't believable or sympathetic. Sometimes while watching the show, I stare at the screen, roll my eyes and mutter, "Get your life together, Erica."
But the emotional heart of Being Erica is her struggle. She isn't able to get her life together, despite numerous interventions and opportunities. Her attempts to find herself are challenges that many women can relate to. She doesn't stand up for herself when pressed. She has learned to take up as little space as she can. She is too kind and gives too much to her friends. When her male partners tell her not to do something or undercut her confidence, she listens to them initially and struggles to assert her wants back to them. Being Erica manages to show the everyday emotional struggles of being a woman and the work of unpacking years of being told that, as a woman, you are only valuable for what you do for others.
Of course, Being Erica misses opportunities to engage with other complexities in being female. It tries to speak about bisexuality with Erica's girl crush or examine race through Erica's female friends of colour, but it doesn't really get there. It does manage to go into some complicated spaces, talking about sexual assault, male violence and femme emotional labour before these concepts were widely spoken about. And most importantly for me, Being Erica disrupts the myth that being a woman in the world is static state of being. Erica is still finding herself, constantly learning and growing throughout the show.
Her humanity is like the city she lives in, constantly under construction and in motion. Being Erica is a love letter to Toronto, but it is also a love letter to every woman who has no idea what she's doing in life. It does something which very few popular culture television shows are willing to do: it gives us permission as women to not have all the answers and to make mistakes. There is no perfect mythical womanhood on display in Being Erica — just a smart Jewish girl in Toronto who doesn't know what to make of her life. Like the rest of us, she finds her way through messing up, and that's a lesson worth watching reruns for.
You can watch every episode of Being Erica at cbc.ca/watch.