The 99%: Fixing the 2 Broke Girls

the two leads of 2 Broke Girls, young white women, wearing servers' uniforms and holding plates of foodIn the past few years, being broke has become something of a communal experience in America, to the point that television can no longer just air constant streaming coverage of millionaires and their matchmakers, their real housewives, their stylists, their babies, and their real estate, without seeming completely out of touch.  Network television's response to the financial crisis is CBS's 2 Broke Girls, which tells the story of Max, a waitress and nanny living in Brooklyn, and Caroline, the daughter of a Bernie Madoff type who has lost everything with her father's arrest. When Max first sees Caroline, she sums up the entire reason for the series' existence:  "Whatever that is, it does not belong in this diner. It belongs in a show on Bravo." 

True, 2 Broke Girls panders in stereotypes of absentee fathers, drug and alcohol abuse, bar fights (on Max's part), and cheating wives, frivolous spending, superficiality, and spoiled obtuseness (on Caroline's).  Much of the plot is derived from contrived (instead of more nuanced) class conflict, and much of the humor is comprised of crude sexual innuendo (and, ugh, the occassional rape joke). The crew that work at the diner with Max and Caroline—the Asian owner, the Ukranian chef, and the black cashier—are all portrayed in an incredibly racist and problematic way. Add a laugh track and a few predictable plot lines, and I know that for many viewers, this mess will understandably inspire a change of the channel, never to return.

I probably would have been a channel-changer, but, you know, I had to write this post, so I stuck with it.  And I found that somehow, I actually find the characters a bit endearing.  (Not actually funny, though, which the writers would probably prefer.)

Caroline's upper class naïveté is turned into something hopeful; growing up in a world without limitations makes her dream big not only for herself, but for her new friend Max.  And, as she repeatedly reminds Max, she does have a degree from Wharton (which prompts one of the show's funnier lines: "Is there any way to do a Yelp review of Wharton business school?"  I checked. There is.)  My hope is that Caroline's education and self-proclaimed "business genius" will eventually show through—so far the momentum behind her new cupcake enterprise seems driven by dumb luck and big hopes rather than actual business savvy.  Still, Caroline is caring, (somewhat) self-aware, and resolutely upbeat in the face of her new poverty, where she could have been reduced to a selfish, oblivious, and helpless stock character.

Similarly counter to most pop culture representations, Max's current state of poverty is not attributed to stupidity or laziness.  She's smart and witty, although her witticisms usually take the form of either mocking her past sexual relationships (of which there seem to be many) or her new roommate.  Max works two jobs and is shown to be competent at both.  She occasionally has lines that get to the heart of what it means to be broke in America, like when she tells Caroline, "I am too poor to have a fear of success."  She can't feel one way or another about the possibility of future success, because she's too wrapped up in the necessities of day-to-day living.  Additionally, Max makes at least one joke each episode about avoiding unplanned pregnancy, though I'm not sure where the writers are going with this.  Are they bringing out the stereotype of the poor welfare mom indiscriminately having babies?  Making a commentary on the accessibility and affordability of birth control?  I don't know, but the former seems problematic and the latter seem incongruous. 

Furthermore, Max does live in an apartment that exceeds the real estate rental power of anyone on a shoestring budget, and she does at least two things in each episode that, in real life, would get her fired on the spot.  Still, for so many women in low-paying jobs forced to bite their tongues and wait on ill-mannered customers, it must be nice to watch Max snap her fingers in diners' faces, mock their hats, and tell them off with impunity.  Unfortunately, for most low-income Americans, such sassy performances are not affordable.

The most interesting, most complicated character in the show—from a class analysis standpoint—is Peach, the Upper East Side mother who employs Max as a nanny for her baby twins.  But if the show is trying to actually portray an upper class woman (and I don't really think they are), they're doing it wrong.  Rich women don't decorate their walls with Louis Vuitton logos and name their twins "Brad" and "Angelina."  More importantly, they don't hire part-time waitresses from Brooklyn to be their nannies; they hire bilingual college graduates with degrees in early childhood education, or older women of color who have been caring for children for over thirty years.  I'm not sure if the show is setting up these weird misrepresentations on purpose to be explored in future plots, or if the point is just to set up a foil for Max and Caroline's "brokeness." 

The real promise and potential of 2 Broke Girls lies in its focus on the friendship between the two women.  The show passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors: It mostly revolves around Max and Caroline's interactions, as they discuss not just relationships and sex, but their jobs, their childhoods, their goals and dreams, and, of course, their different backgrounds and experiences of financial hardship.  When they go shopping it's not a consumerist-driven spree, but a bonding experience at Goodwill in a scene that ultimately brings them closer together.  And when posh Caroline nearly gets in a bar fight to win back Max's favorite thrift store find, you want to smile—almost as much as you do when Max takes Caroline's champion show horse for a walk through the Brooklyn streets.

