The plot of CBS’s new sitcom 2 Broke Girls sounds like some other shows—two waitress roommates trying to save enough money to open a cupcake shop and make it big— but it’s a far cry from the kinds of shows that used to target 20-somethings.
The show is written and produced by Whitney Cummings, a comedian whose jokes mostly follow a general outline: Women are crazy and men are broke losers.
Cummings shows no sensitivity to class or economic status in her grossly named stand-up special, “Money Shot,” which features a rather long and unfunny rant about being fed up with men too broke to take her on dates to nice restaurants and instead take her to get coffee. She also throws in a few rape jokes and calls women “whores” and “sluts.”
But then there’s the other writer-producer of 2 Broke Girls—Michael Patrick King, most famous for writing and producing Sex and the City.
While Sex and the City capitalized on the glamour of being a 20-something in New York City, 2 Broke Girls is about being a working class 20-something in New York City—and the name itself says a lot about the dramatic changes in our economy between 1998 and now.
Like nearly every show ever set in New York City, 2 Broke Girls doesn’t paint an accurate picture of what a cheap apartment looks like: the two main characters, Max and Caroline, live in a Brooklyn apartment with a yard and a spacious living room. Somewhat dingy walls and a few crooked paintings are the audience’s cues to understand this is an apartment for poor people. (Forget that it’s huge.)
It just as quickly becomes clear that this show isn’t a conversation about the challenges of being young and struggling—it’s a non-stop barrage of offensive jokes about being poor that were clearly written by people who are not poor.
When Max makes so many jokes about prostitution—implying it’s an option for a down-on-her-luck young woman—it’s evident that 2 Broke Girls’ writers have an insensitive and childish idea about what it’s like to be a 25-year-old New Yorker struggling to pay her rent.
Jokes about poverty abound, including the repeated crack that generic potato chips are “poor people chips.” In one scene, Caroline asks Max if she genuinely thinks the chips are good. Max shakes her head and laments, “God, we’re poor.”
The pair is also constantly making jokes about the dangers of Brooklyn—and how poor they truly are if Brooklyn is the only place they can afford to live! But, in fact, Brooklyn is a highly gentrified neighborhood—one where even Jay-Z jokes he’s too poor to live.
Sex and The City was about the excesses of life in New York City—no one seemed to work very hard for the many Louboutins they had. Viewers rarely saw Carrie or her friends working; when we did, the focus was on how their jobs helped relationships with men and not the challenges of being a working class woman. The reason is simple: They weren’t working class women.
In a famous Sex and the City episode in which Carrie discovers she’s spent $40,000 on shoes, the punch line is that she’s just too disorganized, messy, and herself to realize how much she was spending. The audience is supposed to sympathize with Carrie for being sloppy with her finances and not enraged with her. That joke might not fly in today’s economy.
Even as recently as 2007, shows like Gossip Girl could flaunt the wealth and excess of the richest Americans in the faces of young girls, fueling young viewers’ desires to one day be just as rich and self-absorbed.
Those days, along with any semblance of a fair economy, are over.
Amazingly, 2 Broke Girls passes the famous Bechdel test (created by the cartoonist and graphic novelist Alison Bechdel), which requires that a film or TV show:
- feature at least two women,
- who talk to each other
- about something other than a man.
But the fact that it’s a show about women struggling in today’s economy and talking about things other than men doesn’t, unfortunately, make the show progressive in any way. In fact, a significant portion of the show’s jokes are made by Max and Caroline (two white women) at the expense of people of color.
Caroline complains that she can’t sleep because Brooklyn is too noisy; Max tells her, “That’s Puerto Rican noise. You’ll get used to it.” Then Caroline tells their Asian boss that he misspelled her nametag, and Max tells Caroline, “You can’t tell an Asian he made a mistake. He’ll go in back and throw himself on a sword!”
Those are only the first few in a slew of racist jokes that seem to be the brunt of each episode. Aren’t white people so different from other people? Isn’t that hilarious?
While it’s problematic that a show produced in 2011 still focuses on racism to secure laughs, it’s even more problematic because, these jokes also cut people of color—especially young people of color—out of the conversation about poverty and the 99 Percent movement entirely.
As Alyssa Rosenberg of Think Progress points out, there are some moments when the characters discuss real financial problems and disparities. A recent episode focused on Max’s student loan and credit card debt, with jokes centering on the unfortunate reality that many young people choose to be ignorant about their debt. Maybe that’s a sign that in coming episodes the tone and angle of the discussions about poverty will shift.
We can only hope, because recent economic data on young Americans are sobering.
Part of what the Occupy Wall Street movement is working to bring to light are the disparities between the wealthiest Americans and the other 99 percent. It’s a big step in the right direction that media catering to young people is beginning to realize that the days of looking up to glamorous, rich white people are over. It’s not a big step that the focus is still on beautiful, white people.
The media is trying to find ways to talk about the financial crises facing young people today and 2 Broke Girls has the potential to tap into an audience of young people who are actively focused on unmasking the real disparities between the top 1 percent and the 99 percent.
But it’s upsetting that—at least with 2 Broke Girls and its audience of 15 million—they’ve found a way to turn a serious, important conversation into racist jokes and superficial jabs at poor people.