Microeconomics and Modern Femininity

This post contains spoilers for episode 5.09  of Community, “VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing.”

This post was going to be about something very different, and then I realized: What I was going to respond to wasn’t actually the important part of this episode. It was simply a distraction from the real point. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This week’s episode featured the return of Brie Larson as Abed’s sometime girlfriend Rachel, as well a sort-of cameo by Breaking Bad producer Vince Gilligan. Both were part of a storyline in which Annie and Abed argued over who should move in with them: His girlfriend or Annie’s brother, Anthony.

The concurrent storyline involved Jeff, Shirley, and Professor Hickey discovering a cache of mint-condition chemistry textbooks in a storage room while organizing (another item from the Save Greendale Committee’s task list).

They decide to sell the textbooks themselves, rather than turn the books over to Dean Pelton. Britta is brought in for the use of her shady connections to find a buyer, and then Chang stumbles into the middle of the plot. Jeff, Shirley, and Hickey turn on each other, and Shirley meets with Britta’s buyer (musician and songwriter Paul Williams in a surprise cameo) in a dark hallway. But their hopes of making a quick buck are ultimately disappointed, when the mystery buyer tells Shirley the books are misprints – each volume is missing page 105 – and no one will buy the books.

As wonderfully executed as Gilligan’s cameo was – especially the tongue-in-cheek tag including a second surprise appearance, with Gina Gershon appearing as his wife – people seemed frustrated by the inclusion of Annie’s brother for two reasons: The character was grievously underserved by the writing, and there had never been a single hint Annie was anything other than an only child.

Compounded by the fact that Anthony’s character was a fantastic opportunity to shed further light on Annie’s character and backstory – whether by discovering a new facet of her personality or find a clearer reason for an existing trait – yet we ultimately learned very little that was new about her, I personally wonder why the writers believed introducing a sibling with no prior warning would make for a compelling story element.

However, if nothing else, the missed opportunity to shed light on a main character and the secret textbook sale storyline did highlight something I hadn’t noticed about Community. As much as Jeff has always essentially been the main character – largely because the show was designed as a vehicle for Joel McHale, with the established star-power of Chevy Chase – he is not the true main character.

Let’s take a quick tally of which family members we’ve met and when:

  • Troy’s grandmother (1.18)
  • Annie’s brother (5.09)
  • Abed’s father (1.03) and mother, sort of (2.11)
  • Chang’s wife (1.10) and brother (1.18)
  • Jeff’s father and half-brother (4.05)
  • Pierce’s ex-stepdaughter (1.18), father (3.2) and half-brother (3.20)
  • Shirley’s older sons (1.18), her husband (2.12), her baby (2.22), and a several members of her extended family (4.05)

While we’ve met none (Britta or Dean Pelton) or very few (see above) of the people close to most of our main ensemble, we’ve met all of Shirley’s immediate and some of her extended family. We knew much of her family had chosen her husband over her, and we’ve seen her gain and lose real and chosen family members (her youngest son, and her friend and business partner, respectively).

 We’ve watched her journey from isolated single mother to successful businesswoman and watched her fall from grace, again, with the start of this season. We’ve watched her fall in lust (guy with dreadlocks), fall back in love with her ex-husband, and have a random one night stand (albeit with dubious consent). We knew more truth about her from day one than any of the other characters: Her husband left her for a stripper, she had two young children, and she wanted to sell her brownies and such on the Internet. We knew she was angry over the hand she’d been dealt, and her decision to attend Greendale was driven by a desire to take back control over her life.

We learned over time that she had anger management issues, that she was essentially a recovering alcoholic, and, as she herself mentioned earlier this season, that she has a problem with passive aggressiveness. Where the other characters have willfully withheld or unconsciously omitted important information about themselves, Shirley has always stuck as much to the truth as possible – even if she can and does manipulate others to advance her own cause.

If we assume, despite Community‘s creativity and rejection of traditional sitcom tropes, that one character is the audience’s point of entry and that character is our main character, the true focus of the show is Shirley Bennett, a Black single mother and small business owner with expanding interests.

It’s difficult not to want good things for Shirley, especially when she typically only works to improve herself and others. She’s had so many disappointments, and yet she is unflinchingly optimistic.

When her husband leaves her, she turns it into an opportunity to become self-sufficient. When she is kicked out of her first study group, she takes offense at their nickname for her but doesn’t lash out at them directly. When she discovers she’s pregnant, she is worried that her child’s father might be Chang, but she doesn’t keep him at arm’s length (more so than normal, at least). And when Greendale denies her the opportunity to open her own business, she refuses to accept their answer as final.

In a society and a time when women are expected to always be polite; to never raise their voice; to immediately apologize for any offense, real or imagined; to not expect their opinions to be valued unless they further those of a man; to stand down when they are told their behavior is somehow inappropriate; and to not only express shame, but to genuinely feel shame when society tells them they are not behaving like a woman, Shirley is a role model.

