Comparing Gender and Racial Portrayals in “Community”

Written by Amir Downing and Sofia Mustacchi

Only in recent years have we begun to see diverse characters in our TV shows and movies. For most of screen history there have either been no characters of color or very one-dimensional characters of color. Until the mid-1970’s, there hadn’t been many shows that depicted the experience of non-whites in America. According to Dates and Stroman, “Media decision makers sought the largest possible number of viewers from the ‘mainstream’ of society” (Dates, 2009, pg. 209). The mainstream society, being white Americans, didn’t seem to be invested in viewing the everyday lives of minorities. As time went on “networks targeted television programming toward ‘segments’ of the American viewing public” (Dates, 2009, pg. 209). “Good Times”, “The Cosby Show”, “Family Matters”, and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” exemplify shows targeted towards a black audience, shows that were common and popular from the 70s all the way through the 90s. But starting in the late 1990s, this type of show became less and less popular, leaving a media landscape devoid of minority representation (Moss, 2001). 

Many white people were living in an environment where they didn’t come into contact with black culture either in person or in the media. White America’s exposure to black Americans came almost entirely through sports, music, and biased news reporting of crime. Results from a study reported by Mary Beth Oliver showed “not only are African American men more likely to be shown as criminal suspects than actual crime statistics suggest, the ways in which African American criminal suspects are depicted imply that they are likely to be particularly violent or threatening” (Oliver, 2003 pg. 5). With the decline in portrayals of black Americans in mainstream media, the average white American’s conception of their black countrymen became less challenged. It was easier to buy into the idea of angry black women and dangerous black men. 

In recent years, the sitcom genre that had been so lacking in minority representation saw a wave of modernization. From the late 2000s through the early 2010s, NBC played host to a set of sitcoms that added new depth to the genre. The Thursday night primetime slot that previously held all-white cast staples such as “Cheers”, “Seinfeld”, and “Friends” now welcomed a new batch. “The Office” elevated the mockumentary format to new heights. “30 Rock” followed a hard-working and trope-defying female lead. And “Community” showcased a diverse cast of characters and attempted to be a self-aware deconstruction of the sitcom medium.

“Community” follows a set of community college students who begin as a simple Spanish 101 study group and grow into inseparable friends. It features Shirley, a black mother of two who is the group’s moral compass and Troy, a playful, sweet, and innocent young black man. It also showcases Abed, a young Muslim man whose encyclopedic knowledge of movies and TV is used as the show’s catalyst for meta jokes about film media. All three of these characters and their white counterparts are knowingly introduced as trope-y, singular characters in the earliest episodes of season one, giving them expectations to defy as their characters grow and mature. As the show marches on, Troy and Abed’s characters are given depth and come to defy their expectations, but Shirely’s character is not given the same care, part of a larger pattern seen across all three women in the main cast, none of whom are as three dimensional as their male counterparts.

When he is first introduced, Troy is an ex-football player obsessed with sports and uninterested in school. Here he is in his very first scene in the show’s pilot, dressed in his highschool letterman jacket and trying to pawn his homework off on Abed:

Meanwhile, Abed’s initial characterization comes largely in the show’s third episode where we meet his father, who disapproves of Abed’s desire to study film and instead wants him to learn how to take over the family falafel business. When we first meet him, Abed’s father is an angry middle eastern man and Jeff and Britta (two of the show’s white leads) consistently call unprompted attention to his faith. Here we see Jeff and Britta on either side of Abed, talking down to and behaving confrontationally towards Abed’s father, whose back is to the camera:

Troy and Abed’s introductions are foundational to their arcs. Troy’s introduction runs in opposition to the “dangerous” and “criminal” black man that many people are used to seeing while still giving him the jock trope to later defy. Abed’s introduction puts him in stark contrast with his aggressive, uncreative, and business-minded father. Furthermore, the two characters become best friends among a group of incredibly close friends. The remainder of the show is chocked full of examples of them being caring towards each other, their friends, and creative in ways not expected of characters with their skin tone.

Troy is a very sweet young man who loves and constantly defends his best friend, Abed, and cares a lot about the rest of his friends. He and Abed love a lot of things that the rest of their friends aren’t interested in and are eccentric in the most endearing and compatible way possible. 

Image: Pinterest

Troy and Abed start a camera-less morning show (Troy and Abed in the Morning) that confuses and frustrates their friends where they discuss things that they are interested in at the moment. Some examples of what their show consisted of are interviews of friends and classmates, getting tips from their friends, and calling their friends in the middle of the night. 

