“Broad City” Swan-Dives Off Sapphic Cliff Into Sea Of Sexual Fluidity

Here’s a thing you might have or might’ve had in common with Broad City‘s brassy aspirational anti-heroine Ilana Wexler: she’s got an unrequited desire to bang her straight best friend. Here’s a thing you may or may not have in common with Ilana Wexler: her straight best friend finds this desire totally unremarkable. Maybe a little funny, but definitely not weird or gross or scary or any of those other bad feelings we’re socialized to fear when genuine girl crushes get confessed. It’s a running gag, almost, how Ilana and Abbi are clearly in love with each other and Ilana sees no reason why that shouldn’t lead to touching each other’s boobs. Neither seem interested in boyfriends, although they’re both very interested in having sex with boys and Ilana has a fuck-buddy friend, Lincoln, who seemingly wants a more serious relationship with Ilana but isn’t mad at her for withholding it. Last night, however, it was made abundantly clear that Ilana’s sexual fluidity — which’s all tied up in the “hedonist” identity and aggressive pursuit of pleasure ascribed to her by Glazer and Jacobson — doesn’t begin and end with Abbi. She meets a girl and falls for her and the fact that the human she fell for is a girl remains, obviously, unremarkable. It’s actually not remarked upon (which is part of the joke, too, that they’re never gonna say the thing you think they’re gonna say, they’ll just hint at it). In a show touted for revealing unexpressed truths about the inner lives of the modern millennial female, this one is especially welcome: for a lot of women, Ilana included, gender really isn’t a factor when it comes to sexual or romantic attraction. This is a reality about human beings that has always been true, but only in recent generations has it become okay to freely discuss and present on television.

In last night’s episode, Ilana and Abbi secure a gig working coat check at a charity event. On her way back from the bathroom, Ilana spots and falls instantly in lust with Adele (Alia Shawkat), who is very clearly Ilana’s doppelgänger, although Ilana herself doesn’t realize this at first. (Sidenote: the real Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson met in an improv class, and for the first few weeks of said class, Abbi thought that Ilana was Alia Shawkat. I imagine that’s what inspired this week’s episode.) “Abbi, I just saw the hottest girl I have ever seen. We had the most incredible spark,” Ilana excitably tells her best friend. “You’re right, I have to find her,” she affirms, although Abbi’s yet to say anything of the sort, as Abbi is consequently left to deal with the mess created by Ilana’s misunderstanding of how coat check works. After her first romantic evening with Adele, Ilana is eager for Abbi to meet her. Abbi points out that she’s never met any of Ilana’s other love interests, so this is a pretty big deal — she only met Lincoln because Ilana forgot she was with him that one time.

I mean, it's FINE to get fruits and vegetables at Safeway, but why WOULD you when there's a farmer's market?

Hopes for a two-episode arc are summarily squashed when Abbi informs Ilana that she and Adele look exactly alike, which freaks Ilana out as much as it turns Adele on. “I have sex with people different from me,” Ilana explains to Adele as they sit on the bed in their bras, facing each other, after Ilana called off sex smack dab in the middle of it. “Different colors, different shapes, different sizes. People who are hotter; people who are uglier. More smart; not more smart. Innies; outies. I don’t know, a Catholic person.” I held my breath through that whole bit, waiting for Ilana to segue into an explanation of why, due to her attraction to difference, she doesn’t like girls. But it never goes there. She never says that. It’s probably part of the joke, you know? Then Ilana says they can still be friends, and lights up a joint, offering it to Adele — but Adele doesn’t smoke pot. Thus we learn one difference that Ilana just can’t deal with. The affair is over.

Screenshot 2015-03-12 13.11.48

Wait, so, there are people out there who DON’T read Sparia fan-fic?

Ilana’s sexual fluidity has been addressed before, but usually in the context of her relationship with Abby. In the Season One episode “Destination Wedding,” Ilana finds out that Abbi made out with a girl in college and is so jealous that she actually hyperventilates.

Abbi: Ilana, it’s not a big deal.
Ilana: It’s a huge deal! You said if you were ever going to do same-sex experimentation, it was going to be with me!
Abbi: I’ve never said that to you.
Ilana: It has been implied.
Abbi: By you.
Ilana: Well implications get responses and it takes two to tango.

Ilana only forgives Abbi for her transgression when Abbi agrees to let Ilana watch her change. Afterwards, the two hit up a strip club. They’re in suits, after all, and therefore very well-suited for a gentleman’s club — a club Ilana has very clearly visited in the past, ’cause she notices that they’ve remodeled.

