Remembering Broad City and Its Defiant, Problematic Jewishness

Broad City two young white jewish women in evening wear
The Broad City finale. l-r: Abbi Jacobson, Ilana Glazer, Photo Credit: Matthew Peyton, Comedy Central 2019

I’m the kind of Jew who goes to queer feminist seders. I’ve never been to Israel, though as a teen I contemplated doing Birthright. I was born in Ukraine and raised in San Francisco. But New York has always been my Jewish capital. It’s where I’ve conducted archival research on Jewish culture, overheard casual conversations in Yiddish, and tasted the best smoked sturgeon.

So Broad City spoke to me. Maybe not all of me, but some parts of my identity as a queer diaspora Jew. The Comedy Central show that ran from 2014 to 2019 made many viewers feel seen. The thinkpieces commemorating the end of its five-year run have praised it for being unapologetically Jewy. When it came to Jewishness, the show was irreverent, parodic, and proudly crude. Nothing seemed to be off the table. There was Abbi and Ilana’s conversation about pegging, which took place at Ilana’s grandmother’s shiva, and Ilana’s fetishization of a  Holocaust survivor’s past for her grad school essay.

Along with cultivating an iconoclastic attitude, the show subverted more insidious expectations surrounding Jewish American identity, including Jewish women’s self-presentation, sexuality and politics. It’s been especially effective in deconstructing the JAP (Jewish American Princess) stereotype, which associated Jewish womanhood with materialistic, middle-class femininity. It has also questioned American Jews’ attachment to Israel and specifically, the practice of pilgrimaging there during young adulthood.

But Broad City also reproduced problems that have long characterized sitcoms with Jewish leads, such as Seinfeld, Friends and, more recently, Girls. Like these other shows, Broad City failed to include Jews of color and question the class-based entitlements of its main characters. In addition to participating in the enduring whitewashing of Jews on TV, the show also left a checkered record of portraying members of other marginalized groups, at times, falling back on racist clichés without subjecting them to the kind of smart, critical satire it reserved for Jewishness.

Fashion and the JAP Stereotype

A white women and black man shake hands in bed bath and beyond
Abbi exchanges an elaborate greeting with a Bed Bath and Beyond worker. Photo Credit: Cara Howe, Comedy Central

The fabulous costuming on Broad City is still undeniable. Fanny packs, mesh tops, 80’s tracksuits, and tuxedos cleverly developed characters and story, and the series got a lot of recognition for its fashion (including a piece by Sara Bernstein in this publication). What critics have regularly overlooked is how the show’s choices reference and explode the lingering concept of the JAP. Traditionally, the JAP is high-maintenance, bratty and frigid. She’s also uniquely American. But, as Jaime Lauren Keiles argues, “[t]he JAP is neither Jewish nor American alone.” Rather, it’s a Jewish-American trope that emerged with the group’s coming into whiteness and middle-classness. Its legacy has been the construction of the Jewish-American woman as obsessed with “grooming, trepidatious trendiness, and comfort,” and confined within “subsets of mainstream fashion trends,” such as luxury athletic wear or premium denim. These trends normally reinforced, in one way or another, heteronormative white womanhood.

Broad City doesn’t ignore this stereotype but satirizes it. For example, the JAP’s love of “safe” fashion and comfort consumerism shows up in a bunch of Abbi’s habits. She buys a piece of luggage on Drew Barrymore’s recommendation. She also worships Oprah, whose annual “favorite things” is the epitome of a luxury wishlist. The show doesn’t merely include these details but exaggerates them to the point of absurdity. Abbi is so attached to her Drew Barrymore carry-on that she panics when she has to check it and then breathes a sigh of relief when she’s reunited with it, even though this also means the premature end of her travels. Her worship of Oprah is so intense that she has a “tramp stamp” of the mogul’s face.  

Abbi’s comically frequent trips to Bed, Bath & Beyond are also worth considering for how they challenge the “naturalness” of Jewish white privilege suggested by the JAP figure.  BB&B is a store that’s associated with home comforts. It’s also Abbi’s happy place, a place that makes her ridiculously happy. There, she doesn’t just acquire home goods but allows herself small indulgences in the era of millenial downward mobility. Millennials are regularly shamed for being in debt and failing to acquire property while allowing themselves such “extravagances” as avocado toast and artisanal coffee drinks. For Abbi, who spends much of the series cleaning toilets for a living, pilgrimages to BB&Beyond are less evocative of the JAP preference for creature comforts than minor compensations for professional stagnation.          

