Broad City and One-Dimensional Feminism

Broad CityBy Amelia Eskenazi (FGS ’19)

Broad City, a show about two Jewish girls in their mid-twenties living in New York City, has been heralded as a must watch television show for girls and women across the country. Elle has described Broad City as “pushing the boundaries,” while Bustle described the show as “blatantly feminist.” While the show does dispel many of the hyper-sexualized narratives within the media concerning women’s sexuality, the extent of its feminism is very one-dimensional. I will be analyzing Broad City through the lens of transnational feminism, because to claim that Broad City is the ultimate example of feminism is to relegate any form of feminism other than liberal feminism into the background.

Within the first episode of Season Three, “Two Chainz,” one of the two main characters, Ilana, makes a xenophobic comment, claiming she is late because she read an article “about these Saudi women who have to ask their ‘keepers’ permission to leave the house…I was so pissed I had to blow off some steam and masturbate first.”  Many viewers fail to notice the xenophobic nature of the comment due to the overtly sex positive notion of masturbation at the end of the sentence. In “Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival,” Saba Mahmood asserts that “agency, in this form of analysis, is understood as the capacity to realize one’s own interests against the weight of custom, tradition, transcendental will, or other obstacles” (206). This cultural structure in Saudi Arabia is deemed oppressive in the eyes of a white urban woman with the assumption that Saudi Arabian women desire something different than their current position within society. Mahmood continues, “Feminism, therefore, offers both a diagnosis of women’s status across cultures as well as a prescription for changing the situation of women who are understood to be marginal, subordinate, and oppressed” (206). It is assumed that all women desire the same type of liberation as the western, white, urban woman. However, this ignores the complexities of autonomy, as every woman has a different positionality. To assume that all women have the same desires is to ignore the various intersections of identity outside of gender identification. Along these lines, in the “Redstockings Manifesto,” the Redstockings assert that they “will not ask what is ‘revolutionary’ […] only what is good for women” (101). However, this assumes that there is a universal truth for autonomy, rather than acknowledging that what is good for some women may be detrimental for others.

Broad City 2The “Redstockings Manifesto” simplifies the complexities of sexism through the failure to recognize the systematic intersections of race, class, nationality, and sexuality in relation to gender. Similarly, the celebration of Broad City as a feminist television show abridges feminist theory, perpetuating the notion that feminism is simply a validation of women. Although Broad City appears to be progressive due to its celebration of female masturbation and body positivity, it fails to acknowledge the complexities within female identity. We must be critical of the ways in which we willingly label something as feminist. To imply that something is feminist because it insinuates the equality of men and women is to ignore the interlocking systems of domination that coincide with gender oppression as well as disregard the various types of feminism, assuming that all forms of feminism are the same. Broad City can be empowering for women without being rooted in the ideologies of feminism.

6 thoughts on “Broad City and One-Dimensional Feminism

  1. Bitwise says:

    So, to summarize, you’re saying that it’s anti-feminist to suggest that that women are harmed by living in a society that forces them to ask permission from men before leaving the house. Are you saying these Saudi women aren’t being oppressed because, being Arab, maybe they like being treated that way? Don’t be afraid to call out Islamic countries for their oppression of women. If someone calls you racist or “Islamophobic”, so what? Stand up for the women who are being silenced over there. It’s true that there are perfectly acceptable variations between cultures, but no woman wants her human rights to be violated. This is taking cultural relativism way too far.

    • Unfortunately, your summary is incorrect and misses the point of the article. This article is not about the oppression of Saudi women. This article is about white “feminist” discourse about Saudi women. More specifically, in the words of my colleague Dr. Nadia Guessous, “The ways in which people invoke Saudi women as the epitome of oppression is incredible!” This is what this article is problematizing. It is very important that you recognize this critical distinction, if you are willing and able. Finally, yes, we absolutely do care if our actions are deemed Islamaphobic and/or racist, because we care deeply about our comrades who would have the insight to level such critiques and we would never want to do anything to hurt our comrades. –Heidi

      • Samuel Ayers says:

        Women in Saudi Arabia have few economic rights, lack freedom of expression and assembly, and have few legal recourses against domestic violence (which Amnesty International calls “endemic” in Saudi Arabia). Of course we all heard of the woman who was gang raped and sentenced to 200 lashes as punishment for adultery. But god forbid we condemn this horrendous treatment of women in fear of coming across as Islamaphobic. What’s offensive here is not the “xenophobic” comment on a Comedy Central show, but that the idea that being critical of Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women is somehow racist.

  2. hemoglobinz says:

    I don’t really want to be the person who writes the angry response comment to a post on facebook, but I used to go to CC and I am always reading the Feminist and Gender Studies Department’s posts because usually I find them very educational, informative, and important. However, this essay made me extremely frustrated.

