Why Community’s Abed is a great step forward

Community - Season 5

If you haven’t watched Community yet, you should. It has the quirkiness of Scrubs, the friendly loveableness of Friends, but is refreshingly tongue-in-cheek. I could say hundreds of things about why you should watch Community, but I am going to focus on one.

In most sitcoms, everyone is fairly similar. The people interacting come from similar backgrounds, and their conflicts are limited to the ones most of us experience on an everyday basis, with amped up hilarity. Community does this too, but it is different in one crucial aspect. It also deals with a particular tension that is increasingly common in the world we live in: religion. The main characters are all from completely different religious backgrounds, which creates tensions in a way that is absolutely normal in real lide, but seldom depicted on TV. This is best exemplified in Season 1 Episode 12 (‘Comparative Religion’), where Shirley (a devout Christian) invites the group for a Christmas party, only to discover that Troy is a Jehovah’s Witness, Annie is Jewish, Pierce is a Scientologist (sort of), Brita is atheist, Jeff is agnostic and, finally, Abed is Muslim.

Abed is by far the best character on the show, creating both comedy and emotional depth. He is obsessed with films, and lives in a series of homages and references to his favourites. He is socially awkward – it has been suggested he may be autistic – but adores his best friend, Troy, and in his own way, cares for everyone in the group. Danny Pudi, the actor who plays Abed, can be wholeheartedly complimented on making an awkward character hilarious and completely loveable.

Abed’s religion is just one aspect of his complex personality. And that is the point. Abed is not “the Muslim guy”. He is nowhere near the stereotype of Muslims you get in the media; he is just an ordinary guy that happens to be Muslim. In fact, he is like most Muslims. Portraying a Muslim as an ordinary guy, rather than as a Muslim and nothing else, is a giant step forward.

Another win for those of us who hate Islamophobia comes in Episode 18 (‘Basic Genealogy’), when we meet Abed’s cousin from Gaza, who wears a burqa. Leaving aside the complete impossibility of a Gazan popping over to America to visit her family, the way the episode handles a women in a burqa is impressive. Though the line about her looking like a “black ghost” could be deemed offensive, I think it works as an acknowledgement of how discombobulating a burqa can be for those who aren’t familiar with them. But most importantly, the way Abed explains it is important: “it’s so she can express her modesty,” he says. Everything about that makes me happy. The burqa is normally seen as a tool of patriarchical oppression; here, it is about a women expressing something she sees as important to her. It is her choice, her way of being religious, and she hasn’t been told to do anything. Again, like most Muslims who wear burqas.

Later in the episode, Abed’s father tells his niece not to go on a bouncy castle, as he is over-protective. She defies him and is seen having a great time bouncing around. That little act of defiance serves to reinforce that she may be in a burqa, but there is no way it is because a man told her so.

Without trying, Community is tackling stereotypes about Islam and Muslims in a subtle but definite way. Watch it because it is funny and a breath of fresh air. Appreciate it for doing a little bit for social justice.

Photograph by Justin Lubin/NBC.

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