Author: Brad is a student of anthropology at the Australian National University and an emergency services worker. His current research is centred on the island of Tongoa, in Vanuatu, where the excavation of a 150-year-old house has revealed much about the relationship Presbyterian missionaries had with the islands they were sent to. Brad can be reached via email at email@example.com.
Betty White made a cameo in the first episode of season two in the hugely popular US sitcom Community, rocking the role of anthropology Professor June Bauer. Described by the writers and publicized by the Hollywood Reporter as “an esteemed, albeit slightly unhinged, anthropology professor,” Prof. Bauer typifies one widespread perception of anthropologists. She is a champion of the old school, of that total cultural immersion necessary to collect the most coveted of prizes: “good data.” She is a fieldworker of the Malinowski variety; a catalyst for the public perception of the “exotic other.” But this perception could easily be challenged, and in doing so move the perception of anthropologists away from colonial practice.
But first, context!
In Community, Prof. Bauer takes over from her alcoholic and unavailing predecessor Ian Duncan. He is consistently characterised as sleazy, uninspiring, and entirely uninterested in his subject. For Duncan, anthropology’s broad scope makes it vague and pointless. It’s “The ultimate blowoff class.”
Prof. Bauer replaces Duncan and acts as his dramatic foil. Where Duncan is the worst anthropology lecturer, Bauer is the best. She is firmly characterised as a proper anthropologist, one with decades of field experience, familiarity with exotic places, and proficiency in using exotic weapons. She discusses tool use, but it’s weapons we see her use. In one case, she demonstrates an impressive feat of marksmanship with a blowgun. The aged professor has clearly used it many times before, cementing her as the sort of anthropologist used to hunting and/or defending herself. She fits the bill of an adventurer, perhaps once used to fighting her way out of tricky situations. Her odd behaviour at times can be brushed off as the result of too much time at her faraway field sites, as can her comedic propensity (made all the better by Betty White’s dry humour) to fire projectiles at her students.
Prof. Bauer is meant to be a “real anthropologist,” and her portrayal reveals much about what the show’s writers imagine the audience thinks a real anthropologist is.
She is chiefly defined by her relationship with the exotic. She brings up the Maku Maku people (a fictional community based on a real language spoken in the upper Amazon), the Yogi of India (practitioners of Yoga—Yogi—are widespread outside of India), and the Korubo of the Amazon (An indigenous community well-known for shunning outsiders) to illustrate her points. Her room is filled with exotic artefacts like boomerangs, masks, and stone axes. These are behind her as she talks—framing her—and reinforcing her connection with the exotic for the audience.
Prof. Bauer has evidently studied the exotic other in far-flung parts of the world, amongst peoples of the Congo, India, and South America. Precisely where doesn’t matter so long as it is far from the classroom and from the audience’s conception of “here.” Precisely what the exotic objects behind her are and where they came from doesn’t matter, so long as they are identifiably foreign and exotic. Precisely who the objects of her study are matters only to the extent that they have exotic names.
Real or invented, the people who are the objects of Prof. Bauer’s study serve only to enhance and cement her connection with an exotic part of the world far from the audience’s frame of reference. They are depersonalised. Flattened. A verbal exhibit: very much like the physical exhibits decorating the classroom’s walls.
We real anthropologists should know better. We know not just that you can get to the field site on the subway, but that the subway could very well be the field site itself. Denizens of the subway may be just as fascinating to study as denizens of the Amazon. In fact, for the Western anthropologist typified by Prof. Bauer, they may be far more appropriate.
The practice of anthropology as a field of study in the West grew out of the socio-political framework of colonialism. It was often indistinguishable from what we now call “Scientific Racism.” There was a “reflexive turn” roughly 50 years ago (although it had earlier origins) when the question of the appropriateness of wealthy, institutionally-backed white people (like Prof. Bauer) travelling to apparently exotic locations to study poorer, non-white people made waves in the field. If it looked like colonialism, sounded like colonialism, and felt like colonialism, could it still be a colonial act? Reflexives suggested it was, and that it’d be more appropriate for a wealthy, institutionally-backed white anthropologist to do fieldwork in their own university department, rather than exoticising someone far away.
But this reflexivity hasn’t yet been applied to the mainstream idea of what an anthropologist is.
So how do we help the audience—the regular folks for whom the field of anthropology exists somewhere on the spectrum between perplexing and confusing—catch up on that fundamental perspective shift the field experienced in the 1970s? Perhaps it’s time for characters like Prof. Bauer to step in.
Prof. Bauer’s characterisation as a proper anthropologist creates ample room to turn the spotlight onto the primary community in the show, the Study Group, and in doing so, on the audience. The audience has learned to empathise with the Study Group’s characters and often strange antics during the course of the show. How would these characters react to being the objects of anthropological study, perhaps even by the “esteemed, albeit slightly unhinged” Prof. Bauer? As the audience, how would we?
This gets to the crux of reflexivity for an audience unused to it. Engaging them to consider how they might respond to being measured against an outsider’s culture. What if the walls of Prof. Bauer’s room were covered with sports jerseys, cordless power tools, and kitchen appliances—cultural items the audience recognised and understood the significance of? What if these items quite literally framed an ethnographic discussion of a community the audience was familiar with, like sports fans or tradespeople? With anthropological scrutiny much closer to home, the audience may have their conception of an “exotic” community, the object of anthropological study, challenged.
Later in the season, a farcical end-credits scene shows Prof. Bauer discussing the plot of Inception with two tribesmen at a camp in Mimpousa, Congo. The skit is good but could lay the groundwork for more engagement with anthropology as a practice. Imagine if one of the Mimpousa tribesmen travelled to a community college in the United States to undertake ethnographic research on the rituals of communities like the Study Group, then returned to share his exotic tales with his community the same way Prof. Bauer did. The setup could easily serve to poke fun at the titular community’s often strange behaviour, but also to challenge the audience with the same question: could we become the objects of anthropological study? Could we be an exotic other, too?
This question tears down the barrier between those who study others and the ‘othered’ who are studied. All can be objects of study, and all can also be anthropologists. This sets the scene for a far less colonially-biased discussion of who an anthropologist is and what it is they do. For a field that is, to an extent, still struggling with the question of reflexivity and its practical application, a more nuanced public discussion of the anthropologist’s work and role in the future can only be beneficial.
Community has since run its course, so Prof. Bauer probably isn’t going to be anthropology’s reflexive herald. But so long as characters like her exemplify the old school of anthropology, so long will there be an opportunity to show the audience the field’s collective working, and challenge them to a reflexive turn.
Further Watching & Reading
Hollywood Reporter article:
IMDB page (with photos):
[All images of Professor June Bauer are sourced from the Community Wiki.]