Broad City is a contemporary comedy series created by and starring two Jewish-American women, Abbi Abrams (Abbi Jacobson) and Ilana Wexler (Ilana Glazer), in their countless adventures in New York City. The duo’s show began on YouTube in late 2009 and was co-produced by Amy Poehler when it came to Comedy Central in 2014. Broad City, one of few web series to be picked up as a television series and maintain its success (Glover), receives critical acclaim for its humor and authenticity, and the fourth season will begin in fall 2017. In this classic buddy sitcom, Abbi and Ilana are middle-class, college-educated, and determined to make it in a big city without their parents’ help. To sum it up in one sentence, “the characters are fun and fresh: horny, sometimes bi-curious young ladies, rolling joints and scraping by, keeping it casual with the men in their lives while reserving their most raging affection for each other” (Yuan). Broad City tackles the challenging millennial transition into adulthood with a liberal perspective and nothing-can-go-wrong attitude.
Broad City’s origins on the web has given the two creators complete control over the content from the very beginning, which continues to be evident in the television series. Throughout the show, Abbi and Ilana are not afraid to have serious conversations or to participate in true, human moments of profanity and nudity. This crude authenticity is the core of Broad City, and it stems from the creators’ bold personalities, the initial low-budget production of the YouTube videos, and the capacity for web series to take risks and depict “a broader array of stories” due to the lack of restrictions on producers (Glover, Christian). When moving over to the television landscape, Broad City did not only remain loyal to its homemade aesthetic but impressively kept its progressive beliefs and authenticity strongly intact as well. While this show may seem hilariously mindless and quite silly on the surface, there is constant advocacy for progressive freedoms such as sex-positive feminism, LGBTQ liberty, and drug consumption on Broad City as the co-stars shatter taboos and break down social barriers with their easygoing and frivolous antics.
Men are not the focus of Broad City, and when male characters do appear in episodes, they are not in the position of power. Ilana acts in complete independence when it comes to her sexual endeavors. She refuses to date her long-term bed buddy and wealthy dentist Lincoln (Hannibal Buress), claiming that their relationship is purely physical despite his constant efforts to take it to the next level. During the first season, Lincoln invites Ilana to a wedding (“Destination Wedding”), helps her best friend Abbi find an apartment (“Apartment Hunters”), and even fixes her tooth for free (“Pu$$y Weed”). Meanwhile, Ilana forgets his birthday (“In Heat”) and does the absolute bare minimum to keep the sexual relationship going while always maintaining her independence. Ilana appreciates Lincoln as a friend but shows viewers that she does not rely on a man for happiness and, instead, relies on herself first and foremost, as noted in this conversation with Abbi’s roommate Bevers:
Bevers: You and Lincoln seem like a pretty serious couple.
Ilana: We’re sex friends… although we haven’t had sex in like, four days. You know, today I was actually with him all day, but I didn’t see his dick once.
Ilana ask Abbi for her impressions of the relationship, too:
Ilana: Ab, do you think Lincoln and I are like a “couple”?
Abbi: I don’t know, I mean, you’ve been spending a lot more time with him lately, right? And if you’re not having sex, he’s either your boyfriend or your best friend.
Ilana: Ow! You are my best friend! Don’t you ever call anybody else that!
Abbi: What the (Bleep)?
Ilana: He’s not my boyfriend! I’m wild and I’m free! I’m a sexual X-man, I’m Wolverine. I’m Vulva-rine.
Conversations such as the one above clearly show that Ilana values her independence and friendship with Abbi above all else. More often than not in Broad City, “it’s men who are reduced to one-dimensional exaggerations of themselves, not women… Abbi and Ilana are the pioneers [of their own adventure] while the men are generally the obstacles they must overcome” (Alter 51).
