The Millenial Flaneuse in Broad City

Screen grab from P*$$Y Weed (Season 1, Episode 2)
Sasha Nater explores the television series Broad City to consider the extent to which the show's main characters might be considered modern-day flaneuses. The show demonstrates the unique struggles millennial women face as they navigate the city, while also offering up potential for women to make their own place in the city by navigating and narrating their everyday experiences amidst the urban environment.
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Broad City (Comedy Central, 2014–2019) features two contemporary millennial women in their twenties working, dating, and surviving New York City. Abbi and Ilana, the two main characters on the show, take us through the city using the lens of the urban flaneuse. We find ourselves following them as they explore the city on an unknown path where they bring us into both private and public spaces. These escapades are often heavily influenced by their identity as millennial women. The city at the inception of the show reflects the precarious financial situation of millennial job hunters. I chose to focus on multiple episodes to explain who these characters are fundamentally and how they change over the course of the series. Furthermore, I discuss how Abbi and Ilana epitomize the essence of the millennial flaneuse and how they build on the digital city as millennials.

Like many New Yorkers, Abbi and Ilana explore the city and often do so in unpredictable ways. This premise coincides with Michel de Certeau’s concept that the city dweller creates unpredictable intertwining paths that cannot be foreseen by urban planners.1Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 103. This is often how Abbi and Ilana move the story forward, and in the process they encounter various strangers that are creating their own paths that influence our heroes’ journey. De Certeau draws on this aspect of the city and how to walking is to lack a place. This is a shared social experience among city dwellers who intertwine and cross paths naturally creating an “urban fabric, and placed under the sign of what ought to be, ultimately, a place but is only a name, the city.”2de Certeau, 103. The identity of “the city” is symbolic because all of its spaces are temporarily occupied by pedestrians, and in name “the city” refers to nowhere in particular or dreamed up “places,” as de Certeau frames it.

Interestingly, de Certeau didn’t include women or other aspects of identity in his concept of power relations between the city planners and the city dwellers. Those who wrote on the subject of modern city life strictly kept women out of their concept of the flaneur. In her essay, “Gender and The Haunting of Cities,” Janet Wolff argues that the experiences of women and marginalized groups can be used to reconceptualize modernity.3Janet Wolff, “Gender and the Haunting of Cities (or, the Retirement of the flaneur),” in The Invisible Flâneuse? Gender, Public Space, and Visual Culture in Nineteenth-century Paris (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), 24. This is meant to challenge the reader to bypass the ideologies of “good” or “bad” women (angel/whore, virgin/fallen woman).4Wolff, 25. Wolff uses the contrasting portrayal of prostitutes by male and female artists as an example, citing Marsha Meskimmon’s commentary on the work of Greta Overbeck. Meskimmon finds that Overbeck portrays the prostitute in “the banality of the daytime shop setting… [she] is not ‘seducing’ the viewer… we encounter the prostitute as an ordinary working woman.”5Wolff, 25. Wolff determines that this portrayal betrays the dominant tropes of the city (as seen through the experiences of men) while opening up the opportunity to see “women’s complex negotiations of city life.”6Wolff, 25.

Shows like Broad City that showcase the experiences of women in urban settings highlight the unique challenges women face in the city while also offering a fresh take on the “multidimensional and contradictory manifestations of the modern.”7Wolff, 25. By being the protagonists of the show they have created, Abbi and Ilana are able to intimately share their real experience of city life as modern day flaneuses. Their unpredictable journeys reinforce the idea that the flaneuse exists, and their movement is a reflection of the city as we know it today. Furthermore, what makes Abbi and Ilana excellent examples of the modern flaneuse is their shared identity as twenty-something millennials navigating the digital city with an electronic device at their fingertips.

