Brown Broads, White TV

Brown Broads, White TV
KYLA WAZANA TOMPKINS: Rebecca, here’s why I wanted to write this with you: I had a moment on Facebook when I realized that almost everyone I know (and love) loves Broad City, and I hate it. You and I are feminists and professors and women of color — differently situated in all of those categories — and we’ve also bonded as fellow lovers of forms of television that are not imagined to be “for” those demographics. We both watched Banshee for instance, and we both love Longmire, though I don’t want to be too reductive about what kind of person watches what. So why do I find Broad City — which many feminists and academics love — so off-putting?

A few themes I want to hit on here: respectability, abjection, comedy, envy.

REBECCA WANZO: I often say that I’m a “genre whore” — I am capable of loving all kinds of genres. But I have a particular affection for popular culture made by and for women. Broad City certainly fits into that category. More specifically, I think it is part of an emergent late-20th- and early-21st-century genre. This fall, the University of Illinois Press will release the awesomely titled Cupcakes, Pinterest, and LadyPorn: Feminized Popular Culture in the Early 21st Century, an edited collection about trends in “women’s” genres and media consumption. Suzanne Ferriss discusses “the precariat of chick lit,” the white, college-educated protagonists of books (and now films) such as Bridget Jones’s Diary, Confessions of a Shopaholic, and The Devil Wears Prada, who are struggling to find their places professionally in the precarious economy.

Television has an interesting “precariat of chick TV,” right now — Girls, 2 Broke Girls, and Broad City, the latter actually being the first, as it appeared as a webseries in 2009. These shows have more of a male audience than the books, probably because they turn much more on raunchy humor.

I was writing about Girls and Issa Rae’s The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl when someone told me that I just HAD to watch Broad City. I don’t love it. Wanted to love it. But I don’t.

I’m completely on the side of these women who have managed to parlay their webshow into a series, with some woman producing power from Amy Poehler. More of that, please. Nevertheless, something about the way their characters’ economic precarity is played for laughs is a little annoying at times — perhaps because it turns on their being middle-class and white. Poverty, struggle, and comedy have long gone together. But I think I enjoy such comedy more when it turns on the idea that nobody should live like this, vs. the idea that specific types of people shouldn’t live like this.

Cleaning toilets is Broad City’s example par excellence. A running joke is that Abbi, one of the two central characters, wants to be a trainer at the gym where she works, but she is cleaning staff and is always being sent to clean gross stuff in the toilets. Except for people with such a fetish — and I’m totally not judging — few people love cleaning toilets, particularly ones that are not their own. Abbi always asks to do other things, but she was hired, clearly, to be cleaning staff. So the joke seems to turn on her constant disappointment, but also on the abjection in her cleaning toilets.

Some people spend much of their lives cleaning up after others. Many of them are working poor, working class, immigrants, and people of color. So the show’s joke relies on the idea that people who clean are not, should not be, people like Abbi.

One of the major principles of what makes something comedic is incongruity, which has traditionally meant a lot of things, but often means something combining the nonnormative with the normative, or unexpected behavior or responses with the everyday. The “joke” of Abbi’s toilet cleaning demonstrates how many examples of comedic incongruity have disparagement of others hidden within the joke. “Precariat chick TV” seems to turn more than a bit on how incongruent it is for white girls to live demeaning lives. So when people like me are accused of being oversensitive when we don’t like some forms of comedy, we are often being criticized for not being drawn in by comedy that makes fun of people like us, or people we love, or people we think should get more respect.

KWT: Right. I had the same response: I wanted to like the show and then I watched the first episode and hated it. I mean, I had this full-bodied revulsion for it. The first episode opens with Ilana FaceTiming with Abbi while Ilana has sex with her on-again, off-again black lover and Abbi masturbates with a vibrator. Then Abbi and Ilana spend the episode scrounging for money and searching for drugs. And what got to me about that most of all was the memory of living like that in my teens and twenties: on the financial edge, and of never knowing whether it was going to end.

The most intense moment for me was when they return all of these office products, hoping to get money, but instead they get a gift card they can only use in the store. It stressed me out! But for them, and for the audience, it’s comic. And the thing is: it’s only if you experience poverty or abjection as a state that you are going to move through, or that doesn’t adhere to your own body or your value in the world, that you can find comedy in that.

RAW: And yet comedy is often about shame, right? Ben Stiller in Meet the Parents — it’s constant shame. In John Limon’s Stand-up Comedy in Theory, or, Abjection in America, he talks about Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Ellen DeGeneres, and others who used their positions as marginalized people (Jewish, black, queer) in crafting a humor of the abject. There’s tons of comedy that turns on shame and on the idea of being mired in an otherness that repels — shame some people can identify with. So do you fail to laugh at all comedy that turns on shame? All comedy that turns on the shame related to identity (poor, black, etc.)?

