ANDERSON: Shows on black life are correcting stereotypes
Opinions Column: A 'Popped' Culture
In an earlier column, I discussed the importance of symbolic annihilation within our media system. Symbolic annihilation is a concept that defines the ways a social group is reduced within the media. This can be a reduction in a physical sense, like the many shows with a limited, if at all present, black cast. Or, it can be a reduction of humanity, as in belittling characters of color to general stereotypes related to their race. Either way, symbolic annihilation is no good, but our media system is drenched in it. Disregarding the racist criminalization of blacks and Latinos on the nightly news, minorities are predominantly minimized and trivialized in movies, music and television shows. This is not unexpected when a majority of the media is owned by rich white men. However, I am happy to say that in these past few months, television has been experiencing what some might call a "renaissance of black television."
There was once a time when there were many options for black television shows. On any given day one could turn on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," "Martin," "Family Matters" and while grossly problematic, "The Cosby Show." When hip-hop artist J.Cole says “R.I.P. Uncle Phil/you the only father that I ever knew,” this is not hyperbole. These shows literally raised a generation of black kids and teens, taught them valuable lessons about life and how to navigate being black in America. They also showed a wide spectrum of black life. Up until recently, un-stereotypical black television (yes, "The Wire" and "Empire" are stereotypical) has been experiencing a long hiatus. However we are starting to see a rebirth of black shows that are filling the gap. To name a few, the list consists of Issa Rae’s new HBO show “Insecure,” ABC’s “Black-ish,” which stars Tracee Ellis Ross and Anthony Hamilton, FX’s “Atlanta” — a new comedy starring Donald Glover and OWN’s “Queen Sugar,” whose executive producer is the one and only Ava DuVernay.
Not only are these shows all black — including black creatives behind the scenes — they are also doing something that older black sitcoms never did. They are tackling issues that were not likely to be addressed in the old beloved 1990’s sitcoms. The older shows did touch on aspects of police brutality, segregation and general racism in America, but these newer shows go a step further. New black television takes a deeper and more intersectional approach to black life. For example, “Insecure” takes a black feminist approach to many topics and shows the nuanced struggle that black women have to go through. One episode dedicates an entire scene to analyzing the double-standards experienced by black men who want to explore their sexuality and how that amplifies the rigidity of black masculinity. This was not casual conversation on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” In an episode of “Atlanta,” there is a critique on the disrespect received by inmates with mental health issues. “Black-ish” deals with the multitude of discussions that black parents have to have with their children in the 21st century. These topics include the effectiveness of voting, explaining why racism still exists and what does it look like, or dealing with the issue of religion in the black community. Ava DuVernay’s newest show “Queen Sugar” airs on Oprah Winfrey’s network, “OWN,” and brings viewers through the story of a modern black family wrapping their heads around an ancient black pastime: farming. “Queen Sugar” does an excellent job of showing viewers how different two black lives can be. And because the show wrestles with so many different manifestations of black life, it emphasizes the fact that, like any people, it is impossible to narrow down black people to one stereotypical image.
What is also great about these new shows is that they feel like a breath of fresh air. The scripts are funny in a manner that appeals to the current cultural mentality, and while they are able to deal with these issues, they wrap narratives around issues that young audiences can relate to and more readily learn from. The main star in “Insecure” is a young black woman trying to navigate a career and relationship not too long after finishing her graduate degree. Donald Glover plays a struggling young father named Earn. The show revolves around him becoming his cousin’s manager and the intricacies of making it in a music industry that forces black males to conform to one sound and one subject.
It would be naive to expect the black television shows of the 90’s to delve deep into black issues the way new shows do now. In today’s time of information and social media, the nuances and multifaceted nature of black life cannot be ignored. Still, many directors and producers do ignore it and continue to perpetuate the sameness that plagues pop culture. That's why these shows serve as a vital role in correcting stereotypes and opening the door to black narratives that are either misunderstood or not given enough attention. My hope is that this wave turns into a tsunami and all of the black criminal movies on Netflix get deleted. I jest. But in Trump’s America, taking back the narrative and erasing the myths about minority communities is one of the most important things we can do.
Michael Anderson is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in journalism and media studies with minors in Africana studies and digital communication, information and media. His column, “A ‘Popped’ Culture,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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