We spend a lot of the series following the duo, who use of locative media on their mobile devices to document their time, location, and experiences. As city-dwellers this allows Abbi and Ilana to be “able to express and share embodied, polysemy, social imaginations of place on a wider scale.”8Germaine R. Halegoua, The Digital City: Media and the Social Production of Space (New York: NYU Press, 2019), 145. Halegoua introduces the idea that social media users tend to create an expression of place meaning, attachment, and identity through texts, posts, and personal movement.9Halegoua, 150. She elaborates on how placemaking practices can, as a result of social media, create a performative identity for a place instead of a more honest review of the location. The disclosure of one’s location through a tweet, text, or post can “create a curated narrative of who people are based on where and how they travel.”10Halegoua, 160. Recording one’s location on a social media platform can also be attributed to showing a bond with friends, bragging, self-promotion, inside jokes, or receiving some kind of reward for going to that location.11Halegoua, 161.

In addition to touching on locative media, the duo also use online platforms to comment on real-world politics. Their viewpoint as millennials has a major influence on the way the two use social media to discuss issues in the US. As Ruth Milkman explains, millennials are often stereotyped as “…selfish, narcissistic, and politically disengaged.”12Ruth Milkman, “A New Political Generation: Millennials and the Post-2008 Wave of Protest,” American Sociological Review 82, no.1 (February 2017): 2, https://doi.org/10.1177/0003122416681031. She argues that millennials are a “new political generation.” They are shaped by their relationship to the internet, the amount of education they’ve had compared to the previous generation, and the growing scarcity of employment they have faced in the US as a result of uneven labor market conditions.13Milkman, 2. She elaborates not only on how these aspects are what fueled protests after the 2008 financial crisis, but also how they played a part in influencing the more left-leaning attitudes of millennials in general.14Milkman, 6.

We see these concepts in various episodes throughout the series. For example, the experiences of Abbi and Ilana in Broad City that reflect de Certeau’s concept of the city dweller are seen through montages of New York City, or scenes in which the two are walking and talking about the city streets. In P*$$Y Weed (Season 1, Episode 2) Abbi is interested in purchasing her own weed after consistently “bumming” off of Ilana. In an effort to achieve her goal, Abbi walks around a park whispering “Pot? Pot?” at the people going about their day. On this quest Abbi encounters a stranger who mistakes her for a drug dealer before eventually running into a young kid outside of a private school who finally offers her weed.

Once she achieves her goal, we observe Abbi and Ilana wandering through the city streets smoking. The various strangers around them assist the viewer in understanding pedestrian movement as the main function of city space.15de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 97. The duo constantly come across people from various walks of life while on the street, which plays a major influence on the experiences seen on screen. In their journey, to de Certeau’s point, we see the “nowhere” of the city while we saunter the streets with Abbi and Ilana.16de Certeau, 103.

Screen grab from Broad City, “Mochalatta Chills” (Season 2, Episode 2)

In a refreshing way, Abbi and Ilana stay authentic to the flaneuse by highlighting the struggles women face in city life. We see how their personal and work lives are not glamorous, which is intended to reflect the complex experiences they face living in the city. For example, in the episode Mochalatta Chills (Season 2, Episode 2) Abbi bumps heads with Bevers, her absent roommate’s boyfriend, who never leaves their couch despite not actually living in her apartment. Afterwards, when Abbi is arriving at the gym where she works, she is asked by her boss, Trey, to assist him in training one of the clients. As part of the maintenance team she hopes this will help her eventually get promoted to trainer. To her dismay, Abbi finds out Bevers is who she will be training but reluctantly agrees to help anyway. Trey joyfully replies by slapping her on the butt, and as he leaves she mutters under her breath “Okay, kinda inappropriate” while seeming overwhelmed. Afterwards, while talking to Bevers, he insists he’s trying to help Abbi by coming to the gym she works at. She quickly asserts that she doesn’t need help, to which Bevers replies, “Oh really? ‘Cause I see someone is training instead of cleaning.” In this interaction we encounter several modern social contradictions.

The first contradiction we are introduced to is Abbi’s forced relationship with Bevers because of her need for a roommate. She then has an encounter with Trey who she aspires to work alongside despite his inappropriate behavior. While Abbi has an art degree, she is not a successful artist resulting in her rather precarious living and financial situations that influence her behavior. This episode reconceptualizes modernity by not portraying Abbi as a “good” or “bad” woman for being unsuccessful or using the means available to her. Instead they chose to substitutes these common tropes with her complex negotiations with city life.