The show is set up with the premise that, despite these differences, these girls have each other's backs. I'd love to see, then, how they support each other when dealing with real struggles of being broke. What happens when one gets sick and they don't have health insurance? How do they cope when they can't cover their heating bill this winter? How's long will Caroline's relentlessly upbeat attitude endure now that it's no longer accompanied by a lavish lifestyle?  I want to see how Caroline copes with her first instance of being judged or stigmatized for being poor.  I want to see how long Max's patience will last with her roommate's big ideas. More than that: What are the real challenges of forming friendships across class lines?  Max and Caroline had completely different lives growing up. I'd like to see the show explore how these differences impact their growing friendship.  I still have hope that, despite their many flaws, these two broke girls can be fixed and serve as an example of resiliency and humor in response to economic hardship.

Previously: The Hidden Class Politics of Teen Mom 2, "Talk like a Cover Girl" and the Classing of Voice on America's Next Top Model

Comments

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It's a Comedy

They're not trying to change the world. They're just trying to be funny.

No one wants to watch television comedies to see real life - they want to escape it. The show is hilarious. Let's not weigh it down with social commentary and all that jazz. Let's just be happy we have it, considering all of the comedy drivel out there (I'm looking at you, every other freshman comedy this year).

Why on earth do you read

Why on earth do you read bitchMedia, a magazine and blog about feminism and pop culture, if you don't want "social commentary and all that jazz"? I'm sure you can find TV Guide online if that's all you're looking for.

I don't think social

I don't think social commentary weighs it down- Bitch magazine is a response to pop culture and a show that makes social commentary (comedic or otherwise) opens itself up to criticism. I like the show- though I agree with a lot of the points made in this post. Even though they go to lengths to make the apartment appear "grungy" and run-down, I'd like to see it on a more real level. If the show is about 2 broke girls, I want it to be believable. I do find the show funny, even though the plot lines are predictable. My boyfriend thinks the show is hilarious, and I think sometimes he likes it more than me. To me its encouraging to see a man relating to a show about 2 women. It has its problems, but I plan to keep watching.

Just sayin'

Speak for yourself.

Dang. Until now, I didn't

Dang. Until now, I didn't even know anyone existed that didn't find this show forced, trite, and awful. Maybe I just exist in some kind of TV snob bubble or something

sorry, but the story of two

sorry, but the story of two girls struggling to pay their electric bill? not so funny. while it may be worthwhile to note some of the show's flaws in character and plot, you can't expect a comedy to be so heavy and grounded in real life struggles.

Why not? I'm sure any halfway

Why not? I'm sure any halfway decent comedy writer could find humor in the girls' electricity being shut off, and the two of them living by candlelight while trying to figure out how to bake cupcakes in the dark. Or walking around wearing every piece of winter clothing they own for a few days while collecting enough tips to pay the heating bill. Max could even start making out with that guy she has a crush on, but it takes 20 minutes to take off all the layers of clothes and UH OH something comes up in the meantime that ruins the moment and the audience is kept in the predictable will-they-or-won't-they suspense. (Hint: they will.) I just don't buy this "reality can't be funny" line.

Impressive

Wow ... maybe YOU should be writing for this show. All your vague suggestions were, by themselves, pretty funny and relatable. I totally agree with your final thought. Doesn't some of the best comedy come from suffering, from struggle? Claiming that "reality can't be funny" just seems like a cop-out ... it's an excuse to not be creative.

Roseanne had a hilarious

Roseanne had a hilarious episode about their electricity getting cut off. (Jackie: Did you tell them you had CHILDREN? Roseanne: Yeah, they didn't want 'em.)

Don't worry! Roseanne is my

Don't worry! Roseanne is my next post. Couldn't forget about her!

I think the best comedy comes

I think the best comedy comes from a place of reality. The problem with THIS show is that it ignores reality and instead tries to write jokes based off of silly racial stereotypes

You're absolutely correct.

You're absolutely correct. The only reason I don't watch this show is that I feel like I've seen the humor before. It doesn't feel current, nor relatable. I have seen it try with jokes about current events, but the bulk or the heavier elements still pretty much pander to tired stereotypes.

The chef is Ukranian! :)

The chef is Ukranian! :)

Oops!

Fixed. Thanks for catching that.

