What Happened to Britta Perry?
Note: This piece does not address season four at all. I know that Britta’s thought of as being dumbed down in season three and four, but the criticisms started with season three. Owing to the circumstances around season four, I’d rather look at it separately.
“You seemed smarter than me when I met you.”
In “Course Listing Unavailable,” Jeff says what everyone’s thinking: What happened to Britta? The woman who began the series beating Jeff at his own game is now sporting star-shaped felt sideburns in an embarrassing attempt to get her friends to grieve.
Britta has never been “book smart.” She ended up at community college over a decade after dropping out of high school. Her time in between was spent as a semi-vagabond and slacker-type who learns through experience (and who once lived in New York). She’s the type of girl who will hear about a social issue at a drum circle instead of reading a book on the matter. Britta focuses on experience: in season one, she travels to Amsterdam (she thinks); in season three, a flashback shows her in the midst of a peyote trip. She doesn’t care to actually study anything, resulting in bad-to-mediocre grades and poor spelling. Britta’s mispronouncing words (not counting “baggle,” which is a quirk Dan Harmon himself shares) suggests she repeats things she’s heard rather than read. (In ”Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps,” Britta imagines herself reading Warren Piece). Britta’s political posturing doesn’t diminish over the seasons: In season three, Annie comments that besides Halloween music, all Britta has on her computer are NPR podcasts.
Predictably, Britta is quickly acknowledged as a buzzkill among the group. Normally, a feminist buzzkill would be a tired stereotype, but in Britta’s case, being laughed at makes her more likeable. Early season one Britta is a little daunting. Nobody wants to befriend a girl who constantly, and accurately, judges people around her. To make her more likeable, the writers sent her judgment over-the-top, turning it into a joke. When she chides the group for picking on Pierce in “The Science of Illusion,” Pierce himself points out that she ruins everything. This introduces two ideas: first, that Britta’s being thoughtful will not earn her much praise at Greendale, and second, that it’s hard to be funny without making fun of someone. Britta quickly becomes that someone that everyone makes fun of.
In season three, Britta becomes less of a buzzkill and more of a failure. Even though Britta’s been making mistakes since the beginning (she failed at cheating on a Spanish test very early in season one, and her April Fool’s prank resulted in a corpse out the window and an April Fools ban), nobody pointed out the idea that Britta is actually bad at everything until early season three, when Jeff warns the group: “Don’t worry. She’ll be bad at it.” He’s talking about her renewed interest in social activism, but the statement implies that Britta is bad at anything she tries to do. Indeed, in that episode, Britta fails at nearly everything.
Britta goes from “needlessly defiant” to appearing as an actual failure, making the group’s increasing chastising start to seem … pretty mean. From Troy saying that ruining a Britta party is “like letting poop spoil” to the constant groans when she talks, the season three study group comes off as inappropriately mean to Britta. Britta’s initial life situation seemed due to her laziness and interest in hip bars over plausible life plans (more than once, she’s described as a slacker), but season three Britta feels like somebody who is just bad at everything she cares about, including her major.
It’s her interest in psychology that provides the backdrop for much of her increasingly silly behavior. She pronounces stuff wrong (“Edible” complex) and goes far overboard with her self-identification as a psychologist; however, season three has more going on with it. The season becomes more and more cartoonish (figuratively and literally), which ultimately downplays Britta’s successes. In “Contemporary Impressionists,” Britta actually succeeds. She understands Jeff’s problem right away and knows how to help him. But because the climax is Jeff becoming Hulk Seacrest, the fact that Britta was right isn’t all that impressive.
Characters becoming “flanderized” is something every sitcom must watch out for. It seems almost inevitable; however, I’d argue that season three Britta does not fall into this trap. While season two Britta was basically just an extension of season one Britta (from “Introduction to Statistics” on, when the character settled in), season three Britta changed in really interesting ways. Yes, in certain episodes, such as “Basic Lupine Urology,” her role was limited enough that she was reduced to a single characteristic. But throughout season three, Britta becomes more complex. Abed once said to Britta, “Well, you’re not a typically vulnerable or feminine person…” As the group rags on her, she gets more and more vulnerable and genuine. When she’s dancing around, singing “Roxanne” with the group or when Troy compliments her, Britta smiles in a sweet and genuine way. In these moments, she feels good about herself in a season of self-loathing. She’s being given a break.
Britta has always hated herself, but in season three, the cartoonish way of acting somehow brings that vulnerability out. It’s important to note that Britta isn’t actually an unending failure in season three; she’s just treated as one. In “Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts,” she casually pushes Shirley to open the sandwich shop. She’s completely right in noting that Shirley’s giving up on her dreams to slide back into a comfortable, but limiting, role. Though used as a joke, Britta’s also good at planning weddings – she just doesn’t want to be. Britta isn’t really the worst, but the more the group treats her like it, the more vulnerable she becomes (reaching an apex when Evil Abed takes her down in “Introduction to Finality”). Yet, strangely, this lends a gentleness to her that was always floating under the surface. She becomes exceedingly genuine even as Jeff grows more sarcastic. In season two, Britta and Jeff fawn over Shirley’s new baby, before catching themselves being gooey and insisting that it’s all “lame.” Both Britta and Jeff are afraid of acting the way they truly feel for fear of revealing their vulnerabilities. In season three, Britta openly sobs that she doesn’t believe in love “because of a man named after a kickboxing vampire movie” without a trace of irony. Britta has launched herself into authenticity, saying what she’s feeling without trying so hard to be above it all. It has the added effect of making her seem less aware – no longer is she smiling slyly at Jeff while saying something ridiculous or sarcastic. Yet I don’t think Britta is less aware, I think she’s just more genuine.
