This Week on Dear Television
First of all, I’m very excited to be writing about the great Broad City with all of you here at TPM’s new features vertical
The Al Dente Dentist The Slice. There’s a goofiness and aimlessness to Broad City that might make it seem like a slightly wobbly target for weekly criticism, but, especially from the looks of this new season, Broad City’s got some things on its mind. And as of last night’s episode, “In Heat,” that thing is “rape culture.”
Early on in “In Heat,” Ilana faux-lectures a group of Lincoln’s friends and family about the pervasiveness of rape culture at a dinner party (“All Hollywood media is porn. All porn is kiddie porn.”). And the main action of the episode centers around Abbi continuing to have sex with her date Stacy (played by Seth Rogen) after he passes out, and then inadvertently making out with a minor. Abbi’s borderline dalliances are presented fairly explicitly by the show as accidents that may suggest, but are not actually, rape. We get a long sequence of Stacy and Abbi having consensual—if gross and sticky and hairy—sex before Stacy faints, and the controversy stems mainly from the fact that Abbi finishes afterward. And Abbi makes out with—but doesn’t sleep with—the thrilled teen only because she believes him to be a senior in college rather than high school. Gray areas aside, the question in this episode is less about what Abbi does or doesn’t do than it is about how we read Ilana’s initially scandalized reaction. Is the show endorsing Ilana’s feminism, or is the show making fun of feminist killjoys who talk about rape culture at dinner parties?
I don’t really believe that Broad City—a show that’s as invested as it is in female friendship, sex-positivity, and, well, the possibility of feminist heroism—is intentionally either trivializing this issue or pulling a Kaley Cuoco and disavowing feminism. That said, I have to admit that I’ve been struggling to read this episode since I watched the screener last week. And then, Sunday night, a couple of original unruly women chimed in.
A lot of great things happened at the Golden Globes this year—Gina Rodriguez, ftw—but perhaps nothing greater than Tina Fey and Amy Poehler body-slamming Bill Cosby. After pivoting to the subject by making a joke about Into the Woods’ Sleeping Beauty having an unlucky encounter with Bill Cosby, Fey announced that Cosby had made a statement. Doing an outlandishly bad “Pudding Pops” Cosby impression, Fey said, “I put the pills in the people! The people did not want the pills in them!” Lena Dunham was a fan, some people weren’t, most didn’t know if they should laugh, cheer, or call their publicists for an evac.
But the real kicker came when Poehler responded. Feigning propriety, Poehler stopped her friend, “No, Tina, hey. That’s not right. That’s not right. It’s more like, ‘I got the pills in the bathrobe, and I put them in the people.’” The two then did dueling, overlapping Cosby impressions. It was, in no uncertain terms, a very very silly way of executing this joke. It was also dead serious in its intent. Cosby has not, as of yet, mounted an official defense, instead relying on the dissonance between the lovable, fatherly character Cliff Huxtable and a man who would drug women in order to rape them. By not speaking, Cosby has allowed Huxtable to speak for him. The brilliance of the Fey-Poehler joke is that they reappropriated and smacked down this act. They took the logic of Cosby’s defense—Cliff Huxtable couldn’t possibly do this—and turned it on its head—Cliff Huxtable did this.
The crucial, and best, part of the joke was Poehler’s brief act of mock chastisement. The audience was no doubt uncomfortable, and various diamond snake-clutching non-combatants were likely questioning whether or not such a joke was “fair” or “appropriate,” and Poehler’s interjection momentarily gave those viewers a safe space. By taking away that proxy, though, Poehler acknowledged those misgivings, declared them irrelevant, and reinforced the strength of the joke. Bill Cosby and the Celebrity Industrial Complex were no longer in charge because Tina and Amy had asserted their power. In all of his controversial years of playfully sniping at celebrity culture as host of the Globes, Ricky Gervais never once made a joke this subversive, this meaningful, or even this brave.
So, is that what Abbi and Ilana are doing? Are the Broad City women waging war on rape culture by deploying Fey-Poehlerian feminist satire? (Amy Poehler is an executive producer of the show.) Are they rendering male defenses of gray-area sexual assault ridiculous by occupying those same defenses themselves?
I still don’t know. One of the virtues of the Fey-Poehler joke was its coherence. Nobody could wonder, afterward, whether the two were mocking Cosby or mocking “political correctness.” That’s still not quite true of Broad City. Ilana’s monologue at the beginning is played over-the-top, but it impresses all of Lincoln’s friends, and it’s pretty clear the show stands by at least the principles of her critique. But it gets a little stranger.
