Incomplete: On Community‘s Troy And Abed, Geekdom, And Race

By Arturo R. García

Danny Pudi and Donald Glover (l-r). Courtesy: Hollywood.com/NBC

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.

Courtesy: deluxepopculturefanatic.tumblr.com/NBC

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.

Glover and Gillian Jacobs. Courtesy: E!/NBC

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.

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  • Keith

     It wasn’t a trampoline it was a bouncy house. And Abed’s father was afraid she would get hurt which would make his brother her father mad. And what’s wrong with wearing a niqab? I met an African American women in my chemistry class that wore one. I am tired of folks misrepresenting something and not knowing what they are talking about because of their ethnocentric bias.

  • Anonymous

    I think that’s a serious miscalculation of Shirley. Shirley rejected her jackass ex when he told her he wanted to remarry so he could stop trying to help her out around the house and with their boys.

    Shirley has an excellent business sense and gained her confidence back from going back to school and opening her sandwich shop.

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  • Hatethisandillloveyou

    Why would Abed become the next Apu? He’s of Palestinian/Polish descent, not Indian.

    • Anonymous

      It’s either a lazy analogy OR it is making reference to the fact that Danny Pudi the actor is Indian and Polish even though they make his character Palestinian and Polish on the show.

      So blame lazy casting in making brown people who aren’t black VERY interchangeable.

  • Morbiddreams

    It never occurred to me that Abed helping his cousin Abra go jump on a trampoline could be interpreted as a ‘liberating oppressed muslim girl from her niqab’ moment and even after reading this article i still dont interpret it as anything but Abed helping his cousin to go jump on a trampoline.

    This is largely because imho Abra is presented as being perfectly comfortable not only with with wearing a burqa but also with voicing her own opinion and trying to argue with Abeds father Gobi over being allowed to jump on the trampoline.
    The only person who seemed to have a problem with her burqa was Shirley which was why i was happy that it wasnt Shirley who helped Abeds cousin escape to go jump on the trampoline for a couple minutes. Sure they wouldnt have been able to sneak Abra back into her burqa without Shirleys help but it was her two young boys, who had no motive behind their plan to help Abra other than helping their new friend to enjoy some time on a trampoline, that came up with the plan., a plan that Shirley knew nothing about until after it had been put into action and though she may have interpreted it as being about helping a muslim girl oppressed by her uncle the other characters, Abed, Shirleys boys and Abra herself just saw it as having some fun on a trampoline.

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  • April Yee

    As imperfect as Community’s portrayal of people of color via Troy, Abed and Shirley, I am personally very thankful that they are even included on this major network sitcom. I’m encouraged on Tumblr when I see white users that like Troy and Abed’s friendship–at least they are being exposed to a somewhat minimally stereotypical portrayal of people of color. And at least they aren’t “villains” like in other shows.

    One thing that really turned me off about the show was when they had a completely stereotypical tightly-wound, academically overachieving, controlling Asian American female (the model U.N. episode). Ugh.

    But I’ve really come to lower my expectations of shows on networks like NBC, ABC and FOX, which are run by white people, written by white people (with exceptions like Alan Yang, Mindy Kaling) and made for white audiences (the proverbial “Middle America”). 

    • Sarah B

      I honestly think that Troy and Abed are the best part of the show. Maybe it’s because I’m a socially awkward geek, but I love watching them be nerds together. Granted, I’m a new Community fan, but so far I’ve enjoyed their friendship the most.

  • Dede

    Can we also note that when Abed’s family came to visit, they were coming from Gaza. GAZA! The Gaza-strip. You know, that place where the border, air and sea are guarded by Israel. That prison were no one has been allowed to leave since 2005. Yeah, that place. Can the writers just do 1 minute of googling when writing a story about browwnnnzz people from over there somewhere. 

  • soap

    No mention of Abed’s terrorist jokes when he talks about being Palestinian in the first season? 

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for this article! It brings out a lot of points that my mind has glossed over while enjoying the show.
    However I find it hard to believe that Troy is a Jehovah’s Witness. My family is affiliated with this religion and he acts nothing like one… or how a Jehovah’s Witness should be. Perhaps I’m just bitter because I find that religion oppressive and I was raised in it. (grumble)

    • Anonymous

      I’m sorry for your experience, first off. But yeah, Troy’s character was in danger of going off the rails – a JW who played varsity sports? Correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s not allowed? – before being paired with Abed allowed the writers to center him.

      • patrick

        My understanding is that Troy’s religious background is based in Donald Glover’s own experience being raised Jehovah’s Witness.  I’ve always read Troy as being a lapsed Jehovah’s Witness, someone who still identifies as such because it was how he was raised but not something he takes particularly seriously.  And he’s definitely shown discomfort at the more oppressive aspects of the religion.

        • Anonymous

           It’s one of those things that really should’ve been spelled out, I think. Because otherwise the potential is there for another episode like the one involving Abed’s cousin.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_EC7RUZWKCS7F77O2OP7TD566YU heresyourcopy

    To his credit, Troy did try to get Shirley into a black alliance during the first paintball episode. sadly he was shot before we ever saw it come to fruition.

  • http://twitter.com/thewayoftheid The Love Hater.

    As one who has been a fan of the show from the beginning, it’s amazing how some things just slip past you without notice. Like the story with Abed’s sister, for instance. I’ve been applauding Dan Harmon for creating a *real* ensemble, but it is definitely not without its problems (the devolution of Chang *shudder). I, too, worry that in an attempt to broaden Community’s appeal, the show will morph into some awful Two and a Half Men/Big Bang Theory hybrid.

