- "Theses on the Dance Moves of Ilana Glazer," from Phillip Maciak
- "The Unruly Stoner Girl: What Makes Broad City so Radical," from Anne Helen Petersen
Theses on the Dance Moves of Ilana Glazer
By Phillip Maciak
April 2, 2014
This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
– “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Walter Benjamin
IS BROAD CITY’S ILANA GLAZER the Angelus Novus of whom Walter Benjamin speaks? She does nineties hip-hop dances wearing a tuxedo in the back of a moving van that her boyfriend drives irresistibly into the future. Is this not the storm of progress itself? And are not the catastrophes she grinds away from — the break-ups, the pass-outs, the dumps taken in shoes, the thwarted orgies, the pepper spray incidents, the misplaced dogs, the shellfish edging — are these not the catastrophes that, reaching skyward, comprise history itself?
Probably not. This is a nonsense Walter Benjamin reference, but that fact that this GIF made me think of this passage — even if it doesn’t make any sense — suggests that Broad City is doing something really remarkable. Benjamin’s angel of history is one of the most evocative images that critical theory has ever provided to help us make sense of the world. If there were a technology capable of making GIFs of theoretical concepts, the angel of history would be the first.
Broad City is in the business of producing deep images, too. This show isn’t about history or progress or anything like that — except inasmuch as it tracks the rake’s progress of these two “unruly” women, as Annie put it. And this is not to say that Broad City isn’t chockablock with great jokes, absurdist satire, striking moments of sentimentality, or actual real insights about love, sex, friendship, labor, New York City, money, race, drugs, and feminism. It is to say, though, that something special is happening whenever Ilana Glazer busts a move, and I’m going to spend a few words here thinking about what that is.
A lot of critics have pointed out that both Glazer and Jacobson are phenomenal physical comedians. Glazer’s particular métier is dancing. (I promise I’m going to dial down the pretentiousness on this post very soon. Very soon.) But Broad City is not a musical comedy. Her dancing is not a part of the content of the show. She does not do choreographed dances to symbolize her triumph over the small anxieties of youth a la Stephanie Tanner. And, despite the fact that many of her moves — and outfits — are copped directly from the oeuvre of the In Living Color “Fly Girls,” her dancing is not used to transition between sequences of the show. Instead, dancing — hypnotic, mostly inappropriate gyration — is a part of her ordinary movement, if you can call any movement that consists of so many neck rolls ordinary. For a show without much soundtrack music, she seems to move to her own internal rhythm. Ilana Glazer is a dancer of tourettic, improvisatory joy. Miss Glazer, if you’re nasty.
This constant movement makes Broad City fascinating to watch. I don’t mean this in a banal sense. I mean that you can’t take your eyes off of this show because the rules of regular human motion might at any point be gleefully violated. There are no wasted movements on this program — every step has the potential to go a different way, to diverge from its expected course, to punctuate a joke with a madcap follow-through. And as much as the show is anchored by the frustrated mutterings and belly flops of Abbi Jacobson or by Glazer’s Aladdinesque range of goofy voices, it’s the charm and surprise of the dancing that reels me in. This is more than just a show about two young women in New York; it’s about the hilarious and engrossing ways they fill out every space they occupy.
In his essay on slapstick comedy, “Pie and Chase: Gag, Spectacle, and Narrative,” the film scholar Donald Crafton talks about the opposition between gag and narrative — between the pie in the face (gag) and the chase (narrative) — in silent cinema. The gag is the opposite of narrative. It is an element that actively seeks to assail narrative logic. When we are witnessing the gag, we are witnessing a rupture of narrative film.
It’s not an exact comparison, but the spectacle of Ilana Glazer dancing in Broad City has, I think, a similar effect. Occasionally, she moves in the service of narrative — when she demonstrates to the DJs why she wants to hear “nineties hip-hop” or when she chickens her neck faux-seductively to attract men at the club — but just as often, the dancing is about resisting the narrative momentum of the show. In the GIF at the top of the page, Ilana dances for balance but also to escape, momentarily, the forward pull of the plot.
It was my mistake a number of weeks ago to say that Broad City was a sketch show. I was misled by the vignette structure of the first episode and by the biographical detail that Abbi and Ilana are improv comedians. The show is a narrative show, it moves in a linear fashion. But — as both a show about stoners and a show influenced by hallucinatory directors from David Lynch to Darren Aronofsky to Spike Lee — it’s also interested in stretching narrative until it’s almost unrecognizable. Abbi’s visit to East Brother Island is surreal parody, almost the entirety of “Apartment Hunters” exists in an exaggerated New York where real estate agents show you railroad-style apartments with no bathrooms and tell you to use a catheter instead, and the show’s point of view is often clouded by weed and coke. If these jaunts are meant to warp and distort the world of the show, Ilana’s movements warp and distort the show at the level of the gesture.