It’s worth noting here that Broad City has gotten a lot more ambitious this season. Glazer and Jacobson produced a spectacular first season, and it’s almost shocking how much they’ve diagnosed and improved upon an already strong model. The ratio of zany misadventure to naturalistic hangout sesh has improved, and both Abbi and Ilana’s workplaces are much more richly detailed now. Along with that has come a seemingly conscious decision to tackle issues. And here’s where the strangeness creeps in.
After Abbi sleeps with Stacy, Ilana calls her out on what she’s done:
Ilana: So, to clarify, you raped him?
Abbi: No, no. He passed out from the heat. He seriously wanted it.
Ilana: Ooh, ooh. That is literally what [airquotes] “they” say.
Abbi: I really mean it.
Ilana: So do [airquotes] “they.” Dude, did you…finish?
Abbi: [horrified pause] Dude, I raped him. I raped Male Stacy. I’m a monster!
Ilana: Wow wow wow wow wow.
As viewers, we saw how much Male Stacy “wanted it,” so we can understand Abbi’s initial incredulity. But Ilana’s not wrong either: loss of consciousness is loss of consent. The gulf between Abbi and Bill Cosby is a wide one, but it’s not that wide. Cliff Huxtable would never do that. Abbi Abrams would never do that. J-E-L-L-O.
After Abbi makes out with a 16-year old, though, Ilana takes a more forgiving stance toward the whole thing: “You’re a sex offender at worst. Welcome to the club.” We end up, then, with Ilana as the one who was getting it wrong the whole time. (This is reaffirmed when we see Stacy back—happy, horny, but no longer dangerously hot—in Abbi’s apartment.) In the classic sitcom tradition—I Love Lucy, for instance, whose Lucy and Ethel were the unruliest of broads—sometimes one character has a harebrained idea that makes another character behave irrationally for a 30 minute stretch. In this particular sitcom episode, the feminist critique of rape culture is that harebrained idea. I believe Broad City is a feminist show, and I don’t think Abbi’s a rapist in the show’s mind, but the episodic structure that comes into play here asks us—maybe unintentionally—to see Ilana as being a flibbertigibbet about rape.
On the show, Ilana is often the rube. She thinks Mount Rushmore is a naturally occurring phenomenon. She’s never seen The Fugitive. She believes moms who put their babies up for adoption should be able to retrieve them later. So why put a legitimate critique of rape culture in the mouth of Ilana’s hipster doofus? More to the point, though, what’s Broad City doing getting into the ambiguous sexual assault game with Louie and Game of Thrones? What are we supposed to do with Seth Rogen, passed out on the bed?
It’s like the best optical illusion of all time,
I’m doing Abbi’s Bed, Bath, and Beyond dance at you guys to usher in our discussion of Broad City in 2015. Phil, I’m glad you dealt with the weird treatment of “rape culture” in Broad City’s season two premiere, because it baffled me too. You’re right that the show has real feminist cred; Amy Poehler’s involvement makes it hard to take Ilana’s lecture at Lincoln’s birthday as a straightforward sendup of feminists as pseudointellectual killjoys. Still, that was how it read to me the first time through. If Broad City is taking on weightier subject matter this season, that was a confusing start: At best, it was kind of offputting, and the target was unclear. That said, I think the episode as a whole stages—in a way I think is intentional—how terrible we are, and will be, for at least a little longer, at acknowledging the seriousness of male rape and the responsibilities that come with being a “boss bitch” and sexual aggressor.
Here’s what I think is going on with the rape culture shenanigans: Broad City is deepening its engagement with the “unruly women” tradition Anne Helen Petersen described when we were discussing season one. The show’s strength has been its willingness to showcase ill-behaved female stoners, but what happens when unruliness manifests as a sex crime? What are the limits of transgression? It’s an interesting question, and Broad City is addressing a world in which women are juuuuust starting to be understood as being full sexual agents—which implies they are fully capable of sexual assault—and where men are only juuuuust beginning to be understood as capable of being sexually victimized. This is screwy terrain, and the muddle this makes of gender roles is most innocently expressed during Abbi’s ebullient, neverending handshakes with the joyful, possibly gay men of Bed, Bath, and Beyond. (If handshakes are a quintessentially dudely greeting, the execution couldn’t be more femme.)
Confusion is charming on Broad City! Our protagonists are transitioning with all the pleased clumsiness you’d expect of a newly “empowered” demographic, and the effect is—for the most part—pure, stoned fun. Phil pointed out that the girls are oddly safe in Broad City’s version of New York: Someone might steal your air conditioner in broad daylight, but the show opens with a subway scene where the world seems dirty yet unthreatening and men line up in neat rows to avoid being touched. But then Ilana slaps one of those men on the butt, and that’s where the episode’s playfulness edges into questions of sexual assault. At what point does one group’s desire for play, or pleasure, trump another group’s desire for bodily autonomy?
