“The Politics Of Human Sexuality” originally aired on NBC Thursday night, December 3, 2009
In popular culture, college is often stereotyped as a period of maximum bacchanalia. Countless movies have depicted students marking their young adulthood by unleashing their wildest impulses, basking in an unprecedented amount of freedom and experimenting with new and irresponsible behaviors like never before. While this is by no means a universal experience, the character of Annie Edison presents a particularly extreme challenge to this narrative by asking, “What if not?” Annie’s is the spirit of true independence, dictating her life’s path on her own terms rather than indulging in vice and debauchery for its own sake, or allowing any outside pressures to determine her fate. That’s why her refusal to say the word “penis” out loud in a room full of Greendale staff randos plays as a moment of empowerment that both Britta and Shirley can be proud of, along with the audience. While all three women may advocate radically different schools of thought on the relative morals of sexual activity, there is one area where they can all agree — a woman’s agency is of paramount importance.
The three plots of “The Politics Of Human Sexuality” are each concerned with a character worrying that something they thought was essential to their beings may in fact be taken away from them. In Annie’s case, she is able to reclaim her right to regard her own level of sexual experience as a private thing, but Jeff and Troy both find themselves confronted with an uncomfortable new reality, which renders their old self-image impossible to maintain. Once Jeff’s Casanova complex and Troy’s athletic prowess are exposed, each must find new ways to regroup. Characteristically, Troy takes his final L against Abed with grace and humility, shedding his former competitiveness for a more recently-developed sense of openness, but for Jeff it’s more complicated. Treating women as points in a column has brought him to a place where he’s not even sure what he wants out of a relationship, and his discussion with Pierce’s escort Doreen (Sharon Lawrence) makes him realize that sooner or later it’ll be irrelevant, because the opportunity to actually have that kind of relationship will no longer be available. The “Pierce-as-future-Jeff” theme is present from the very first episode and informs most of their stories together, but it continues to crop up throughout the series’ run because the fear of becoming the very thing that you disdain is potent, and goes right along with the overarching dilemma that defines each member of the study group: they can either decide to change, or they can have change forced on them unwillingly.
If there’s one character who understands the gravity of enforced change, it’s Annie, whose recovery from pill addiction has left her terrified of losing control of herself again. Another revealing insight into her past comes to light in this episode, when she tells the story of losing her virginity to her high school boyfriend. The scenario she describes sounds like a young person’s attempt to fabricate an expedient and comfortable intimate encounter, each detail planned to ensure things go as smoothly as possible. But the experience itself turned out to be humiliating and traumatic for at least one of them, and when it was over, she still had no idea what a penis is supposed to look like. That seemingly minor detail is what drives her conflict in this episode, and causes her to confide in the more seasoned Britta and Shirley when she fears that her lack of knowledge will cause her to screw up the condom demonstration at Greendale’s STD Fair. It’s those little unpredictable elements, those troublesome curveballs that you just can’t plan for — whether it’s your boyfriend turning out to be gay or the Dean abruptly calling on you to perform a potentially-embarrassing presentation — that tap into some of the most comedically-rich material in Annie’s stories, and allows Alison Brie to flip seamlessly from her character’s usual composed and sunny self to reveal a more frazzled and even sinister side.
This is the side of her that takes over when she decides the only solution is to get some practice in on the anatomically correct model the Dean has locked away in his office1. Of course Annie already has a plan to overcome her nerves and build up her contraceptive proficiency, and if it involves a little breaking and entering, she is demonstrably not above resorting to criminal activity to accomplish her goals2. One of my favorite little moments in this plotline is how Britta and Shirley are immediately both game to execute “Operation Reverse Porky’s”, united in their resolve to help their younger friend. This is the first episode to feature a storyline that brings together all three women of the Study Group3, and they play off each other just as well as any of the other character combinations the show falls back on more commonly. Again, i just marvel at the sheer chemistry this ensemble cast radiates every time i go back and revisit this show. It may be built on a rock-solid premise and supported by a sturdy foundation of meaty themes, but it still needed the right ensemble to make it really come alive, and it absolutely had that from the start.
Their Reverse Porky’s mission is a success, as Annie gets a good long gander at the model phallus, but then Greendale’s security team catches them in the act. This is where Annie, pressured by the Dean and school counselor Gail (played by Community writer/story editor Liz Cackowski) to explain her actions in the most explicit terms, asserts her self-imposed repression as its own form of liberation. It would be predictable and sitcommy for a goody-two-shoes character like this to discover a wild side, only to revert back to her buttoned-down self by the third act, so this episode4 avoids that convention by letting Annie engage in some mildly risque hijinks without renouncing her wholesomeness. It treads just up to a line of making her seem like a sex-negative character, as she points out that her conduct precludes the need for an STD Fair, but ultimately her choices simply reflect the same careful deliberation with which she approaches everything else in life. The humor in Annie’s character stems from her insistence on viewing the world as a series of feathers to be placed in her cap, and how that drives her to such outrageous actions as peeping on mannequin dong.
