Most shows don’t generate press for their upcoming season by announcing the launch of a sex toy line, but for the gals of Broad City, getting freaky isn’t just a joke.
For anyone not hip, young, or struggling to scrape up enough for a ramen dinner while sharing a closet with roommates in Manhattan, Broad City is Comedy Central’s odd-couple offering that follows a pair of eccentric city girls (Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer) as they blaze through New York, hustling for cash, fumbling through adulthood, and scraping pubes out of gym showers in between.
When the show premiered a few years ago, it was billed as a follow-up alternative to that other New York millennial comedy, Girls. Both series featured young women living in the city, both charted the plight of the next generation, both featured copious amounts of sex and nudity. Sure, Broad City blurs their bits out – in that respect they don’t enjoy the same kind of freedom HBO has – but the similarities were there and it didn’t take much in the way of ingrained patriarchal prodding to convince critics to compare two female-led and created series existing in a pretty homogenous TV landscape. Most appraisals began and ended with both shows’ fearlessness when it came to blunt depictions of women’s sexuality. That’s understandable since Lena Dunham spent a good part of Girls in her birthday suit and Glazer loves to talk about rubbing one out every other episode.
But as an admitted stan of Broad City, and as a young woman searching for realistic portrayals of sex and relationships during a time when the ever-authoritative male-gaze was shoving tits, ass, and objectification down my throat, measuring what Glazer and Jacobson have been able to do on their show in terms of sex positivity against what Girls or any other millennial series on TV has done just isn’t fair.
There’s a ton of sex on TV right now – some of it good, most of it garbage. We’ve watched women take control in the bedroom on shows like Scandal and Outlander – a series praised for its emphasis on the female gaze – and we’ve watched them become sexual playthings for men obsessed with power (that Sansa rape scene and her suggestive interactions with Littlefinger on Game of Thrones still leave a bad taste in the mouth). People are having raunchy, dirty, awkward, unsatisfying sex all over our TVs, but few shows have managed to blend that perfect amount of humor, realism, and feminist commentary that Broad City effortlessly conjures every time someone mentions the word “pegging.”
That’s because the show approaches sex the same way it does everything else – from a woman’s point of view. You won’t see Broad City trying to sexualize its lead characters – soft lighting, assf shots, and loud moans aren’t usually happening when either of the girls get it on. Instead, the series is determined to paint a picture of the down and dirty as just that – dirty, weird, sometimes magical, other times terribly disappointing.
The first episode of Broad City began with Abbi scheduling her masturbation session for the week and Ilana performing the world’s most awkward cowgirl while FaceTiming her best friend. That set the tone for every other sexual encounter on the show. In just one scene, dildos, masturbation, and a sexual relationship controlled by a woman – Ilana lets her dentist fuckbuddy know their partnership is purely physical while keeping his “dick warm” – kickstarted a series that would go on to discuss themes of female empowerment and intersectional feminism by regularly using sex as a catalyst.
What makes Broad City different from Girls – a show that preferred to use sex as a storytelling vehicle for the broader, darker issues its protagonists faced – or Insecure, a series that constantly focuses on dating and sex but often misses the mark in terms of equality and discussions of safety in the bedroom, is how unashamed it is of the act itself. Uncomfortable blow job scenes and risky mènagés a trois plagued Insecure’s second season with fans complaining creators didn’t do enough to promote discussions of sexual precautions women should be taking. On a purely tonal note, Insecure often approaches relationships and sex with an air of desperation – women either long for a man, feel a responsibility to have a robust sex life, or avoid it completely.
With Girls, sex usually came before or after a confrontation or epiphany by a main character. It signaled the death of a relationship, the un-fulfillment of a protagonist, an aimless wandering, a mindless drive. At its worst, Girls portrayed sex in a questionably aggressive, non-consensual way – I still cringe thinking of Hannah’s early encounters with Adam Driver’s character or his uncomfortable tryst with a girlfriend later in the series. The sex on Girls wasn’t particularly fun, funny, or enjoyable to watch and it rarely featured a happy ending for any of the women having it.
Broad City doesn’t take sex too seriously, which is exactly why it gives us one of the better examples of how to treat women’s sexuality on TV. Ilana and Abbi aren’t suffering through existential crises while enjoying some missionary action, they’re not anxiously looking for the next fuckboy (or girl) to drag home. They’re having fun, exploring their sexuality, and disclosing their successes and mishaps in a way that not only demystifies the act, but embraces it.
In the first season finale, the girls celebrate Abbi’s birthday by reflecting on the impressive amount of action she’s been enjoying lately (slightly above average sex twice in one week deserves a clink of the glass after all) before Abbi pees out a condom and worries she might have had unprotected sex. Ilana, ever the devoted friend, advises Abbi to be more careful when she has a hookup.
“Not only are we talking STDs here, I can’t even imagine how many dudes would love to lock you down with an unexpected pregnancy,” Ilana tells Abbi. “I mean, your body is a temple. You’ve got to respect it.” That discussion of respect in tandem with talk of condoms, bodily fluid, and unplanned pregnancy jokes is quintessential Broad City – merging the hilarious and absurd with real issues, some of them as disgusting as discovering a used condom in the toilet after doing your business, that women face.
Sex on Broad City has always been something that should be enjoyed and talked about – Ilana likes to masturbate wearing colorful lipstick and chronicle her porn searches in coffee shops, Abbi likes to experiment with pegging and sometimes clean expensive dildos in the dishwasher. The show’s focus on female masturbation and its portrayal of queer relationships is refreshing and empowering. Abbi and Ilana don’t need a man (or a woman) to satisfy them sexually, they can do that on their own. On the other hand, if they’re craving intimacy with another person, going out and prowling the city for a quick and meaningless hookup is fine too. There’s no judgement between the two women and no expectations placed on themselves or their potential partners. In that way, intercourse on the show is freeing in its triviality.
Sure, sex is a big enough theme on the comedy series to warrant its stars repping their own line of dildos, but it’s not the most important topic on the show. What is important is how sex can be used to further conversations surrounding bodily autonomy, a woman’s right to choose, rape culture, and female empowerment. The fact that those conversations are being sparked thanks to Ilana masturbating under mirrors, Abbi giving, not receiving in the bedroom, and both women participating in casual hookups with sometimes painfully weird consequences is just an added bonus.