    The author, Amelia Eskenazi points out that Elle described broad city as “pushing the boundaries” and Bustle described it as “blatantly feminist.” The reason that the writers of these articles said these things is because they are both true. Broad City pushes the boundaries of what comedy can be, and what women can bring to it (although that was never an issue, but some idiots thought it was), ESPECIALLY since it’s a show on a historically male-dominated network Comedy Central. It might not be a transnationally feminist TV show, but the idea that a show cannot be called feminist just because it does not encompass every form of feminism is absurd. So, I suppose I don’t have a problem with the author categorizing the show as primarily liberal-feminist. However, what I DO have a very big problem with both the assertion that the show makes no effort to be intersectional and with the author’s analysis of the excerpt from season 3, episode 1.

    I don’t want to assume that Eskenazi is not well versed in comedy or this show, because that would be extremely condescending, but the way that they write about this line from the episode really suggests that they did not understand the purpose of the line comedically (is that a word? Microsoft Word says no, but I say yes. Oh well) or the purpose of Ilana’s characterization at all. The line about “these Saudi women who have to ask their ‘keepers permission to leave the house’” is completely oversimplified and decontextualized because, as Ilana says, she has only seen one documentary about the issue. Then, right after her rant about the Saudi women, they discover that the restaurant where they’re eating brunch has taken the bottomless mimosas off the menu, and start ranting about how people need to know how unfair the world is. If the comedic purpose of Ilana’s initial rant here isn’t obvious, then I’m not sure how to make it more so: the show’s writers are obviously extremely self-aware of the hypocrisies and eye roll-inducing aspects of white millennial culture. The girls’ outrage about the bottomless mimosas plays directly against Ilana’s rant comedically, showcasing Ilana’s ignorance and the over-simplicity of her statements about Saudi women. How could the author have possibly believed that the purpose of this line is to imply that the Broad City writers want the viewers to think that Saudi women want something different than their current position within society?

    In fact, this season Ilana’s ignorance has been addressed a seemingly endless number of times in the show. I can think of two examples off the top of my head: one is when Abbi told Ilana in season one’s “The Lockout” “Sometimes you’re so anti-racist that you’re actually like, really racist.” Another is in season three’s “Rat Pack,” when Jaime explains to Ilana that a lot of her behavior and her earrings that say “Latina” are a form of cultural appropriation. I’m not going to say that the show gets a 10/10 on cultural awareness, since it IS a show created, written by, and starring two white women, but I think that it makes far greater an effort to be culturally sensitive than Eskenazi gives it credit for. Eskenazi, in their analysis, writes that Broad City “assumes that there is a universal truth for autonomy, rather than acknowledging that what is good for some women may be detrimental for others.” I completely disagree with that. Over and over again in the show, Abbi and Ilana stand out in their complete acceptance of the lifestyles of the people around them – people, who, I would like to note, are, at least to some extent, fairly culturally, racially, and sexually diverse; ESPECIALLY for a cable television program. When they are ignorant, their lack of awareness of the world outside of their own is played as a comedic look at the cultural insensitivity of white feminism. I truly don’t believe that anyone heard Ilana’s rant and was thought that the writers’ intent was to convince us as viewers that Saudi women lead terrible lives and need to be saved. I do believe that everyone heard Ilana’s rant and thought that Ilana was being ridiculous, silly, oversimplified, and a little dumb at times – which is part of the core of her character.

    As a really quick last point, I want to clarify that I absolutely do not believe that Broad City is a groundbreaking show in regards to transnational feminism. It says almost nothing about the subject at all, in fact; probably because it is an absurdist, surreal comedy whose focus is entirely on the friendship, lives, and personalities of Ilana and Abbi along with their roommates, friends, and coworkers, all of whom are represented in a far more progressive light than, I would argue, about 95% of American television shows on the air today. Broad City’s creators/co-stars have actually said in interviews that they believe the idea that their show is groundbreaking in regards to race in particular is ridiculous, since they’re two white Jewish women – they are not a diverse pair. But that absolutely does not mean that the show does not make genuine efforts to support intersectional feminism, and I think that using one quotation form the show to make a broad statement about their failure to address the intersections of race, class, nationality, and sexuality in relation to gender is both unfair and also, when applied to the show as a whole, largely false. I apologize that this was so long, but I felt very passionately about this and wanted to type a fully-formed response. By all means, I could be missing the mark, but I suppose I’ll never know unless I post this response.

    • Thank you for reading and I can appreciate you sharing your thoughts about Amelia’s essay both here and on the FemGeniuses website!

      However, I want to point out that calling the show “feminist” is a serious problem for the reasons Amelia addresses. Specificity matters in every intellectual space, including ours, even though most people are unwilling or unable to extend that care and delicacy to our (feminist) work. This is something that I teach fervently in my feminist theory classes, and I appreciate Amelia doing this very important work on the front lines to demand that the complexities and specifics of our work be recognized and appreciated.

      Also, feminist theory has always been self-reflexively critical. Hence, I appreciate that Amelia (a first-year student) is able to do that work even when it requires them to be critical of a show that they actually watch and enjoy (for the most part).

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