Her season three love interests also introduce complexity. We’ve seen Britta attracted to the “douche” – Vaughn – and the wounded. (Jeff fits both categories). In season three, we see her with Blade. It’d be easy to dismiss Britta’s interactions with Blade as those of a wounded, silly woman with no self-respect. But Britta’s not the only one taken with Blade. Even Shirley sees the appeal. When someone doesn’t care what other’s think, people are envious. Britta is desperate for his approval, but the moment he appears to like her, she’s not interested. Though Annie reacts with outrage to this, (”Who hurt you? And why didn’t it stick?”) it reveals that Blade’s only appeal was his lack of caring. The moment she realized that he has a brain injury, she moved away from him. When she realized that it was Troy who had said those nice things, she smiled. She accepted compliments from Troy that she wouldn’t from Blade – Blade has nothing going for him. As much as she gravitates toward scumbags (and/or they gravitate toward her), she doesn’t always have bad taste – Abed hits the nail on the head when he points out her attraction is mostly to unavailable men. Subway is actually a perfect match for Britta. He’s still unavailable, of course, but he’s also exactly what she wants: he’s sensitive, kind and caring, and he falls for Britta immediately. Britta interactions with her love interests add a lot to her character in season three in particularly realistic ways.
One complaint about Britta addresses her relationship with Jeff. Though she was introduced as a match for Jeff, by season three, she’s too stupid to be … the argument goes. I think those behind the complaints are not paying close enough attention to season three Jeff. Britta may be markedly more fragile in season three, and her forays into psychology may make her sometimes seem like an idiot, but Jeff is not existing on some higher plane. Jeff’s narcissism reaches an all-time high, and in “Contemporary Impressionists,” he literally behaves like a cartoon character. Britta has grown more genuine, but she has not stopped matching Jeff. Immediately after mispronouncing Oedipal, Britta aptly points out Jeff’s daddy issues. In the bathroom in “Remedial Chaos Theory” (moments before bounding out, chanting “Pizza, pizza, go in tummy!”), she explains to Troy what Jeff’s issues with him are – and she’s totally right. Britta and Jeff drunkenly scream at each other sorta-silly-but-also-sorta-true stuff about marriage, both angry and cynical, matching each other’s drunken quips. The group may use Britta as a punching bag far more than they do Jeff, and Britta may have let her fragility float to the top in a way Jeff hasn’t, but the two are still frighteningly alike. Britta understands Jeff in a way the rest of the group cannot. When Britta’s locked in a room to keep away from Blade, Jeff’s out there seeking him out, obsessed and eventually, strangely attracted to him. I think that Jeff’s always been smarter than Britta in many ways. Britta’s strength was her ability to see through him and understand him. She still does that.
Britta ends season three not as an overly flanderized character, nor as an idiot who constantly fails – she ends it beaten down by her own friends. Abed tears Britta down in the finale, and she’s never built back up. He asks her to be his therapist, but the reason given is basically that she’ll be bad at it, which isn’t exactly an inspiring send off. She goes from being treated as a buzzkill to being treated as a bumbling idiot, and the writers were unafraid to lean on that, making “Britta’d it” a oft-repeated phrase from the show. It’s funny for a character to make silly mistakes, especially when we see Britta as a strong (at least on the outside) and confident woman, for the same reason the group laughs at Jeff when he hits his head on the ceiling fan after trying to trick them all – it’s funny to see somebody who kinda acts like a jerk fumble. But as season three dissolves Britta into a fragile being with nerves exposed, the constant badgering makes her seem inept, even when her actual adventures reveal somebody who still has a handle on Jeff, who sees Shirley’s life through a perceptive, feminist lens, offering helpful advice, and who is completely correct in understanding that Evil Abed has come out because Abed can’t handle his own fear.
Reports of Britta’s devolution into idiocy have been greatly exaggerated, but that doesn’t mean that season three Britta was treated well by the writers. There’s a reason viewers saw Britta as less capable. Britta has interesting storylines throughout much of season three, but the season fails to adequately address her changes. They’re capitalized on as joke material instead of interesting character material, making the season one in which Britta is torn down, joked about, and never built back up. The writers fail to do something great with a great character. Season three ends with the suggestion that the group’s treatment of Britta is mostly justified: she is bad at everything. Instead of giving Britta an opportunity to show her friends what she can do, they gave Britta, small, understated successes that nobody ever actually acknowledges. Season three treated Britta like a loser, encouraging the viewer to see her as one.
On several occasions, we’ve seen that Britta wants to be the “people’s champion.” Twice in season two, Britta seems to speak to all the other students at Greendale: once, when she’s a hero for speaking from her heart in front of the whole school, the other time when she declares the cafeteria a “bitch-free zone.” Britta needs these successes to avoid being defined by her friends’ ridicule. I argue not that Britta’s character was turned into a dumb blonde or flanderized to stupidity, but that the writers introduced vulnerability and authenticity to a character without properly countering the increasing ridicule of her friends. The result is the beautiful mess of Britta in season three.