WORDS: DOMINIQUE MATTI
When Broad City came out, I was glad. I was excited for a pretty hilarious show by two women best friends about being best friends.
Here were women with a friendship I could identify with— one based primarily on weird faces and odd impersonations, sharing gross details and supporting one another through the absurd situations life throws their way. I saw myself in the kind-of-a-messes of the two of them. They are embodiments of the reality that women poop actual poop– despite myths of glitter. That women smoke blunts. That women pleasure themselves. That fluid sexuality is an actual thing. That women can seek and enjoy sex without commitment (without being broken or faulty). That women can enjoy each other’s company without competing.
Before Broad City, I’d gotten used to stifling the part of me that knows the actual realities of being a woman too well to be able to enjoy seeing hollowed out women on screen. I mastered the art of cognitive dissonance. I consumed show after show, film after film, where women’s friendships somehow revolved solely around men (how to get them, if they love them, how to make it without one). I thought, hell, even if she doesn’t look like me, even if she doesn’t live like me, it’s great to see one existing as more than a sex doll. I filled my belly on the crumbs. I ate what the media made for dinner, despite my taste for something more palatable.
Then Broad City came, and I feasted on it. I watched it, and then I watched it again with friends. We laughed together, without feeling reduced or misrepresented, without being caricatures of what the media believes women are or should be. I felt full. I felt some semblance of solidarity from these two fictional women from positions in life vastly different from mine.
But the feeling was false. Lately, I’m not laughing so much. Lately, I feel more like the butt of the joke. Lately, I can’t quiet the part of me that’s unwilling to be disregarded. Too many times as a feminist at the intersections of Blackness and womanhood, I’ve been asked to ignore my Blackness to prioritize the interests of white feminism. I did what I was conditioned to do with Broad City, at first. I ignored the regular allusions to cultures of color but absence of representation of women from those cultures. And then the cultural appropriation trickled in— the fashion, yes, but most commonly the “comedic” use of AAVE (African American Vernacular English).
At the end of the episode “Rat Pack,” Jaime (Ilana’s roommate) calls Ilana out for it—he explains to her politely that it’s inappropriate for her to wear earrings that say “Latina” if she is not, in fact, Latina. He tells her that her actions are mirroring the actions of colonizers. Ilana doesn’t protest. He also asks her to delete her Grindr (a dating app for gay men), since she’s not a gay man. A joke is made about that and then the episode ends. The first time I saw the scene I was grateful. I was happy that the term “cultural appropriation” was even appearing on a widely watched show. I was glad that they finally mentioned it. I thought that maybe they’d been receptive to the many essays written criticizing their show’s general ambivalence towards many of the cultures they co-opt. I found an article where the real life Ilana stated that she was using her character as a conduit to fuel discussions around cultural appropriation (which she deemed “not cool”). I trusted that claim (despite the fact that watching it happen while waiting around for it to be called out is low-key triggering). I filled my belly on the crumbs.
But then, immediately after “Rat Pack,” the Hilary Clinton episode came. And beyond the gratuitous and repetitive use of the terms “yaaas/yas queen,” (more appropriation) they treat Hilary Clinton as a feminist icon. They are speechless in her presence, stunned in adoration. It’s a peak white feminist moment. It was the moment I realized that the show was making no real attempt at relating to me in the way that I restricted my mind in order to relate to it. It had never been for me, it was for women who aren’t in bodies that require them to be concerned about being for cultural consumption, about being on the losing end of the racist policies Hilary’s endorsed.
It’s been a big letdown, this exclusion from solidarity, from sisterhood. It’s a beautiful thing that they’ve effectively advocated for many of the underrepresented realities of womanhood, it’s hurtful that mine is ignored and exploited. I still watch the show. I still eat the crumbs. I’m well accustomed to problematic favs. I enjoy the episodes where my culture isn’t made a mockery of, where I can still see myself in the empowered women on screen. I enjoy the episodes where Ilana’s persistent and unwanted advances on Abby don’t mirror the ones made by men, or trivialize woman-on-woman sexual violence. I enjoy the episodes where Abby continuing to have sex with an unconscious man isn’t made a joke of. Hopefully, they stick to their word about trying to be more intentional about directing conversations around exploiting cultures. Hopefully, they commit to making a show that doesn’t force people to quiet the parts of them that seek not to have to settle for what doesn’t meet a standard of inclusion. If they are to be heralded as the feminist idols, then their feminism must be more responsible. Their audiences deserve that.
4 replies on “All Your Favs Are Problematic: Broad City Edition”
Thanks for this, have been waiting for more commentary on Ilana’s cultural appropriation. It’s been hard to truly love the show also, after the Hillaryfest.
Thanks, well said. Surprised and disappointed there hasn’t been more criticism/analysis of Ilana’s blatant cultural appropriation.
Hi there! I agree completely with this essay and while I LOVE Broad City to no end and would recommend it to others, I am a mixed, fully Jewish gay man. The appropriation didn’t exactly sneak by me, especially now that I’m specifically watching for it. I hope the joke is supposed to be on Ilana for her actions after Lincoln’s comment to her that she’s “so anti-racist that sometimes she’s really racist” (if I believe correctly, Lincoln says this one to her at some point? Unless Jaime says this to her during their talk?)… and I think I might be over-optimistic in that sentiment, though they did feature the girls as being the butt of the joke with detestable behavior sometimes. Ugh. Also, it’s hard with the queer community this time because we’ve ‘absorbed’ language that was initially used by Black queens and ladies in the community and some people have been aware of it and others shrug it off. I generally try to stay on the side of caution, if they say something gAyAVE (Just came up with that one), I throw in a ballroom term to test the waters but instantly assess how they feel about the ‘safe’ ballroom term I used and if they continue to use it comfortably with me, I relax. But if I catch a wiff or a shudder of discomfort with ballroom vernacular, I avoid it. It’s my ‘permission’ I ask. Japanese is my second language but unless I’m aware the person wants to talk in Japanese, I let them approach me with either English or Japanese to decide how to respond.
Can I also recommend The Get Down? It’s not a comedy but has so many layers, so much potential and depth, I’m still totally let-down about it getting canceled. (The director’s schedule couldn’t accommodate a season with a deadline in a show’s format.) That show made me appreciate instead of appropriate, poigniantly and comfortably. It’s not about race in the right way… where it’s all about race but no one has to say it. It’s everywhere but in draggy, uncomfortable, clunky dialogue and exposition to catch all the white audience up. You plunge into their world, THEIRS. This isn’t your world unless it is. But you love them and learn to love things THROUGH their love.