An episode of the original webseries addressed this tension head-on, when Ilana and Abbi’s decision to spend Valentine’s Day together leads Ilana to believe, incorrectly, that they’re on a romantic date:

It’s a very cool show for so many reasons, and Ilana’s sexual openness is one of the show’s coolest elements for queer female audiences. A New York Magazine profile released this week describes the characters as “horny, sometimes bi-curious young ladies, rolling joints and scraping by, keeping it casual with the men in their lives, while reserving their most raging affection for each other.” The lesbian subtext between many of television’s prominent female best-friend pairs in pop culture has been over-analyzed and celebrated and, often, invented, by queer fans, but Broad City successfully punts this subtext into full-on “text” without needing anybody to actually go all the way.

Until a few years ago, our hope that any of these onscreen romantic friendships would be acknowledged or turn into something more like the late-19th-and-early-20th-century’s definition of “romantic friendships” was pretty much nil. In most cases, it remains so: showrunners for programs like Once Upon a Time and Rizzoli & Isles are happy just to tease and titillate their queer fans while refusing to ever risk being risky and either let the lady-leads lock lips or at least have one admit a crush on the other. But other shows aren’t quite so tentative: Glee, notably, let its two cheerleader best friends, Brittany and Santana, get married TO EACH OTHER a few weeks ago. They also let Santana have a no-strings-attached hook up with their other best friend, Quinn, at a wedding in Season FourPretty Little Liars took the familiar trope of a straight girl flirting her lesbian bestie into submission and turned it on its head: not only did Emily get a kiss from Allison, but when Allison returned from faking her death, she went straight into Emily’s bed! The bitch followed through! It was a case of queer-baiting where we actually caught the fish. Glee also recently featured a friendship between a gay guy (Blaine) and a straight guy (Sam) in which the straight guy was aware of the gay guy’s crush on him, but instead of freaking out about it, actually enjoyed it. The MTV show Faking It puts that dynamic center stage and won’t write off any possibilities for the gay girl and the straight best friend she crushes on.

While we love those storylines ’cause we love any lesbian storylines, we also love them because they’re pretty realistic. It’s not uncommon for female best friends to fall in love with each other, even if neither person identified as queer beforehand. It’s not uncommon for women who are as sexually ambitious as Ilana Wexler to not discount the possibility of female partners or wonder what it’d be like to hook up with their best friend. It’s not uncommon for a questioning girl to fall in love with her best friend.  When male-female best friends on television develop sexual tension and inspire will-they-or-wont-they speculations from fandom, we can pretty much always expect eventual consummation. At the very least, the possibility is discussed. The reverse has been true for same-sex best friendships. We’ve been trained to expect nothing, not even one of the women admitting she likes the other, which is a very basic element of that trope when hetero people are playing it out. We’ve been trained to accept that even when everything about the coupling makes sense, our heteronormative culture and conservative television audience still resists the idea that something so sensical could override what they perceive to be very stiff walls around one’s sexual orientation. For a lot of us, those walls are indeed very stiff. Indeed, for many lesbians, the concept of sexual fluidity as a default sexuality has been used against lesbians to suggest that their same-sex relationships are insignificant moments of doggy-paddling leading up to the inevitable speed-swim back to the pool of men. But for many other women, the concept of sexual fluidity is undeniably accurate and very liberating. New York Magazine enthusiastically wrote that the show is “just crazy-liberal enough to reflect the way millennials view the world,” citing it for possessing “no presiding sexual norms” and “no judgment on experimentation.”

It’s unlikely that Abbi and Ilana will ever become girlfriends or have girlfriends, but honestly, the show is funny enough and bizarrely queer enough that I don’t even need that to happen for me to like it. (Plus, Lincoln is pretty great and I don’t have any misandry feelings towards him.) It’s pretty cool in and of itself that Ilana can openly want to fuck Abbi and that this doesn’t make shit weird or freak Abby out. What last night’s episode showed us was that on this show, when it makes sense for two girls to kiss, they’ll kiss. It’s not a show that won’t consider a same-sex coupling simply because it’s a same-sex coupling. It’s also important that the running gag of Ilana’s crush on Abbi wasn’t a one-episode gimmick, but an inexorable element of their relationship. As a recent Grantland article pointed out, “This borderline sapphic intensity between female friends is nothing new, but seeing it on cable feels thrilling: Abbi and Ilana make it OK, even glamorous, to prioritize and nurture your bosom buddy over all else.” They’ll never be buddies who nurture each other’s bosoms, but every time Ilana mentions the possibility of it, thousands of gay ladies are sitting on their sofas, relating so hard and laughing louder than anybody else in the room.

wedding-episode

Riese is a Jewish lesbian and the 37-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key power lesbian and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2635 articles for us.

32 Comments

  1. That might be the greatest title of any article I’ve ever read. I’m totally changing my weekend plans to “swan diving off sapphic cliffs”…

    Broad City is such a great show and I never get tired of reading articles about why it’s so great and this article was one of my favorites because you totally explained why I feel like I can relate to this show so much when I don’t feel that way about any other show where the main characters mostly have straight hookups. Also, Lincoln is probably my favorite man on TV and I wish they could all be more like him.

