2 Broke Girls: A Study in Polarisation

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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.

They actually had to invent a girl for this film. Middle Earth has one strong glass ceiling.
They actually had to invent a girl for this film. Middle Earth has one strong glass ceiling.

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.

For a show set in the past, it was fairly progressive.
For a show set in the past, it was fairly progressive.

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.

This is the least offensive picture I could find at it STILL looks like he is about to do something offensive.
This is the least offensive picture I could find at it STILL looks like he is about to do something offensive.

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.

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  1. Let’s see. Horrible writing, horrible acting, horrible producing, the worst laugh track on TV, and the 2 girls in the lead are anything but gorgeous. I’ve watched most of 4 episodes over the last couple of years and haven’t even had a hint of a grin. Worst show on TV.

  2. epperson

    when it first came on air i had high hopes for it, sure the racist feel against han sucked and hoped it would die down, which it did JUST for it to come back again in these newer seasons

    the oleg character is awesome but his been removed as one of the important characters as they’re giving him less air-time, the rich boss that max was helping as a babysitter was great but they wrote her out for NO reason

    jesus farking CHRIST who is writing these scripts and ruining the show??

    they finally fixed it abit with the deke character who was funny as the show was getting very boring and the one-liners weren’t funny at all..

    but due to MORONS hating his character now we’re back to trailer trash comedy, and you know it is with lindsay lohan in it

    the brainwashing pro gei agenda garbage isn’t disappearing anytime soon aswell

    anyone notice the latest episode with lindsay?? caroline just HAPPENS to drop a not so subtle line about that they make fudge-packing wedding cakes and straight wedding cakes, THEN at the end deliberately do the lesbian wedding dance AND have lindsay say she’s a rug muncher now

  3. Shavonne Wyman

    I watch the show because it’s mindless fun. It does look like they are improving at times but it’s still hilarious at times. Especially the first season. Last season was kind of hit or miss. This season is a bit better than the last but not as go as the first. Plus I love me some Kat Denning.

  4. Emaloo

    Ah the Bechdel Test, so important! While I’m all for media portrayals of women that focus on more than their sexual relationships, that’s not to say there’s anything wrong with this. Women conversing about relationships are not meaningless, it’s merely overdone. What needs to be focused on is that there should more facets of women portrayed in the media, not the exclusion of one type. I wouldn’t want to see movies only about women superhero movies anymore than I would want to see movies that are only about female relationships. The goal should be to broaden the genre, not trade one subject for another. As a woman, I’m interested in many things and the media should reflect that. Like how 2 Broke Girls focuses on their friendship and their business.

  5. veramosley

    I can see your dilemma, however, I agree with others when I believe the point of humor and undertones is just like any other comedy. It’s success is due to it’s original content and dynamics from all characters. In this case, I believe this show portrays more realistic yet satirical portrayals of women as they grow in life.

  6. Christina Cady

    I’ve only seen a few episodes of 2 Broke Girls so I might be off base but from the elements that you highlighted in the article it seems that the show shares some of the strengths of HBO’s Girls. Girls too focuses on friendships, the show has many female leads, and the show deals with much more than romance (of course (HBO being HBO) there is a lot of sex, but still.) Although beyond those themes I imagine that the shows are completely different, I think that- as you mentioned above -there is something to be said about this dynamic of women in comedy. Any thoughts on how these shows relate? Thanks for the article!

  7. Jamie Tracy

    Veep would be an interesting comparison as well.

    I feel like you had two articles squeezed together here. It would generate more discussion if we could focus on either relationships between female stars of television shows or racist “humor” in television.

    I watched the first season of the show and enjoyed its “edgy-ness”. I find it odd that shows that use humor like this are condemned but shows like SNL are approved because it is satire. Can’t we use the satire veil on “2 Broke Girls” as well?

  8. thomas v

    Im a guy and straight.. and I thought id check it out because the the 2 girls in the lead are gorgeous but its actually hilarious. Im impressed

  9. This show is the female equivalent of another show which shouldn’t be on television….. “Two and a Half Men”…..

    I admit….. I used to watch it because Beth Behrs’ legs remind me of my Wife when we first met….. but after this season’s opener when in the closing scene they showed what was supposed to be a homeless guy urinating on Ms. Behrs’ head….. that was it for me…..

    it’s vulgar disgusting humor at best…

  10. Aurelia Howell

    The Big Bang Theory is funnier.
    I find 2 Broke Girls funny but not as funny as BBT.

