Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Spectacle of "Broad City"

A spectacle, according to The University of Chicago’s Theories of Media is, “A specially prepared or arranged display of a more or less public nature forming an impressive or interesting show or entertainment for those viewing it.” The television show Broad City, pushes the image of women as a spectacle on television to a whole new level with their excess, sloppiness, ideas on love, awkwardness, weirdness, vulgarity, and the many (not always very subtle) hints that the two main characters portray qualities of two people in a relationship not a friendship. They show excess in this show through their extremely loose and big body movements, very contradicting of the traditional idea that woman should take up as little space as possible. They also show excess through their speech, which is generally loud and overly drawn out, also contradicting the typical woman portrayed on television who is quiet and dainty with her speech. Throughout this television show these women openly embrace all of the qualities listed above and their status as a spectacle. Just like in the show Roseanne though while they may be portrayed as spectacles they still have control over the spectacle they are, which in turn puts them in control of the message of “femininity” portrayed in these television shows. The fact that the two main characters, Ilana and Abbi, not only act these roles but they also write the programs giving them the ultimate control of the “spectacle” they are enacting and the way in which they are portraying feminism.
            The article, Unruly Woman as Domestic Goddess, states, “Through body and speech the unruly woman violates the unspoken feminine sanction against “making a spectacle” of herself I see the unruly woman as prototype of woman as a subject- transgressive above all when she lays claim to her own desire. The unruly woman is multivalent, her social power unclear. She has reinforced traditional structures…but she has also helped sanction political disobedience for men and women alike by making such disobedience thinkable” (Rowe, p. 253). This is exactly what Ilana and Abbi do throughout this series. These two girls are not over weight like Roseanne is, however, they both do not portray the idealized bodies on television today and they embrace this quality of themselves.
            Ilana definitely takes the role of a spectacle to a much higher level than Abbi does which is for many different reasons in my opinion. Ilana is biracial, with unruly short curly hair and carries herself as if she has no control over her limbs portraying the qualities of a spectacle. Ilana is vulgar, loose, smokes excessive amounts of weed and then eats excessive amounts of food. She is also the one who in episode 15 of the series, Mom Brunch the two mothers ask if the girls have gotten them together for brunch to tell the mom’s that the girl’s are lesbians. Abbi finds it ridiculous while Ilana seems to have not only considered this idea but also thinks it may happen some day.
Ilana proceeds to very bluntly give the waiter her phone number in front of everyone and then Abbi and her proceed into a competition to see who the waiter would rather be with. The relationship between these girls is blurred between friendship and relationship because it is bringing into question women’s sexuality. Their outward sexuality, especially Ilana and her many attempts to get Abbi into a threesome with her, are reserved for male comedies in most television shows today not comedies in which the women are embracing their sexuality. Women like no-strings attached relationships, women have fantasies, women like to be sexual but the only place in television where this message is accepting is if they are doing it for male enjoyment, which is not the case in Broad City. In this show it is Ilana’s sexual partner of sorts Lincoln who wants a relationship not Ilana, it’s Ilana who tries to enact sexual fantasies not any of the male characters. Here is a show where probably for the first time men are being restricted in their sexuality and needs in a relationship and woman are in control of their sexuality and how they use it, express it, etc.
            I believe that Abbi is portrayed as less of a spectacle in this series because throughout these episodes you come to think of her character as normal. As Karlyn points out in the quote above portraying a spectacle on television allows you to make the disobedience their characters portray thinkable. This series not only makes the disobedience seem thinkable, by aligning an extreme version of a spectacle (Ilana) next to a mild version (Abbi) you come to find the milder qualities of Abbi to be normal and through this they are morphing people’s idea of femininity.
            What I also found interesting about this episode is Abbi and Ilana’s mothers are the typical representations of feminine. Both women are dressed and manicured well, both appear to be in pretty decent shape, and both characters talk in a more quiet and pronounced dialect (completely opposite than the two daughters). Up until the women disagree over which daughter should back off of trying to go out with the waiter these woman give a very contradicting message of what is acceptable as feminine. Then they start their disagreement, which ends in them screaming, swearing, and fighting in a public place, which also reinforces the message of femininity given in this show. No matter the age, size, shape, personality, etc. of a woman it is acceptable to be loud, vulgar and even violent. This shows ability to not only make the qualities of a “spectacle” seem normal through Abbi’s character but effectively show that you do not have to portray the qualities that Abbi and Ilana do in this show to employ qualities that people would consider spectacle shows a giant step this television show is having in representing women in a more realistic way. It is also showing women and men audience members that it is okay to act like this, the woman does not always have to be seen but not heard, consume but still remain skinny, etc. This show is simply displaying what women all over the place behave like and putting it out for the entire world to see for the first time.
            What Ilana and Abbi are able to accomplish effectively sending these messages through masquerade. Rowe defines masquerade in the book The Unruly Woman as,
Having much in common with irony as it has traditionally been understood in literary and film studies. However, while irony is often used to affirm the cultural superiority of those who “get it” over those don’t, masquerade creates a “bottom up” distinction based on shared recognition within a subcultural group. As a form of self-representation, masquerade retains the distance necessary for critique, but a distance that is Brechtian and politicized, created by the subject between herself and various forms of representation available to her (p. 6-7).

Ilana and Abbi use masquerade throughout the series to essentially poke fun of their own characters by having the extreme personalities they do, but they illicit control of these extreme personalities and through this they are creating the distance for critique. They do not have an idealized body type, they are sloppy, and loose when it comes to doing anything even flirting with a boy, yet they still have sexual encounters often throughout the series. They visually hate doing anything grown-up, especially working, yet they both are employed full-time and are capable of supporting themselves in an expensive city like New York City, and they are also able to indulge themselves with marijuana and countless fattening snacks.
            What Ilana and Abbi are doing in this series is groundbreaking in my opinion. No other show is able to portray the “spectacle” and use it in such an effective way. Women are a little overweight, they smoke marijuana and get the munchies, and they talk about weird and sometimes even disgusting things about themselves with their best friends. Sure they do not do it in excess like Abbi and Ilana but that is the point in their extreme characters, to really drive the point home that this “disobedience” can become thinkable for society. Men and women alike have an accurate representation of how women in America really do act. Like I said they do not necessarily enact all of these qualities or all at once but I am sure all women do, say, etc. one of these things that Ilana and Abbi do and they also probably hide it because it is not represented in our society as acceptable because of the typical image of femininity that has almost always been portrayed on television. This is hopefully a gateway to a new image of femininity that television will start portraying on their programs because this show that started strictly on YouTube was so popular that Comedy Central picked it up to air it on television. It appears that this means progress for the female character on television.

Work Cited

"Mom's Brunch." ., 20 Sept. 2010. Web. 20 Apr. 2014.             <>.

"Theories of Media." . The University of Chicago , n.d. Web. 29 Apr. 2014.             <>.

Knobloch, Susan. ": The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter. Kathleen             Rowe.." Film Quarterly: 58-60. Web.

Rowe, K. K.. "Roseanne: unruly woman as domestic goddess." Screen: 408-419.             Web.


  1. I love this show and think you did a great job discussing how Ilana and Abbi are made a spectacle. And you make some valid points about how they do not act like typical women. They both don't really care how they portray themselves and are comfortable how they are. I haven't seen the episode you're talking about but I think it would be interesting if you talked more about Abbi and Ilana's relationship vs. friendship because you slightly touch on it. But I enjoyed reading this.

  2. I enjoyed your analysis of their relationship! With so much to focus on with the spectacle I tried to be in depth with the analysis about their relationship without making the essay too long but I definitely could have made it more in depth.


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