“Broad”-ening The Narrative

How Comedy Central Is Turning Bros into Feminists

“You girls are so pretty. You should smile.”

It’s the kind of imperative women hear so often as we make our daily forays into public domain. Like the rest of us, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer were far from “asking for it.” They were simply ambling along the eclectic streets of St. Marks place, minding their own business, absorbed in their (hilarious) conversation.

And then a stranger orders them to smile. He compliments them — or that’s what he thinks he’s doing.

And as they turn to face this “harmless” stranger, the camera starts to pan in a slow circle around them, setting up the brilliance of what comes next: without so much as a glance at each other, they both simultaneously lift their middle fingers to either side of their lips and push their mouths into a sardonic grin. The message: We don’t exist for you.

And what a goddamn joy it is to watch female characters who don’t exist for male ones. Not that it’s a Tanzanite-rare experience — my generation of women grew up on shows like Buffy, Sister Sister and Clarissa Explains it All, caught the tail end of Sex in the City as teenagers, and experienced the energetic thrills of 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation as young adults. But there is something sneakily special about Comedy Central’s Broad City (whose third season began in February) and Inside Amy Schumer (whose fourth season premieres on April 21st) as well; something groundbreaking in a way that is difficult to articulate. Something that tinges the excitement in our voices with feverish obsession — and maybe a bit of vindication — when my girlfriends and I call each other up to rehash the latest episode. Something that makes us fucking love those two shows, and not just because of how great they are in a vacuum.

It’s not just the treasured nuggets of overt feminism like that smile moment at the beginning of Broad City’s Season 2 finale. It’s a form of feminism much more nuanced and implicit. The kind that masquerades in humor and intentional mundanity — what Tina Fey called “putting spinach in kids’ brownies” in Bossypants. It’s the fact these crackly, goofy, aimless, farting, pot-smoking, irresponsible, funny-as-shit and frankly relatable female protagonists even exist — and that all they basically do is exist, while we get to inhabit their subject position and explore the narratives of daily life from their perspective — that’s so subversive. All the more because they exist on a channel that has traditionally catered to (and boasts a powerful ability to rake in) 18–35 year old male viewers. As in, you know, the dudes. The guys. The bros. And — if you’re my age and you happen to like boys in that way — the potential partners.

Why is this so awesome? Well, it wouldn’t be, except that the vast majority of the movies and TV shows that permeate our existence in this screen-media-drenched culture are created by and about men. As in, literally overwhelmingly so. According to a comprehensive study conducted by the New York Film Academy of the top 500 films of 2007–2012, a whopping 91% of directors, 85% of writers, and 83% of executive producers are men. Less than a third of the speaking characters in these films are women, and the ratio of male actors to female actors is 2.5 to 1. In total, there is a 5 to 1 ratio of men to women working in or on films.

And the problem isn’t restricted to the cinema. According to San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Film and Television’s annual “Boxed In” report, only 25% of all behind-the-scenes “creators” of television shows (encompassing producers, writers, directors, executive producers, editors, and directors of photography and including cable, network, and Netflix programs) were women. Of writers, who are arguably the main “auteurs” of the television medium, women comprised only 26% — down 4% from 2012–2013. And this on a medium that is consumed more, with a margin of actual hours, by women than men (movie-going audiences are about half and half). An entirely different study, conducted by the USC Annenberg School for the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found that “only 11% of family films, 19% of children’s shows, and 22% of prime-time programs feature girls and women in roughly half of all speaking parts.”

Overall, all three studies on gender representation in the media found that across the board, in everything from PG films to late-night television, female characters were far more likely to speak less or not at all, wear revealing clothing, be unemployed, be over-sexualized, occupy a role that falls within the personal life of the male characters (wife/girlfriend/daughter) rather than existing in their own right, and be outnumbered by men as well.

So, yeah. Pretty bleak. You can imagine how, by the time Girls was set to air on HBO, such a novelty could (and did) obtain our undivided attention on premise alone. That’s how much us twentysomething females were literally craving the experience of seeing ourselves portrayed on screen for who we actually are — as in, complex and multidimensional human beings, capable of the same breadth, depth, and interiority that male characters get by default. And, importantly, capable of the same wide range of possible relationship dynamics with characters of the opposite sex, the same sex, and everything in between.*

This is a hard concept to grasp if you haven’t experienced the sharp edge of the privilege stick yourself. Central to the definition of privilege is the very privilege to be ignorant of it, as it blends itself seamlessly into the fabric of the “norm,” the default, the status quo. Privilege has the full benefit of language on its side, while the rest of us have to turn to feminist news sites, books, and classes just to acquire the lexicon (words like “biopower” and phrases like “the male gaze of the camera”) with which to describe even the most obvious manifestations of inequality, such as unequal representation in the media.