  • http://profiles.google.com/kaila.heard Kaila Heard

    I’ve been so ‘in like’ with the show that I hadn’t noticed it. The only time that it was apparent was when Troy and Abed had a crush on the librarian. I remember thinking that the choice of the white librarian was suppose to be some sort of neutral compromise because OF COURSE it couldn’t be an ethnically black girl or a girl who was muslim. too unbelievable. 
    Yet even with that realization my heart sank when I heard that Dan Harmon had been ousted. No, I don’t have much faith that the new showrunners will be as dedicated to telling a story about this diverse group of people. The next season’s paint ball episode will definitely be over the top. (Okay, I giggle with delight at the thought of it, but for the rest of the episodes, I don’t think “over the top” will be a great thing.) 

    • Anonymous

       Actually, each one of the guys’ love interests has been white: the Secret Service agent, Annie, the librarian, Britta, even Helga from the computer game. And Shirley is, for all intents an purposes, the only woman of color besides Abed’s cousin and Grandma Barnes I can even remember having a speaking role on the show.

      • Anonymous

        The only love interests of color that I can think of is the substitute Spanish teacher that Pierce slept with at the end of the 1st season and the Asian woman Pierce dated in the second season.

        • Charle

          Troy briefly dated a black girl back in season 1! He was shown with her, anyway…and this was during the episode where Annie was struggling to tell him her feelings.

          • Anonymous

             Ah, point taken. But also consider this: she was shown, but wasn’t an active participant in the storyline, and she hasn’t been referenced since. If nothing else, as Yvette Nicole Brown told Racebending, “I’d like them just to cast some black people. I don’t know why… Can they
            cast some black folk? I mean, I know that that’s simplistic. But I do
            think that it would be great if every show would represent the world.
            There’s Asians, there’s Native Americans, there’s black people, there’s
            Latinas–there’s more than just white people in the world.”

          • Charle

            Mm, good point.  It’s a shame she was discarded so quickly with barely a line of dialogue…and the subplot of Annie’s crush on Troy was dropped pretty soon after that, as well. I’m actually kind of irked by the fact that Troy hasn’t been given a consistent romance outside of his bromance with Abed. I know there have been hints of something budding with Britta, but who knows if that’s ever going anywhere? It’s such a tease. 

            Also, thanks for linking that Racebending post! It reinforces my ladycrush on Yvette Nicole Brown–she is awesome.

  • Anonymous

     From “Comparative Religion”:

    Shirley: Uh,
    quick question. Are you all coming to my Christmas party right after the
    final, or are you stopping home to change into your Christmas outfits?
    Annie: [Breaking the silence] I guess I could wear one of my Hanukkah sweaters.
    Shirley: Uh, Annie.
    [Uncomfortable]
    Shirley: I didn’t know you weren’t, uh, Christian.
    Annie: Yep. One might even say I’m Jewish.
    Shirley: [Faking tolerance] Oh, tha-that’s good for you. Tha-that’s wonderful. I respect all religions of the world.
    Abed: I’m Muslim.
    Troy: Jehovah’s Witness.
    Britta: Atheist.
    Shirley: [With raised eyebrows] The Lord is testing me.

  • http://commentarybyvalentina.wordpress.com/ Val

     “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.”

    You missed the more stereotypical storyline for “Shirley”. Remember she became pregnant during a night of drunken partying and then the storyline goes that she didn’t know who was the father of her child? Yep, they turned her character on its ear with that one. It’s interesting how they took the one Black woman on the show and at first made her the “asexual” Black woman stereotype and then into the “Jezebel” stereotype.

    I lost interest in the show after that.

    • Anonymous

      Actually, Shirley got pregnant at the Halloween party where everyone got turned into zombies. and was drugged to forget that the incident ever happened. After you stopped watching, the show established that Shirley doesn’t drink. The show also spent a few episodes addressing her relationship with her then-ex husband. The show has also lampshaded both the “asexual” and “jezebel” stereotypes with Shirley. I think  the writers often don’t know what to do with Shirley’s religiousness, but I don’t have a lot of issues with how they have handled her race.

      • lynn

        Actually, Shirley is portrayed as a Christian hypocrite who pretends not to drink alcohol but really does. In the episode where they all went to a bar for Troy’s 20th birthday, there were pictures on the wall of her completely trashed. This after her pretending she had never been at that bar before.

        • Anonymous

           I don’t quite think that’s the case – the way I read it, she was a regular at the bar – without realizing that’s the bar they’d gone to, much like Jeff and Britta, who knew it by different names – but didn’t take part in that life anymore.

          • Morbiddreams

            One of the bar employees said when they recognised Shirley that they hadnt seen her around in a while. I interpreted that to mean that she had been a regular at the bar back when she was going through a very bad time after her husband ran off with that other women but that she had since sorted herself out and wasnt the kind to drink to excess anymore maybe having given up alcohol after seeing what it did to her though i dont remember whether she was shown drinking alcohol any other time in the series.

    • Morbiddreams

      Actually Shirley got pregnant after she reconnected with her ex-husband. After the breakdown of their marriage and how it affected her during the first season im guessing that reconnecting with her husband wasnt some meaningless spur of the moment hook up but something that she probably put a lot of thought and consideration into and took her time over.

      As for the thing with Chang as others have already pointed out it was the halloween party, she wasnt drunk and her subsequent inability to remember what happened was due to government induced amnesia. I will add that her hook up with Chang occurred at a time when both believed they were about to suffer death via zombies and had alsojust  experienced a personal/emotional moment together following the discovery that they were the only ones who recognised the others costume so i wouldnt classify that as a meaningless spur of the moment hook up either but thats just my opinion.