Fan of the Show

There are some issues that are considered unrealistic that are purely/purposely fictional, as to help move the show-- the apartment, the nanny job (as far as i know they have yet to cover how she got the job, so there may actually be a story there). I would like to point out that it happens alot in sitcoms- someone will lose a job one week only to have it again the next with no explaination.
The issue of Max telling off customers is another-- i think its is done purposely as an outlet for those watching. As someone with three jobs, two of which i have to deal with sometimes rude and ignorant customers, I finding this refreshing and extremely enjoyable. : D

As for Peach, I don't think they are trying to portray an upclass society woman, such as the Kennedys or other old money families but more the RHWof NJ type, which she fits perfectly.

The rape jokes might get alot of flack from some, but as someone who is and lives in a lower class area it is a way to ease the real fear in every day life. The threat is so much more real, and terrifying. I come from a family mostly of women and its is a running joke.And as weird as it may seem making a joke is the best defense.
When you think about it living in an (unrealistic) apartment in a bad area, with little security or security options, what would you do?

Definitely agree that Max

Definitely agree that Max telling customers off is an outlet, and I think it's one of the more enjoyable parts of the show. Anyone who's worked at a serving job or in any form of customer service, really, has had moments of biting one's tongue. Unrealistic? Definitely. Amusing? To be sure.

And I do think Peach is a hyperbolic exaggeration of... someone. She's definitely not supposed to be any time of society grand dame; with all of her faux pas they might as well have a neon sign in her home that says "TACKY NEW MONEY." But the point is that the way Peach acts marks her as more similar to Max than Caroline, which I think is really interesting and has a lot of potential as a plot line. She's so exaggerated that if they don't explore it, I don't really know why they wrote her that way. I made note because I really hope that it comes up at some point.

I also really liked your comment about rape jokes as a form of escapism, too -- I honestly hadn't thought of that. I can acknowledge that there may be room for a type of dark humor about safety and the inherent risk of certain neighborhoods. However, my gut reaction is that, without context, those rape jokes are still really problematic.

I'm not trying to nitpick,

I'm not trying to nitpick, and I certainly understand the point about humor you are making and appreciate it, but I don't know that it is necessarily fair or statistically correct to say that the threat of rape is anymore real or terrifying in a lower class area than anywhere else. Rapists haven't exactly shown themselves to prefer one class over or neighborhood type over another.

Also, the point you are making about little security or security options in conjunction with your statement about the threat being more real and terrifying in a bad area seems to assume that the threat of rape comes primarily from people we don't know and/or wouldn't voluntarily let in. If this is correct, then that assumption is unfortunately a dangerously erroneous one. Most of us have known our rapists an average of one year before we are raped. There's no high-falutin' security system in any upper class area that can be set to go off when we let our guard down in a situation with someone we trust that isn't nearly as safe as it should be.

Well, there is, but you have to program the settings first so it knows what to look out for. It's called PTSD.

Ba dum BUM!

Just my two cents...

Different Anon here! I agree that the physical threat of rape is not any more real in one area over another. However, here's where I begin to think about research done on perceived safety, crime and government and economic stability. I would link to this, but it was actually information I read in a few books for an essay on democratic stability and civil society. But it still showed some interesting correlations between economic status, national situations, and perceived notions of reality. Maybe some will find it interesting, too.

When a study was done in Latin America in some capital cities, something interesting happened. The perceived crime rate had been thought to go up during times of economic hardship, even though real numbers showed that the crime rate in the polled areas had gone down. I'm sure you're thinking, "different regions of the world..." if you're in the USA. However, the most interesting case study was done in Chile, considered more developed than its regional peers, a UK ally, strong democratic system/rule of law, etc, etc. A great majority of Chileans were shown during a time of economic hardship to not trust each other. Furthermore, those in the lower strati of economic wealth felt they were more at risk of being robbed, raped, or murdered. The reality was that across the board, national statistics showed a large decrease in crime (my mind wants to say close to 200%, though as I don't have the book in front of me, I'll refrain from giving an exact number, though it was large since it was looked at steadily for quite a few years). More interesting still was that some of the most dramatic decreases had been accounted for among the poorest of the poor. Such perceptions of general unsafety and mistrust were ultimately proven harmful to the concept of social stability, since Chileans felt they could not trust each other, could not trust Chileans running for office to speak for their interests, etc.

When looking at such cross-discipline studies, or the economics of unhappiness rather than happiness, the correlation between lack of economic stability being reflected in an ultimately feeling of safety gives us insight into why it is that such jokes might be more prevalent among lower-income groups sometimes as a method of escapism, and assimilation into a perceived environment. (I say this as someone that was lower-income most of her life, being the child of a single mother and an immigrant -- not generalizing, but giving insight into my experience. Just mention that because I don't want someone to think I'm mentioning this derisively.) An econ professor of mine doing research on something similar gave further insight to me that while it is difficult to measure unhappiness, or even a feeling of 'insecurity' it /is/ possible to see its effects in such studies that ask people to gauge by how high they think the crime rate has gone. Typically, this was reinforced by just what people perceived.