That’s why it’s so much harder than it should be to point out all of the kinds of sexism that get coded into male-driven narratives. Understandably, my guy friends defend their favorite movies (the vast majority of which unerringly fail the Bechtel test) with arguments like: “it’s just a really good story that so happens to be about men” or “that’s just [insert male comic here]’s sense of humor. It’s not anti-feminist or anything.” Well, yeah, that’s true — movies can be really “good” and still be explicitly sexist. They can also be really “good” and not be explicitly sexist but still be implicitly sexist because they participate in the routine marginalization of female characters.

Amirite?

In a given story, even if the protagonist himself isn’t female and the main plot isn’t ‘about’ women (and the creators behind-the-scenes are predominantly male), that shouldn’t preclude the female characters that do exist from depth and complexity. But in the vast majority of Hollywood narratives, men are both the protagonists and the better-developed sidekicks, while women are reduced to the Other: the one-dimensionally “strong” or “badass” chick, the tired-of-putting-up-with-your-shit, ever-nagging wife/girlfriend (or her counterpart, the I-put-up-with-everything doormat who exists solely to need the man), the speechless trophies/objects/bimbos, the femme fatale, or (and I’m tempted to say “best case scenario” here) that damn Manic Pixie Dream Girl — just the next round of archetypes up from a princess, but this time rendered as the objects within men’s stories and subjectivities. When you see a movie that is written, directed and produced by men, or turn on a TV show staffed primarily by male writers, chances are that you’re not even going to get close to the same development and originality with the female characters as you will with the male ones.** We can further someone else along their narrative arc, but we rarely seem to get our own. We’re not rendered with enough interiority to even merit such an arc. As media scholar Alison Fornell so aptly put it in a conversation we had the other day: we serve mainly as the foils within ‘more important’ male homosocial narratives.

Once I realized this, I also realized that it’s really no wonder men have such a hard time not only seeing women as equals, but even seeing us as full-fledged human beings — capable of the same variety of personalities that that they are. By definition (of the word “medium”), we all learn about the world via media. Maureen Dowd, in the article that blew the lid off of Hollywood’s sexism problem a year ago, put it thusly: “At their best, movies can be instructions in how to live and how not to live, and can help us invent the verbal and visual vocabulary with which we engage the world.” So what kind of vocabulary are men developing when they almost never get to see a female character on screen who doesn’t fall into one of the archetypes I just mentioned — and even less frequently do they actually get to inhabit our viewpoints as protagonists? Outside of The Hunger Games, the odds really aren’t ever in our favor.

Unfortunately, your average ‘dude’ rarely takes the few opportunities he does have to watch something with a female protagonist anyway. When these stories aren’t relegated to the paradigm of “indie” or “YA” [as in “Young Adult,” consisting mostly of film adaptations of dystopian novels and paranormal TV soap operas that feature ridiculously sexy thirtysomethings playing high school], then they’re often thought of as being “for” girls — despite the fact that stories with male protagonists are automatically presumed to be “for” everyone.

Like the show Girls, for an eponymous example. Without tracing the entire history of female-centric comedy on television (to do so would require too many tangents), I think it’s safe to say that Girls was really the main show that opened the doors for a niche-oriented cable channel like Comedy Central to follow suit, as both a critical and a popular hit that focused on millennial-age female protagonists in all of our unmoored glory. I still enjoy that show, and I don’t think it entirely deserves the heap of criticism it’s gotten in recent seasons about how selfish the four main characters are. In the age of the “antihero,” why don’t male-driven shows receive just as much cultural disparagement for their characters engaging in the same — or way, way worse — behavior? Girls definitely deserves the criticism it gets for whitewashing a neighborhood that is in reality quite diverse, but so do a ton of boy-shows that don’t get it half as bad from the literati. As Mindy Kaling pointed out, we hold the few pieces of media that do break a little ground to a much higher standard than we hold those that simply reaffirm the status quo. We should actually be doing the reverse, or at least brandishing the same yardstick universally.

Still, while a handful of the men I know watched Girls here and there,*** a lot of them did so through somewhat gritted teeth, and maybe they shouldn’t be blamed for that. This time, it kind of isn’t “for” them. I mean, it says that right in the name. But that’s why shows like Broad City and Inside Amy Schumer are that much more exceptional. They took Girls’ premise into the realm of pure, crass comedy, and they did so on a channel that guys trust. So the “bros” actually starting watching. And laughing. And loving every minute of it — without any of us having to proactively force the feminism on them. Just by being out there and being so good, these shows are opening their eyes to the fact that female characters can express the wide range and depth of traits to which male characters have always been entitled — even, or perhaps especially, all of the negative ones.

This is why the Sheryl Sandbergs of the world sometimes lose me (and probably many other women as well) on their definitions of feminism and social progress. Do we need more women leaders in every sphere of society? Without. Question. Yes. But the life of a corporate or political leader is still only one way to live — it’s still only one role in the virtually infinite pool of roles that women can play in this universe. I don’t believe that men will suddenly see women as equals once they have equal representation in the boardroom, though that will be an incredibly important leap for womankind once we get there. I do believe, however, that there will have been at least the same amount of progress when a girl can walk into a room of stoners, let out a huge belch, take a bong rip, and pick up the 4th Xbox controller without that being out of the ordinary — and without that precluding her from enjoying fashionable shoes, or knitting, or success in her career.

