The components of a sitcom have gradually changed throughout time— this evolution is linked to the ever-changing normative values that constitute a given society. The popularization and acceptance of certain ideologies directly correlate with media content, specifically TV shows and movies. These texts are reflective of a society at that given time; a conspicuous kind of text that highlights the values of a society are sitcoms. The formatting of a sitcom— what constitutes a sitcom, and how that has changed throughout the years— speaks volumes about ideological and cultural hegemony.
The shift in dominant ideologies within sitcoms, as well as society, reveals the close link between these two entities. The themes that are incorporated within the show have also evolved. The prominence of social issues regarding race, class, gender, sexuality, etc. is significant when considering contemporary media texts and how their importance has changed throughout the years. By utilizing examples of sitcoms like Black-ish, which I consider to be generally representative of the more tolerant and socially-conscious evolution of texts, Leave It to Beaver, The Cosby Show, and Seinfeld, the contrast between contemporary works with older ones will be more evident.
Black-ish is a sitcom centered around a modern-day African-American family. The show aired for the first time on September 24, 2014 on the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) network. In an interview, the creator of the show, Kenya Barris, stated that he wanted to premise the show on his own experiences growing up in a Black family versus raising his own Black family as an adult. The cultural differences he noted in his own life inspired him enough to create a show about these generational disparities, especially because his children with born into financial privilege that he did not have. In addition to the asymmetrical ways of being raised and privileged, Barris wanted to create a show that confronted issues that were not often addressed in many television shows— “television went through this amazing hibernation of not talking about things,” and influencers like Norman Lear and Spike Lee motivated Barris to incorporate prevalent and real things when they need to be talked about.
‘Blackish’ is representative of the gradual evolution of sitcoms from the 1950s to the present day. The show itself serves as a larger commentary and narrative to describe what it is like to reside in a community where one is or feels, for whatever reason, different than the majority. The sitcom particularly highlights the intersection between race, class, and gender, which are ideologies that have undergone cultural hegemonies throughout the course of thousands of years.
The format of Black-ish is comparable to that of The Cosby Show, as the cast consists of an African-American family, a successful male lead, who is married to a successful woman, and together have four to five kids. There are not only casting similarities between the two shows, but they also utilize hints of humor while addressing serious topics. That is where the main distinction is drawn— Black-ish addresses issues of the past and present, emphasizing controversial issues of race in a rather direct and crude manner, while The Cosby Show is skewed more towards general familial observations and broad issues like learning disabilities and teen pregnancies.
At face value, Black-ish may seem to be perpetuating racism by incorporating and playing with racial stereotypes and assumptions. However, the show is not meant to digested at face value. The mention of stereotypes is very prominent throughout, if not all, many of the episodes. Even though stereotypes are mentioned in the show, they are never actually reinforced; they are used as tools to expand and challenge our own ideas about race, class, and gender. A particular example of this is exemplified in the pilot episode, titled “Keepin’ It Real!” While Dre is introducing himself, his family, and his life to the viewers, a tour is being administered in their neighborhood.
Dre says, “in my neighborhood, we’re sort of an oddity,” referring to their race and the fact that they are residing in a predominately white neighborhood. The tour guide then announces on a PA system, “And if you look to the left you’ll see the mythical and majestic Black family out of their natural habitat, yet still thriving. Go ahead and wave, they’ll wave right back. They are just… just amazing.” This scene is fueled with the power of satire to acknowledge the stereotype of a Black family living in a wealthy residential community being bewildering to many, and it is essentially critiquing this belief. Satirical content is often dismissed as entertainment when in reality it is an effective way of delivering political messages.
A study, involving 146 college students who chose news clips from a selection of polarizing political topics, revealed that people who were less interested in politics were more likely to select satirical clips over serious ones. The study results suggested that satirical content was able to engage people who otherwise would avoid political content, and this caters to a very large audience in the United States. There is a plethora of surveys conducted that reveal peoples’ attitudes toward serious political issues being addressed in the realm of social media and other texts. One survey revealed that more than one-third of social media users are overwhelmed by the political content they encounter. Therefore, using satire has been an effective way of delivering important information that has been adopted by many, even scriptwriters and content creators.
If we were to think about the evolution of sitcoms on a spectrum, Black-ish would be positioned at one far end and Leave It to Beaver would be fixed on the opposite end. Interestingly enough, both shows were on the ABC network; Leave It to Beaver was picked up by ABC from CBS in 1958 . From the 1940s to the 1960s, sitcoms were focused on white suburban families and their day-to-day experiences, which always resulted in the kids learning a lesson. Nonetheless, those lessons were typically about honesty, obedience, and respect.
Given the time period in which shows like such were produced, there was the quintessential housewife character that cleaned and filled the role as the perfect mother, the patriarch of the family that usually played the most prominent role, and then the kids. These types of sitcoms even featured content that is now perceived as sexist, racist, and homophobic because of the time period it was created in— the dominant ideology of an ideal American family in the 50s was perceived through a heteronormative and patriarchal lens. It was not until the 1970s when content became “edgier” and there was evidently more diversity, as women and people of color occupied more roles on television shows.
As Andrea Press says in ‘Gender and Family in Television’s Golden Age and Beyond’, the increase of working women and nontraditional families were reflected in television in the 1970s, then there was a sense of nostalgic yearning for the return of the warm and loving domestic figures in the 1990s. She says now, in current television, there is a third wave of influence that introduces important representations more varied in race and sexuality, which is essentially reflected in Black-ish. The show is basically the narrative of a modern-day upper-middle-class black family, residing in a predominately white community. The main cast is comprised of four children, Zoey, Junior, Jack, and Diane Johnson, their mother Rainbow Johnson who is an anesthesiologist, their father,
Andre “Dre” Johnson who is a successful ad executive, and his parents, Pops and Ruby, are the most nostalgic and conservative presence on the show. Just like sitcoms have evolved and have adapted to the social context of a given time period, ideologies have also shifted. The two notions are not mutually exclusive, as dominant ideology itself is constantly evolving and fluctuating.
