Broad City's Amorphous Partiality
Adrienne Rich was not writing in an age when women could video chat each other while riding their male partners cowgirl-style. But when she wrote about existence as a spectrum of decentralized pleasure—about the hands and the clit and the cunt, about the wrists and the toes rather than the vagina—she might as well have been writing about Broad City.
Season One, Episode One: The opening image of the show. Abbi and Ilana—two young women whose codependent best friendship and stoned New York City adventures star in the Comedy Central series—are video chatting. Ilana bounces to music as the women plan their day. Or we think Ilana is bouncing to music. Suddenly, she adjusts the webcam, and we discover that Ilana is mid-intercourse with a man.
“Okay,” says an exasperated Abbi. “I don’t want to see you have sex.”
“That was hot. That was cool. That was like a threesome,” Ilana says.
Abbi and Ilana are partners. They spend each day together. They video chat in the morning and before bed. They are obsessed with each other. They are, for all intents and purposes, in love. But Abbi and Ilana never have genital sex.
Other characters think that Abbi and Ilana have sex. Ilana wants to have sex. She routinely attempts to glimpse Abbi naked; she suggests they try a sexual position called the “Arc de Triomphe”; her world shatters, momentarily, when she learns that Abbi has made out with another girl. Abbi always turns Ilana down.
Yet Abbi and Ilana’s relationship is intensely, even grossly, physical. Ilana stores the pair’s weed in her vagina. She manually moves Abbi’s poop when Abbi’s crush is over and the toilet is clogged. Even the more squeamish Abbi likes to call Ilana during hookups: post-sex next to a sleeping man in bed, or from the bathroom mid-sexual encounter to discuss the merits of anal penetration. The women want sex, they have sex, they talk about having sex, and they do all of it together.
The weird physicality of Abbi and Ilana’s relationship—the intensely intimate, yet non genital-sexual physicality—is more than a story of best friendship. It challenges the very dichotomy between genital and non-genital eroticism. In doing so, the show speaks for and to the ambiguous snugglers and the lip balm-sharers, to those of us in wild friendship. Broad City opens up new kinds of desire with our friends.
What’s the difference between friends we do and don’t have sex with?
Despite the moral uproar about millennials being a generation of friends with benefits, our thinking has maintained a fundamental dichotomy: There is friendship, and there is romance, and the two different kinds of relationships are distinguished by whether or not we have genital sex.
This binary is hierarchical. Yes, we love our friends. Yes, we value them. But what we ultimately want—the climax of every marriage plot; the ordering logic of Sex and the City—are “significant others,” as though only our sexual relationships are significant. Or, as though sexlessness leaves us as unfinished Platonic bodies, “other halves.”
But in Broad City’s universe, Abbi and Ilana’s obsession with each other is the central story. And it’s pungently physical. Yes, the women have genital-sexual partners. But they are rapt with each other. Abbi watches erotic cupcake-eating videos with Ilana, not with her sex partner. And when Ilana goes into anaphylactic shock from a shellfish allergy, it is Abbi who, in the slow motion of a romantic hero, carries her out.
“We begin to discover the erotic in female terms: as that which is unconfined to any single part of the body…as an energy not only diffuse but, as Audre Lorde has described it, omnipresent,” writes Adrienne Rich in her 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Rich is one of a coterie of lesbian feminists, including the likes of Audre Lorde and Monique Wittig, who seek to liberate eroticism from the vagina. Though with diverse political and cultural affiliations, these theorists agree on one thing: Decentering the linear and patriarchal logic that privileges genital sex can reorder our relationships with our bodies and each other. This more diffuse eroticism is politically radical. Rich argues that non-linear lesbian pleasure challenges institutional heterosexuality. And in Wittig’s work, eroticism between women can reorder the very logic of the body.
Abbi and Ilana’s relationship follows this alternate logic. It is not the neutered homosociality of demure lady friends, the female friendship carefully sanitized, the duo in a quest for men. Ilana telling Abbi, as they sip ice coffee on Ilana’s bed, that she’ll watch her give birth even if Abbi poops during the process (“Bitch, duh!”) isn’t exactly The Lesbian Body. But it’s close.
In an essay on racialized sexuality published in The New Inquiry, Luke Pagarani argues for weird friendship as a political practice. For 2300 words he writes that Grindr culture creates a neoliberal grocery-store model of sexuality. And then he says, screw it.
Forget sex. We live in a time when friendship can be more revolutionary than sex. Society seems to fear the transformative potential of friendship, that amorphous concept of partiality...Perhaps we should take that seriously and see love as that desire to discover new desires with our friends, the base unit of politics.
With their pseudo Skype sex and strange codependence, their knowledge of each other’s habits and excrement and hands, Abbi and Ilana challenge the dominance of sexual and narrative linearity. The intense physicality of their desire for each other—the intense physicality of our desire for each other—disrupts the tyranny of the genitals.
Broad City tells us that sexless, we are not half-absence, but full to the brim. We are collaborators in pleasure with our friends.