On last night’s premiere of Broad City season four, we travel back in time to 2011, the day Abbi and Ilana first meet, and find ourselves in a very different world: Trump is not president, Bevers is a shirtless hunk, and instead of her trademark curls, Ilana sports a slick bob of of flat-ironed hair.
The episode follows a Sliding Doors conceit, imagining one timeline in which Ilana and Abbi miss their subway train and end up becoming BFFs immediately and sharing a day of wild adventures, and another in which they catch their train and don’t properly meet until the end of the episode. While the second timeline proves to be the real one, there’s a moment in the parallel-universe, missed-train day that captures the essence of Abbi and Ilana’s friendship.
The moment is this: Having missed their train, Ilana has a run-in with an errant sprinkler.
“Oh my GOD, this is bad!” says Ilana, running her hands through her hair, now curly and soaking wet.
“NO — it looks so good like that!” Abbi says. “Why do you straighten it?”
Ilana is quick to respond: “Because I look like a True Jew if I don’t straighten.”
But Abbi is not deterred.“I think you’ve got a Rosie Perez vibe going, if you poofed it up.”
Turns out, that’s exactly the pep talk that 2011 Ilana Wexler — card-carrying member of Flat-Ironers Anonymous — needed to hear. Her face lights up. “Now I’m doing it like this every day for the rest of my life, DOOD! And it’ll save me two hours every morning so I’ll never be late for work again. Bonus Jonas!”
Broad City has always been great at capturing a very particular slice of life — that is, the lives of pot-addled upper-middle-class New York Jewish girls who go on Birthright, love Bed, Bath and Beyond, and descend into manholes to buy bootleg purses on Canal Street — and this scene is no exception. What angsty Jewess among us has not been caught in a rain shower before a formal event and experienced the same sense of dread Ilana felt after her run-in with the sprinkler? I too spent many hours of my life sitting cross-legged in front of a mirror, holding a flat iron up to a mane of frizzy curls, trying to sear my Jewishness away. Back in 2011, the idea of going to a party with my natural curls was like the idea of showing up to class with no pants on. Growing up as often the only Jewish girl in my school, teased for my poodle-frizz, I saw my curly hair as a mark of my differentness, an aberration to be dealt with, no matter how much money I had to spend on keratin treatments or how many hours I had to spend getting ready just to walk out the door in the morning.
I can’t remember exactly the precise sliding-doors moment I stopped straightening my hair — I’m pretty sure it didn’t involve shouting the phrase “Bonus Jonas!” on the streets of the Lower East Side — but I do know that it coincided with moving away from my enveloping gaggle of silky-haired college friends. Likewise, when we meet straight-haired-Ilana’s roommates (in timeline two), they’re three perfectly dressed girls with perfectly straight hair whose names read like a lineup from the paddle-tennis team at a country club that had a ‘No Jews Allowed’ sign until 1994: Elizabeth Booten-Bates, Parker Lexton, and Jessica Merkel-Keller. Fed up with dealing with Ilana and all her Ilana-ness, they present her with a slideshow called “The Ilana Wexler Problem,” outlining all the ways she doesn’t fit into their perfectly manicured world. Some are valid grievances — she makes them watch bestiality porn and calls them all Madison — others not so much. As one of them puts it: “We know this one is just mean, but when your hair is curly it looks like pubes.”
Ilana responded exactly as I would have back in the day: “You’re a fucking bitch, but I’ll go over it with the iron again.” Sadly, she has not yet met Abbi and received the self-acceptance boost she requires.
When I remember the first few times I wore my hair curly and had people tell me how good it looked, I recall feeling a decade of social pressure and internalized self-loathing slide off my shoulders. It felt like coming home to myself. And it makes absolute sense that the moment Ilana meets Abbi, the person who truly embraces her for who she is, would also be the moment that she embraces a part of herself that others had always told her was too much to handle.
While Broad City often concerns itself with the trivial and random, the whimsical and absurd, this is one of the show’s more character-revealing episodes — one that uses hair as a potent metaphor for self-discovery, and underscores how the most meaningful friendships help us discover who we are. While we have always known Ilana as a larger-than-life character, outlandish in her DGAF midriff-baring confidence, here we see that this wasn’t always the case — she too had insecurities to grapple with. Ultimately, the fearless Ilana we know and love in 2017 is able to exist largely because she found her Abbi and ditched her Madison(s) — found friends who let her be herself in all her curly, untamed glory — a confidence booster far more potent than any straightening iron could ever be.