September 23, 2010

Anthropology class in Community

In the season premiere of Community, titled Anthropology 101 (airdate: 9/23/10), the students enroll in anthropology with instructor Betty White. Her classroom is lined with tribal artifacts, including scary weapons, masks, and skulls. She shows and demonstrates several weapons to the class. And she talks about her exploits with indigenous tribes in South America and elsewhere.

Having taken a similar class in college, I'd say this depiction is false or misleading. Here's why:

The emphasis on weapons makes the tribes look savage and warlike. Anthropologists may have done this in the past, but I don't think they'd do it today. It would be like using M-16 rifles and gas masks to exemplify America's culture.

Anthropology is the study of cultures: both ancient and modern. I believe anthropologists emphasize the continuity between these cultures. They don't single out ancient tribes to show how "primitive" they were.

A typical unit might compare marriage rites in today's US, India, and China with those of indigenous tribes. Given the expensive rigmarole associated with many American weddings, there'd be no pro-Western bias. To the objective anthropologist, our rites would seem as strange as any others.

In the classroom climax, Jeff Winger argues that "respect" is a tribe's greatest tool. If he'd said something like "intelligence" or "adaptability," this might've been a good point. But respect is an odd quality to emphasize.

But Betty White's character demolishes Jeff's argument. She demonstrates that the best tribal tool isn't one weapon, it's a combination of weapons (below). She puts together a ridiculous spear/bow/lasso contraption with a telescopic sight and chokes Jeff with it.

In other words, a tribe's success depends on having the deadliest weapon. Civilized people think and talk while indigenous people attack and kill.

Bottom line is that today's less judgmental anthropologists wouldn't put tribal artifacts on display. In fact, no one would put valuable artifacts on display in a community college. They'd quickly be stolen, broken, or defaced.

The classroom setup obviously exists to make tribes look bad. Then the show can make the obvious point that Community's characters are just like a tribe. Some Greek drama probably was the first to make that point, but let's hear it for the hundredth or thousandth time.

Way to go, Betty White and Community. Perhaps you and your Anthro class will put a better spin on tribal cultures in future episodes. But I wouldn't count on it.

For more on the subject, see Minorities in First Wave Universe and Review of Fierce People.


John R. Platt said...

It's worth noting that her character was fired at the end of the episode because she was obviously insane.

Rob said...

I didn't see that. Was it in the last minute of the show? Because my TiVo cut that off.