2 Broke Girls: A Study in Polarisation
2 Broke Girls basically defines polarisation. For every person who loves it’s refreshing humour and post-feminist overtones, there are ten that vehemently denounce it as visibly racist, sexist propagandic rhetoric. I sit in between, on a very uncomfortable fence, and I will tell you why. First, however, humour me.
I would like you to think of your favourite film, the one that you would go back to a thousand times and never get bored. Think of the characters in that film. Think of the action, the plot, and suspense. Now, think of the women. Is there more than one named female character? Do they ever interact with each other? Does that interaction revolve around men and/or children? Chances are, you answered no to at least one, if not all, of those questions.
Those three questions comprise what is colloquially known as the Bechdel test. This test evaluates the level of female presence in film and television, and you would be surprised at how many films fail miserably. I should say quickly that failing this test is not an indicator of poor quality, far from it. If all films that failed the Bechdel test were terrible, I wouldn’t be comfortable liking The Hobbit. However, it does highlight just how one-sided the entertainment industry can be. Women, in Hollywood, only seem to talk to their friends about love, marriage, or children- if they have friends at all. Even films that profess to be about female friendship (Sex and the City) often devolve into a cookie cutter romantic comedy focusing more on sexual exploits than any meaningful interactions between women. Naturally, there are notable exceptions to this rule, but that’s the point I am trying to make- if you have to think HARD about films with female friends, doesn’t that belie a problem? The fact that these films exist is fine, but why are they the norm for women in cinema?
However, one could argue that films are short, they don’t have time to go in depth on female relationships (even though they make time to develop male ones). What about television? Surely, with extended run time over the course of years, the female relationship will develop! Well, sort of. Some of the most popular television programs today barely pass the Bechdel test. Game of Thrones? Barely a pass. Big Bang Theory? Up until the introduction of Bernadette and Amy, a complete fail. Two and a Half Men? Fails…on all levels. Throughout the course of 3+ seasons, of course there is maybe one short conversation between women on the show, but does that make the still wide imbalance somehow okay? How I Met Your Mother is a notable exception, with Robin and Lily being shown to be very close, but ask yourself- how many of those conversations were about their relationships? Same with Sex and the City and Friends– for shows all about, uh, friends, they sure don’t talk about much that isn’t men/juggling love and work/children. This is where 2 Broke Girls comes in.
From the beginning, I had high hopes for the show. I mean, come on- a cast led by women and focusing on a female relationship? That hasn’t been de rigueur since the days of Xena: Warrior Princess. The show centers on the lives and exploits of two unlikely friends, streetwise and sarcastic Max (Kat Dennings) and former New York socialite Caroline (Beth Behrs), as they attempt to raise money for their burgeoning cupcake business. Not only does the show focus heavily on the gradual building of trust in their friendship, it (fairly accurately) depicts the rise and fall of their professional ambitions. Sure, romance is a key factor in their lives, but it isn’t like every episode focuses on a new man (looking at you, Sex and the City). In addition, the characters come from stock backgrounds (rich/poor, cynic/idealist), but their development throughout the series is deep and wide ranging, with new facets of their personalities emerging each episode, seamlessly woven into their back story. I am on board. I am completely on board.
Well, except for the racism thing.
Apart from the two main characters, we have Han, the stereotypical Asian owner of the diner in which Max and Caroline work. To say he is a hideous caricature would be understatement. Mickey Rooney (RIP) in Breakfast at Tiffanys was less insulting. Han is small statured, greedy, grasping, and in perpetual thrall to his mother. While, yes, he is a ‘nice’ character, his heroic moments are punctuated by a sense of surprise that suggests ‘Wow, this little ethnic guy can really pack a punch’. Condescending to the extreme. Then, of course, we have Oleg, the Ukrainian cook. I’m not sure what the people of Ukraine would think about Oleg (though I imagine they have other, larger, concerns right now), the inappropriate, sexually explicit and rude man that he is. Though he has a heart of gold, does this really excuse thinly veiled sexual harassment?
Speaking of, just because Caroline and Max brush off the sexually explicit comments made by Oleg, it doesn’t make them hilarious. The laugh track makes these moments light and airy, when in reality, without the laugh, they are quite menacing. Max also jokes about her absentee mother and abusive childhood, the tragedy of which is never actually considered. Sure, I am reading too far into this. A joke is a joke. However, it does disappoint me that a show that get’s it so right on some levels, is brought down by things that are so easy to just…not have. Who sat in the writer’s room and said “Yes, that is a great way of portraying the Korean-American man. No one will be offended by that” or “Ha! He asked her to touch his junk in the workplace. GOLD!”?
Perhaps this is a touch of fear from the writers and producers. It is a gamble (apparently) to have a comedy based around women. As we all know, women aren’t funny. Thus, they barricade the leads with racial stereotypes and junk jokes, sandwiching contemporary humour and edgy development with jokes and characters from the turn of the century. What could go wrong? Thus, you see why I sit on the edge.
A big part of me wants to sit back and just enjoy the ride. The very fact that this show exists is a breakthrough for women, as it is inexorable proof that women alone can be funny, interesting, and worth watching without romantic drama. However, the racism and sexual harassment jokes are, unfortunately, beyond me. I am one of those people who thinks comedy shouldn’t have limits, but it doesn’t mean I have to watch or listen. If I were in control, I’d pare back the racism and focus on what makes the show great- Max and Caroline. As it is…I think I will just go and watch Parks and Recreation.
What do you think? Leave a comment.