Community, and the Problem with Ironic Sexism

by thethreepennyguignol

Look, I guess I should set one thing straight here, before I begin- I don’t think Community as a show is inherently sexist. Dam Harmon, the man behind the cult-smash sitcom, has made an express effort to hire female writers and create interesting, well-rounded women characters who get just as much respect and screentime as their male counterparts. With an ensemble cast as big as Community’s in it’s heyday (seasons one through three, and I’ll hear no different), it was and still is legitimately awesome to see the strong central female cast taken as seriously as they were, as likely to be cracking the joke as the butt of it. So let’s get that out of the way.

But I was rewatching the show over the last few weeks (I’m back at university, any sort of college-based comedy is a must to float me through the next few months alive, and apparently all I write about now is sexism in sitcoms), and something jumped out at me a few times across the show’s run. And that’s it’s use of ironic (or hipster, depending on what article you read first) sexism.

Ironic sexism is basically when the writers know they’re being sexist, and the audience knows the writers are being sexist, and the joke stems from the fact that everyone is in on the fact that this would be a horrible way to treat women in real life. Let’s take a couple of examples that jumped out at me- the first was in a Christmas episode, where Annie (played by Allison Brie) sings a parody of the dumb sexy-baby-voice tunes meant to appeal to men with fetishes I’d rather not consider, presumably:

And yeah, this is a funny scene. Don’t get me wrong. I like the way they dismantled the ridiculousness of the woman forced to prance around downplaying her intelligence to further appeal to men. But it’s still Allison Brie prancing around and bending over in a little dress. We’re still being invited to objectify her, even if we are all in on the funny joke. Take a look at these scenes, which are basically the same thing twice:

Woo, we’re so enlightened that we can ogle women doing stereotypically sexy things- in an enlightened and non-sexist way! I understand what tropes they’re going after here, by presenting a stupidly overboard version of those tropes, but it’s hard to see two conventionally attractive young women straddling each other while covered in oil and see it as a breakthrough. And, of course, this kind of stuff isn’t contained to Community. It’s in advertising, where women and men are posed outrageously sexily- in a tongue-in-cheek way! It’s on social media, where people order women they disagree with to make them a sandwhich, bitch- but it’s only because they’re totally enlightened and we live in a post-sexist society anyway, right?

Look, I get that they’re trying to critique the ridiculousness of these kinds of tropes here, but is simply regurgitating a trope actually providing a critique of it? I’m genuinely asking. I think it depends n the circumstance, the intention, and lots and lots of other things, but when it comes down to it, simply producing a replica of sexism and calling it funny assumes that everyone observing it is going to understand that that’s a ridiculous or unacceptable way to treat the person in question. But, you know, that’s kind of a gamble when objectifying women in the media   (and more broadly in society) in a non-ironic way (WHY HELLO THERE GAME OF THRONES) is so completely accepted, so normalised. I know a bunch of people who see the joke in the above Community scenes, but still appreciate the chance to ogle the actresses in question, so while those scenes have successfully made the point they wanted to make, they’d sort of undermined themselves. I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t think you can critique a problematic trope while you’re adding to it, and doubly so when you’re using it as an excuse to stick two of your leading women in fantasy scenarios and outfits for the audience to gawk act. But what’s your take on it?