The third season of Comedy Central’s Broad City opens with a toilet-centric montage that already feels like one of the year’s TV highlights. At once exuberant, absurd, and all too real, a split screen reveals besties Ilana (Ilana Glazer) and Abbi (Abbi Jacobson) living their best lives in their respective bathrooms. They have plenty in common: They get dressed up as Eighties-era Madonna, devour one half each of a Best Friends chocolate box, toke, talk on the phone, and read Hillary Clinton’s autobiography on the throne (the candidate herself is expected to make a cameo in a future episode). The sequence also plays up the differences between the friends: WASPy Jewess Abbi straightens her hair; lion-maned Ilana experiments with flat-ironing her pubes. Frequently humiliated Abbi kisses her negative pregnancy test before remembering just what is on it; unshamable Ilana startles herself awake on the (closed) toilet lid with her own trumpeting butt-honk.
Those first two minutes of the third-season premiere are as close to a mission statement as Jacobson and Glazer have ever gotten. Their characters are goofy, relatable, angst-free, gleefully hedonistic, and anatomically obsessed. You couldn’t find that montage anywhere else on television, because Broad City is dancing to its own groove of radical body comfort — and carving out its singular feminist niche while having more fun than anyone else.
“I guarantee I can identify my own butthole in a lineup,” Ilana assures Abbi with benign braggadocio at the beginning of episode two. Her self-love has always been exaggerated for laughs: An episode last season was devoted to Ilana’s infatuation with a doppelgänger (played by Alia Shawkat), and her masturbation routine includes getting gussied up for herself in lipstick and chola earrings before balancing a full-length mirror above her body. But that carefree narcissism is also one of Ilana’s most admirable qualities; she’s a sprite seemingly unaffected by the world’s bullshit. And when something does get her down, like an article about Saudi Arabian women she mentions in the season premiere, her body provides her with a cure of its own: “I was just so pissed, I had to blow off some steam and masturbate.”
Glazer and Jacobson obviously aren’t the first female comedians to discuss their bodies. But they are pioneering a kind of fuck-it feminism about body shame that feels distinctly new. They’re a lot less coy and self-consciously button-pushing about physiology than, say, Sarah Silverman, whose Comedy Central series emphasized her tomboyish cuteness and her more juvenile toilet preoccupations, which ultimately attributed bathroom concerns to arrested development. (Silverman’s “Poop Song,” for instance, is a children’s song performed with a child.)
For Broad City‘s channel-mate Inside Amy Schumer, the body isn’t so much an object of fascination as a battlefield where men fight with women for control. Schumer’s show is often an anatomy of female bodily self-loathing; one sexting skit finds Schumer’s character singing to herself, “Somebody’s really pretty today,” but then the gay male photographer she’s hired to take professional selfies for her says of her pubic hair, “It looks like [you’ve] got a Hasidic rabbi living in [your] underpants.” Schumer’s feel-bad character is so worried she’s doing the wrong thing that she could never summon the untroubled present-in-the-body-ness to sing, “I shit, I shit,” while playing the maracas like Ilana does.
Lena Dunham’s Girls is perhaps the closest to Broad City in its milieu and its focus on the body. But the more overtly political HBO series, like Inside Amy Schumer, seems to be responding to the male gaze — in Dunham’s case, by challenging ideas about what is considered “worth seeing.” (Exhibit A: Dunham’s real-person-ish body having sex, dancing on Ecstasy, sitting around in Hannah’s apartment, and doing whatever else people do with theirs.) Though it takes place in the same parts of Brooklyn, Broad City occupies a different universe, one in which sexual deviance might garner an eye-roll: “Tell me this isn’t sexual,” wags Ilana while in bed with her friend after a long day in the premiere, to which Abbi responds, “You’re bleeding, dude.” But it never inspires the kind of lectures Dunham’s Hannah gets from the humorless prisses she calls her friends.
None of this makes those other shows any less urgent or necessary. But Broad City dashes away the male gaze entirely. It normalizes and plays around with pubes, poop, and periods in a way the idealistic writers of Our Bodies, Ourselves could only have dreamed about during the second wave, and it shows how women can observe, revel in, and joke about their bodies together, without shame. Who can give a second thought to banalities like belly fat or wide hips, after all, when there are so many other fleshy corners to explore and celebrate? When Abbi lets out a torrent of pee in a porta-potty in the premiere, Ilana’s surprise transforms into happiness for her friend’s anatomy: “Pelvic-floor strength, Gaga!” And despite the talk of “period panties” or stashing weed in unexpected orifices, Abbi and Ilana are too innocent and matter-of-fact to be gross. Because bodies aren’t (just) gross, but — like the show’s New York — playgrounds that are only as fun as you’re willing to make them.
That utopian freedom is Broad City‘s most powerful contribution to pop-culture feminism. Abbi and Ilana’s world isn’t perfect — Abbi shouts out, “Rape culture sucks!” as a possible catchphrase for Ilana in the second episode. But Broad City also offers a glimpse into a near future when feminist fun isn’t an oxymoron and women can recognize and brush off sexism as easily as dandruff from a sweater. Ilana and Abbi have much more important — and probably fluid-based — things to think about.
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