Clothing and Fluid Identity

four young people laughing on a boat
Reappearances of Ilana’s “white power” suit and Abbi’s blue bandage dress. l-r: Hannibal Buress, Ilana Glazer, Arturo Castro, Abbi Jacobson Photo Credit: Matthew Peyton, Comedy Central

It’s Ilana who ends up presenting the strongest visual challenges to the JAP stereotype with her clothes. She confidently dons clothes that are unprofessional, “unflattering” and even abject. She wears a cropped “dog hoodie” to a cubicle job and, after being criticized by her boss, covers her exposed midriff with lipstick as a way of appearing office-ready. The result is that her stomach looks like it’s covered in blood. And who can forget the “period pants” she wears to the airport to distract from the stash of weed in her vagina. As Sara T. Bernstein observes, Ilana’s fashion is a mechanism for engaging in ironic play and flipping off norms. While the JAP dresses to sexually manipulate men, Ilana often wears clothes that are sexy and “overtly sloppy”; such as when mixing an exposed bra and bare midriff with men’s underwear and a military belt, all in the same outfit.

Abbi is the more “basic” of the two but she also makes choices that are subtly subversive and body-positive. On multiple occasions, she wears an Hervé Léger bandage dress knockoff. It’s a dress that makes it look like one’s body is wrapped in elastic bandages, but it’s body conscious and therefore “sexy.” About a decade ago, almost every celeb, from Kim K. to T Swift, wore one. The unforgiving garment was associated with skinniness and heterosexual femininity, with its executive Patrick Couderc declaring it was not intended for fat women or lesbians. Abbi doesn’t conform to the narrow beauty standards propagated by the brand but she wears the knockoff on numerous occasions because she clearly likes how it fits her. The dress even reappears in the last five minutes of the series, when Abbi passes it on to Ilana before indefinitely leaving New York for Boulder. The idea of either woman wearing the dress is provocative given  their “non-Hollywood” body types and sexual fluidities.

Challenging Racialized Heteronormativity

Sexually non-normative and experimental, Abbi and Ilana resist community pressures to engage in female-male, Jewish-on-Jewish unions. Even intermarriage has long been framed a problem for “Jewish continuity,” an especially urgent one for diaspora Jews. Incidentally, Steven M. Cohen, a prominent sociologist associated with this view was recently accused of sexual harassment, which led public intellectuals to highlight the misogyny inherent in an agenda based on having Jewish women bear Jewish babies. The JAP stereotype aligns neatly with such calls for racial continuity. The JAP must follow a “predetermined path into the flames of female Jewish life” which includes marriage, suburbs and procreation.

Ilana and Abbi show little interest in these ideals and embrace their sexualities for pleasure and adventure. Abbi explores her sexuality by pegging a male partner and has a relationship with a queer woman when she decides to question her de facto straightness. Ilana, openly queer from the jump, has sex with diverse partners and participates in open relationships. Even her emotional attachment to long-term lover Lincoln doesn’t prevent her from breaking up with him when she realizes that his family plans are incompatible with her identity as “a polyamorous queen.”

New York as Home

A man in a yarmulka greets two women on a plane
Ilana and Abbi board the plane for a Birthright-like trip to Israel. l-r: Ilana Glazer, Abbi Jacobson, Photo Credit: Comedy Central

A more biting critique of heteronormativity and the pressure to reproduce occurs in the episode “Jews on a Plane,” during which Abbi and Ilana attempt to take a Birthright-like trip to Israel. On the flight, they learn that the free journey is also a matchmaking scheme, designed to bring young Jewish men and women together. One new couple even gets engaged before the plane lands. Predictably, Abbi and Ilana refuse to cooperate, fighting to sit with each other instead of potential Jewish mates. Rather than getting serious with a Jewish boy, Ilana hooks up with the trip leader in the airplane bathroom, thus reaching her goal of joining “the mohel-high club.”

But more significantly still, the episode makes a strong anti-Zionist statement by rejecting the notion that diaspora Jews must travel to their so-called ancestral homeland to experience personal fulfillment and establish allegiance to the state. Abbi embarks on the trip with the cliché longing “for a spiritual experience,” hoping, as she says, “to find myself on this trip.” That discovery never happens, as the friends don’t even get to leave the airport in Israel. In their attempt to steal tampons from first class, the women are apprehended under suspicion of terrorism. After being questioned by Israeli agents, they’re sent back to the US.

