The Construction of Gender Roles Within the Situation Comedy “Community”

An Essay by Loki100

AV Club Link:,66270/#comment-411471802 (Page 61)

"Community" depicts gender much in the fashion of post-third wave feminism within the greater American society. The ideological precept that there is a vague economic and political parity between the genders informs the series, but the actual construction of gender within the show belies the confusion of greater society with regards to gender as an ideological force. Feminist narrative is seeded throughout "Community," but it is only in am amorphous, pre-conscious fashion, rather than the deliberate usage of feminist narrative techniques in more explicitly ideological works. A view of gender remains an important aspect of the series, but one that is often rendered intangible. A discussion of gender within "Community" must start with African-American, single mother Shirley, the archetypal feminist protagonist. "Feminist" in this context is not to be taken as a series of ideological political and economic positions, but rather as a character that most closely adheres to feminist narrative theory. In this sense, of the three female characters, Shirley is the most overtly feminist, while Britta is on a very different journey that retains strong feminist overtones. Annie, sadly as far as the series is concerned, is mired in anti-feminist narrative.

As Rita Felski notes, feminist literature most commonly begins where traditional narratives end with the dissolution of heterosexual romance. "The defining feature of the feminist text is a recognition and rejection of the traditional script of heterosexual romance characterized by female passivity, dependence, and subordination, and an attempt at alternative narrative and symbolic within which female identity can be located (129). Shirley, upon first appearing in the series, has already recently seen the dissolution of her marriage due to her husband's infidelity. This posits her as prototypical feminist protagonist, and the series can be viewed from the perspective of Shirley's journey from traditional gender roles to her construction of a women-identified subjectivity.

As Shirley begins her narrative journey, an ideological concept of femaleness is ingrained within her, which causes her to act in certain performative ways. As Judith Butler states, “In this sense, gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceed; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time—an identity, instituted through a stylized repetition of acts” (519). Some of Shirley's defining features are the product of these repeated acts, the two most obvious of which are her baking and her tendency to act as mother to the group. In “Remedial Chaos Theory” Shirley states that sometimes she thinks the only thing she adds to the group is her ability to bake. Cooking has become an integral part of her personality because she has spent most of her life cooking for other people. This repetition forces her to view her self-worth only through the lens of the traditionally female role of the baker. Forcing her outside of that role, as “Remedial Chaos Theory” does, forces her into an identity crisis and precipitates a breakdown of her not only as a person, but as a society. Even more common is her tendency to treat her fellow students at Community College as if they were her children, as seen in “Comparative Religion.” Interacting with children has been her primary form of social interaction since their birth, and the resulting outcome has been that she has self constructed an identity of “mother” through the endless cycles repetition and views those around her within the paradigm of “children.” Adrienne Rich would term this “compulsory heterosexuality,” her time, energy, and economic power have become completely subsumed into the care of her children. Her agency is controlled by inflexibly forcing her into the role of the mother. Asking her to no longer engage with people in the roles of mother to child is outside the parameters of her ideological gender and subjectivity. As Felski says, “The internalization of this view of female identity as supplementary to and supportive of a male figure by women themselves is registered as the most disturbing indication of the deep-seated influence of patriarchal ideology; the protagonist is unable to see herself except in relation to the needs and desires of others” (129). The obvious implications of Shirley's need to provide her study group with baked goods and smother them with motherly care becomes frighteningly clear and illuminating. Nevertheless she is profoundly unhappy within the socially constructed identity with which she performs. As “Pilot” states, she has deep seated anger issues based on the exploitative gender role within which she has been forced into, expressly stated in the narrative as needing respect not for being a “wife” or a “mother” but as a woman with her own agency. This creates a degree of cognitive dissonance between her view of who she should be and her view of who she is, as well as informs her motives. These multiple aspects that problemitize gender highlight that Shirley will be the typical feminist protagonist as she moves beyond these ideological constructions.

From this initial point of deep seated gender role dysfunction, Shirley enters Greendale and begins what Felski's feminist bildungsroman. Felski herself would not assign her theoretical framework to “Community” as she only constructed it to apply to a restricted number of works, but we would be remiss to not utilize her theories in this application as they so closely align with the text. The feminist bildungsroman charts the evolution of the female protagonist from the dissolution of her heterosexual romance into a nascent socio-political awakening and emerging independently into the public sphere. Unconsciously though it may be, Shirley's initial emerging social consciousness begins by usurping and undermining the traditional roles of gender. As Frederick Engles says, “Quite the contrary. Monogamous marriage comes on the scene as the subjugation of the one sex by the other; it announces a struggle between the sexes unknown throughout the whole previous prehistoric period. In an old unpublished manuscript, written by Marx and myself in 1846, I find the words: 'The first division of labor is that between man and woman for the propagation of children.' And today I can add: The first class opposition that appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male” (79). Instead of allowing her failed heterosexual relationship to leave her destitute and reliant upon charity, Shirley seeks to assume economic self-sufficiency through the capitalist venture of utilizing her gendered skills at baking as an internet business. In this she seeks to erase that initial division of labor and class, and become economically independent. Simply by attending Greendale, Shirley has entered into a bildungsroman narrative, and as she attends, she will only become more engage with the socio-politcal society around her.


