Can Broad City Rape Rape Culture?


For weeks, I’ve been looking forward to the season premiere of Broad City—mostly because I was hoping to writing a detailed think-piece about how Abbi’s love of Bed Bath & Beyond is the least cynical and most hopeful romance of our time—and last night, it finally arrived. Bringing with it a male rape scene.

In season two, episode one of Broad City, Abbi rapes Seth Rogen. They are having sex, he passes out from heat stroke and she either a.) comes before noticing (a generous interpretation) or b.) notices and finishes anyway. In some ways, Abbi’s actions seem excusable—we see in the lead up to his losing consciousness that Seth Rogen—as “Male Stacy”—unquestionably wants to have sex with her. Had he not passed out, he would have thoroughly enjoyed the ending and, as we see later in the episode, he’s not bothered by what transpires. “He seriously wanted it,” Abbi tells Ilana the morning after the sex occurs. Ilana acts as the voice of doubt, arguing, “That is literally what [male rapists] say.”

This uncomfortable truth leads Abbi (and the audience) to a terrible realization: “Dude, I raped him. I raped Male Stacy. I’m a monster.”

Having written a lot about rape in television, I feel I should have a clear stance on this risky turn in Broad City‘s narrative, but the truth is that I don’t. I mean, I have feelings about what happened (lots of them), but I’m not entirely sure how or if it changes my feelings about the show or what they’re trying to say about rape. So I’ve turned to others to help me out.

Here’s Slate’s interpretation, written by Amanda Hess:

…In the alternate universe constructed between Jacobson and Glazer, women engage in activities that were previously unthinkable not just on television, but in life. The typical gender hierarchy is suspended and replaced by an all-powerful female friendship that rules everything and everyone around it. Young women in particular are fascinated by the show not just because it revolves around them, but is set in a universe where the world revolves around them, too.

Later, she adds:

…The sex on Broad City is completely untethered from all the typical social and physical consequences that our culture promises to sexually active women. When sex goes awry, Abbi and Ilana are the victims of their own idiosyncrasies, not male aggression. The women are consumed exclusively with what they want, and never what men do. The lesson Abbi learns from taking advantage of a passed-out Stacy is that she needs an air conditioner in her apartment to prevent guys from passing out again.

After reading Hess’ take on the episode, my general feeling was still one of ambivalence. Next, I turned to my male friends who watch the show.

“I stopped watching right after [Abbi and Ilana] discussed [the rape] because I didn’t think it was funny,” one said over Gchat.

“That scene with the back sweat gave me the skeevies,” offered another.

But what about the rape? Did it bother him?

“I just thought it was ‘eh,'” he replied, changing topics to the cold open in which Ilana slaps a Hasidic man’s butt on a crowded subway car. “The thing that struck a chord was the Hasids on the train—when she smacked him on the ass for some reason. That felt awkward to me.”

And I still don’t know how to feel.

There’s a myth that feminist TV bloggers love talking and making a big deal about rape scenes, but the truth is actually the opposite. I hate writing about rape scenes. I hated writing about them on Game of Thrones. I hated writing about the near-rape on Louie. I hate writing this now. It’s an exhausting and complicated subject that elicits extreme emotions and reactions in people. Beyond “rape is bad” (and it is, no matter who it’s happening to), there is rarely a clear answer when interpreting a rape scene in art. And Broad City certainly isn’t trying to make it easier on us.

While Broad City isn’t condoning Abbi’s actions, it’s not fully condemning them either. Last night’s premiere somehow managed to skewer both rape culture and the occasionally sloppy and one dimensional way that we define it.

“Hey, it’s OK,” Ilana tells Abbi, who’s distraught over what she’s done. “It’s reverse rapism. You are raping rape culture.”

The ridiculousness of Ilana’s statement is far from accidental. Jacobson, Glazer and their writers are sharp, comedic minds who know what they’re doing, which makes you wonder whether or not Ilana’s unwitting hypocrisy is representative of the episode—and the critics who’ll go to extremes to either condemn or praise it—as a whole.

One thing that’s certain about season two is that Glazer and Jacobson will not be treating their audience with kid gloves and for that, at least, I’m glad. What’s great about Broad City has always been Abbi and Ilana’s insistence that they are awesome even when the world (myself included) is trying to tell them otherwise. They should push back at the audience, challenge our perceptions and continue to make the tv show that they want to make—even if it contains moments that I don’t particularly like.

At least we’ll always have Bed Bath & Beyond.

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