I don't disagree with your statements regarding the problems behind the implications instilled in a statement that paints a bad area as more prone to rape or crime, or strangers as more likely to be rapists. However, I don't think that was what the original poster meant to say, and was instead dictating an experience over the way in which she and those close to her have assimilated their environment. Yes, it's not what is seen in the statistics, and it discounts the experiences of those that were raped by people they were familiar with. This is not good. But my point is that such perceptions have a basis in "perceived" reality, and should not be devalued so easily either. Sadly, this perceived reality seems to reinforce itself with feelings of /general/ lack of security, not typically physical, but actually more economic, which might explain the differentiation between safety in perceived 'bad' areas and 'good' areas -- whatever that's really supposed to mean by general standards. The root causes behind perceived reality are important, too.

I just mention it because -- like I mentioned before -- the original poster made a comment that the joke was a way to distance themselves from the reality perceived in the environment. And that's interesting because while it might not be true based on statistics, it doesn't make it any less important to consider perceived notions of safety, and to not undermine when or why someone feels unsafe.

Just my two cents.

Right on

The problem with television and comedy (particularly in these days of the ubiquity of hulu, netflix, et al) is that is does numb/distract us from real life issues.

It's fine to not want to think about making your bill payments, but much more gratifying to feel like there is a empathic voice out there rendering the real issues we deal with in a clever way. What better way than a particularly drole/biting comedy? And thank goodness for Bitch for keeping our creators of contemporary culture on task (or challenging them to step up).

This review was very well written and actually quite fair -- far from simply 'bitching' -- she gave cred where due and set the bar a little higher. awesome.

I like the show!

Personally I find it to be a funny enjoyable show. I could see why some people don't like it, which is fair not everyone can or will like the same things, but for me there is just something about Max's dark sense of humor that really gets to me. True parts of it are over the top and talking like that to customers would in any other job get you fired but I do so love Max's verbal abuse of her patrons. As to the jokes about unplanned pregnancy personally I believe those speak more to just the reality of being a sexually active woman that transcends rich or poor. Even using birth control their is always that risk, hell I'm a middle class lady living in Canada with a job, good education and no worries about health care and I worry about unplanned pregnancy its just part of being a woman I think which is why I find those jokes in particular so funny.But that may just be me.

Agreed!

I love this piece, because it hits on so many things I've experienced watching the show. I like the show, but I kept on not being sure why. The racist portrayal of Han (which I think has become less profound. He still speaks with a strong accent, but the jokes on him being Asian have become less I think) really bothered me when I first saw it and some of the really crude sex jokes are not my favorites either. BUT I still like it and perhaps because these are two woman who at least are not building there whole identity around having a boyfriend or husband. I also don't mind it being not realistic. One of my absolute favorite comedies is 30 Rock, which often is so absurd it doesn't even come close to reality. Or maybe I just like 2 broke girls because it relentlessly takes the piss out of hipsters :)

Pulling

For those who like crass women in a comedy (with maybe some less 'hope' than your average American comedy), check out Pulling on Netflix. I thought that was a very funny Bri'ish comedy, innit?

Comedy

Yeah, people who actually have had to make a living and have some perspective about life can find humor in this show. As one grows up and realizes life is actually very difficult and any chance we have to make light of things is actually a blessing, should find this show worth zoning out to. I think it's also a great thing to have a major network that features a real friendship between two women and comes from a woman's perspective. I fear many younger people have no idea how imbalanced Hollywood (and the male media perspective) which has always been featured is not only annoying, boring and unrealistic, I'm glad to see things breaking out of that box. It's nice to see women can be just as base and idiotic as men. I think its funny despite its reliance on working blue - get over it - the ladies like sex, too.

Comedy

Yeah, people who actually have had to make a living and have some perspective about life can find humor in this show. As one grows up and realizes life is actually very difficult and any chance we have to make light of things is actually a blessing, should find this show worth zoning out to. I think it's also a great thing to have a major network that features a real friendship between two women and comes from a woman's perspective. I fear many younger people have no idea how imbalanced Hollywood (and the male media perspective) which has always been featured is not only annoying, boring and unrealistic, I'm glad to see things breaking out of that box. It's nice to see women can be just as base and idiotic as men. I think its funny despite its reliance on working blue - get over it - the ladies like sex, too.