There’s no denying that between the unverified University of Virginia rape allegations and the #YesAllWomen hashtag, rape culture is a hot button topic right now. These days, it seems like everyone’s writing analyses about its influence in media. I don’t make a habit of reviewing TV shows (mostly because I think it’s a stupid thing to do), but I’d be remiss to ignore these larger media trends. That said, two of the half-hour cable shows that I follow are Girls and Broad City. On paper, they’re both similar in concept (they feature 20-something females in NYC and are considered spiritual successors to Sex & The City), but they also diverge in other ways (Broad City is a straight-up comedy, and Girls is a comedy/drama with a more serious tone).
It’s difficult to ignore an overlapping theme between the latest episodes of both shows – rape culture. It was a literal tale of two cities – this most recent episode of Girls followed Hannah to Iowa, and the episode of Broad City was set in Brooklyn/Manhattan, as the show typically is.
Fair warning: This blog post contains spoilers about the latest episodes of Broad City (S02E01 – “In Heat”) and Girls (S04E02 – “Triggering”). Oh, and it also deals heavily with content of a sexual nature.
Broad City – “In Heat”
Let’s start with Broad City since it aired first. In the episode, Abbi (played by Abbi Jacobson) is dating a new character played by Seth Rogen (“Male Stacy”). They’re in bed together, but due to the heat wave, Male Stacy falls asleep. We find out the next day (in comical fashion) that Abbi “finished” while he was unconscious.
The following exchange happens between Abbi and her best friend/other main character on the show Ilana (played by Ilana Glazer):
Ilana: (yelling over jackhammer) So, to clarify, you raped– [jackhammer stops] — (lowers voice) you raped him.
Abbi: No, no. He passed out from the heat. He seriously wanted it.
Ilana: That is literally what they say.
Abbi: Yeah, but I really mean it.
Ilana: So do they.
Abbi: Well, I…
Ilana: Dude, did you finish?
Abbi: My God, I raped him, dude. I raped Male Stacy. I’m a monster!
Earlier in the episode, Ilana directly refers to rape culture during a birthday dinner for her not-boyfriend Lincoln:
Ilana: All Hollywood media is porn, and all porn is kiddie porn. We live in a rape culture, you know? We just do. I’m gonna run to the little girl’s room. That is rape culture language right there!
By the end of the episode, Abbi accidentally makes out with an underage teenager in a dorm room, an act that she laments turns her into a repeat sex offender.
All of these conversations are played as jokes, mostly because: the show is a comedy on Comedy Central; because the situations themselves are absurd; and because – let’s face it – Seth Rogen being raped in his sleep is a funny concept.
There have been analyses written about how the episode “rapes rape culture” (a line paraphrased from the episode) by turning rape culture on its head with these jokes. The episode serves to highlight the double standard of how women raping men is often not taken seriously (surely enough, we never see Seth Rogen’s character find out about it, or any sort of falling out). And it also shows that rape jokes can be funny if done correctly. After Daniel Tosh made a threatening rape joke at a female audience member in 2012, many writers took the stance that “rape jokes are never funny”. It may be a matter of taste, but I’d venture that those same people don’t watch Louis CK’s standup, or could not imagine the possibility of the Broad City excerpt above.
The main characters of Broad City border on caricatures at times. The fictional versions of Abbi and Ilana are sexually liberated to an extreme – in the first season, Ilana video chats with Abbi while having sex so it feels like a “threesome”; in the Season 1 finale, Abbi discovers a used condom that had been inside of her for over half a week; and that’s not to mention all of the times Abbi has to reject sexual advances from Ilana.
The show almost directly addresses the oft-cited double standard that men who sleep around are commended while women who do the same are shamed. Broad City plays with these tropes, and in many cases, subverts them entirely.
In American TV, there’s a long history of womanizing being played for laughs (think Joey from Friends, or Barney from How I Met Your Mother). And in the 60s on, there were a ton of male characters who engaged in what was essentially sexual harassment (think Steve Urkel or Pepé Le Pew), also played for laughs.