  11. Dominique Barrows

    The show runner needs to go NOW! Someone needs to be brought in and re-focus the show on the diner.

    • They’re not going to fire Mike King because no matter how idiotic the episode plots become, the core audience will still tune in for the T&A and raunchy jokes. They could have Dennings and Behrs walking around literally speaking gibberish in those waitress costumes for 22 minutes and the show would still pull decent ratings.

      Also, CBS would never get away with firing King because:

      –He owns a substantial chunk of the show.

      –The ratings are too high.

    • Tinisha

      You really don’t understand how network shows are run. When the creator/show runner owns a substantial piece of the show, which MPK presumably does, it’s virtually impossible for the network airing the show to force out the show runner. They could try to use their ownership interest to fire him/her, but realistically their only choice is to cancel the how. CBS is not going to cancel a ratings winner like 2BG because they could face shareholder lawsuits if they did.

      • You don’t have to understand how shows are run to have an opinion, my guy. Also, where in this article did the author demand the show runner get booted?

  12. Jane Harkness

    Like many who commented, I, too had high hopes for the show when it came out, but I could barely get through one episode. Even though I’m a huge fan of comedy in all forms and don’t find many topics taboo, relying on racist stereotypes and “edgy” sexual harassment jokes just comes across as lazy writing.

  13. This entire season has been horrible. The episodes just keep getting worse.

  14. Some may disagree But I think 2 Broke girls id humorous. Not no where near the Big Bang Theory but definitely up there.

  15. Monique

    I love Kat Dennings and wanted to like 2BG, but I didn’t make it through the first season, which was frustrating to me. I felt like by skipping it I was endorsing the “women can’t be funny” bullshit, and honestly the women in the show are fine. It’s the horrible, racist male characters I can’t take.

    Also, I felt bad for the horse. Clearly no one in the writer’s room understands they were portraying animal cruelty. Or, well, given the ‘jokes’ Han tells, maybe the writer’s room is just that horrible.

  16. How come this is the first time I hear about this series…?

  17. LauraThorp

    I was actually a big fan of this series when it first began. I’ve been wathcing it since it premiered (I’m also a fan of Kat Dennings, so I was excited for her to have a lead role in a comedy) and I managed to make it through the second season. After that, I just couldn’t take it anymore. Part of it was the fact that I had grown weary of the same old sitcom structure that’s not just particular to this show. You know the whole “the main characters get into some sort of shenanigans/problem that gets solved by the end of the show”, and it happens week after week. But my big problem is the comedic structure of the show that you alluded to. Every other thing the two girls say is a one-liner about Sam’s past, Caroline’s father or her former wealth, or a degrading comment about one of the many racially stereotypical characters. I just wish this show could have to funny female leads that didn’t have to depend on jokes about actually problematic life experiences or jokes that just put other people down.

  18. I agree that this show has the worst kind of stereotypes when it comes to race, but on the flip side it is one of the few sitcoms I know that actually shows the ethnic diversity of a city like New York – think something like Friends and How I Met Your Mother and their fully-WASP main cast. Not necessarily a defence of the show, but food for thought.

  19. Kincaid

    Luis and “Big Mary” John are two great additions to the show! They are both funny and provide a nice balance to humor brought out by the girls. Give them more screen time and more lines!

  20. I feel the exact same way as I watch this show. On the one hand I love the two female leads, particularly Max’s character who is unafraid to talk about her body and sexuality as so many men have done in other shows. I do find myself too feeling uncomfortable and questioning the logic behind the blatant racism and sexism. However, is it possible that these jokes might be intended to make us uncomfortable to lead us to question why we often laugh at or excuse such comments? Given that this is mainstream media, I doubt it but you never know.

  21. debra shampaner

    I like your opinion of this show but when you sarcasticly stated that everyone knows 2 woman characters aren’t funny ,so they have to throw in some idiotic male characters, haven’t these tv guys seen Lucy and Ethel? Yeah they were married but the funniest things happened between those two. Rosanne and Jackie are another pair. Laura had millie… Yeah they are all married. True but they were hilarious when they interacted with each other when the men were not there. Remember?

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