To be clear: There is nothing remotely okay about Abbi “finishing” while Seth Rogen’s character “male Stacy” (there’s that muddled gender stuff again) is unconscious from heat stroke. There just isn’t. But as Phil points out, the tone of the episode, coupled with the fact that Ilana calls this rape (the same Ilana who in the same episode says crazy things about adoption and Mt. Rushmore) invites us to think that maybe … it’s fine. Heyyyyy, it’s just a joke, right? Where’s your sense of humor? If that sounds familiar, it should—it’s what men have been saying to “humorless feminists” for decades, and it’s more or less what Rogen’s character did to Anna Faris’ character in Observe and Report. In this context, it signals two things: 1) that unruly women are advancing into this “Can’t You Take a Joke?” territory where a particular kind of cultural power resides, and 2) that they’d better not stay there too long.
One of the most interesting trends in TV right now is watching stories where women—mostly white, alas, though not always—are “coming to power” in ways that aren’t 100 percent positive. The word “empowerment” has a sunny, anodyne connotation (largely because it’s been associated with women) but in practice, it’s a thrillingly ugly beast. New agency is raw. Sometimes it’s angry. And while it’s true that former underdogs are likely to correct their cruel impulses more quickly, partly because they understand what it’s like to be on the receiving side, they won’t do it immediately, and they won’t do it with perfect moral clarity. There’s a learning curve to empowerment during which the newly powerful will, at least initially, reproduce a lot of their predecessor’s mistakes.
There’s not much anger in Broad City, but there’s plenty of mismanaged slacker affect that exonerates more than it should. That’s part of the show’s fun—it seems to be manifesting as an accelerated, entertainingly crass bildungsroman that reminds me of Judd Apatow’s filmography, especially with Rogen as guest star. The point is: the invitation to absolve Abbi of wrongdoing is real. We’re invited to love Abbi in much the way we’ve been invited to love the hapless male protagonists of yore who bumble their way through the world and sometimes turn a sexual encounter into a rape because they didn’t quite understand consent. Abbi feels terrible about it, after all, and in both cases she overstepped through ignorance, not malice (unlike Ilana, whose decision to slap a man on the butt was deliberate).
In other words, Broad City, at least in the season two premiere, feels strangely retro and dudely in what seems like a faux-critical celebration of unruliness, especially as it pertains to sexual assault. It’s hard to figure out what to make of that, but here’s my weird hypothesis: There’s a tiny bit of time-travel at work here. We’re being invited to look at sexual assault against men not as it’s treated today—with incredulity at the physics of the thing and (if the victim is a minor) brotastic high-fives—nor as it will be treated once our theory finally catches up to our practice, but as it will be treated somewhere in between, before we’ve figured things out. If cultural narratives of male and female agency are on different arcs, so are cultural narratives of male and female sexual assault. In a year or two, our conversation about male victims of sexual assault will have improved, but my guess is male allegations of sexual assault will be treated in much the way female allegations were treated fifteen years ago. Yeah, maybe it kind of happened. Yeah, it was sort of rape. Oh well. The Broads’ unruliness is not cute here. A world where women can discuss whether they’re guilty of sexual assault, decide they are, and blithely move on is (sadly) more advanced than we are now; it’s also obviously still not where we need to be.
That’s a weird reading, I realize. I think it works, though, because this episode is, again, so clearly in dialogue with the famously controversial scene in Observe and Report, in which Seth Rogen has sex with Anna Faris’ character after she passes out. Here, the roles are reversed, with Rogen as the unconscious party. That inversion is Broad City’s intervention—it’s exploring how far role-reversal can go and how long it will take for the same action to be seen the same way—as either black comedy or rape. Asked about that scene in 2009, Anna Faris predicted “a bit of a gender divide”: “I think that some guys can see themselves in Ronnie, and understand him, I guess, and I’m not sure that women will go along with that,” she said. Five years later, Broad City suggests that women can go along with that, and see themselves in Abbi, and understand her.
If this isn’t exactly where we hoped conversations about consent would go, my hope is that Broad City will channel its equal-opportunity thought experiments in ways that clarify rather than reduce, and that Glazer and Jacobson won’t just be to femininity what Apatow was to masculinity. I hope it takes what it does so well–that celebration of stonerhood that approaches petty crime with the joyful breeziness that whiteness confers–and explore the edges of that invincibility. If season one sketched out the delicious territory of unruly womanhood, season two seems a little more interested in its boundaries. I’m hoping BC offers more of the enthusiastic consent that goes into Abbi’s handshakes at Bed, Bath, and Beyond. But if BC gives me an avocado (or a bag of avocados), that could be great too.
Raping rape culture,