Beyond Basic Representation: Community and Queer Realities

14 April 2015

‘Get ready, America. Dean Pelton is coming out as approximately two-sevenths of what he is!’

Despite being a show with predominantly heterosexual characters, something about Community has always touched a special part of my queer heart. The themes of acceptance and community grabbed me in its first season as a lonely closeted queer girl almost as much as this GIF of Alison Brie would a few years later, and the episodes which have explicitly dealt with queer issues have always been whip-smart and genuine. Season 3’s Advanced Gay not only touched on economic exploitation of the LGBTQ+ community by cishet businesses but also featured an A+ cameo by Shangela, while Season 2’s Early 21st Century Romanticism featured the very heterosexual Britta making friends - and eventually making out with - a women she thinks is gay to prove how progressive she is. If you’re straight and reading this you have blessedly little idea how real that is. Too real. That is how real that is.

The recent Queer Studies & Advanced Waxing, though, is possibly the most real exploration of radical queer identities I’ve seen on mainstream TV – with the caveat that I’m not sure Community counts as mainstream when it was already doing full-episode length homages to My Dinner with Andre in its second season, or even as TV anymore, since it airs on Yahoo Screen now. Whatever. My point still stands.

A quick recap, if you haven’t seen the episode (or the show) - Craig Pelton, the incompetent but well-meaning Dean of the community college where the show is set, is offered a job on the school board. It quickly becomes apparent that he’s being offered the job because the school board believe he’s openly gay, and they need to appear ‘tolerant’ after cancelling the annual pride parade and replacing it with a school board parade. Despite not being ‘openly anything, and gay doesn’t begin to cover it’, the Dean agrees to pare down his sexuality to ‘simple gayness’ in order to get the position. The school board hold a press conference to announce his hiring, where they give him a fake partner and end up rubbing his head while shouting ‘Hey, it gets better!’

A little while later, two members of the school board start giving the Dean flak for shutting down the campus wifi until a nest of baby birds that have been born in the router have fledged, and there’s this exchange:

‘That’s a little too gay.’

‘I didn’t do it because I’m gay. Wait, I’m not gay.’

‘Oh, that did not just get said to us. You are gay. You are openly gay and we love it. But now we are dealing with more flak from conservatives for appointing you than we ever did from gays for not having one of you.’

‘Yeah, and the gays aren’t coming to your side. You know why? Because the whole point is to get a job by being gay and then to do as good a job as the normals. That’s what the gays want. They don’t want a gay dean who acts like a weird gay monster.’

The Dean moves the birds, resulting in two of them dying. Horrified at his actions, he holds a press conference where he comes out as a politician, or someone who will say and do whatever they have to in order to acquire and keep their job. He’s then promptly kicked off the school board for admitting he’s political.

Then he goes to watch an unofficial stage adaption of the Karate Kid, but that’s another story.

Community has been hinting at the Dean’s complex sexuality for years, and you’d be forgiven for dismissing the show’s refusal to openly discuss the Dean’s sexuality until now as a means to avoid explicitly labelling him as ‘not straight’ (and in writing this, I did begin to wonder if it wasn’t just a coincidence that Queer Studies & Advanced Waxing aired now, with Community’s move to a less restrictive channel). Because, let’s be honest - refusal to label a character’s sexuality is more often than not an attempt to avoid saying the dreaded word ‘bisexual’, which is apparently to TV producers what ‘Macbeth’ is to theatre people. Even when characters seem to be clearly written to identify as a certain sexuality or gender identity, creators will refuse to acknowledge it, deny it, or worse, turn it into a joke (step forward, The Big Bang Theory and its treatment of Sheldon Cooper).

Yet the vast majority of people on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum don’t identify cleanly into the four or so labels that are just about recognised in the mainstream. We are queer, we are non-binary, we are asexual - and sometimes labels don’t fit us at all. Queer sexualities and gender identities are beautiful and complex, and we shouldn’t have to settle for our community being represented only by cis lesbian women and gay men, and our identities being played for laughs.

Allowing a character not to identify - not out of cowardice, or as a joke, but because that’s how the character really feels  - is genuinely revolutionary. It’s revolutionary because it actually reflects real LGBTQIA+ lives and experiences and that is so damn rare in the mainstream. Turn on the TV, wait long enough and go through enough channels and you’ll probably find a gay man or woman somewhere, eventually (no guarantees, though). But what are the chances that, as an LGBTQ+ person, they’re going to look or sound or act like you?

We don’t need more ‘gay characters’ in our media, we need proper representation of LGBTQIA+ lives. Tara and Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer mean so much to me not just because they’re gay women, but because watching their relationship was the only time I’ve ever seen something on TV resembling my relationship. And so too with the pressure on Dean Pelton - from both the straight and LGBTQIA+ community - to conform to a more easily understood identity. It’s a reality of so many of our lives, but I can’t think of a single other exploration of it outside of the enclaves we carve for ourselves.

Queer life can be tragic and hilarious and infuriating and exciting and boring and horrible and great. It’s so much more than we usually get to see in the mainstream. Community has shown that it’s possible for even the most unlikely of shows to go beyond basic representation. We need to stop congratulating creators on their ‘diversity’ for including a single cis gay male supporting character. We need to insist on LGBTQ+ voices on creative teams. We need to demand better. Maybe then, we’ll stop seeing our lives reduced to the same old stories and stereotypes.