KWT: Well, that’s what I want to plumb. Okay, so for instance: the scene in Meet the Parents when Ben Stiller is staying at his waspy in-laws and he comes downstairs for breakfast in his pajamas and the in-laws are all dressed up, twin sets and everything, made me laugh so hard I cried. It is SO about being Jewish in a wasp world. But, the thing is, Stiller inhabits it as a Jew and the shame factor subtends the scene — it’s subtle, neither a shaming of him nor of his parents, and yet underlining their entire relationship.

Another scene about shame that made me laugh until I cried, that still does: the scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding when Andrea Martin tells her niece’s future waspy in-laws about the tumor/twin in her neck: OMG. I return to that scene over and over to watch their disgust and Martin’s sincere attempt to build closeness with them, via her shameless pleasure in illness. She’s doing everything wrong: talking about reproduction, surgery, cancer, and, best of all, finding a dead twin inside her own body. And as she does so, they sort of retreat their chins until their heads are almost entirely retracted from her: and then they have to do shots of ouzo! For me the humor in these two scenes doesn’t require the viewer to inhabit any particular role, even though the sense of abjection adheres to the ethnic others. But it does so with a kind of sweetness that makes the humor in the joke a bit more egalitarian. Everyone is just doing their best to talk to each other.

The bawdiness of Broad City is broad and extreme, for sure — all the vomit and intoxication for instance — but I think it’s the extremeness of it that initially alienated me. The show imagines abjection as a form of movement from self, as liberatory for these two young women. So in that sense, what is liberatory for them — to explore abjection, to be openly perverse in their desires, to, as you say, live precariously — is funny because its broadness (the second “broad” in Broad City) makes it not a norm for them. The jokes make perversity not normal without making present the people for whom such perversity is a norm. And in fact at the end of most episodes — and here, the seriality of the form helps them — Abbi and Ilana return from extremity back to “normal,” having had a kind of holiday from self.

But in fact, perversity — the queerness of poverty, of race, of alterity — is more often experienced as everyday and inescapable. It can be beautiful and a form of commonality, but it also sinks deep into you and leaves scars that look and smell and feel like a kind of shame you can’t shake off. Not that I’m always a fan of “pride” narratives either.

Shifting topics: the minstrelsy of the show also bugs me — they’re always ventriloquizing blackness. So much of the comedy — especially Ilana’s comedy — comes from racial impersonation. That scene that opens the show in which Ilana actually has her lover inside of her — it’s so wrong it’s funny, right? But then too it makes him into something instrumental, just like Abby’s vibrator. The show isn’t uncritical of that maybe?

Here’s something I want to ask you: what is your relationship to television that fails to imagine your presence, either as spectator or participant?

RAW: Here’s the thing — I don’t feel like television always needs to imagine my presence. In fact, part of the pleasure of consumption for me can be entering a space that is so wholly different from my own. Pride and Prejudice has nothing to do with my life, but give me a good British period piece and it’s like catnip. At the same time, I also get deep pleasure from shows that can imagine me. I think consumption is often about what you relate to and what you don’t, and that balance is at the heart of the different desires people have when they watch TV. One of the problems with Hollywood producers is that they both fail to imagine that otherness is what people might want, and also can underestimate what varied people might find recognizable. At the same time, we have some evidence that many folks (whites AND people of color) reject shows starring people of color. I don’t know what the calculus is, but the market for what is “like us” and what is “not us” strikes me as pretty complicated.

So what I hate more is when people do people of color badly on TV. Spare me the sassy black friend with no plot. I loved Fringe, but the black chick in the lab, Astrid, had NO STORY in FIVE YEARS, except when they brought her in from a parallel universe. So in five years, this very attractive woman has no lovers, no friends, no desires for career advancement, no life except for one mention of a dad. Her sole relationship was with one other character, to whom she was supposedly “like family” but who took years to get her name right and often treated her like crap — which the show treated like a joke because he was emotionally troubled, but brilliant and sweet? Whatever.

KWT: Right. For instance, Banshee. I mean, that show is just extreme! I’m right at home with the mediocrity of Cinemax, and would have to admit that I usually dig the violence and the nudity. I’m not a prude! So it’s not the scandal of Broad City that bothers me. There’s a trans Asian character in Banshee, Job, who is just fabulous — fierce. She’s not done badly, as you say, though not uncomplicated. I also love a British period piece, though sometimes too much time with white womanhood gets on my nerves.

