How Shirley on Community Both Embodies and Subverts Sitcom Stereotypes

Slate's Culture Blog
May 17 2012 2:55 PM

Character Studies: Shirley Bennett, Community

Shirley Bennett on Community
Yvette Nicole Brown plays Shirley Bennett on Community.

Still by Jordin Althaus/NBC.

Among the many TV tropes sent up on Community—Dan Harmon’s NBC sitcom centered on a zany and self-absorbed study group—perhaps the most fraught are those pertaining to gender and race. Harmon’s method of mocking sitcom clichés is to first embody them and then to turn them inside out—and this helps explain the character of Shirley Bennett. A God-fearing Christian mother of two, Shirley deliberately reflects the stereotypical black female character on a network sitcom: heavy-set (and thus “unsexy”), maternal, occasionally “sassy.” But as portrayed by the delightful Yvette Nicole Brown, Shirley also mocks the ridiculousness of clichés.

Aisha Harris Aisha Harris

Aisha Harris is a Slate staff writer.

Shirley is older than most of her study-group compatriots—the exception being the even older Pierce, the Archie Bunker of the group, played by Chevy Chase. Pierce and Shirley have a love/hate relationship, and their storylines are often paired. His not-so-subtle racist and sexist comments—he assumed, for instance, that Shirley was the mother of Troy, the study group’s one other black member—give voice to the stereotypes projected upon minorities in the sitcom world.

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In season one’s “The Art of Discourse,” for example, Pierce, unable to distinguish between pantsing another guy and pulling down the skirt of an unsuspecting woman, goes too far with Shirley. He tries to make a (forced) apology, but mistakes another black woman for her—and she overhears him making this mistake. Shirley leaves the group when she realizes the others wrote Pierce’s apology for him, lashing out at them for not caring about her feelings.

“Just to let you know, I’m Shirley,” she later tells Pierce when they find themselves in the library together. “Wouldn’t want you reaching for me should you get a hankering for pancakes.” However, they soon find a moment of solidarity that provides a glimpse of their shared desire to be treated as equals by everyone else.

Shirley is not painted merely as a saintly figure. There are Polaroids of her drunken profile all over the walls of a local bar—plus, she is prone to gossiping, and engages in a one-time tryst with Spanish professor-turned-student Ben Chang. In season two’s Halloween episode, Shirley and Chang lock themselves in a bathroom to ward off the zombies that have taken over Greendale. She is dressed as Glinda the Good Witch, and he as Peggy Fleming, but none of their friends have understood their costumes. The black woman and Asian man—according to some faux-scientists, the two categories of people found least attractive by others—understand each other, though. “You’re not racist!” cries an ecstatic Chang. While the others—including Troy—cannot fathom the idea that Shirley could be dressed as a fictional white character (she is NOT Miss Piggy, they realize), Community recognizes just how limiting our views of others tend to be.

The show has, in the past, been accused of under-utilizing Shirley’s character, and to some extent this was true. Until she became pregnant and Malcolm Jamal Warner was introduced as her estranged husband midway through the second season, she remained on the periphery, while the other characters balanced love triangles and fought with classmates. But since then the writers have given Shirley a chance to evolve just as much as the others—especially in the partially anime foosball episode, where we learn that Shirley used to bully Jeff when they were kids.

Shirley’s religious intolerance has frequently been put to the test by her atheist, Muslim, and Jehovah’s Witness friends, but she has mostly set aside her differences for the good of the study group. Still, every once in a while she may for instance invite the Jewish Annie to a “pool party” that is actually a Baptism designed to “sneak her into heaven.” Nobody’s perfect.

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