Indeed the very second episode, “Spanish 101,” featured Shirley and Annie attempting self-empowerment through political apparatus. After overhearing Britta comment about the government of Guatemala’s oppression, Shirley and Annie organize a protest. Shirley herself states, “I want to protest the hell out of something.” This statement shows both Shirley's intense desire for political engagement, but how her culture has denied her proper ability to access the body politic as well as even understand it. Sadly, a life consumed by traditional gender roles has left her not even the epistemology required to begin to understand politics, let alone engage with it. Key to her bildungsroman narrative is Britta initially in the role of the teacher. Britta's off-handed comment about Guatemala allows Shirley and access point from with to explore relevant issues of the culture of which she is a part of. Shirley, being the most keenly aware of the effects of compulsory heterosexuality on her life, is the most desiring of cultural transformation into a women-identified society. As Michel Foucault explored, the pupil-teacher relationship is problematic in its authoritarian-hierarchical nature, Shirley, seeking a socio-political culture outside of class oppression of gender division, rather than treating Britta as a mentor, instead treats her as an equal, someone who has knowledge Shirley can learn from, but whose subjectivity is not inherently superior to her own. Throughout the series, Shirley is drawn to Britta as both are on strong, gendered narratives and can provide mutual support from a position of understanding, even though they often have clashing ideology. When Britta attempts to assert her own dominance, Shirley brutally cuts her down, telling her, “Sounds like someone has the case of 'likes-to-use-fringe-politics-to-make-themselves-feel-special-but-doesn't-want-to-do-anything'-itis.” Shirley is most desirous of female commune, but wishes it solely on feminist's own terms, not modeled after greater patriarchal society.

This would play a distinct role in “Football, Feminism, and You,” where Britta's own subjectivity, colored by her compulsory heteroseuxality, has alienated her from a women-identified society. Specifically, Shirley invites Britta to the bathroom as a bonding exorcise and to engage in mutually supportive discussion, instead Britta judges her repeatedly and leaves her feeling attacked. Shirley views the bathroom as what Adrienne Rich calls “lesbian continuum,” saying, “I mean the term lesbian continuum to include a range–through each woman's life and throughout history–of woman-identified experience; not simply the fact that a woman has had or consciously desired genital sexual experience with another woman.  If we expand it to embrace many more forms of primary intensity between and among women, including the sharing of a rich inner life, the bonding against male tyranny, the giving and receiving of practical and political support“ (239). To Shirley, the bathroom represents a safe space where women are free to align with female-identity, Britta is functionally incapable of operating outside a male-identity paradigm, and due to her compulsory heterosexuality views women as antagonistic competition, stating, “I’ve peed alone my whole life! Women have always hated me. I don’t even know how it started. Maybe it was when I got boobs before everybody.” Here, Shirley usurps Britta's role as teacher and aids her in creating a female-identity, allowing her to, by the end of the episode, engage with her fellow women within the paradigm of lesbian continuum. Shirley is the most defensive and in need of this women-identified society, so much so that in the episode “The Psychology of Letting Go” when she feels excluded from the lesbian continuum by Annie and Britta, she exacerbates their mutual antagonism created by their mutually ingrained compulsory heterosexuality. This startling aggression and relapse into male-identified thinking shows how deeply Shirley requires the community of women, and how quickly she relapses into patriarchal thinking upon being excluded from it.

Of course no analysis of Shirley's narrative as her gradual liberation from traditional gender can ignore her pregnancy and return to motherhood throughout the latter half of the second season. This would appear to invalidate Shirley's bildungsroman, as she regresses back into the original heterosexual relationship that marked the start of her ascent out of the traditional gender role. Claiming that Shirley has regressed, however, would be an inaccurate reading of the events. Instead it operates as the expression of her fulfillment and liberation from the ideological social structure confining her within her gender. Once Shirley discovers she is pregnant, there is no question that she would be able to provide economic and social necessities for the child, independently of any outside aid. When she reenters her heterosexual relationship, she does not withdraw from the socio-political culture she emerged into, rather she continues to attend Greendale, and continues to find solace in the women-identified lesbian continuum paradigm she helped create. It is the ultimate expression of her independence that she will no longer become subsumed within the roles of mother and wife, but rather will continue to pursue her own independent agency.


Works Cited

Butler, Judith. "R, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory”." Theatre Journal 40.4 (1988). Print.

Engles, Frederick. Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Charles H. Kerr &, 1902. Print.

Felski, Rita. Beyond Feminist Aesthetics: Feminist Literature and Social Change. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1989. Print.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. New York: Pantheon, 1978. Print.

Rich, Addrienne. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 1993. Print.