Which takes me back to Broad City. The “Knockoffs” episode is one I liked a lot more than the other episodes I’ve seen. But I was still troubled by the portrayal of Asianness: ugh. Someone who was watching with me claimed the show makes as much fun of Jewishness as it does of Asianness, and it’s true that the episode is about every offensive idea of Jewish women you could possibly imagine. I totally laughed at that. But I guess — and by the way the Asian characters in that episode totally call to mind the Asian male character Mr. Chow in The Hangover movies — it’s the sense of excessive affect, of indulgence, of potential for animated over-the-topness that attaches itself to nonwhite people in Broad City, the way that nonwhites literally lead the white Jewish characters into the sewer, that doesn’t let me rest with the show. I want to understand: why does abjection signify freedom for white people?

Can I ask you to delve into that “whatever” that you ended your last bit with? And into the feeling of “what I hate more”? I want to talk about how sad I feel when I see the same failures of imagination over and over again. And then also, how let down by the world I feel when entire communities of friends and colleagues and work acquaintances love a show and don’t notice those failures. Or get a whole bunch of stuff out of the show that I either won’t or can’t.

I don’t want to be a party pooper, and I love what you said about these two amazingly brilliant young women and the work that they are doing in Broad City. But I feel sad that I don’t get to experience those pleasures.

I also wonder about the question of the politics of respectability: the pressure to keep things tight, to be better than, to not let your slip show, to never ever relax the facade for a moment. What lost pleasures are attached to that?

I wonder how this attaches to the “sassy” thing you mention. Sassiness is a particular comic mode attached to black womanhood: Harriet Beecher Stowe calls her black cooks “sarcy.” It reminds me that comedy has many forms, not all of them wonderful, even when they seem to mask as forms of social power (like being “sassy” but not being fully realized or empowered). I haven’t read enough about comedy, but I’ve been sort of thinking about the political work that comedy can do that nothing else can do — the work that Jon Stewart’s show did for us during the Bush years, for instance, when nothing else made any sense. Do you have any ideas about what you want comedy to be? Or what you think it can do, politically, emotionally? I’m trying to figure this out and have no good answers yet. But it does seem to underline our conversation.

RAW: Well a lot of the freedom that white culture imagines will come through associating with people of color can be traced through minstrelsy (not just blackface, but certainly other racial stereotypes). Susan Douglas talks about the love of the sassy black woman by white audiences, arguing that these characters can express a freedom that white women cannot. Whereas, even when I like the black woman who speaks her mind, I am consciously aware of peril. I have to suspend my disbelief that she will not be punished.

I liked “Knockoffs,” too. For me the pleasure in that episode was the cool relationship between Ilana and her mother. I have liked a number of elements of Broad City. I just don’t love it. Back to my “whatever”: I am more bothered by failure than absence. So I am okay with accepting a show on its own terms, but when it depends on representations that get on my nerves — unnecessarily so, I think — then I take issue. I understand when people love something, I am just annoyed when they don’t or won’t see that they are loving something that might be racist or sexist or classist. Pleasures are not pure.

Take American Horror Story. Lots of people love it. I can’t stand that the show so often depends on sexual violence to organize the plot. Rape sets the plot in motion for at least the first three seasons. When I tell people that, they usually acknowledge, “yeah,” and can understand why lots of people might find that offensive. And I want more of that — more of people recognizing that distaste for their show isn’t an indictment of them, and that when people fail to take pleasure in something someone else loves, it isn’t a moral failure.

We have a lot of regulation in our taste cultures — not liking something can be seen as an indictment of people who do take pleasure in it. And people often want to make the argument that the thing they love is objectively good, and thus that the people who don’t love it are somehow deficient. Criticism is about exploring the minutiae of what makes something good — writing, directing, acting, set design, etc. — and we should pay attention to these conversations, because there are things that shows substantively do well, or better than other shows, or films, or books that have come before. But sometimes, despite the quality, it just isn’t for us.

So there is a lot to love in Broad City, and a lot that is good. Just less for me, perhaps, than for some other people.


Kyla Wazana Tompkins is the author of Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the Nineteenth Century.

Rebecca Wanzo is the author of The Suffering Will Not Be Televised: African American Women and Sentimental Political Storytelling.

LARB Contributors

Rebecca Wanzo is Professor and Chair of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of The Suffering Will Not Be Televised: African American Women and Sentimental Political Storytelling and The Content of Our Caricature: African American Comic Art and Political Belonging. Her research interests include African American literature, history, and culture; theories of affect; popular culture (particularly the history of popular genre fiction and graphic storytelling in the U.S.); critical race theory; and feminist theory.
Kyla Wazana Tompkins teaches at Pomona College. She has written about food, race, and culture as a journalist and scholar for over 20 years.  


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