Young female artists hate being lumped together in the same category, as if their vaginas have the same effect on their art, like the moon tugging at the tides. In the words of Tina Fey, "Women don't exist only in relation to other women." But three New York-set comedies created by young women have something in common beyond anatomy. Amy Schumer, star and creator of Inside Amy Schumer; Lena Dunham, star and creator of Girls; and Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, stars and creators of Broad City have all expressed a similar sentiment: They're spelunking into their early adult years for inspiration.
If it feels like the gap between real, flesh-and-blood young women and the way they're represented on the small screen is beginning to close, that's largely because a handful of women in TV are creating honest, often unflattering, characters based on their younger selves.
Ilana Glazer has referred to her character on Broad City as herself "at the height" of her former Nicki Minaj obsession. In a roundtable interview to promote the most recent season of Girls that I attended earlier this year, I asked Lena Dunham if she thinks her character, Hannah, is a good writer. She responded, "In my mind Hannah's always been the version of me that was in college and couldn't get myself to sit down and actually do anything." And on Inside Amy Schumer, Amy Schumer takes aim at Hollywood and the media for insisting that young women be forever sexy and "cool with it," but also at the women who play into this stereotype--and she's readily admitted that she used to be one of them.
In part, these shows are about women trying to survive in a crappy economy, on their own terms, and finding that compromises seem to pop up like Whac-A-Moles. They're about the things that young women do to survive, to break through to the next level of their lives--where they won't have to remove pubic hair from gym bathrooms like Abbi on Broad City, or float from one unfulfilling relationship to the next out of some combination of anxiety, obligation, and boredom, like so many of the women on Girls.
The truly revolutionary thing about these shows isn't that the women allow themselves to be humiliated for laughs--that's nothing new. What feels fresh and exciting is the fact that these women don't spare their own kind. It feels like something is being made for us, by us, even if the image reflected back at us on our screens is not the most flattering.
Speaking to Rachel Syme for Grantland earlier this year, Glazer told an anecdote about an interviewer who asked whether she and Jacobson fight. "I asked, would you ask Key and Peele if they fight?" Glazer said. "And people have said, you were so right to tell that guy off. And I'm like, no, baby, that was a woman doing that interview. Women can put you in a box just as much as men can."
Inside Amy Schumer's very first sketch was one in which Amy (playing a version of herself), a male producer, and another young, pretty woman hash out the details for a "two girls, one cup"-style viral video. The punch line is simple: young women will climb to unimaginably disgusting heights for a shot at fame. "I definitely need more on-camera experience," Amy chirps. Schumer skewers the media for insisting that women be sexy and cool at all times, but also the women who play into this stereotype. The women who take the bait, and ruin it for the rest of us.
There's a telling piece of data from a report released this year by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, based out of San Diego State University. At 59 percent, the majority of female characters on prime-time, broadcast TV in 2014 were in their 20s and 30s, while the majority of male characters (also 59 percent) were in their 30s and 40s. Not terribly surprising, considering the film and television industry has never been kind to older women.
But Inside Amy Schumer, Broad City, and Girls offer a corrective to the assumption that women are at their most appealing when they're younger. These shows offer decidedly unglamorous views into the lives of young women. From a woman's perspective, youth doesn't always look so hot. Turns out her twenties is perhaps not the best time of a woman's life. Maybe a better time comes later, when the aftertaste of all the shit you ate during your twenties starts to become unbearable. That's the place from which these shows mine their comedy, and it's a satisfying reversal of Hollywood's insistence that a woman is at her prime when she's young and ripe.