Queer Non-Characters in NBC’S ‘Community’: An Open Letter to Dan Harmon

Dear Dan Harmon (creator of Community),

Your show is one of the funniest and most clever on television, and your characters have an emotional rapport with yours truly that transcends the bounds of healthy viewer/media relationships. I am a fan.

It is therefore with great sadness that I now write to inform you of how much your show sucks at portraying queer people. Basically, you represent us as either cartoonish stereotypes or shallow background-props in front of which the primary characters perform. I’m  going to cite and explain examples of both types of use, and discuss why my objection is more complicated than a knee-jerk reaction to political-incorrectness. (In fact, I think part of your problem is that you’re too politically correct.) I’ll also speculate about how the painful crappiness of your treatment of queer characters fits into the larger context of American culture. But first let me tell you why I love your show.

1. CLEVER, META-CLEVER, META-META-CLEVER, ETC.

The most obvious feature of Community is its self-awareness, e.g. Abed’s recurring 4th-wall jokes about how his friends act like sitcom characters, his predictions about the plot, his “And we’re back” opener at the beginning of season 2. Community is a show written by and for people who have no memory of a time before television. Contemporary TV is for the most part about people living inside American culture, and TV is such a salient part of American culture that most contemporary television ends up being largely about itself. We are watching a show about people who watch shows. The point is that self-reference has become a bred-in feature of contemporary television (e.g. Family Guy’s near-total reliance on referential humor, Queer As Folk’s ‘Gay As Blazes’ gay-show-within-a-gay-show, or the Office’s imitation of reality-show camera-work). Community does this waaaaay better than anyone else, and is only occasionally too clever for its own good. (And even the too-clever parts are themselves the butt of jokes, as e.g. in Abed’s too-clever film in “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples”).

2. FORMAL PLAY

Because it’s so self-aware, the show is able to do some really impressive work with form. One way this occurs is genre work, where Community simultaneously parodies and accomplishes various genre types. E.g. the spaghetti western that became a Star Wars homage in the season 2 finale; the incredible stop-motion animation in ‘Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas;’ the no-budget Peter Jackson epic in ‘Advanced Dungeons and Dragons;’ the Apollo 13/The Right Stuff homage in ‘Basic Rocket Science;’ etc. I take it to be self-evident to anyone who’s watched these episodes that they’re not just superficial parodies, a la SNL, but that they also legitimately participate within these genres. I remember getting goosebumps during the climactic train-top chase in ‘Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,’ even while laughing at the absurd perfection before me.

Another way the show excels at form is in plot/narrative structure. ‘Paradigms of Human Memory’  and ‘Remedial Chaos Theory’ are examples of complex, non-linear storylines which balance viewer comprehension with an interesting/unusual/complicated series of events, while also linking elements in the episode to broader story arcs which span the entire series (e.g. Jeff’s pregnant conflict with his father; Troy’s AC skills; Professor Duncan’s drinking problem; etc.). Formal play also exists on a more immediate level: consider Professor Garrity’s monologue at the end of ‘Competitive Wine Tasting,’ wherein he declaims on the import an actor’s “time in the spotlight” while the (real) camera zooms to a close-up of his hammy face. Priceless.

These are a few of the most glaring assets of your show.

A CONCISE STATEMENT OF MY CRITICISM

There are no queer characters on Community, yet Community pretends to have queer characters.

A SOMEWHAT LENGTHIER EXPANSION OF THE AFOREMENTIONED THESIS

It would be unfair and insufficient for me to claim that Community is homophobic because its ‘gay’ characters are stereotypes, because stereotyping is the life-blood of the show. Nor do I yearn for ‘positive’ (i.e. lame) characters to represent the GLBTQ community. I am not upset by your gay caricatures, e.g.: Dean Pelton’s laugh-a-minute crossdressing “pansexual imphood;”  I have no problem with Pierce’s “Jeff is gay” insults. I am not bothered by Shirley’s “Gays are going to hell” lines. I am not the political-correctness police.*

However.

The fact remains that other stereotypical characters–such as Shirley the Black Christian Single-Mother and Pierce the Pathetic Retiree–are written with depth, character development, humanity, semantically-contented dialogue, etc. You’ve obviously, explicitly gone out of your way to represent the usual suspects of contemporary US culture, and given this fact, the absence of gay characters of any depth sucks. Dean Pelton is an interesting and well-developed character, but he’s not someone we could ever identify with. He’s a freak, which is why he’s funny. (He even makes this explicit in “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples” when he responds to the epithet “Queer” with, “One, unacceptable; two, none of your business; and three, not even close to the whole truth.”)

The two gay (white, cisgender, male) students who ask Pierce to sign their Hawthorn Wipes in ‘Advanced Gay’ are non-characters: every line they deliver could be replaced with “I am gay, ha-ha” without any loss to the episode. Their function in the episode is to provide a Contemporary Social Issue-context to the conflict between Pierce, Pierce’s father, and Jeff. They are wallpaper. At the end of the same episode, we see Senor Chang taunt Jeff as being “gay” while Chang himself goes home to have sex with a drag queen he thinks is a cisgender woman. This is humorous partly because we the audience know that Chang is being duped, but this dupery itself suggests that no one would ever knowingly find a drag queen attractive. (Sigh.) So gay men are a backdrop for the stories of straight characters who never actually encounter gayness in any meaningful way; they (i.e. the straight characters) just wrestle with the question of Whether to Be Nasty or Nice to the Gays. And crossdressers are puns.

