Challenging white feminism in entertainment

By Sarah Buchlaw

Since “Broad City” first aired in 2014, creators Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson have been hailed as television’s favorite feminists. The show follows the lives of best friends Ilana and Abbi, who play themselves, living in New York City. Glazer and Jacobson have certainly broken boundaries as two successful Jewish women on television. They are honest, flawed, hilarious, and yes — irrevocably white.

It is no secret that women are still fighting to be represented on screen as often (and as authentically) as men are. According to Women and Hollywood, 42 percent of all speaking roles in the 2016-17 television season were played by women, and far fewer wrote and produced their own shows as Jacobson and Glazer are doing.

42 percent might not sound so bad, but 19 percent of those 2016-17 speaking roles were played by black women, 6 percent by Asian women and only 5 percent were played by Latinx women. The differences are even more striking in film, where a study by Dr. Martha Lauthen reveals that 76 percent of female movie roles are portrayed by white women.

“Broad City” is the first show I have seen starring two openly Jewish women with whom I share history, tradition and humor. Being able to relate to characters in that way is rare, so watching Abbi and Ilana can be comforting. “Broad City,” however, is perhaps the 400th show in which I have watched two women who look vaguely like me on screen.

“Insecure,” an HBO staring creator Issa Rae, works to give young women of color the kind of on-screen role models that white female watchers have long been given.

Similarly to “Broad City,” “Insecure” centers around the everyday lives of Issa and her best friend, Molly (played by Yvonne Orji), two black women in Los Angeles. The show is a hybrid of comedy and drama; it celebrates not only the joy and comedy of romantic and platonic relationships, but the confusion and heartbreak that go hand-in-hand.

There are, of course, several differences in the content of “Broad City” and “Insecure,” but both center around a complex friendship between two women. Rae, Jacobsen and Glazer are also all executive producers of their own shows. Finally, both “Broad City” and “Insecure” began as web series, although Rae’s web series, “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl,” took two more years than “Broad City” did to get picked up by a network.

The rise to fame has not been easy or uncomplicated for any of these three women, but Jacobson and Glazer certainly benefitted from the significant (albeit recent) institutional representation of white women before them. Their predecessors include women like Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, who created, wrote, produced and starred in their own shows (“Parks and Recreation” and “30 Rock,” respectively).

Rae, however, is “the first black woman to create and star in a premium cable series,” as acknowledged by Time Magazine’s list of “Firsts.” The magazine quotes Rae on her inspiration to create relatable characters who look like her: “For so long, entertainment executives have said the reason they don’t cast people of color is that they’re not relatable onscreen. It’s such a segregationist mentality, and I always knew that it was false.”

This double standard is precisely what I hope to highlight in this article; since the time of suffrage, white women have been allowed to represent the reality of both white and nonwhite women. “Broad City” is doing great things for television and for this generation’s girls, but it can not be the extent of female representation in television.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy watching women defy the rules of traditional female characters, no matter their race. But I fear that as an audience, we make two mistakes when we watch shows like “Broad City.” First, we are so excited to see gender diversity on screen that we forget to demand the layer of racial diversity our media still severely lacks. Second, we are so busy celebrating the rare attention being brought to sexism that we forgive Jacobson and Glazer for failing to be intersectional.

Few viewers batted an eye when Ilana dawned hoop earrings that spelled out “Latina,” or when virtually the only Latinx character on “Broad City,” Maria, was a cleaner who spoke in broken English and appeared in only three episodes. People like Huffington Post’s Senior Cultural Writer, Zeba Blay, have also pointed out that Glazer’s character speaks frequently in African American Vernacular English (AAVE).

Rae’s “Insecure” offers a far more nuanced narrative of feminism that includes the intersection of race and gender. “Insecure” discusses issues such as discrimination against black women in the workplace, and Latinx racism and homophobia in the black community.

White women have little incentive to call out the racial insensitivity in “Broad City” because we benefit from Jacobson and Glazer’s narrower version of feminism. I think this is why “Insecure” has received feedback from primarily white audiences criticizing its discussion of race; such conversations seem to us unnecessarily complicated, or even inconvenient. We are rarely required to think and act intersectionally as white women, so watching a show that does so can be confusing.

One IMDb reviewer’s comment illustrates this issue quite clearly. They write:
“Unfortunately the second episode was ruined by too many remarks about peoples (sic) color. It gets very boring very quickly because of that. For once I would love to watch a program that didn’t have to constantly remind you what a persons color was. I mean hey, guess what, I can see what color everyone is already. It just seems so cheesy to have the reminders. Or is that all the show is going to be about. Seems limiting.”

It is okay to love “Broad City” and to identify with Abbi and Ilana, but that does not mean we can’t hold the show — and television as a whole — to the highest standard possible. This also means acknowledging why shows like “Insecure” often make us uncomfortable, and supporting a media culture where “Insecure” is not the only show of its kind.

I think that Jacobson and Glazer deserve much of the praise they have gotten. I simply hope that we challenge more of white feminism on and off the screen, and that we reward more diverse female role models like Rae.

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