In Praise of Broads

by Saara Dutton


Like a lot of theater fans, I’ve been mourning the death of brassy Broadway legend Elaine Stritch. It means there’s one less fabulous, foul-mouthed, talented, gin-swilling broad on this earth. “You can’t be funny unless you’re tragic,” Strich once said, “and you can’t be tragic unless you’re funny.” It’s a perfect piece of Broad Philosophy: an earthy, basic understanding of life’s ups and downs, and knowing that the only way to cope is to laugh.

I suddenly realized that nobody uses the word “broad” much anymore (save for the broads of Broad City, of course). The origins of this word are hazy, too. Some claim it refers to women’s hips being broader than a man’s, or that it refers to playing cards or meal tickets. (Hence the association with prostitution.) Later, broads were synonymous with floozies, and loud-mouthed, vulgar women. When Frank Sinatra used it in Guys and Dolls, the term was elevated a bit, but it still had the whiff of impropriety.

Whatever its source, few women ever willingly refer to themselves as broads. But I say we change that. It’s time to claim broad status with pride. When I think of a broad, I picture a quick-witted woman who can think on her feet, even if she’s wearing heels. I think of someone with a great sense of humor about themselves, humor that has been earned. A broad is a survivor with style. A broad enjoys male company but isn’t dependent on it. A broad is ballsy and uses salty language when she feels like it. A broad knows how to laugh and knows how to get out of a jam.

Most of all, I believe that a broad delivers zingers, which is why my list of broads may surprise you. Sure, Mae West was a broad — maybe the ultimate broad — but not because of the tight dresses and ability to belt out a song. Beyoncé does that, too, but she’s never delivered a zinger like, “Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before.” Broads don’t take themselves or life that seriously. They know that one day you’re traveling first class, the next day you can’t afford coach. But you can look good either way.

Still confused? I’ve made a list of broads, stealth broads, and future broads.

Broad Hall of Fame

1. Glam Broad Supreme: Elizabeth Taylor
The men, the drama, the resilience, the tabloid lifestyle, the strength and the humor: “I’ve been through it all, baby. I’m mother courage.”

2. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir
Offered up a classic zinger that only a broad could deliver: “Don’t be so humble. You’re not that great.”

3. Hell-raising Actress Tallulah Bankhead
So many quips, zingers and funny stories that may or may not be true. Tallulah was once in a bathroom stall and noticed there was no toilet paper:

“So I looked down and saw a pair of feet in the next stall. I knocked very politely and said: ‘Excuse me, dahling, I don’t have any toilet paper. Do you?’ And this very proper Yankee voice said: ‘No, I don’t.’ … So I asked her, very politely you understand, ‘Excuse me dahling, but do you have any Kleenex?’ And this now quite chilly voice said: ‘No, I don’t.’ So I said: ‘Well then, dahling, do you happen to have two fives for a ten?’”

4. Broadway Legend Elaine Stritch
A showbiz survivor: bumpy life, tons of talent, great storyteller, fabulous sense of humor. A textbook broad.

5. First Lady Betty Ford
In a 1975 interview with McCall’s Magazine, Betty mentioned she’d been asked just about everything, except for how often she and the president had sex. “And if they’d asked me that I would have told them.” She added that her response would be, “As often as possible.”

6. Punk Pioneer Debbie Harry
When Madonna mentioned that Debbie Harry had been a big influence on her career, Debbie cracked, “That’s nice, but a check would be better.”

7. Writer/Comic Chelsea Handler
Boozy, bold and bawdy.

8. Torch Singer Eartha Kitt
Sang an impeccable version of the Official Broad Theme Song, “I’m Still Here.”

9. Hollywood Scribe Jackie Collins
Savvy, saucy and never lets you see her sweat. Classic broad.

10. Bon Vivant Auntie Mame
Sure, she’s fictional. But I like to think she’s based on a real person.

Stealth Broads

(Broads in disguise who have been fooling the public.)

1. Lifestyle Maven Martha Stewart
Remember how she sashayed out of prison wearing that poncho that a fellow inmate made for her, smiling and waving at the press? Broad perfection.

2. Dame Helen Mirren
Actually, now that I think about it, I’m not sure how stealthy she is.

3. The woman in HR who decorates the office for Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day and puts out candy all year round. You think she’s really sweet and demure until you hear her hollering at her kids over the phone.

Future Broads

(You can’t be a true broad until you’re at least 30. You need to experience enough triumphs and tragedies, professional bitchery and failed love affairs to grow into your suit of armor. I’ve got my eye on these women for future broadhood.)

1. Beloved Red Carpet Bumbler Jennifer Lawrence

2. Singer Adele

3. That little tomboy in your neighborhood who stands up to bullies and just don’t give a shit what you think of her.

So here’s to broads. They may not exude cool elegance or quiet dignity, but they sure as hell know how to have fun. And in this cautious era of kale and retracted tweets, we need them more than ever.

Saara Dutton is a writer, performer, lover of books and gin and host of New York’s debauched variety show, Mama D’s Arts Bordello. She’s on Twitter @FinnishGuru.