The first Broad City episode I ever encountered was from the days when it was a web series. The episode was Abbi and Ilana’s homage to Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, specifically the symphony of angry-dancing performed by Rosie Perez over the opening credits. The bit is funny both because Abbi and Ilana have Rosie’s moves down pat, but also because they manage to capture both the absurdity and the sincerity of the original sequence. Broad City is nodding to the aesthetic of this film, to its sweaty picture of Brooklyn, to its swooping camera work, to its evocation of the tight social quarters of contemporary America, but it’s also nodding to the way that even ridiculous, hyperbolic movement can be expressive. They’re making fun of it, but only, it seems, because they admire how boldly it does what it does. Like the films of Spike Lee, Broad City is about both an idea and a feeling. The camera sees both.
Which brings us to 90s hip-hop. Ilana Glazer is such a funny fit in every space — every space she has to wiggle and bounce in and out of — because she’s a time traveller from the 1990s? The style, the braid, the taste, she’s bitten so hard on the current retro desire for the Clinton Era that she feels like an anachronism. She doesn’t just need music. She needs 90s hip-hop.
Ilana is constantly desirous of connection, and her dancing is an expression of that. Ilana is as sexually forward and explicit as any of her obvious sexually forward New York forebears (more on those GIRLS below), and both her individual storylines and interactions with Abbi reflect this. She spends an entire episode on the hunt for “pink dick,” one of her main character notes is her standing, experimental(?) lust for Abbi, and when she tells Lincoln that their relationship is purely physical, it reads as both a tempering of Lincoln’s expectations and a celebration of just how purely physical their relationship is. The first scene of the series features Abbi and Ilana on a Skype chat. Ilana bobs and weaves on the screen as usual, but it’s not until the end of the segment that we realize she’s having sex with Lincoln while talking to her friend, tricking her into a virtual threesome. Her grinding is not just an idle threat.
But it is so often idling! How many times in Broad City is Ilana dancing alone? How many times is she attempting to create connection by dancing by herself? Her dancing implies a partner, calls out for a partner, and how many times have you given a little neck roll along with her? Be honest. I’ve done it maybe twice.
You know who else does that?
The other thing to say about Ilana Glazer’s dancing — and this comes back around to Crafton’s idea that the gag cannot be contained by narrative — is that it actively resists the world she occupies. She’s finding a groove, but she’s also dodging bullets, ducking under boundaries. Throughout the series, we come to know Ilana as someone who is — in terms of gender and sexuality — at least moderately fluid, and her dancing is a constant performance of that fluidity. Her physical body mirrors her philosophical position. She insists, despite Abbi’s objections, on saying that she’s “hard” instead of “horny,” she spends much of the “Destination: Wedding” episode dressed as a drag king in a tuxedo and tight bun, she has elaborate sexual fantasies about Abbi including a maneuver called the Arc de Triomph and a much more graphically adult version of “parallel play,” and she expresses her ideal of a post-racial, sexually non-normative future in this way: “In three generations, gentrification is gonna be a non-issue because, statistically, we’re headed toward an age where everybody’s going to be, like, caramel and queer.”
She says this a few moments before being maced in the face for breaking into her Latino neighbors’ home, but it still stands as a sincere, if preposterous, statement of purpose. Ilana is a character who revels in her own fluidity, and, moreover, is comfortable skipping across blurred lines. It’s a comfort that leads her to be offensive, to be an asshole, to be unruly. But it’s also a comfort the show presents as admirable, that the show understands to be a type of unassailable virtue. Would that we were all a little more like Ilana. You know you want it.
Then there’s Girls. The comparisons aren’t necessary, but they’re often made. The one that’s hardest to escape right now is that the first season of Broad City that just ended was so much more fun and satisfying than the third season of Girls that just ended. (I don’t disagree.) One of the greatest of the HBO show’s many great moments was the ending of the first season episode, “All Adventurous Women Do,” in which Hannah and Marnie funnel all their rage and hope and desire and disappointment and dance together to Robyn’s “Dancing on my Own.” It’s a beautiful moment about refuge and redemption and potential, especially in retrospect.