That may seem odd, but what I’m trying to say is that men won’t ever recognize women’s full potentiality as fellow humans until they can see us in the media embodying all the narrative possibilities — especially the ones that are traditionally given only to men. They won’t “get” us until they can see through our eyes while we are being ourselves, enacting on screen the same uniqueness that we each express IRL.

And that includes all the traits that didn’t necessarily stem from our second X chromosome. As that smile scene in Broad City and the “very realistic video game” sketch from Inside Amy Schumer were consciously crafted to expose, women don’t have the same privilege that men do of being unaware of the ways in which gender shapes our lives. But we also shouldn’t have to judge the choices that define us as individuals — be they sexual, career or otherwise — solely through the lens of gender.

Back when Miley Cyrus twerking her way through the VMAs was the pop culture scandal of the moment, Amanda Palmer wrote her a phenomenally underrated open letter on exactly this same topic. Actually, it was written to Sinead O’Connor, who had penned an earlier letter to Miley imploring her not to allow her body and its sexuality to be commoditized by the — you guessed it — predominantly male gaggle of producers and label execs that were theoretically behind her new persona. Sinead presupposed the influence of both the implicit cultural imperative to hypersexualize female musicians (which is undoubtedly very accurate) and the explicit direction of specific powerful men (which may not be so accurate in Miley’s particular case, but is still a very real problem with the industry in general). Amanda’s response frikkin’ nailed it in every way — seriously, read it if you haven’t already — but most relevantly, she pointed out that the real problem wasn’t that some pop star donned a weird sexy bear costume and shoved her butt against an older man’s crotch, but that the rest of us were so ready to paint the scarlet letter on her for it:

I want women to feel less trapped inside their bodies, less afraid to express themselves, less afraid to be nailed to the cross of the cultural beauty standard. But that necessarily means there needs to be room on the vast playing field for Adele to wear a conservative suit, room for Lady Gaga to do naked performance art in the woods, room for PJ Harvey to wear high-collared 18th century jackets on stage, room for Natasha Kahn to pose boldly naked on the cover of her last record, and room for Miley to rip a page out of stripper culture and run around like a maniac for however long she wants to.
As much as we may not want to see it this way — because, from a far distance she looks like just another airbrushed hottie from a lite beer commercial — we gotta give Miley (and every female) space to try on her artist’s uniform. It’s like a game of cosmic dress-up, but the stakes are high. If we’re allowed to play it, we’re empowered. If we’re not, we’re still in a cage.

Her argument is just as applicable for entertainment — or for women in general really, even outside of an artistic modality — as it is for the music industry: that the “playing field” should be as limitless as expression itself, and that gender shouldn’t restrict us from forging our own personal roles, no matter where those roles happen to fall on the spectrum of gender conformity.

So yes, some women have a ton of ambition, like Sheryl. In fact, women have more of it than men do these days. I myself fall into this contingent. But some women also don’t have ambition. And some women have forms of ambition that aren’t definable within neoliberal metrics for success. Some women prefer to take bowls to the face and wander through their youth like Seth Rogen and James Franco (’s characters). Some women are ignorant, or selfish, or negligent. Some women are childish and immature — and not as a manifestation of how our culture infantilizes women, but rather in the way that our male peers have always been free to be.

Some women dress inappropriately — and not because they’re trying to impress dudes, but rather because that’s just their style and they don’t really care to read social cues to the contrary. Some women fart a lot when they’re scared. Some women take poops so big that their best friends have to go all Mission Impossible on them just to get rid of it before the hot guy next door sees. Some women have lots of sex, some have very little sex, and some fall somewhere in between — and none of them should feel the need to see themselves as either sluts or Madonnas, whores or wives. Most women can — and oh, do we ever — have “bromances” with each other. And isn’t it telling that that word is so gendered in the first place?

For all of us chicks who aren’t so neatly categorized as the men of Hollywood would have you believe, the only thing better than finally getting to see relatable women on TV is watching with a group of guys — who, without even realizing it, are internalizing feminism’s core point:

That at the end of the day, we are all, man or woman, simply human.

*The same goes for characters of different races, religions, sexual orientations, etc. — though each of those deserves at least its own article, written from the point of view of someone who has experienced these forms of oppression and/or the intersection of multiple forms of oppression.

**Unless it’s Joss Whedon. We heart you, Joss Whedon.

***I know what the Nielson data said — that the largest contingent of airtime viewers of the first season of Girls was older men (at 22%), and that the median age of all viewers was 42. I also think you can take your Nielson data can shove it where the sun don’t shine, unless you can produce even one twentysomething — guy or girl — who actually pays for HBO. Doesn’t mean we aren’t watching. It’s morally reprehensible, but it’s the truth.

Photo: Comedy Central