The solidarity between the women in this episode stands in stark contrast to the egocentric games of oneupsmanship that both pairs of men are locked in. For Pierce and Jeff, the ability to attract and entertain dates is the standard which determines superiority, but for Troy and Abed, the rivalry is rather more one-sided. Abed sees their escalating series of athletic challenges as nothing more than a stimulating way to bond with a friend, which causes Troy no end of frustration as Abed effortlessly bests him in every contest. As he comes to terms with the fact that Abed allowed him to win the foot race, it marks a clear turning point in the development of Troy’s character, and from here the insecure jock essentially gives way to the loyal partner-in-crime as he comes to realize that what he values most is living a fun, spirited existence, with someone who encourages him to let his imagination run wild. Jeff, on the other hand, isn’t quite ready to let go of his insecurity, if still feeling the need to prove anything to Pierce is any indication. Pierce’s invitation to double-date with him to the STD Fair becomes a challenge to his ego when Jeff realizes that of all the women he knows, none of them ever connected with him in a real enough way to want to re-establish contact. After failing to play it off, he finally resorts to moving in on the Dean’s not-secretary Sabrina (Sara Erikson), by pumping the Dean for information on her in a move that recalls the way he tried to use Abed to get with Britta in the pilot5.
This should, in theory, be enough for Jeff to assure himself that he’s not going to end up like Pierce, except that Pierce’s date turns out to be far better company than Jeff’s. Joel McHale brings a sort of wistfulness to Jeff’s interactions with Doreen, that seems to suggest regret over not having given this type of woman more of a chance in the past. He may have overcome one challenge in his own mind, but Doreen presents another challenge altogether — to find someone he can actually see a future with, by allowing them to know him well enough to build something meaningful together. It’s not that she thinks he should settle down and start a family — she just recognizes that he harbors a latent desire for emotional intimacy, the way that most of her clients do6. That, combined with the revelation that Sabrina was only hooking up with him because she thought he was a professor, leads Jeff to seriously reconsider the kinds of relationships he’s been pursuing. His change of heart manifests in him lending Pierce $500 to finish out the evening with Doreen,7 and changing Britta’s name in his phone from “Hot Blonde Spanish Class” to “Britta”. From here, Jeff is seemingly resolved to treat women as human beings, and to recognize that the kind of woman worth his time doesn’t say things like “yikers” and “tinkles”. This realization will set him on a course that complicates his love life to borderline soap-operatic degrees in the finale, but for now it’s just another step in the gradual personal improvement he’s been making since arriving at Greendale, the place that teaches you more than you ever wanted to know about yourself, if you let it. Catch knowledge.
NOTES AND QUOTES
– End tag: Abed reads to Troy out of a science textbook until Troy falls asleep on the Study Room couch. Abed closes the book and starts to walk out until Troy asks him for a glass of water. Troy and Abed’s friendship continues to be the purest, most delightful thing
– Dean plot alert: Another school event, another opportunity for things to go horribly wrong. Turns out printing the word “GREENDALE!” along the sides of the condoms makes them porous, resulting in his call for the best athlete at Greendale to run over to the PA and make an emergency announcement. It’s nice seeing the Dean be the catalyst for the resolution to the Troy-Abed plot, and Abed’s affectless delivery of the message is the perfect note of absurdity to close the episode out on
– Guest star roundup: Besides Gail, Sabrina, and Doreen, this episode also features the first appearance of Greendale Security Officer Cackowski (Craig Cackowski, brother of the aforementioned Liz), who will later move up to full-fledged police officer, and reappear to teach characters an important lesson on prop gun safety, as well as appraise the value of a Civil War-era brick found outside of Troy and Abed’s apartment. Finally, another unnamed background player, last seen having his feelings hurt as a member of Greendale’s football team (Bill Parks), is the student who fills a condom with beer and discovers the leakage
– Chang is also in the episode, but doesn’t get much to do besides react to some of the Dean’s dialogue. It’s never been totally clear to me exactly when Ken Jeong officially became a regular cast member8 but certain episodes would continue to use him this way, to provide a bit of inessential comedic business here or there. Ultimately, it seems Chang proved to be a difficult character to use organically in storylines that didn’t revolve around him in some way
TROY: You and i are gonna play real basketball, right now
ABED: Sounds fun
TROY (sternly) No it doesn’t! And it won’t be
JEFF (reading): “You will get AIDS”
ANNIE: Flip it over
JEFF: “Unless you come to the STD Fair”
ANNIE (beaming): i wrote that!
TROY: It’s impossible to guard you. Your eyes are too gentle and mysterious
TROY: Taking a call girl to an STD Fair? There’s a joke here
….Maybe something to do with crabs? They’re like a food, but they’re also a disease….
TROY: Don’t eat the crab dip! Yeah-yeah-ee!
JEFF: Is there a pill that makes the word “No” clearer?
ANNIE: i was voted “Most Likely To Succeed” at my rehab clinic
ANNIE: i had…. relations with my high school boyfriend. We did it to Madonna’s “Erotica” on the floor of his walk-in closet. But he wouldn’t let me look at it. He cried after. And during. He’s gay now
BRITTA (whispering): i think he was gay then9
PIERCE: Don’t worry about it, kid. You’re going through a dry spell. From my experience, they don’t last any longer than 12, 13 years
DEAN: Check out these condoms. All along the side it says “Greendale!” Exclamation point, my idea
TROY: We’re arm-wrestling!
ABED: Like Stallone in Over The Top. But i’m not sure of all the rules, don’t i need a semi-truck and a ten-year-old son?
ANNIE: Is that considered large?
SHIRLEY: Oh, no
BRITTA (simultaneously): Yes
DOREEN: Sabrina’s cute, but she thinks Monty Python was the evil snake in Harry Potter
DEAN: i had no idea alcohol would make people horny. Makes me sleepy
ANNIE: By the way, now that i’ve got a good look at one, i don’t see what all the fuss is about. Giant thumb in a turtleneck, whoop-ty-do!
CHANG: Wow, this may be the only STD fair to actually spread STDs!
TROY: Go, Abed, go! Before people sex one another!
ABED (over PA, out of breath): Attention Greendale students! Don’t use the condoms! If you’re going to have sex tonight, don’t use condoms10