Girls is the more somber, more overtly aspirational show. It’s a comedy but of a different species. It’s also much less kind. A lot of words were spilled about the way that the show, at the end of its third season, has found its way back to Hannah after several seasons of mercilessly targeting her pettiness and vanity. But I personally like that Girls is mean to its characters — I think it’s a choice on the part of the filmmakers, and it’s one worth following to its logical endpoint. There can be something cleansing about an intensely focused critical eye, something revelatory in being unsparing. But that doesn’t mean that kindness is weakness. Ilana and Abbi might be just as vain and silly as Hannah, but we don’t need to see them punished. Girls is about the convergence between dreaming big and being/becoming a bad person. It’s about ambition writ large, while Broad City, on the other hand, is about local, immediate, joyful desire.
Hannah and Ilana both have desires, of course, but Ilana doesn’t care what her desires look like. Girls is obviously after a type of realism that is not high on Broad City’s priority list, so, to some extent, the transgressive behavior Annie rightfully praises is not policed by society in the way it would be within the world of Girls. (Ilana should have been fired from her job multiple times, for instance.) But that’s not a blindness. If Girls is a show about the stinging reality of trying to get what you want, Broad City is about the sometimes painful thrill of wanting on its own. What the show sees is the grace and odd beauty of outlandish, directionless desire.
The “Dancing on my Own” scene sticks out because it’s one of the last times Girls felt truly hopeful. It’s one of the last times that friendship felt like a blessing rather than a curse. Broad City has occupied and opened up the space that Lena Dunham explored in that dance scene, but the show is not naïve. To say that Broad City is interested in possibility rather than the slow death of it is not to say that it’s unaware of the way the world works. People are cruel on Broad City, and stupid decisions have consequences. James Murphy, the musician and fellow dancing Brooklynite, sang: “I wouldn’t trade one stupid decision for another five years of life.” And Broad City, like the best dance music, is about the joy of stupid decisions and the way that living through your desires, living through the connection you feel to another person, makes you bulletproof to cruelty and anger, if even only momentarily. The feeling produced is more profound than the thing producing it. Ilana Glazer might just be dancing because she feels like it, but I think it’s important that somebody is.
And, not to belabor the point, but, angel of history, meet angel of history:
This storm is what we call progress,
The Unruly Stoner Girl: What Makes Broad City so Radical
By Anne Helen Petersen
March 31, 2014
IF YOU HAVEN’T watched Comedy Central’s newest female-based comedy, Broad City, you’re missing something spectacular. It’s produced by Amy Poehler, which should be reason enough to give it a try, and the first three episodes have featured a stream of Poehler-friends. But the show — based on the long running webseries created by Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer — is more than just funny: it’s offering a truly radical vision of women.
But not in the way you might think — the Broad City protagonists are no Pussy Riot. They’re just two perpetually broke Jewish NYC girls who hate their jobs and spend most of their time doing very little. But this is much more bro-comedy than Jewish Girls. All the gross stuff the bros of Comedy Central do on The League and Workaholics, Abbi and Illiana do worse: they stuff sachets of marijuana up their vaginas, they Skype while one of them is having sex, they strip down to their panties to clean the house of a sexual fetishist in order to get enough money to go to a Lil’ Wayne concert. They fantasize about what their love lives would be like if they were dogs; they eat entire pizzas and throw them up. They smoke a ton of weed. They’re female stoners, and they’re hilarious.
That might sound benign — there’s nothing more cliched these days than the male 20-something stoner — but mapping those behaviors onto a female character automatically does something transgressive. They become “unruly women,” a term used to describe a whole cadre of women who’ve pushed boundaries of proper femininity. Lucille Ball was an unruly woman; Roseanne Barr was too. Gilda Radner, Whoopi Goldberg, Melissa McCarthey, Lena Dunham — all unruly women.
These women were comedians, but being unruly is more than just being funny. Sandra Bullock is funny, but she’s not an unruly woman. Unruly women have unruly bodies — they’re too big for their clothes, their hair refuses to stay down. They talk too much, laugh too loudly, say things ladies shouldn’t. They fart and burp and poop; they make themselves known, refuse taming.
These unruly women are electric — you can’t take your eyes off of them — but fiercely controversial. Audiences found them hilarious (I Love Lucy and Roseanne both spent years as the number one program in the nation) but unsettling: what sort of example did these obnoxious, discombobulated women set?
But that’s the beauty of the unruly women: they’re “bad examples” of womanhood because they compromise our understanding of what a woman can or should act like. And any time a woman does that, there’s pushback — sometimes, as in the case of Ball, they pave the way for future comediennes; others, as in the case of Barr, they unleash a severe backlash, underlining just how little society has progressed. There’s a reason, in other words, that nearly a half century after “women’s liberation,” we’re still obsessed with “the problem” of Dunham’s naked, tattooed body.