Image: gfycat

Throughout the show we see Troy and Abed build pillow forts, watch countless movies, move in, and navigate their lives together. Troy, who started as the superficial dumb jock who lost his scholarship to a four year college morphs into a lovable goofball who wins the hearts of both his study group and the viewers of the show. There is a soft and vulnerable side to Troy that isn’t always showcased with male character of color that draws people in and makes everyone want to be his friend. 

Image: community fandom

All-in-all, Troy and Abed are fantastic examples of stereotype defying, three-dimensional characters with dark skin, refreshing to the sitcom landscape that had forgotten how to have characters like that on screen.

Shirley’s character on the other hand is not as well-handled. She is introduced as a good, Christian woman whose husband left her for a stripper, leaving her to be a single mother. After her husband left her she decided to go back to school and take business classes so she could one day open a bakery (she eventually does open up a sandwich shop at the titular community college). Her immediate introduction does run in opposition to the angry black woman trope while still providing tropes to defy, much like Troy’s first impression. However, when she is given depth it actually reverts back to well-known stereotypes. In the fourth episode, when Shirley is first given a fold to her character, it is done so by revealing that she is an incorrigible gossip, not what is expected of her given her religiosity.

See! Shirley isn’t just a kind and religious single mother, she’s actually so much more. She’s a sassy black lady. Moreover, she often displays flashes of the angry black woman stereotype. While she tries her hardest to be open minded, she struggles to come to terms with her friends being Jewish, Atheist, Muslim, and Jehovas Witness. She is shown to be judgmental and lashes out at the other members of the study group when conflict arises.   

These elements of her character (a propensity towards gossip and anger) are presented as flaws that give her depth, and they do. Yet, those flaws align closely with the tired tropes that follow black women in film media in a way that the male characters’ flaws don’t. Additionally, this pattern of dimension-adding character folds that actually just mimic old stereotypes about women follow the other two female leads of the show.

Britta is a socially conscious, smart, feminist when we first meet her. Her defiance of this initial impression comes when we learn that, actually, she isn’t as informed about the social issues she supports and that she isn’t as enlightened about her relationships with men and women as she seems. A few times over the show’s run she fights about men with Annie, the other young woman in the main cast. In one particularly egregious scene Britta and Annie grapple while covered in black paint all while men watch on and cheer—hardly a progressive moment in the show.

Image: LAtimes

Lastly, Annie herself is initially presented as a young, naive, and ambitious go-getter. When she is given depth and flaws, it is typically done so in two ways. First, she defies her initial presentation as sexually innocent and prudish and becomes occasionally sexually outgoing. Here she is during a provocative musical and dance number about her being Jewish and needing someone to “teach her how to understand Christmas”:

Still, “Community” remains a bright spot in the history of the sitcom genre. It is well-written, incredibly funny, with flawed and likable characters from a variety of backgrounds. Yet even a show this close to the high-water mark of comedy television displays fundamental issues with the way its female characters are constructed. All members of the main cast follow the same pattern of establishing an early expectation and then allowing the characters to grow out of and defy those expectations. Yet while the men have depth added in creative, stereotype-defying ways, the women don’t. Their flaws are reductive, and the characters are thus lacking in comparison.

Secondly, she is shown to be flawed during occasional child-like outbursts of anger about losing a competition or not being seen as the smartest person in the college. These tantrums align her character closely with the images of the Jewish American Princess, or JAP, stereotype as described by Laura Mattoon D’Amore. These women are “greedy, spoiled, whiny”, all flaws that Annie shows over the course of the show (D’Amore, 2014, pg. 202). 

Resources:

D’Amore, L. M. (Ed.). (2014). Smart chicks on screen : Representing women’s intellect in film and television. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu

Dates, J. L.., Stroman, C. A. (2009). Portrayals of Families of Color on Television. In J. Bryant & J.A. Bryant (Eds.), Televisions and the American Family (2nd ed., pp. 207-222). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers. https://bit.ly/2ZwM4m5 

Moss, R. F. (2001, February 25). The Shrinking Life Span of the Black Sitcom. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2001/02/25/arts/television-radio-the-shrinking-life-span-of-the-black-sitcom.html?scp=3&sq=&pagewanted=all 

Oliver, M.B. (2003). African Men as “Criminal and Dangerous”: Implications of Media Portrayals of Crime on the “Criminalization” of African American Men. Journal of African American Studies. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/2VytKaQ 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s