Though Abbi sometimes resorts to traditional feminine ways, such as falling madly in love with the boy next door, Jeremy (Stephen Schneider), Ilana’s sexual openness consistently triumphs whereas Abbi fails to win over this boy’s attention. This power that Ilana represents is sex-positive feminism, which is centered on the idea that sexual freedom is an essential component of women’s freedom. In addition to the feminist attitude that she does not need a masculine figure for support, Ilana’s sexuality remains ambiguous; in many episodes, she kisses female coworkers and frequently attempts to drag Abbi into threesomes. In the episode “Coat Check,” she even falls in love with a girl named Adele (Alia Shawkat). In this case, Abbi has to point out that Ilana and Adele look exactly alike, which is the reason that Ilana is so attracted to her. Ilana responds to this realization in confusion, “but … I have sex with people different from me… different colors, different shapes, different sizes. People who are hotter, people who are uglier. More smart; not more smart. Innies, outies. I don’t know, a Catholic person” (“Coat Check”). Ilana’s open approach to her sexuality shows that women do not need to rely on men and do have the freedom to explore their sexuality. Her character defies neat labels while carrying feminist tones and messages of self-love, opening viewers’ eyes to a new kind of woman, a type they cannot help but admire. Ilana is just one character in Broad City who accepts all kinds of people, but this is part of the overall progressive viewpoint of the show.
Not only does Ilana champion sexual freedom, but Broad City’s supporting characters also represent diversity in sexuality and identity. Ilana lives with a gay, Venezuelan, drug-dealing immigrant named Jaimé (Arturo Castro). Although he may seem like a token diversity character for his sexual orientation and Latin-American background, Jaimé is a reliable friend, possesses a wonderful personality, and – of course – provides the Broad City gang’s marijuana. Ilana and Abbi are not friends with him just to have a “gay best friend” but, more importantly, for his personality and individuality. He is always there for his friends, and the “Citizen Ship” episode focuses on Jaimé earning his American citizenship, which is followed by a huge celebration. Also, Jaimé and Lincoln spend most of this episode together sharing jokes and playing pranks on a yacht. Their back and forth banter is good-natured and sincere, and they even act out The Titanic’s Jack and Rose to seal the deal (Framke). This is an example of the effortless close bond that is formed between members of the Broad City crew, regardless of their background or identity. This approach to a gay character is successful because the show is not just about Jaimé being gay; it is about human stories with funny dialogue, which gets viewers, regardless of how they identify, to like the characters and accept them readily (Frutkin). On the other hand, despite the intersectuality of his sexual orientation and ethnicity, the depictions of Jaimé as a homosexual are narrowly stereotypical. He is extremely girly and animated, and this kind of conventional depiction can turn media representation of gay men into a sort of joke, which is upsetting to LGBTQ viewers (Gomillion 351). Jaimé’s character is constructed in a way that does not show the audience an entire spectrum of sexual orientation, but nevertheless, this is balanced out by Ilana’s fluid sexuality and non-stereotypical personas. Overall, Jaimé’s character shows that being gay should not be something unusual or off-putting nor the only redeeming part of his personality. It is, rather, simply another normal aspect of his identity among many others in a tolerant and open-minded community such as the one represented in Broad City.
In addition to showing a variety of sexualities and identities, Broad City depicts progressive attitudes through Abbi and Ilana’s frequent use of recreational drugs. Their choice to indulge in marijuana and other substances openly and enthusiastically is not just a ploy to incorporate more humor into the show but part of their liberal mindset and belief that every individual has freedom of choice. Broad City is one of few shows that portrays female characters using marijuana, even in the new wave of liberal TV. “With the exception of Donna and Jackie in That ‘70s Show, there have been scarce female stoners,” but “the madcap stoned adventures of Abbi and Ilana in Broad City have changed that narrative” (Coslett). The traditionally male-dominated marijuana domain is proving to be more and more a women’s space, and of course, Abbi and Ilana are at the forefront of this. Whether it be high doctor office visits in “Pu$$y Weed,” college-dorm bong smoking during “In Heat,” or adventures with imaginary friends in “Wisdom Teeth,” Abbi and Ilana find themselves in great fits of laughter and in some interesting predicaments after consuming marijuana. Still, they always manage to emerge safely from such situations. Abbi and Ilana’s marijuana use in the show is always regarded as a casual and everyday act. In “Pu$$y Weed,” Abbi considers buying her own weed a very grown-up thing to do, comparing it to the adult act of doing taxes. Also in this episode, Ilana conceals her marijuana in her vagina to hide it from sniffing dogs on the subway. The two girls are confident in their drug use; they completely own it and view the activity as a source of empowerment. Abbi and Ilana’s attitude toward drugs makes viewers feel comfortable with the act and eliminates any negative preconceived notions. The open use of recreational drugs in Broad City mimics that of other TV shows such as Workaholics or That ‘70s Show, but this time, it is just a girl gang, and they do not rely on “macho men” for their blissful experience. The best part about it is that this girly duo write each episode based off their everyday experiences; Broad City is as realistic as a contemporary female sitcom gets.
