Friends — till magnetic testicles do us part

Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson in a scene from Broad City's Season 3 episode "Getting There." Photo Credit: Comedy Central

Seconds before Donald Trump begins his inauguration as president, Broad City’s Abbi and Ilana recite their mantra for surviving the presumed coming apocalypse. “Remember what we learned in Krav Maga,” Abbi reminds Ilana in a frantic voice over a FaceTime call. “Eyes, nose, throat, kneecaps, groins, feet! Eyes, nose, throat, kneecaps, groins, feet!”

As Trump swears his presidential oath on two bibles, his family bible and that of Abraham Lincoln, Abbi is stuck in a broken elevator and Ilana spirals into a panicked state, because “It’s about to get I Am Legend up in here!” They go through their checklist. Abbi: “Do you have mace?” Ilana: “Do you have your butterfly knife?” Their joint theatrical meltdown in a promotional video ahead of Broad City’s fourth season premiere in August, was released shortly before Trump’s actual swearing-in ceremony on 20 January this year. The duo’s three-minute-long return after more than a year since the Season Three finale aired, smacks of foul-mouthed disgust for the new president (“women-hating, daughter-fucking, Twitter bitch!“) as well as pointing to the need for a friend to face the end of the world with. United in their tactless absurdity, Ilana and Abbi’s survival seems a safe bet.

Like their characters, the show’s creators, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, are best friends. Broad City debuted as a web series in 2009 before it was picked up by Comedy Central for a scripted show in 2014. The show relays the ins and outs of their daily lives in New York. In both web and scripted-show form, Glazer and Jacobson have juxtaposed Broad City against other shows that play for laughs through stories of friendship and they have done so with an inspiring disregard for other approaches. They take ownership and invalidate the generally offensive understanding of the word “broad” when used in reference to a woman. What’s more, they not only subvert the common reference to promiscuity, but also promiscuity as something debauched. Ilana and Abbi claim the term as part of the show’s title and redefine ‘broad’ as a woman who goes after what she wants as best she can. And if said woman then has to wear a heavy-duty bike chain around her waist for an entire day, because she accidently dropped the key into a sewer, and later gets stuck on an art installation of massive magnetic testicles, well, so be it.

The show clearly embeds itself in a political world, but the feminist messages and political commentary don’t make up the ostensive storyline of any given episode. They take a backseat to the pepped-up friendship between these two broads — even in the face of a Donald Trump-apocalypse, BFF’s come first.

Glazer and Jacobson have publicly termed their show feminist, and though The Wall Street Journal described it as “sneak attack feminism,” both regard their approach to be flagrant. And yes, they are brazen, but the WSJ might have a point. The show clearly embeds itself in a political world, but the feminist messages and political commentary don’t make up the ostensive storyline of any given episode. They take a backseat to the pepped-up friendship between these two broads — even in the face of a Donald Trump-apocalypse, BFF’s come first.

In stark contrast, a show like Gossip Girl (2007–2012), lures viewers with the entertainment value of female friendship fracas, rife with nastiness and spite. Much of this CW show’s plot extrapolates the conflict-ridden friendship between rich lassies Serena and Blair. While Blair runs a pack of mean girls, Serena gets the boys, providing an endless source of storylines brimming with jealousy, betrayal and catfights that exploit what the American feminist writer Roxane Gay refers to in her book, Bad Feminist, as the “cultural myth that all female friendships must be bitchy, toxic, or competitive.” The film critic Roger Ebert, in his review of the 2004 teen movie Sleepover, described this hoary depiction as “a rule of nature that all American high schools are ruled by a pack of snobs, led by a supremely confident young woman who is blonde, superficial, catty, and ripe for public humiliation. This character is followed by two friends who worship her, and are a little bit shorter.” Replace blonde with the dark brown color of Blair’s hair and Ebert has sketched the basic premise of Gossip Girl’s first couple of seasons. The mean girl “myth,” as Gay expresses it, “is like heels and purses — pretty but designed to SLOW women down.”