The apparent presence/actual absence of queers is also evident in ’21st Century Romanticism,’ wherein Britta and another straight girl make out because each thinks the other is a lesbian. Again, we have a story about straight (and cisgender) people worrying hither and yon about how they will react to the existence of queers, while we the audience are spared their turmoil since we never actually meet any queer characters.*

And this is what bugs me: that there are no queer characters on Community, only queer caricatures and queer extras. The show puts on a pretense of including queer-related storylines, but in practice these storylines turn out to be about straight people dealing with–not even queer people, but merely the idea ofqueer people.I speculate that you are trying to have it both ways: on the one hand you want to be timely and relevant and topical, which means that you can’t ignore queerness entirely. Your show must “address” it. But on the other hand, sexual and gender deviance is a messy topic, and your show–which has to try to appeal to as wide a demographic as possible–doesn’t want to get mired in American culture wars. Your object is to entertain, not to advocate–which is fine, in itself. I’m not trying to shame you into being an “ally” or proponent of gay rights; my objection is not that you are writing propaganda for the wrong side. My objection, rather, is that in this case you actually must choose: you can have queer characters, or you can not have queer characters, but you cannot have it both ways. Either we’re there, or we’re not. Either you confront the audience with our existence, or you don’t.

A shorter way of putting this: Dungeons and Dragons players are portrayed on your show with more depth and humanity than the global population of people who don’t fit into the format of straight, cisgendered, serially-monogamous squarehood. This seems…inaccurate.

The only exception to the freak-vs.-wallpaper portrayal of queer people on Community occurs in “Mixology Certification,” wherein a fellow-geek hits on Abed, buys him a drink, then finally gets frustrated after Abed leads him on and ultimately storms out of the bar. This character, Robert, is exactly what I’m asking for when I complain that your show lacks deep, human queer characters. Robert, in very few lines, shows us a character that does not feel (to the viewer) interchangeable or manufactured. The things he says relate to the situation he’s in, to cultural context, to other characters, to his own goals and fears. His character is funny, but–critically–the humor is an effect of the story he’s in, rather than the “Holy crap, I can’t believe how GAY he is!” humor of e.g. Dean Pelton. Robert is three-dimensional: a character.

Unfortunately, he’s the only queer character, and he only takes up about two minutes of screen time. Which means that we the viewers spend .2% of our Community-time in the presence of a queer character, compared to 100% of our time in the presence of straight, cis, ‘normal’ characters. (Roughly: 50 episodes x 20 minutes per episode = 1000 minutes of air time for the entire series.)

So…that sucks. Because the other elements of your show are so damn good, and it puts me in a weird and uncomfortable position to like and enjoy these characters so much, while at the same time my existence as someone who is both queer and a person is implicitly denied by the show’s penchant for using queer characters as backdrop.

Hence my request to you is this:

Decide whether or not you want to portray queer characters, and then do it. If you don’t, then you don’t, and the failure of your show to acknowledge the existence of queer people will at least be obvious to its viewers. Or if you do decide to portray queer characters, then please do so–actually write characters who are–yes–queer, but also real and human and have lives and goals and ideas and histories, etc. Give us stories about queer people who are informed and shaped by their gender and sexuality, rather than two-dimensional placeholders for The Gays. Because what you’re doing now, as you try to have it both ways, having queers both present and absent on Community, amounts to lying.

HOW YOU’RE LYING TO THE VIEWER

Your deployment of queer non-characters allows viewers to feel like they’ve encountered and confronted and thought about and related to queer characters, without ever actually having to do so. It’s sort of like you’re giving them a placebo for Thinking About Gays: they don’t actually think, but feel like they do, and so they can feel progressive or edgy or relevant etc. without actually doing any work. Does that make sense? It’s also sort of analogous to Orwell’s attack on political euphemism in ‘Politics and the English Language.’ He said that when writers use imprecise euphemism–such as “securing boarders” as a euphemism for ethnic cleansing–they’re “like a cuttlefish spurting out ink” to hide the difference between their real aims and their declared aims.

Well, your use of queer non-characters works similarly. Like the deployment of long-winded political euphemism to talk around atrocities without ever talking about them, your deployment of queer non-characters effectively throws up a smokescreen around the conspicuous absence of queer characters on the show. The smokescreen is made up of these non-characters: these lesbians who turn out to be straight, these gays who seem to lack any identity beyond their sexuality, this drag-queen who tricks Senor Chang into sleeping with her.

And that’s pretty lame, not to mention unethical in a big-picture, social-democratic-dialogue kind of way. Your viewers are primarily Americans, which means that they’re my neighbors and my fellow citizens, and they need to realistically understand the world in which we live so that they can make responsible, informed decisions. And because they’re Americans, they’re also largely unfamiliar with queer people of all kinds. The least you can do, as a powerful public voice, is not conceal their ignorance from them…which is what you’re doing when you pretend to have queer characters.

So, I hope you consider my advice, and perhaps you’ll find a way to work Robert or some other three-dimensional queer character into your show. I imagine it’s too much for me to ask for an empathetic (not necessarily sympathetic) trans character, but I can always dream. In any event, your show is in other respects excellent, and I wish you luck.

Sincerely,

Casey Jaywork

*I’m not sure about this, but my guess is that political correctness itself is basically about existing institutions of power trying to prevent controversy, for which purpose they create restrictive codes of language (e.g. you can only say “GLBTQ,” not queer or gay; you can only say “people of color,” not black, etc.) In any event, it’s an obstacle to dialogue both within and between groups, since it 1-makes it difficult or impossible to articulate new ideas that are not built into the existing code of language, and 2-makes it difficult or impossible for people who don’t already understand a particular group to talk with or ask about that group. Community parodies this second point wonderfully in “Early 21st Century Romanticism,” wherein Britta chastises Annie for her “homophobia” when Annie asks questions about being a lesbian. It’s weird that this episode can be so perceptive about hypocrisy in bleeding-heart liberals while simultaneously being “about lesbians” without any lesbians.

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