Thursday, March 22, 2012

Gender and Television 101: Why I Love Community

NBC’s Community is my favorite show. I’m not a huge television fan, so the shows that make it into my regular routine really have to earn it. And Community surely has.  It’s a rare combination of highly layered post-modernism and fantastic satire with genuinely lovable and nuanced characters. Even in the midst of its one thousand and one spoofs, it manages to keep us emotionally involved with its stories. So, yes I was one of the 4.9 million fans who I hope had something to do with the show’s stellar ratings during its return last week, contributing to a higher chance that it might hang on for a little longer (#sixseasonsandamovie!!!). SO, what do I, die-hard feminist, think of Community’s female characters?

I think they work well as superheroes. But I digress.

Community is a very complex show, its unique tone and refusal to bow to mainstream sensibilities makes it difficult to assess its feminism via the same standards I would use for another show. Community is not like Parks and Recreation, which I also enjoy. Parks and Rec is funny, but it is rarely biting. It is warm and fuzzy, the Pam and Jim of TV shows.[1] Parks and Rec is unabashedly feminist, but in a way that doesn’t really challenge or confront us. It sits comfortably, and only sparks strong reactions from the occasional misogynist idiot.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Parks and Rec, and its consciously feminist stance is a necessary voice in the current television landscape.[2]

Don't worry Leslie, I recognize your contribution to the fight.
But Community is a more challenging show. It’s not afraid of alienating a more mainstream audience with its high concept episodes and story arcs. It rejects and ridicules storytelling cliches and character stereotypes, but it also intentionally includes them from time to time. By lamp-shading these devices, Community asks us think critically about them and why they appear so frequently in other narratives.

Therefore, Britta is both a genuine feminist character and a spoof of “activist” characters. Yet even as aspects of her personality exist as parody, she is herself a complete character, not a spoof. While most of her other activist positions are portrayed with satire in mind, her feminist critiques of situations are usually legitimate, funny, and taken seriously by the show.[3] Furthermore, it is so refreshing to have a female character on television who is sexually liberated, but never subjected to slut shaming in any form. Even though Jeff and Britta continue to sleep together after their “will they or won’t they” plot line is over and done, the show makes very little to do about it.

Annie is a more complicated case. She is ultra-feminine, a controlling perfectionist, and emotionally immature, but she also has wonderful bursts of confidence, humor and control which are all the more wonderful because they are unexpected. There has been a lot of criticism of Annie being sexualized. The two most prominent examples in my mind are in the naming of Troy’s pet monkey “Annie’s Boobs,” a choice which, while reflective of Troy’s immaturity, is not particularly well-explained. Then there is the “Boop-be-doop-be-doop Sex” song from Season Three’s Christmas episode. When I first saw the song, I screamed with laughter and exclaimed “Thank you!” The satire was so apparent as to be obviously critical of infantilizing sexualization.  Specifically, as the remainder of the episode was a spoof of Glee, I saw the song as specifically targeting the sort of sexualization that supposedly progressive show often subjects its underage female characters to.  That instance is the perfect example of how Community’s approach to feminism, or any issue, differs from a softer show like Parks and Rec. Community moves beyond the “Yeah, women are totally equal!” attitude and shoves issues that we often overlook into our faces.

In terms of what the song represented for Annie’s character,[4] Annie grows significantly throughout the series, and while she comes into moments of confidence and leadership, she is also still reeling from her emotionally  fragile starting point.[5]  And before I hear that making a female character a little messed up is sexist, I feel I need to remind peeps that a story’s female characters need not be perfect in order for that story to be feminist. All the characters on Community have problems, it’s really the point. By the time the “Boop-be-doop-be-doop Sex” song rolls around it’s clear that Annie has already begun exploring her sexuality for the first time in her life. That said expression would come out so awkward and misguided is both entirely in keeping with her character AND a perfect means through which to critique infantilizing sexualization.

Of course, any situation in which an attractive female character prances about in a mini dress is at risk of being hijacked by certain fans that miss the point. Another option is fans who get the point, but don’t care, and instead turn a shot of Annie’s shimmying cleavage into a popular online gif. Satire that critiques through example is always a tricky form of comedy, because there is always a risk that it will be misused by the group it is in fact challenging. Personally, I’m glad Community went for it. Any viewer engaging with the show on the level it asks of us got the point. As for those gifs? Well, even a fantastic show like Community can’t be idiot-proof.

Shirley is unique as a fully realized female character who is primarily defined by the duality of her sweetness and her suppressed rage. Rage as a defining emotion is incredibly rare for women on television, specifically as it differs from their usually allotted “sass.” While Shirley’s depiction may not seem particularly feminist at first glance, I’d advise you take a second look. Are you noticing how you never thought of her as “the third woman,” the “black woman” or the “fat woman” before? It’s because she’s not. She’s Shirley. That’s how the show depicts her, and that’s how we see her.

So yes, as a feminist, I’m happy with how Community constructs its female characters. But why listen to me, when you can hear all about it from the women of Community themselves. Please read this interview with Allison Brie, Yyvette Nicole Brown, Gillian Jacobs, and Megan Ganz, one of the show’s writers, because it’s awesome.

[1] Except, it’s not boring and nausea inducing.

[2] Also, kudos for the character of Ron Swanson, who, unlike all those pseudo “personal liberties” conservatives out there, doesn’t compromise his values in order to oppress women.

[3] Exception being her rant against cosmetics companies in Season One’s Football, Feminism and You

[4] Community, unlike Glee, never asks its character’s to behave in a manner contrary to their personality in order to serve a plot point.

[5] Let’s not forget she was in rehab.

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