Shirley is not perfect. She is not always quiet. She often yells and shouts. She is occasionally violent.


She appreciates the value of revenge. She stands by her opinions, even when they are unpopular. She shows embarrassment, but she is rarely ashamed of her choices.

She appreciates a pretty face on a man, and isn’t shy about saying so. She shows a true mercenary streak, as demonstrated when she ties up her would-be partners so she can pocket the entire windfall from the chemistry textbooks.

She is polite, but she will not be cowed. She loves her children and her friends, and she fights for them. She is willing to forgive the man who betrayed her sacred trust and give him another chance.

She asserts the worth of others, even when they don’t value themselves. She is unfailingly honest, but she has the maturity to acknowledge if she’s hurt someone because they misunderstood her.

Shirley is wiser and tougher and stronger than many female characters on TV today.

She never says ‘quit,’ and she does so, mostly, with good humor and the wisdom of experience. She is the true main character of Community, and as nice as it would be for her to catch a break – Maybe Idris Elba is a deacon at her church? Or Chris Evans is an investor for Shirley’s Sandwiches? Perhaps Godfrey Gao is a different investor, who wants to open a chain of Shirley’s Sandwiches in Canada? – she never seems to ask for more than the love of her family and the loyalty of her friends.

She’s not the obvious star because she doesn’t expect to be treated with kid gloves: Shirley understands that being an adult means not only opening yourself up to criticism but learning to respond to it gracefully.

As a friend of mine said last night, it’d be nice to learn even more about Shirley’s background than we already know. But, in the meantime, I would have settled for her plan to sell the textbooks not backfiring, and Shirley making out like an outlaw bandit.


4 thoughts on “Microeconomics and Modern Femininity

  1. In terms of Annie’s brother: it was pretty obvious to me (knowing something of the dynamics between the people involved) that the part was written less in service of developing or exploring an existing main character, and more because Dan&Co. thought it would be fun to have Spencer Crittenden on the show, and oh, wouldn’t it be funny if he played Annie’s brother because they’re such polar opposites! As much as I’m a fan of Spencer’s as an occasional Harmontown attendee, the whole stunt kind of stuck out like a sore thumb.

    In terms of Shirley: I was SHOCKED to realize Kerry did not write this post 🙂

    • I didn’t know who Crittenden was before watching, although I agree with your point now knowing his connection to Harmon et al. On the other hand, I stick by my original complaint for two reasons. (Apologies if I already said this on Twitter, as I don’t remember, and it’s easier here than when I’m limited to 140 characters.) First, as much as we all know how much Dan hates anything resembling emotions or character growth, he has a long history of introducing and using family members to show us things about the central characters. For instance, when we met Chang’s older brother, we learned why Chang would’ve felt the need to lie about his qualifications to teach. And although we only ever met Troy’s grandmother, when we learned that his mother had lied to him about being kept back a grade, it gave both his confession to Jeff in FF&Y that he purposely hurt himself senior year a new dimension while also giving him the authority to tell Annie to be secure in her identiy at the end of MixCert that he wouldn’t have had if he hadn’t had to face some of his own truths.

      Second, I think I said while I was watching that Anthony and Annie didn’t resemble each other at all. (Epic beard notwithstanding because you can’t ask someone to just shave all that off without a guarantee of future work.) But it was more that even if they didn’t have much physical or personality similarity, I would’ve expected what you suggested: That Anthony would be the exact opposite of Annie’s personality. Where she’s uptight, he’d be super mellow, and where she’s forcing happiness, he’d be genuinely happy-go-lucky, as those differences would still show us something about Annie. They could’ve shown us that Annie bore the brunt of her parents expectations as the older child, or that they each took after one parent more, or even that Annie’s personality now, post-rehab and as a recovering addict, is nothing at all like her personality before she got hooked on pills and the Annie we know is a direct result of her experiences. Anthony could’ve been used as a direct reflection or as a fun-house mirror to show us something about Annie, which wouldn’t be entirely out of Dan’s wheelhouse, and instead of a mirror, we got a concrete slab of a character: Impenetrable, unnoticeable, and resistant to most anything you throw at it. Now, whether Crittenden is a professional actor or not, the writing staff let him down, the let the character down, and they let us down because if they weren’t going to do anything interesting with Anthony, it was a weak and pretty wasted parallel plot simply to get us to the last minute of Annie and Abed realizing Troy’s absence totally changes their dynamic.

      With regards to Shirley: I know, right? 🙂 The truth is the way the Annie & Anthony storyline fell apart only highlighted how well Shirley’s character has been written, even when she’s had some totally ridiculous arcs, and how, despite how much we really know about her, there’s depths to her character still. But, yeah, I was kind of like, “I sound an awful lot like Kerry right now.”

      (Long reply is long. Ooops.)

  2. […] a rather mundane night of TV on Thursday night, the clouds parted and the angels sang, because Elementary opened with Joan […]

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