Broad City: A Story of Friendship, or Unrequited Love?
by Iman Hussein
Broad City is Comedy Central’s recent breakout show and the anthem for every eccentric woman living in a realistic major city. If you haven’t heard of the show, Broad City follows two quirky Jewish best friends, Abbi and Ilana, as they try to live a millennial lifestyle in New York City. Abbi and Ilana’s antics and urban adventures are what you dream of doing while living in NYC, but what makes the show so amazing is Ilana and Abbi’s friendship. But, as the show progresses, I’ve begun to notice a deeply depressing reality in Broad City. The friendship that so many young women have aspired to is actually a well-hidden dynamic that only brings tragedy: one-sided love. As Broad City’s plot deepens and develops, Ilana’s undying romantic love for Abbi becomes more and more apparent.
Broad City’s first season captured our humor and our hearts with Abbi and Ilana’s weird, urban adventures. From crazy hookups to a pop-up Lil’ Wayne concert, viewers couldn’t help but feel like a third member of the already awesome twosome. We all got to see an often-used trope of two best friends—one seemingly normal friend, and her crazily quirky best friend/sidekick that always manages to get them into some crazy trouble around the city—flipped upside down. Broad City’s primary friendship dynamic is a result of the new trend seen in buddy comedies. Ilana is no one’s sidekick; she’s a fantastic farce, and everyone knows it. Both Abbi and Ilana are two peas in a weird-ass pod, so much so that you can’t help but hope for the best for them.
The first season, though, avoids clarifying something for us—sexuality. All we’re allowed to know is whatever interaction fits the given episode’s premise. We know Abbi is in love with her neighbor, Jeremy, while Ilana’s in a relationship with Lincoln Rice, a dentist. But Ilana’s sexual innuendos and hints show hidden preferences that remain devoid of any acknowledgments or conclusions throughout season one. Ilana’s unacknowledged sexuality indicates that Abbi and Ilana’s friendship clearly takes precedence over any of their other relationships in the show, including Ilana’s relationship with Lincoln.
Lincoln, played by Hannibal Buress, is initially viewed as Ilana’s boyfriend, but as the show continues, Lincoln is Ilana’s primary—but not only—relationship. This means Ilana had been, and is open to, dating whomever she wants. In season one, it was only men; in season two, we see her add women into the mix. Ilana is then either pansexual, omnisexual, bisexual, or definitely open to a relationship (or sex) with a woman. But this isn’t wholly acknowledged in the show; Broad City skims over her identity in the face of their strange escapades. Once you do notice Ilana’s ambiguous sexuality, her compliments, touches, and looks, seem to come from a different place, especially in season two.
As season two begins, we see less of how Abbi and Ilana interact with one another and more of how they interact with everyone else. From Ilana’s family to Abbi’s neighbors, quirkiness is a consistent quality amongst Abbi and Ilana’s friends and family. Once we have other solid relationships present in the storyline, we notice Ilana’s intensity and loyalty to Abbi above everyone else, including her romantic partners. If it’s not Lincoln she’s not committing to, it’s her perfect match (Alia Shawkat). I even would go so far as to say Ilana’s dislike of commitment and her open relationship with Lincoln are her ways of being always available for Abbi. For example, in Season 2, Episode 1, Ilana helps find an air conditioning unit for Abbi instead of remembering Lincoln’s birthday and getting him a birthday present. Season 2 Episode 3 saw Ilana risk life and limb to help Abbi. These are just some of many examples presented in Broad City of how far Ilana will go to prove her devotion to Abbi.
You may want to argue that’s just some real sisterly love for you right there, but I got the receipts that say otherwise. If you look at Ilana as an individual, she’s this badass, beautiful female that gives no fucks (and is capable of rocking some black lipstick that I could only dream about). Ilana is the twenty-first-century complete package people can’t help but be drawn to on the regular. So what is it that keeps Ilana from experiencing a genuinely open and romantic connection with someone or with multiple people? It hit me that Ilana is the modern-day “Unrequited Tragic Maiden” (1).
The Unrequited Tragic Maiden is the ideal partner, but somehow doesn’t make the cut as a romantic prospect for their intended love interest (in this case, because Abbi’s straight and Ilana is clearly not). Instead, they’re “friendzoned” hard. Typically, they’re overshadowed by another character (either Jeremy or Abbi’s other relationships) that manages to make the maiden’s intended lover fall for them instead of her. The maiden recognizes the differing feelings of her love interest and decides to give up her own feelings for the sake of the person she loves.
Ilana is the classic maiden (minus the tragedy, because she’s fabulous) with the typical corresponding tropes like the disposable boyfriend and commitment issues (1). Most importantly, Ilana lives up to her role as a confidante to still be around and be affectionate with Abbi without facing blatant rejection (1). For instance, the Season 3 premiere showed Ilana calling Abbi “sexy” and “smart” while they’re in the midst of trying to find a bathroom and get to an art show. At the end of the episode, Abbi helps Ilana take off the bike lock she has had wrapped around her body all day. All the while, Ilana dropped sexual innuendos to an uncomfortable Abbi. Even Ilana’s roommate, Jaime, thought he was interrupting something way too sexual for his comfort! It wasn’t until I saw Jaime’s expression that all the pieces began to fall into place.
Broad City, whether intentional or not, speaks to all the queer women that have fallen in love with their straight best friends. The only people who can see the tragic dynamic are the women that could never make that one person love them equally because of their orientation or gender. Ilana is clearly in love with her best friend, and she knows she cannot change that fact. Our quirky girl falls into the same love trap as Sasha in Life Partners, Ivan Beyonce Aycock in The L Word, Tess in Lip Service, Alike in Pariah, and so many unlucky “maidens” that fall for friends that’ll never truly love them back.
We’ve all been Ilana—whether we’re gay, straight, bisexual, or queer—as we’ve pined for people in our lives that’ll never love us more than platonically. Female friendship often draws a fine line between platonic and romantic love, if both or either parties aren’t straight. By glossing over this fact, Broad City has gone from a show about strong female friendship to the worst kind of unrequited love I’ve ever seen. As the show continues, I hope Ilana figures out her feelings for Abbi and thinks about whether her life is going the way she wants it to or not. I hope she figures it out for the “maiden” in all of us.
1: "Unrequited Tragic Maiden - TV Tropes." TV Tropes. TVTropes, n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2016.
Art by Koyuki Sakurada