By Arturo R. García
Since Community is likely going to be a different series whenever it returns, why not introduce a sorely-needed course: Intracultural Communications?
For those who haven’t watched the NBC cult favorite–and let’s be real, according to the ratings, that’s quite a few people–the show, set at the rather hapless Greendale Community College, has built its niche on relentlessly referencing, upending and updating as many pop-culture tropes as possible over the past three seasons. And two of the show’s three PoC core characters, Troy (Donald Glover) and Abed (Danny Pudi), are often at the center of the shenanigans. (For everyone’s sake, we’re going to avoid talking about Chang, okay?) Spoilers ahead.
On the surface, Troy and Abed have represented a more diverse vision of geekdom than their more popular counterparts on The Big Bang Theory: Abed is a Muslim from a biracial family and a budding filmmaker; Troy is a black Jehovah’s Witness who has transitioned from being a jock toward a career path in air-conditioner repair. The duo lives together and, when not getting into hijinks with their study group. is content to sit around watching good/bad sci-fi or cosplay the characters from Inspector Spacetime, a Doctor Who spoof that’s gotten popular enough to attract notice from the people behind the real show.
But even as Abed and Troy have been shown running with the rest of the Greendale Seven and hosting their own faux-talk show and being cool-cool-cool, the great irony of their characterization is, we’ve hardly ever seen them interact with members of their own communities. Even if their race hasn’t been used to Other them, their geekiness has.
While it’s true that another member of the study group, Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), is black, she is coded as the Black Friend; for most of the series, she has been defined by either her strident Christian faith or her relationship with her husband Andre (Malcolm Jamal-Warner), who proposed to her by employing an a capella group to cover “MotownPhilly.” When Shirley took Troy’s side during a brief feud with Abed earlier this past season, she referred to him as “my boy.” Troy’s never used such a term of endearment with her, and his only other interactions with black people during the series have been random encounters with Magnitude (Luke Youngblood, playing the show’s take on the Token Black Guy trope), Jerry the Janitor (Jerry Minor), a paralyzing meeting with his idol LeVar Burton, and a problematic encounter with his Nana.
Abed’s apparent separation from his roots has been addressed more directly: he’s been shown to be estranged from his parents in the wake of his divorce, with his father written in an unflattering light, both unwittingly in Season One’s “Introduction To Film,” where Abed’s aptitude for filmmaking was unveiled; quite forcefully in “Basic Genealogy” later that year.
This is not, by the way, an endorsement of worn-out stereotypes. Nobody is saying Troy should start speaking with a “Street” inflection, or that Abed should become the next Apu. But as journalist and editor Yazan Al-Saadi points out at KabobFest, even one-off stories like “Genealogy,” where we met Abed’s cousin Abra, have bad implications:
What’s so groan-inducing with this particular story is that the cousin, being female, is completely covered in niqab (because, of course, all female Muslims wear the niqab) and there is this b-plot about how she wants to jump on a trampoline but Abed’s father won’t let her (because, I’m assuming, he’s simply an asshole). Here methinks the writers thought: “Hey, she’s female and Muslim! ENTER REPRESSED FEMALE PLOT POINT, POST HASTE!”
These are the examples we are left with when Abed’s religion and culture is in the forefront. They are played upon casually and mentioned off the cuff, but its effect is hugely damaging as it perpetuates these stale vulgar stereotypes about Muslims and Arabs.
I know I may sound obsessive and some may even say, “So what’s the problem? It ain’t real!”
You are right, it’s not real …
But, fiction is powerfully influential and it has become very complex. Fiction shapes our reality just as much as reality shapes our fictions, and fiction is an excellent marker for the state of society at the time it manifests. Even more, the forms of racism, discrimination, and the negativities within fiction have adapted to the times – they come in seemingly-harmless easily-digestible shiny packages that hide a greater subtext of distortions, misconceptions, and degradation.
This is what I term “pop-Orientalism” in our Twitter Age.
It would be easy to pin the duo’s cultural estrangement on the show’s design–it’s a 22-minute sitcom that has been about pop culture as often as it has Greendale itself. But while former showrunner Dan Harmon and his team were willing to offer nuance to characters like Jeff (who’s both the study group leader and a recovering narcissist), Britta (the conscience and The Worst) and Annie (the heart with the inappropriate crush), they were unwilling to realize (or care) that it couldn’t ring true for Troy to recite a cue card advising him not to discuss “The Negro Problem” without any sense of the phrase even registering for him. Or that Abed, a self-identified Muslim, would willingly team up with Shirley, a Christian, to “free” his cousin from her niqab.
In the wake of Harmon’s firing last week, it’s important to note that his replacements, David Guarascio and Moses Port, are being tasked to “broaden” the show’s appeal. It couldn’t hurt for whoever the show’s next writing team is to consider the idea that geeks of color often aren’t just navigating the realms governed by 20-sided die. It would be easy for them to write a joke about Abed praying. But it would help the show more if they started paying attention to why he might enjoy it.