Rather than express dismay at their aborted journey, Abbi and Ilana share excitement about their return to New York, where they can get falafel that’s “even better than the real deal.” This poke at the association between Israel, cultural authenticity and spiritual homecoming adds to the episode’s sunny vision of two diaspora Jews’ failure to “return” to the “homeland.” On Broad City, New York–in all its beauty and grubbiness–is home. Ilana’s “NYC” mesh crop top, worn over a visible turquoise bra, is her closest declaration of geographical allegiance. In his novel Absurdistan, Gary Shteyngart has his protagonist announce “Israel isn’t really my country. New York is.” Ilana could easily say the same thing. In fact, the final season is, in many ways, a love letter to New York, taking the characters through all the boroughs, and, implicitly encouraging viewers to embrace urban citizenship over nationalism.

Whitewashing Jewishness

For all its norm-bending, Broad City hasn’t avoided some crucial pitfalls. For instance, Kyla Wazana Tompkins and Rebecca Wanzo note that with Abbi’s employment as a gym cleaner, the show reinforces “the idea that specific types of people shouldn’t live like this,” such as middle-class white Jewish girls. We, as audience members, are expected to laugh at her, as the “the joke seems to turn on her constant disappointment, but also on the abjection in her cleaning toilets.” Abbi’s disappointment reaches its climax when Maria, a Latinx woman gets promoted to trainer. But the show doesn’t call into question Abbi’s feelings of being unfairly overlooked.

Cultural appropriation has also been a recurring issue for the show. Ilana’s “Latina” earrings, which, at one point, she dons before masturbating, are a bad choice, because she’s not Latinx and because “becoming” Latina for the purpose of self-arousal relies on the racist assumption that Latinx people are inherently sexual. As Bernstein notes, “the association between Latina women and sexual appetite has a very troubling, colonizing history” and a supposedly-woke white woman playing at being Latina is an example of hipster racism. Thankfully, the show takes responsibility for this particular mistake in a later episode. In “Rat Pack,” Jaime, Ilana’s Latinx roommate, confronts her about the earrings saying “It’s almost like you’re stealing the [Latina] identity from people who fought hard against colonial structures.” In the final season, we see Ilana proudly sporting the same style of earrings but with the word “Jewess.” Though a gift from Lincoln, the earrings, as worn by Ilana, represent an attempt to correct appropriative behavior, although the act still doesn’t go beyond a surface display of “progress.”

Other fashion statements are also problematic. In “Working Girls” Ilana buys a white “power suit” in order to again look more professional in the workplace; this is a provocative and funny pun until the suit causes her to imagine enslaving her workers. The scene, which features people of color working to “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” uses images of a traumatic past, not Ilana’s, to present an edgy visual gag. The joke is about Ilana’s misguided efforts, but as Bernstein and Yohana Desta suggest, it’s also cheap, as well as potentially triggering to black American viewers.

“Knockoffs” is another episode where self-directed humor also comes at the expense of a marginalized group. Ilana’s mother attempts to purchase fake designer bags in Chinatown, a situation that plays on the stereotype of Jewish miserliness and materialism. However, Asians do not go unscathed in the episode. As Tompkins and Wanzo assert “the way that nonwhites literally lead the white Jewish characters into the sewer” in search of the knockoffs is not good optics, particularly for a show that only presents one-dimensional Asian American characters.

Perhaps Broad City’s biggest missed opportunity is to show that Jewishness isn’t synonymous with whiteness. Granted, the sitcom uses biographical material, and Abbi and Ilana are white, but given its array of supporting characters, it could’ve introduced Jews of other racial categories. We never see, for instance, female or non-binary figures who live at the intersection of Jewishness and blackness. To offer this representation would be to interrogate what differentiates Abbi and Ilana’s experiences due to their relative positions of privilege.

Broad City is an important show for both its advancements and its missteps. While the series flips some tired scripts, regarding Jewish gender identity and geopolitical allegiance, it also reproduces harmful and avoidable tropes affecting multiple marginalized groups. So while I’m grateful that the show helped me feel more seen, I wish that it had worked harder to do the same for others.

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