On television today, there are aspects of series that may not seem authentic, such as the lack of diversity or the oversexualized portrayal of women, but with Broad City’s democratic background derived from its online origins and enhanced by hilarious writers and genuine content, the characters never fall short of authentic. As co-writer Abbi Jacobson puts it, “When we write for these characters… I think the thing we talk about the most is like, well, what would we really do? It’s just real” (Miller). Ilana and Abbi make authenticity their top priority, which makes their message exceptionally powerful and convincing. From diversity in sexuality, origin, income, and more, this series depicts millennials in an honest way, especially when it comes to contemporary womanhood. As a perfect example, Abbi and Ilana have a strong female friendship as each other’s counselors and confidants, both inside and outside of the show. Glazer explains that “this kind of relationship is something relatively new as millennials have grown into their 20s…women (and men) are getting married later, so primary relationships are friendships that spawn after college, when you meet someone in a new city — either New York, Austin, or any other place unfamiliar — and the friendship’s foundation lies in the novelty of it all” (Evans). The two women are not afraid to show these realities of millennial life, and handing them on an accessible silver platter to a wide audience through television is truly “a revolutionary act” (Yuan). Broad City represents a new wave of television that reflects the way millennials view the world, “with no presiding sexual norms, no judgment on experimentation, and with diversity among friends and in the city at large that doesn’t feel like a quota — presented in a way that acknowledges the heroines’ skewed perspective without trivializing the greater difficulties of others” (Yuan). What is really the revolutionary part, is that these ideals are being conveyed to Abbi and Ilana’s own demographic as well as educating older age groups about typical millennial lifestyles.
This liberal mindset of contemporary television shows is necessary to facilitate the rapidly changing open-minded views of young people, and groundbreaking work like Broad City that challenges dominate narratives would not have a place to exist and experiment if it were not for avant-garde platforms such as YouTube and Comedy Central. Broad City is often compared to Girls as both depict early-20s female friendships in New York City, but there is a contrast between Broad City, a show that began as a YouTube series and thrives through streaming and marginal outlets, and Girls, a HBO network television series. The main characters in Girls, although embracing some proto-feminist ideals such as sex-positive feminism, do eventually conform and join the suburbs to be mothers. On the other hand, Abbi and Ilana are two gals that will never conform; never in a million years will they be caught settled down with kids, living in the countryside of New York. Broad City has kept its cutting-edge content intact since its humble beginnings as a web series and continues to prove that it will never be tamed, no matter what new obstacles may come the future (Glover). The creators and characters are able to be so trailblazing and nonconformist, because there are channels available that are more willing to take chances and press against ideological boundaries than broadcast networks are. From big ideas such as marijuana legalization to just using profanity and nudity, it all “has to do with being young women and having agency over [their] behavior and words” (Glazer). Now more than ever, these digital spaces are giving voices to individuals and paving the way for acceptance. Broad City is a great example of the kind of sitcoms that are needed on television today to diversify the image of what it means to be a woman and what it means to be human.
Emma Cooley is a senior at Wake Forest University from Charlotte, NC. She is a Communication and Studio Art double major.
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