Can you picture Rachel Green wearing blood-stained jeans on Friends so she can sneak weed through airport security in her vagina? What about Carrie Bradshaw devising a plot to sneak literal shit out of a toilet because her friend’s crush is there and the water’s stopped running?
Of course you can’t. These seminal TV heroines of the late ’90s and early aughts were proper; even when they struggled, Rachel and Carrie were always gorgeous, always well-dressed, and always unrealistically well-off. But while they were presented as representative of, and aspirational for, the generation of young women who watched them, characters like Rachel and Carrie were always several degrees removed from most women’s reality. They wouldn’t dare poop-scoop or use “nature’s pocket” to store their weed.
Then there’s Ilana Wexler, who’s done both.
Broad City, now in its fifth and final season, has brashly delighted in all things icky since its premiere. Protagonists Ilana (Ilana Glazer) and Abbi (Abbi Jacobson) have navigated their 20s with occasional splashes of potty humor that are most satisfying for their utter honesty; we peer into their toilet bowls and see ourselves reflected in the water.
TV has long neglected to consider women’s bodies as anything other than sexual objects. Men could fart up the screen, but on TV, a woman’s bodily functions either went unmentioned or were presented as shameful and disgusting. There’s a whole plotline in Friends where the guys are grossed out by breast milk. And Sex and the City, title aside, erred prude when it came to bodily functions: An entire episode was devoted to the importance of a closed bathroom door.
Broad City, on the other hand, lets us right into the bathroom with its characters. In season one, we glimpse a day in Abbi and Ilana’s lives, from their commutes to their bathroom time (Abbi cleaning the Soulstice toilet; Ilana sleeping in a stall at work). Two seasons later, emboldened, the show repeated the split screen, but this time kept the camera in Abbi and Ilana’s personal bathrooms over a series of days: Whether the girls were straightening pubes, kissing a pee-soaked (negative) pregnancy test, smoking weed, shitting, singing into hair brushes, or hooking up with strangers, their lives clearly didn’t stop for the interruption of bodily functions. The bathroom wasn’t off-limits. The split screen gives insight into their individual routines and personalities, and shows that they’re both a little gross (literally) and a little messy (in life).
Gross is a part of life, after all, especially for young, broke women navigating NYC with willful optimism. When Abbi’s air-conditioning breaks during a heat wave and she wants to have sex with Stacy (played by an appropriately sweaty Seth Rogen), they both do what they must to stay dry: She sneaks to the bathroom to blast her hair dryer under her shirt; he stuffs paper towels into his butt crack. And they have sex anyway! Because sometimes, your AC is broken and you’re both super sweaty, but you want to have sex and that’s what you’re working with.
And Abbi and Ilana aren’t working with much, which may be why their lives feel accessible in a way that their TV predecessors’ weren’t. (See: Carrie’s lifestyle on a columnist’s salary or the entire Friends apartment.) In part, this reflects the massive cultural shift we’ve undergone in the last 15 years. Millennials are poorer than previous generations and, in turn, might be more fiscally conscious. At the same time, there’s an increased pressure to perform publicly due to the influx of social media: Selecting, writing, and editing our own posts lends to the curation of a specific personality. The increased artificiality, and our awareness thereof, can leave us craving something that presents as more “real” — just look at Aerie’s recent (and fraught) REAL campaign that celebrates its lack of image retouching and diverse models. Even as millennials are performing their lives in their own feeds, they’re doing so with an awareness that retouching exists, that social media is fake — so why not spend time with something real?
That Broad City, in all its grossness and glory, takes place now is not an accident; the rise of social media has compelled many users to share all of themselves in a counterreaction to the obvious doctoring of images and experiences. We increasingly don’t want to be sanitized, and Abbi and Ilana sure aren’t. Sure, they can pull it together enough to look great at a party, but Ilana will still end up shattering a Champagne glass, and Abbi is wearing the one good dress she could afford that she’s worn a million times.
In the show’s universe, being gross means more than dealing with poop or sweat: It has to do with living life freely, in a way that veers messy in its carelessness. Think about how Abbi’s mom, Joanne (Peri Gilpin), reacts when she finally learns about her daughter’s own messy world of hookups, drinking, and drugs. Post–cancer scare, Joanne is rabid to share in that young, hapless life: “32 guys!” she screeches boorishly, drunk for the first time in 20-some years, standing on a table at Sushi Mambeaux. “My daughter fucked 32 guys!”
In Joanne’s world, modesty had always been paramount — Carrie Bradshaw would likely be too scandalous for her. But she sees that Abbi’s 32 guys, her smoking weed, and her tight dresses reflect a daughter who is freer and so much happier than she. The relative mess of it all means Abbi is living. Owning your messiness means that no mistakes or bad choices matter past the moment they happen.
Can this be a destructive way to approach life? Definitely. But in your 20s, few decisions are truly life-changing — there’s still so much time to course-correct. Broad City has encapsulated that consequence-ignorant decade for today’s 20-something women, integrating the daily lives of two broke broads with the gross moments that happen to them, creating an authentic reflection of what it feels like to be young, aimless, and scrappy.
Some might argue that Girls deserves more credit for being the first to truthfully portray this aspect of women’s stories: After all, the show was often celebratory of nonsexual female nudity, especially star Lena Dunham’s, whose body type is underrepresented on screen. However, plenty of moments that Broad City would chuckle at are, in Girls’ world, reasons for horror. Think of the sort of visceral, negative reaction the show invited in viewers when Adam (Adam Driver) peed on Hannah (Dunham) in the shower, or when Hannah dug a Q-tip too deep into her ear in a chilling, visceral look at her OCD; think of the veil of shame that accompanied Hannah doing cocaine off a public toilet. Broad City, on the other hand, separates the worry from life’s icky moments. For Abbi and Ilana, the gross moments aren’t disruptive or life-affecting; they just are.
Though the show knows that Abbi and Ilana are different than their forebears, it does occasionally honor them. Like Phoebe in Friends, Ilana holds and marvels over rat babies — but it’s a lot grosser when Ilana does it. (In the former, we’re only told that Phoebe’s shoebox has rats inside; Ilana moons over the rat babies, holding their pink fetal bodies in her hands and presenting them to horrified party guests.) When Lincoln (Hannibal Buress) takes a trapeze class that replicates a transcendent acrobatic moment of Carrie Bradshaw’s, it’s anticlimactic, but he tells the girls that Sex and the City inspired him to do it: “The Miranda in me thought, I’m out of my comfort zone, but the Carrie in me couldn’t resist.”
Moments later, Ilana mimics SATC’s Samantha, contorting her voice into a high, self-important drawl punctuated with jerky head movements: “Honey, I have a cyst on my uterus and I need to get fucked until it pops.” It’s here we see the difference between the shows clearly. Ilana, telling the truth in the prior line, adds seriously: “Sometimes I’m happy about it and then other times I’m like, it’s gross.” She takes Sex and the City as an inspiration, but makes it her own.
Being unashamedly messy means being honest about your body and what it does. For as much as Broad City hits on gross aspects of sex and the body, like Abbi peeing out a days-old condom or the tag-team declawing of Ilana’s acrylics (fingers AND toes?!), the show’s acceptance of gross as quotidian allows for a much larger message of self-love and body acceptance. Broad City seems to ask: Who hasn’t shit themselves at a party due to a lethal combo of cheese, Champagne, and cocaine? It’s unifying, bonding, and even better, it’s okay. If Ilana can make it through that over-the-top icky moment, farting in front of your crush might not be the biggest deal. That’s the best part about comedy that’s unafraid to be disgusting: You learn to laugh the embarrassment away.