Rather than criticize Abbi for seeking this promotion we understand and sympathize with her as a single starving artist trying to make ends meet. Likewise, the audience has empathy for her because of the harassment from her boss to get the job shes wants. It is obvious this is not what Abbi wants to be doing, but we support her endeavor to support herself. The complicated realities of modern city life for women can be shared through any medium, but they require exploring their actual life experiences. Jacobson and Glazer have accomplished this as creators, actors, and writers by revealing these moments on screen. The duo willingly invites us into their social conflicts as modern flaneuse in both public and private spaces.

Between spaces Abbi and Ilana utilize their mobile devices to move around the city, locate themselves, and share nearly every detail about what they are doing. There are recurring motifs between the duo such as their video calls with each other which often center around discussing their place, general status, or upcoming plans. As Halegoua points out, Abbi and Ilana record their location on social media to show they are bonding, bragging, or self-promoting. In The Matrix (Season 2, Episode 6) they spend so much time online they forget they are in the same room together. Leading up to this montage of “online time,” Abbi “grams” a photo of Ilana to indicate they are bonding together at Ilana’s apartment. This disconnect between her online and physical self highlights the impact both viewpoints of her reality have on her life.

Some episodes go even further into the concept of cataloging location to curate a narrative of who a person is and where they are. For example, in Kirk Steele (Season 2, Episode 8), Abbi and Ilana find out that Abbi’s boss, Trey, used to be a porn star. Ilana discovers this initially after she comes across him in a porn video she is watching. Although Trey obviously didn’t intend for them to see this, the platform still allowed for Abbi and Ilana to find it and create a narrative of who Trey is.

Screen grab from Broad City, “Stories” (Season 5, Episode 1)

In Stories (Season 5, Episode 1), the duo walk from the top to the bottom of Manhattan for Abbi’s thirtieth birthday. The majority of the episode is a location catalog of their walk around the city through Instagram stories. These not only inform us of the place identity of the various locations they end up in, but also allows their followers to interpret their bonding, inside jokes, and self promotion. Outside of the series, Hack into Broad City features the duo cataloging their location via video call in short skits that are premiered on social media (Instagram, Youtube, etc.). 17Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, Hack into Broad City. Directed by Elizabeth Merrick, T.J. Misny, Tim Bierbaum, and Nick Paley. (2014; USA: Jax Media). These one to three minute skits posted on social media fall in line with their typical bragging and bonding, but Abbi and Ilana take it one step further by commenting on real-world political issues.

Broad City has always been apt to make liberal commentary throughout the series, largely due to the creators being millennials and their characters reflecting those same viewpoints. Initially the show  had a lighthearted approach to political topics – for example, in episodes like Citizen Ship (Season 2, Episode 7) where Jaime, Ilana’s roommate, gets his citizenship and they celebrate with him. However, there are broader elements that call attention to the precarious job market millennials face. There is Ilana’s job at “Deals, Deals, Deals,” a startup where she is supposed to find and create deals online, and Abbi’s job at Soulstice, a high-end gym, where she is a cleaner for the facility. This represents the precarious employment environment many millennials face despite often times having post-secondary education.18Milkman, “A New Political Generation: Millennials and the Post-2008 Wave of Protest,” 2. Then there are more obvious political declarations, as seen in the episode Witches (Season 4, Episode 6), where we sit in on Ilana’s session with a sex therapist and she reveals that she hasn’t had an orgasm since the 2016 election. These examples show how Abbi and Ilana truly encompass the modern flaneuse.

As the creators of Broad City, Jacobson and Glazer were effective at creating characters and a city space that reflect our modern reality. Their storylines are molded to fit with the concept of the city as an ebb and flow of strangers who can cross paths at any point, but through the lens of the millennial flaneuse. By seeing city life through Abbi and Ilana’s eyes we are forced to face the complications women are confronted with in their relationships, work, and day to day occurrences. The trials and tribulations they are up against, which occur in both private and public spaces whether close to home or as far afield as Central Park, are relevant to understanding the different ways city life is experienced. Additionally, their identities as millennials are animated in the constant liberal commentary and their affinity for locative media on their phones. Together they are two millennial flaneuses reconceptualizing the flaneur and the ever-changing city space.

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