Both Abbi and Ilana are unruly women, but Abbi plays the “straight woman” to Ilana’s brazenness. Abbi cows before her demeaning, clueless bosses at a Soul Cycle-like gym; Ilana blatantly blows off her “cool” job at a Groupon-like start-up. Abbi’s in love with the neighbor who barely acknowledges her existence; Ilana treats her “sex buddy” Lincoln (played by the hilarious Hannibal Buress) like crap. Abbi’s forced to wear a black t-shirt with ‘CLEANER’ in big white letters to work everyday; Ilana wears a crop top and hot pants. When her boss tries to get her to read the employee handbook concerning appropriate workplace attire, she ends the conversation by telling him she needs to go take her morning dump.
If Abbi functions as the Freudian ego, then Ilana is pure id, reveling in the carnal pleasures of sex, food, and shit (“I’m a poop ninja”). But when the two get together, Ilana brings out the unruly woman that Abbi spends the rest of her day repressing. She encourages her to ditch work and provides her with a steady supply of weed. With Ilana by her side, Abbi will do nearly anything, even dust an Adult Baby’s apartment or ask every person she knows out on a date via Facebook message. Sure, they do most of these things while high, but maybe that’s the secret to the show: while stoned, women do what society tells them not to.
Ilana’s not a bad influence so much as a radical one — she’s totally incompetent and irresponsible, with little regard to anyone’s feelings or how her actions affect the world around her, yet she still manages to attract an incredibly eligible would-be partner, hold down a mid-level job, and leverage nearly everyone around her.
Sound familiar? That’s because it’s what a lot of white male (straight) privilege looks like: the ability to have no abilities and still survive in the world. Ilana’s got swagger, and she uses that confidence to get what she wants — and that, far more than the weed smoking, is what marks her as transgressive.
When you watch Broad City, it’s natural to want to shake these girls: it’s not that hard to do your taxes, Ilana; and Abbi, you can get a much better job. I want Ilana to realize just how generous and hilarious Lincoln is, and I want Abbi to ditch the apartment where her roommate’s boyfriend keeps eating all of her cheese. But the bold imperfections, the resistance to anything resembling a role model, is precisely what makes Broad City so radical. Male 20-somethings get to shirk their responsibilities as role models all the time, and it’s crucial, for both men and women, to see that women can be assholes too.
But only a certain swath of people — namely, those who can get away with pissing people off without significant repercussion — have the privilege of being assholes, and that’s where the representational logic of Broad City gets sticky. Does showing that women can also occupy this space somehow make the archetype less noxious?
Broad City celebrates the freedoms of the female stoner, yet it never suggests that her world is perfect. Both characters hustle everyday, and we’re never invited to think either character’s life is holistically awesome. Together, they make a whole; apart, they fumble around at life, barely able to make decisions for themselves, or eat, or avoid the cops.
Ilana and Abbi both need to grow up, but they don’t necessarily need to grow up the way their friends did — getting married, moving into a brownstone, having kids. They don’t have to stop smoking weed so much as start advocating for themselves and their own happiness, whatever that might resemble.
But they’ve got the rest of their lives to be responsible citizens and mindful participants in democracy. For now, it’s enough to show that girls don’t come out of the womb as fully formed Little Women: they, too, can screw up and screw around, can forget to cross leg their legs when they’re wearing a dress, can actually dance like no one’s watching. Ilana is the closest I’ve seen since Roseanne to someone willfully — and, importantly, blissfully — resistant to the demands of patriarchy. And if she may seem off-putting or obnoxious, that’s because we’re so unfamiliar with watching a woman be so outrageously comfortable and confident and not look like a supermodel.
In the very first minutes of the series, Ilana tells Abbi that “today is the day we become the boss bitches that we are in our minds.” For most, being a boss bitch is something that only happens in one’s mind. But Broad City shows what it might look like to navigate the world like you are one. It’s not always pretty, but our discomfort underlines just how prescribed, and truly regressive, our notion of proper female behavior remains.
Anne Helen Petersen is a Ph.D. from the University of Texas – Austin in the Department of Radio-Television-Film. She currently teaches film and media studies at Whitman College.
Phillip Maciak (@pjmaciak) is the TV editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. His essays have appeared in Slate, The New Republic, and other venues, and he's co-founder of the Dear Television column. He's the author of The Disappearing Christ: Secularism in the Silent Era (Columbia University Press, 2019) and Avidly Reads Screen Time (New York University Press, 2023). He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.
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