Broad City goes along with these tropes, takes them to an extreme, and then toes a line predicated on social mores that probably shouldn’t be there to begin with. And that’s what makes the show funny. In my opinion, anyway.
Girls – “Triggering”
On the other hand, the latest episode of Girls has Hannah (Lena Dunham’s character) moving to Iowa to attend grad school for an advanced writing degree. In the first student workshop to which the audience is privy, Hannah shares a first-person fictional piece that details the emotional and sexual abuse suffered by the narrator, who many of the other students agree is clearly based on Hannah.
Her peers tear her story apart, and call it unoriginal (they liken it to 50 Shades) and say that the main character is unsympathetic. Hannah is quick to be offended and breaks the rules by providing out-of-turn cringe-worthy retorts (i.e. “history didn’t really focus on the female perspective”). Later in the episode, she even goes as far as to insist that one of the female students who criticized her in class was a survivor of abuse, which is vehemently refuted.
Much like Broad City did, Girls puts rape culture at the forefront this week. The title of the episode is a reference to how stories/descriptions of assault can trigger post-traumatic responses in survivors. Hannah even goes out of her way to warn her peers that there were “triggering aspects of the piece” as a testament to how strong she believes her writing to be, rather than as a real courtesy (there have been articles and interviews about the trivialization of the trigger warning).
Who did it better?
I won’t pass judgment on the messages that either show presented this week (again, this isn’t a TV show review blog), but I think it’s worth commending both for acknowledging the issue, but also worth understanding that neither is claiming an absolute truth or a moral high ground (definitely not Broad City). Each storyline allows for interpretation and helps further discussion, which is always a good thing.
I don’t feel that either show has an imperative to be the final say on women’s issues just because they have female creators/writers. I think that’s an impossibly high standard to place on creative people.
If rape culture were a nail, Broad City addressed it with a sledgehammer. Girls, on the other hand, took a roundabout approach to critique the use of rape culture as a plot point. There’s also some semblance of a Shakespearean “play-within-a-play” at work here. Lena Dunham, the show’s creator, has used rape/unwanted sexual advances as a plotline before (she’s also written about real life experiences in her autobiography). And in this latest episode, her character writes a fictional story using a similar theme. The fictional character that Dunham portrays on the screen however, is shameless in her use of “triggering” language and scenarios. This could be a criticism of other writers (and perhaps an exercise in self-reflection), or it could simply be an unintended parallel. But it does follow a trend of Hannah’s character being increasingly unsympathetic (like the character that her character creates).
On some level, the fictional Hannah Horvath seems to purposefully fly in the face of the “strong female” archetype and is one of the least empowering female characters on TV – she’s not self-sufficient, overly dependent on her boyfriend/friends/parents, and can’t take criticism; she had a nervous breakdown and was “saved” by her ex-boyfriend Adam, who literally carried her in his arms in the final scene of the season 2. The rest of the female leads aren’t much better – one can’t cope with being broken up with her more successful boyfriend; one fails to graduate college on time because she was broken up with; and the last one basically extorted a rich man in exchange for a divorce. Not exactly role models, but then again, nobody purported that the characters on the show were supposed to be. Starring a female protagonist does not a feminist show make.
But does every single episode of Girls have to be filtered through the lens of “Is Lena Dunham undermining feminism by creating weak female characters”? I’d also say no. I’d blame it more on bad writing and one-dimensional characterization than on an explicit rebuttal of feminist ideals.
Similarly, does the fact that Amy Poehler both created a webseries titled Smart Girls and currently serves as executive producer on Broad City necessarily tie the two together thematically? Again, I’d like to say no, but I know others would disagree.
Do we have to run every episode of TV through the Bechdel test?
Probably not, but it is a fun exercise. I would venture a guess that most if not all episodes of Broad City pass with flying colors. Girls probably doesn’t and barely squeaks by this week between a throwaway scene with two of the girls watching a movie/receiving a collect call, and one of Hannah talking to her real estate agent.
It’s definitely worth analyzing how women are portrayed in popular culture. But it does a disservice to everyone to separate “female writers” from “writers”. Ideas and writing should be evaluated similarly regardless of who’s saying them. Even if the shows are called Girls and Broad City.