What Broad City Got Right About Being in Love with Your Best Friend

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Ten years ago this week, Broad City premiered on Comedy Central. Created by and starring Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, it was a ridiculous, silly show, but it also represented close female friendship better than most television had before (or has since). The show’s central relationship, between fictionalized versions of Abbi and Ilana with the same first names, has the depth and complexity that’s often missing from stories about female friends that are full of catty drama, or that exist mostly so the audience can see the characters talk about their love interests. With the premiere of Broad City, the era of Sex and the City was over—this time, the friendship was the love story.

In the very first scene of the pilot, we see the two main characters video chatting, having a whole conversation before it’s revealed that Ilana is in the middle of having sex—paying more attention to her BFF than anyone else, even when another person is literally inside of her. This is obviously an extreme illustration of how devoted Abbi and Ilana are to each other, hyperbole for comedic effect, but it is also a gauntlet thrown down: this was not going to be your usual story about female friends who are only about each until a guy comes around.

Some parts of the show feel terribly dated now (let’s not speak of the Hillary Clinton episode from season 3 ever again), but the love story between Abbi and Ilana feels timeless. This might be because while the idea of best friends as life partners felt fresh and modern when Broad City premiered in 2014, it was also reminiscent of an old-fashioned type of relationship: romantic friendship.

Romantic friendship was a recognized and prevalent type of relationship in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, usually between women, before largely falling out of the cultural lexicon. “Women who were romantic friends were everything to each other,” writes queer history scholar Lillian Faderman in Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship & Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. “They lived to be together. They thought of each other constantly. They made each other deliriously happy or horribly miserable by the increase or abatement of their proffered love.”

Abbi and Ilana are certainly everything to each other. As Ilana puts it when she’s taking care of Abbi after her wisdom teeth are removed: “I am Abbi’s keeper today, I am her mother, sister, father, brother.” Jen Statsky, a writer for the show, has even referred to Abbi and Ilana’s relationship as a romantic friendship. They do everything either together or for each other—from the usual like celebrating birthdays, visiting each other at work, and attending old friends’ weddings; to the more extreme and enmeshed, like Abbi pretending to be Ilana to cover her shift at the co-op, or Ilana distracting everyone at a party so Abbi can poop in peace. Absurd, yes—but as Ilana says during one of many heart-to-hearts during the series finale, an episode full of goodbyes, “This is still gonna be the most beautiful, deep, real, cool and hot, meaningful, important relationship of my life.”

Abbi and Ilana gave us a window into what life can look like if you expand your definition of a life partner, and go all-in with the people who are there for you already.”

Modern conversations about romantic friendship often tend to assume that all “romantic friends” were actually lovers. And while some queer women certainly used the socially acceptable cover of “close friends and roommates” to fly under the radar, some romantic friends truly were just that: not lovers in disguise, not purely platonic friends, but a separate category somewhere in between. “Romantic friendships lacked sexual engagement but were rich in erotic passion” bell hooks writes in Communion: The Female Search for Love, in a chapter on romantic friendship as a potentially more reliable source of enduring love than heterosexual partnerships. “Nonsexual erotic passion has little meaning in today’s world,” she continues, acknowledging the apparent contradiction in her first statement, and how difficult it can be to separate sex from “erotic passion” (or romance) in a modern context.

Broad City addresses the blurred lines of romance, attraction, and friendship head-on. At first, Ilana’s blatant attraction to Abbi (apparent in her elevator eyes, repeated attempts to bring Abbi into a threesome, and overly frequent and enthusiastic comments about her BFF’s ass) feels like evidence that we as a culture don’t know what to do with such a fierce and committed love that doesn’t have a sexual element—like either a critique of or a capitulation to the fact that we don’t have a category for such a relationship anymore.

Starting in season 2, Ilana’s queerness becomes an explicitly explored aspect of her character, rather than just an implied punchline. The rather flat “ha ha, Ilana wants to fuck Abbi” jokes of the first season develop into a much more complicated depiction of how impossible it can feel to draw clear lines between friendship, romance, intimacy, and attraction. In Ilana’s unrequited desire and the girls’ devotion to each other, we see all the different kinds of love you can feel for a best friend, all mixed up together, sometimes causing a moment of awkwardness but ultimately never coming between the two women (even in later seasons, when Abbi starts exploring her sexuality and Ilana is hurt that Abbi would hook up with a woman other than her). Ilana’s sexual attraction to Abbi is far from the most important thing about their relationship—their commitment to and support of each other takes precedence. They are everything to each other. They live to be together.

abbi and ilana on broad city

©Comedy Central/Courtesy Everett Collection

Romantic friendship eventually fell out of fashion when women started to gain more social agency, and the idea that they could live fulfilling lives without male partners became a threat to the social order. This idea threatens the modern social order, too—as evident in all of the articles about the “male loneliness epidemic,” presenting it as a problem women should solve; and in the craven attacks on women’s reproductive freedom. Women who don’t need heterosexual marriage to be happy, fulfilled, supported, and loved are dangerous the patriarchal system. But just because these relationships that made such a life more easily accessible became taboo, that doesn’t mean they went away.

With Broad City, Abbi and Ilana gave us a window into what life can look like if you expand your definition of a life partner, and go all-in with the people who are there for you already. On the surface it seemed like just a lighthearted show about two gals getting into trouble (and it was), but it was also a reminder of what was possible. Ten years later, this reminder feels more necessary than ever.

Lettermark

Lilly Dancyger is the author of First Love: Essays on Friendship (The Dial Press, 2024), and Negative Space (SFWP, 2021). She lives in New York City, and is a 2023 NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in nonfiction from The New York Foundation for the Arts. Her writing has been published by Guernica, Literary Hub, The Rumpus, Longreads, Off Assignment, The Washington Post, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and more. 

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