  2. When I saw Maeby Fünke on my computer screen in an AS article I damn near lost my mind. I’ll be checking out this series but I dont knooooooow, I have so many shows in line to watch.

  3. Yes!!! I absolutely love this piece – it explains all of my feelings for the show in ways I would never be able to articulate, this especially sums it up:

    “It’s unlikely that Abbi and Ilana will ever become girlfriends or have girlfriends, but honestly, the show is funny enough and bizarrely queer enough that I don’t even need that to happen for me to like it. (Plus, Lincoln is pretty great and I don’t have any misandry feelings towards him.) It’s pretty cool in and of itself that Ilana can openly want to fuck Abbi and that this doesn’t make shit weird or freak Abby out. ”

    I think Abbi’s nonplussed reaction to Ilana’s obvious want to fuck her is what makes the dynamic work and not feel like pandering or baiting.

    Plus, that conversation after Ilana found out about Abbi and Marnie making out has got to be about my favourite of the whole series… “It has been implied” “By you”…. cracks me up every time I watch it. The intense friendship love is so wonderful to watch – it’s like Parks and Rec Leslie and Anne on speed. When Ilana had thought Abbi had been “SVUed” sprinting down the street screaming her name… ugh I love it.

    • omg those are the only two men on television who give me hope for the future of all men too! on tuesday i was telling my girlfriend who caleb was since she’s never watched PLL and i was like ‘he is a man i don’t hate, he’s basically a lesbian. i love him.’

    • All the PLL guys are so wet, or creepy, or annoying. Except for Caleb.

      And I love Lincoln. What a super fly, chill af dude.

      More male characters who respect women, let them do their thing and are cool with a lady outshining them.

      • like i dont even think we need to talk about how much we hate toby, ezra, andrew etc. caleb is this like beacon of light in the darkness that is the male population of rosewood
        100% agreed. two and a half men is done, (i think? maybe that was just a dream) like lets leave that in the past.

    • Don’t forget Hannibal was one of the first people to actually call out Cosby for who he really is. It was during one of his sets and people thought it was joke, but he’s was cool and like that really happened, no lie.

    • super same. especially because I’ve heard so much about it- but I didn’t know if my fragile heart could take even a tiny bit of queer baiting? But this was probably the best PSA I could have gotten. I know how I’m spending my staycation!

  4. I used to really love this show right up until the episode before this one where Ilana finds out someone they know is a sex worker and encourages Abbi to use it against them. As in, “blackmail them by holding their job over their head.” Not cool, not funny. I don’t think there’s a place for that in a show that is trying to be progressive in a lot of ways.

  5. “For a lot of us, those walls are indeed very stiff. Indeed, for many lesbians, the concept of sexual fluidity as a default sexuality has been used against lesbians to suggest that their same-sex relationships are insignificant moments of doggy-paddling leading up to the inevitable speed-swim back to the pool of men.”

    ^This comment really resonated with me. Basically I just asked a bunch of men on a kink forum I’m a part of why so many guys insist on messaging me sexually AFTER I’ve specified that I’m a lesbian, that I’m not interested in them or any man, and that I’m in a monogamous relationship with another woman. A lot of guys mansplained to me that it has been statistically shown that women are sexually fluid, sexual fluidity is common in women, women are more likely to change their sexual orientation labels, etc. Therefore, men are totally justified in ignoring my relationship and my sexual orientation because there’s a chance I might “change my mind” due to “women’s inherent sexual fluidity.” :/

  6. LOVE everything about this article. Broad City doesn’t particularly tickle my funny bone, but I really appreciate what the show is.

    “But for many other women, the concept of sexual fluidity is undeniably accurate and very liberating.” SO MUCH THIS, it took me SO LONG to come to terms with this. I think a lot of the reason is I didn’t know it could be a thing until recently, I really wish I had discovered autostraddle in college. Learning to relax and let my feelings guide me without needing a label boundary has helped me so much.

    Also the Alia Shawkat and Aubrey Plaza Getting High with Doug episode is super good and on youtube, highly recommend.

  7. Omg, I’m so glad you posted this article. Not only because I adore broad city but also because I’ve had a question for a while and I’m not sure where to post when I have random questions but this one has a little bit to do with this episode so I won’t entirely be off topic. So this is open to anyone who wants to answer this question lol.. But when I watched that episode I could sooo relate, I’ve never met a girl who looked this much like me (but think it would be sooo cool haha), however, most of the women I end up being attracted to are the same “type” as me, look a little bit like me (long wavy brown hair, brown eyes, similar skin tone, slight exotic look, etc) and I was wondering why that was the case. Am I super narcissistic or creepy or why do I like women that are similar looking than me?! Btw the men I find handsome look completely different than me, but when it comes to women they’re almost always same type as me. Haha. If anyone has some insight as to why that might be let me know 😛

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.