'Broad City' Gave Us the Loser Women We Needed
Loserdom is a universal state of being, yet it’s traditionally been played by straight, white men, for whom failure has the lowest stakes.
Photo by Cara Howe, courtesy of Comedy Central
Broad City first took form in 2009 as a series of shorts on YouTube. They starred Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, two budding comedians with a flair for jokes that struck the delicate balance between self-deprecation and overconfidence.
Each episode dealt with a Seinfeld-ian topic, like asking a homeless person to make change, or dating a guy for his apartment’s in-unit laundry. Its evolution into a half hour–long Comedy Central series in 2014 saw the Abbi and Ilana characters deepen and broaden. Viewers got a better sense that Ilana was the voyeuristic, politically conscious, Cash Money Records–devoted one, while Abbi was slightly more sensible, with artistic aspirations and an Oprah tramp stamp. Both characters—who were queer, crass, occasionally partook in recreational drugs, and ever-scheming—debunked socio-normative roles of how some may believe young Jewish women from middle-class backgrounds should behave.
This breadth was the pair's intention from the outset of the show. “I feel like the word ‘broad’ [means] 'this full woman [who] knows their stuff, knows what they want and their limits, and is doing the best they can,'” Glazer said in a 2013 interview with the Broad City producer, Amy Poehler.
In keeping with that range, Abbi and Ilana, in their unglamorous hedonism and chronic directionlessness, are also allowed to be big, fat losers. It takes Abbi until the end of the second season to get a promotion from her job at Soulstice (a parody of SoulCycle) snaking pubes out of a locker room shower, and Ilana doesn’t seem to have any professional aspirations beyond not getting fired at fictional sales company Deals! Deals! Deals! (she still does get fired, by the way).
Like a modern-day Laverne & Shirley, Abbi and Ilana are women who sort of have an idea of what they might want in life, but have terrible aim in their perpetual search for it. Their mode of being is the lifestyle equivalent of being so excited to pitch at your little league game then, when your big moment comes, driving a clunker of a throw straight into the fucking dirt.
Broad City represents a different, more realistic kind of femininity than what we’ve seen in film and TV for over 30 years, since the aforementioned Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams–led show. Their essential loserdom is what made them so relatable. Loserdom does not discriminate: Regardless of your gender, sexuality, race, or age, there is always the looming threat of failing miserably. Considering the dire job market, subsequent poor standard of living, and burnout, being a millennial might, for many of us, inevitably mean being a loser.
Though loserdom is a universal state of being, it’s traditionally been played by straight white men, for whom failure has the lowest stakes. There are so many iconic stupid-and-uncool-but-lovable male protagonists: Wayne and Garth from Wayne’s World, Bill and Ted from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Charlie and Mac from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Even the guys from Workaholics—the show whose shoes Comedy Central originally intended Broad City to fill—may have wormed their way into the Loser Hall of Fame. They’re all dumb, they hate their jobs (if they have one at all), they’re not characterized as hot, and they generally have no interest in doing anything other than have a good time.
Prior to Broad City, the recent canon of iconic female losers was probably limited to Dee from Always Sunny and the titular Romy and Michele of Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. Each of these characters openly want what women are supposed to want—to be hot and cool and loved—but their failure to attain those things makes them relatable, instead of the butt of the joke. (Regarding their alleged unattractiveness, nota bene: All of these women are, in reality, actually extremely foxy, even if the other characters in their respective universes don't seem to think so.) These characters are a welcome break from female characters elsewhere in movies and on TV who don't meet the traditional standards of "hot" and "cool," and are instead sad and, like, sitting at home on a Friday night eating cheese in a Notorious RBG T-shirt.
These characters' motivations are usually not based in any sort of personal growth, but, rather, whatever hijinx they’re currently getting into—be it dressing in businesswoman clothing and telling their high school classmates they invented Post-Its, or trying to Parent Trap their required hours at a co-op. If they allocated the effort used to concoct their schemes to actually avoiding the problems in the first place, they’d have a much easier go of it. But where’s the fun in that?
As Jacobson said of the show’s universe in a 2016 interview with FLARE: “It’s a place where every little thing is a struggle, but it’s full of hope and joy and fun, and that’s the motivation for everything.”
It wasn’t its job to, but Broad City had a big hand in proving female-led comedies could be mainstream for Generation Z. What’s just as important is that they showed that women don’t have to be everything to everyone all at once—or beat themselves down by the fact that they can’t be. To paraphrase Nicki Minaj, women are “human beeeeings.” Women are allowed to be directionless and have a desire to be cool despite ourselves; we’re allowed to be total fucking idiots. Ultimately, all that counts is that you have fun.