I feel comfortable saying that Community will go down in history as one of the best television shows of all time, not only because each episode is crafted with such tender loving care, but also due to the way that the program has diversified the network sitcom. What we have in Community is a world where characters of different racial and religious backgrounds are defined not by their census categories, but by their very extreme personality quirks. The study group at the show's epicenter has not bound together because of or in spite of their differences, but because of their undeniable love for one another.
In addition to the unique treatment of race and religion, Community succeeds in writing some of the best, most well-rounded female comedic leads in recent television memory with the characters of Britta (Gillian Jacobs), Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) and Annie (Alison Brie). All three are magnificently well-rounded and, while remaining reminiscent of, spill well outside typical sitcom tropes. While Britta may have started out as a typical romantic foil and object of lust for Joel McHale's Jeff, she has blossomed into a remarkable weirdo who loves to smoke weed, hook up and make up amazing songs about pizza, all while maintaining intelligence and a sense of moral justice. Shirley, a mom who loves baking and Jesus, is also a ruthless foosball monster with a propensity for hypocrisy. And Annie, though an ingenue, carries a gun, has battled addiction and gets more competitive than any other character on the show.
Better yet, Community's embrace of women in comedy goes well beyond what you see on screen— their writers' room is one of the most gender diverse on television, a fact that is no accident. Show creator Dan Harmon has been open about his efforts to hire women writers, having told the AV Club, "They're harder to find. It's definitely not because women ain't funny, because I'm finding the opposite... There's the same percentage of genius happening in both genders, but there's less women writing scripts and out there looking for the job. So you dig a little extra-hard, and you end up with a staff that took a few extra meetings and a few extra shitty scripts to read. Now you have a staff that is just as good as the staff you would have had, but happens to be half women."
Recently, Community's actresses, along with staff writer Megan Ganz, sat down for a roundtable discussion with the Daily Beast. The resulting interview is great in its discussion of women in television and the entire thing is well worth the read. Here are a few highlights:
Jacobs: The thing that is unique about her is that she is never the subject of slut shaming. Like, she's one of the only female characters that doesn't ever get punished for having an active sex life.
Ganz: She is also proud of it and doesn't ever use it to her advantage. I mean, in some ways: a gym bag full of nickels. But you can tell she's just having experiences.
Jacobs: She's a flawed, well-rounded, principled person who makes mistakes but is not pigeonholed as the slut, even though she and Jeff are the most sexually active people in the group. Because if implied inferences in the script are correct, I've slept with most of the men at Greendale.
Brown: As a black actor, it's refreshing that I'm not playing the "sassy black woman." It's something that Dan Harmon was cognizant of from the beginning. It is something that I'm always cognizant of. Every woman on the planet has sass and smart-ass qualities in them, but it seems sometimes only black women are defined by it. Shirley is a fully formed woman that had a sassy moment. Her natural set point, if anything, is rage. That's her natural set point, suppressed rage, which comes out as kindness and trying to keep everything tight.
Ganz: In Episode 308, we had that thing about Shirley not wanting to get the "sassy note." You had said to me that that had happened to you once.
Brown: Female friends that are in my tribe, black girls, we all have stories about that. We find interesting ways to make [directors] tell us to be sassy because they know that it's racist. I say, "Can you show me how to do that?" They don't want to do a black version of sassy, so then they move on.
On the portrayal of young girls in media:
Jacobs: I remember when I first graduated from college and was still auditioning for high-school parts. I was horrified at the way high-school girls were portrayed as these sexual manipulators who were like constantly seducing everyone.
Ganz: The male perspective.
Jacobs: It was really disturbing to me, because I was innocent and not engaging in any of that kind of behavior in high school. But even the girl that was the most confident, prettiest girl in my high school was not like some Lolita like a bat out of hell.
Brie: Seducing her teachers.
On the "Bridesmaids Effect:"
Brown: I grew up watching Carol Burnett and Vicki Lawrence, who were just genius, so it's kind of hard for me to believe that people are just realizing that women are funny now...I think what's changing now is that more women are in positions of power. With your Tina Feys and Kristen Wiigs, you have more women in the driver's seat. They know what we really are. The ladies in the Community writers' office, they know who we really are.
Ganz: There have always been funny women. But in some ways, it takes a while for there to be women who were watching women on television for years and then grow up and think, "I could do funny stuff." I grew up watching I Love Lucy. She was doing funny stuff...When women are seen on TV being crass or funny or making jokes or undercutting someone, then you feel it's socially acceptable for a woman to do that. More women are growing up feeling, "I can speak my mind and say what I want." For me, I was maybe 15 before I started being like, "I'm just going to start saying things out loud. Why can't I say what I think?"