Thank You, 'Broad City,' For Finally Proving How Unnecessary Sexual Labels Are
When it comes to sexuality, labels might be the last thing we really need.
On this week's episode of Broad City, the character Ilana (Ilana Glazer) hooked up with another woman, her doppelgänger Adele (Alia Shawkat), for the first time on screen. The moment presented an opportunity, the first time in the show that the famously open Ilana addressed the nature of her sexuality:
"I have sex with people different from me, you know? Different colors, different shapes, different sizes. People who are hotter, uglier, more smart, not more smart, innies, outies. I don't know, a Catholic person."
At the moment in which Ilana could finally label her sexual identity outright, she chose the simplest thing possible: She chose not to label it at all.
Resisting labels: Through the plot and the other characters' dialogue, Broad City makes no attempt to box the character of Ilana in. In an interview with NPR's Fresh Air, Glazer described her character as a "hedonist," someone who simply goes after what feels pleasurable to her. In this case, that pleasure was Adele.
When Ilana first encounters Adele and introduces her to friends, she makes no note of her gender. Whereas some shows use a character's same-sex interaction as an opportunity to define his or her sexuality, Broad City deftly navigates away from such a limited view. In fact, the joke is that Abbi (Abbi Jacobson) is surprised only because Ilana doesn't typically introduce her to anyone she dates.
As Salon's Jenny Kutner notes:
"Ilana's same-sex encounter gives us the closest thing to a 'definition' for the character's purposely ambiguous sexuality we're likely ever to get, and it's still not entirely clear. And therein lies the beauty of Broad City: The show isn't giving us what we want or what we're used to getting as viewers, but it's giving us what is real."
And what's "real" for Ilana is engaging with who she feels attracted to, without the need to label that attraction. Should she want to define and discuss her sexuality, she has room to — but the decision to impose a label is hers alone.
Celebrating sexual fluidity: In the absence of a label, Ilana is a clear depiction of someone who is sexually fluid. As Science of Relationships explained, "It's a fairly simple concept: People's sexual responses are not set in stone, and can change over time, often depending on the immediate situation they're in."
While many may mistake sexual fluidity as being bisexual, the reality is that sexual fluidity doesn't have much to do with any specific orientation; rather, it's a reflection of changing sexual response over time. Research has shown that while women are more likely to be sexually fluid, men can be as well. Moreover, what someone identifies as doesn't necessarily correspond to their range of sexual experiences.
Fluidity can refer to many aspects of sexuality, Zhana Vrangalova, a sex researcher and adjunct professor in New York University's psychology department, told Mic. It can mean "attraction to or desire for sex in general, desire for a specific type of sex, for different types of partners within the same gender or partners of different genders," said Vrangalova. This could mean anything from the shift from vanilla to BDSM, from more masculine to less masculine, from women to transwomen, for example. For the sexually fluid, romantic attachment, sexual desire, bonding, sexual orientation and identification don't have to match up, or be specified at all.
"Some people fear that if some aspect of your sexuality is fluid, then it isn't 'real' enough and therefore doesn't deserve to be honored, respected or catered to. But that's completely inaccurate," said Vrangalova. "One's desires, needs, and attractions in any one given moment are experienced as just as real as any other moment, whether they remain fairly similar over your lifetime or change in some way."
In this way, being sexually fluid may function as its own identity label, or simply describe the absence of labels altogether. In Ilana's case, it remains to be seen — or may never be "seen" at all. Which is exactly the point.
Why Broad City's sex matters: This sexual open-mindedness depicted on Wednesday's episode is typical of Broad City, which has welcomed exploration of all kinds: one-night stands, stints in porn, masturbation with a mirror, threesome requests, pegging and prostitution, to name a few.
Confronting labels in the context of dating and sex is just one more instance of the show's positive approach. The perpetual fascination with sexual labels – "Are they gay?" "Do you think she's straight?" "Could he be bi?" – often ignores the fact that for many people, sexual identity and orientation are not a fixed point. We connect with who we connect with.
"We live in a world that's becoming increasingly more open to alternative sexual lifestyles, and pushing the boundaries of simple, neat categories," Vrangalova said.
Broad City is a show about not having it all figured out, so it's not surprising that one of the most realistic aspects of the comedy is figuring out who you're into. Sometimes, if we're being honest, we're still discovering that for ourselves. Thankfully, there's a show as honest as we are.