TV’s Great Women Part I: ‘Community’s Britta Perry

Thanks to Amanda for writing the first installment of what makes the great women of the last 10 years of television great, and what we can learn from them for the future.

By Amanda Marcotte

When I first got into “Community”, I had serious misgivings about the Britta Perry as a character. There’s so few lefty feminist characters on TV to begin with, and it initially seemed that they were going to ride the worst stereotypes about feminists: that they’re shrill, stupid, and humorless. It is true that the other characters do treat her that way, calling her “the worst” at every opportunity. But it’s become clear that after a shaky start, Britta has emerged as possibly one of the most unique and interesting characters on TV, an awkward but sweet woman who came to terms with her social rejection a long time ago, and now happy to let the constant insults aimed at her roll off her back.

Sady Doyle has already sung the praises of Britta, so I’d be remiss in not quoting her:

I….. realized that this goofy sitcom with zombies and Claymation episodes actually had the most fully rounded, human feminist character — principled and shallow, pure of heart and poor of judgment, unrepentant hipster and full-on dork, tough and vulnerable, privileged and struggling, and (what really set her apart from the Lemons and Knopes) in possession of an active, casual sex life, which she controlled — that I’d seen on network TV.

The fact that, but for an ill-advised episode where she professes her love to the uninterested Jeff (which the show quickly retconned by having her take it all back), Britta has lots of sex with different men and, in a move that’s quite unusual for TV, she’s never punished for it. On the contrary, those who judge her for it look like prigs and jerks.

Once I realized that, I began to see how the show subtly uses people’s casual cruelty to Britta to say more about them than her. Because she’s a feminist with a self-righteous bent, the other characters dismiss everything she has to say out of hand, without any regard to whether she’s right or wrong, and on those occasions when she does something stupid or awkward, they pounce in order to reinforce their prejudices against her. Despite the fact that her friends believe she’s wrong no matter what she does, Britta admirably doesn’t let people’s low opinions get to her. (Feminist bloggers can attest that this is a valuable, hard-earned skill.) Jeff Winger particularly tries to put her in her place all the time, and she simply shrugs it off, giving him a pitying look for not seeing what a prick he’s being. While there are plenty of scenes in the show where Britta embarrasses herself with her awkwardness, as often as not plots turn on situations where a character blows Britta off when she offers insight, only to find later that she was right all along, much to their chagrin. See: Jeff ignoring her warnings that he has daddy issues, leading him to escalate an already bad situation with Pierce. Or when Troy and Abed forbid Britta from speaking ill of their friends, which gets them into a friendship with a genocidal maniac, despite Britta’s hints about his character.

The essence of Britta came out most clearly in the season three episode “Remedial Chaos Theory”. It’s one of the weirder episodes in an already weird show, exploring seven alternate timelines resulting from a different member of the study group going to pick up pizza. In the final timeline, Jeff gets the pizza, which gives Britta a chance to sing along loudly to “Roxanne” by the Police without him shushing her. The result is that it’s the happiest of all the timelines, with all the characters gleefully dancing like dorks. In the constant power struggle between Jeff and Britta, the show’s writers clearly side with Britta and with embracing yourself as you are, warts and all.