On the other side of the spectrum lies the relationship between Lucy and Ethel in the top-rated CBS sitcom I Love Lucy (1951 to 1957), which points to a different dynamic — that of a friendship divided into the roles of an alpha and a loyal beta. Though heartwarming and part of the reason for the show’s enduring veneration, Ethel’s role of best friend was to be Lucy’s voice of reason, keeping her mischievous antics in check. While Lucy (portrayed by Lucille Ball) zealously pursued her dreams of fame — and drove her husband up the wall — Ethel dutifully supported her. This skewed balance meant viewers hardly ever saw Ethel’s devotion reciprocated in equal measure. The sitcom, as well as Ball’s performance as Lucy, however, proved to be integral to the growth of female comedy. Ball’s legacy as a pioneer of TV comedy continues to be a profound influence on the genre, and also on the female-led stories that emerge. While the depiction of Lucy and Ethel’s friendship had its shortcomings, it still revolutionized the form, creating a foundation for women — like Glazer and Jacobson — to build upon.

Female friendships on television have mostly varied only insofar as they’ve stayed true to a framework of two main tropes that perpetuate lopsided relationships. Broad City, however, breaks away from depictions of relational aggression, colloquially known as “mean girl behavior” marked by gossip and social banishment, á la Gossip Girl, as well as the wing-woman friendship depicted by Ethel and Lucy and by Carrie and Co. on Sex and the City. Though Ilana and Abbi are wildly different, the show places them on equal footing and neither fills a secondary role in relation to the other. Between them no such thing as TMI exists. Lines like “Who would you rather have go down on you — Michael Bublé or Janet Jackson?” and “You just pulled a bag of pot out of your vagina,” pepper the Broad City script. When Ilana goes into anaphylactic shock after eating shellfish at a restaurant, Abbi carries her out, roaring the entire way. In another episode, Ilana fashions a makeshift tampon for Abbi after she unexpectedly gets her period on an airplane.

Abbi and Ilana are each other’s ride-or-die comrades. They love each other almost obsessively, with more than a tinge of homo-eroticism. This neither complicates or negates their ardent friendship and instead, somewhat surprisingly, defies a commonplace notion ­– though one that is mostly referenced in female/male relationships — that sexual attraction undermines platonic friendships. Ilana makes no secret of her sexual desire for Abbi and especially reveres the latter’s behind (“an undiscovered genius with an ass of an angel.”) Early on in the first season, Ilana describes how her perfect evening with Abbi would end in a sex position called the Arc de Triomphe (“two guys going down on us at the same time while we do Oprah hands.”)

What’s more, even though the two are exceptionally close (Ilana has no qualms about chatting with Abbi over FaceTime while having sex with her partner, Lincoln), their relationship does not backslide into dependency. Even in popular positive friendship portrayals, for instance of the foursome in Sex and the City (on HBO from 1998 to 2004), the line blurs between a depiction of Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda as supportive of each other, and a depiction of them as rotating stand-ins for a lost lover. Their supposed closeness can mask and perpetuate a notion that women can’t be independent and need to be propped up by someone — regardless of that someone’s gender.

Their supposed closeness can mask and perpetuate a notion that women can’t be independent and need to be propped up by someone — regardless of that someone’s gender.

Female friendships on TV are by and large not representative of friendships in real life, but there is something in Broad City’s uncouth qualities — from the constant rapid-fire expletives to the duping of an airport security guard and his drug-detector dog with jeans stained in old period blood to hide the weed in Ilana’s “nature’s pocket” — that transcends the glossy veneer of fiction. Perhaps Glazer and Jacobson’s real-life friendship has transferred to the screen so absolutely that it allows for their characters’ rash and crass behavior to play out as relatable even though it borders on — and frequently crosses beyond — the absurd.