In 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.