This can be exemplified through the contrasting show Leave It to Beaver, where in season 1 episode 38, Ward Cleaver (the patriarch) is talking to his son (Beaver) about cooking/grilling and how it should be done outside. His son is questioning why his mother always cooks in the kitchen; Ward responds by saying “it’s traditional,” and “a woman’s place is in the home and I supposed since she’s in the home, she might as well be in the kitchen .” Watching a television show that wholeheartedly promotes sexism in 2019 is unthinkable to us, but in the 50s this was not viewed as entirely offensive. It was viewed as an expression of traditional and conservative ideals at the time, which have been rejected today in age.
The ideologies that are instilled in many media texts often correspond to the social and political climate in which it is being produced. Essentially, different time periods reflect different sets of ideas and assumptions that are most prevalent within a given culture at that time. There was a time when racism and sexism were embedded into American culture and that was displayed in various forms of texts. Black-ish is the result of progress and changing ideologies, as it is subverting racism and stereotypes and promoting equality, social awareness, and acceptance.
Michael R. Winston in ‘Racial Consciousness and Mass Communications’ states that American television had not been able to efficiently confront the matter of race and that is only a part of its larger failure to grasp the richness of America’s social and cultural diversity. He goes on to say that the homogenized world projected by television may be a perception or vision of the future, but it is most definitely not a representation of the reality we are living in . I believe that Black-ish has satisfied Michael R. Winston’s desire to see race being overtly and efficiently confronted in the realm of television.
The show highlights the intersection between race and class to create a parallel between comedy and a socially conscious television experience. The use of crass dialogue throughout the show is seen often in many episodes in order for the audience to think about the preconceived conceptions there are about African-Americans, particularly their class. The jobs they occupy, the neighborhoods they live in, and their behaviors are all grouped into one big stereotype, but the Johnson family does not fit into that socially constructed mold. Black-ish explores the grey area that pushes the audience to question, and ultimately reach a stance on these issues, rather than just listening to a meaningless discussion on it.
The show is also educational, in the sense that it brings to light topics and issues that many people do not talk about, and most importantly many do not understand (particularly white audiences). This is exemplified by an episode that was aired after Donald Trump’s election. Andre works at an advertising firm and the election resulted in tension amongst his colleagues and minimal productivity, as they are all bickering and expressing their reactions of the election Andre is confronted for being so quiet and is questioned for not caring about what is happening in this country. Andre proceeds to deliver a monologue, with Nina Simone’s anti-racism song “Strange Fruit” playing in the background,
“I don’t care about this country? I love this country even though at times it doesn’t love me back. For my whole life, this system has never worked for us. But we still tried to do our best to live by the rules even though we knew they would never work out in our favor…black people wake up every day believing our lives are going to change even though everything around us says it’s not. Truth be told, you ask most black people and they’ll tell you no matter who won the election, they don’t expect the hood to get better. But they still voted because that’s what you’re supposed to do… I’m so used to things not going my way. I’m sorry that you’re not and it’s blowing your mind, so excuse me if I get a little offended because I didn’t see all of this outrage when everything was happening to all of my people since we were stuffed on boats in chains. I love this country as much—if not more—than you do. And don’t you ever forget that.”
After this episode aired, thousands of people who were underrepresented for years in television, were finally able to resonate with a message spoken from a place of authenticity. And many people were also able to comprehend the sentiments of others post-election, even if they were not Black.
The show is also a powerful satire that depicts the conflict between the older and new generations. Andre was born and raised in a rough and economically challenged part of town, and as an adult is living comfortably in a big house and money does not seem to be a problem for his family. He has a revelation in which he doesn’t think that his children know what it means to be “black”, or at least his experience of being black. This is where culture comes into play—in Andre’s eyes, his culture is THE quintessence of black culture. However, certain situations make him realize that he is wrong. There are preconceived notions that culture and race are one and the same, and that there is only one way to be black.
Andre struggled financially growing up, while his own kids do not share that experience, but that does not strip them of their racial identity. The main point he, representative of older generations, wants to get across is that he obviously wants a better life for his own children, but not at the price of historical ignorance. That is the foundation of almost every episode in this series— Andre wants his family to be conscious of the racial, social, and institutionalized issues that are relevant in their lives but he usually has a polarized and exaggerated view on those things up until the end of an episode, when it becomes a learning experience for all parties: Andre, his family, and the audience.
As I mentioned before, a lot of people may compare The Cosby Show with Black-ish because of its evident predominately-Black cast, sitcom nature, and comedic references. However, it is important to note that, unlike The Cosby Show, Black-ish is not just a show that features a Black family who learns generic lessons about life along the way.
The Cosby Show is amongst a series of sitcoms in the 1980s that, in theory, made a mark in terms of challenging stereotypical portrayals of Black people. Although the show was coined as one of the first shows that did this, it was only considered a Black show because of the predominately- Black cast. The issue lies in the perception of the show as a segregated one— a sitcom with Black actors, made for Black people. Soon after the 1980s “Black sitcoms” were no longer as appealing to television networks. I chose to center my research paper around Black-ish because of its revolutionary and distinct qualities. Kenya Barris wanted to create a show premised on Black culture and identity, that appeals to an audience greater than the Black community. Black-ish is an entertaining learning experience for everybody, despite ones’ resonance with the content.
The history of sitcoms has digressed from the traditional, white, patriarchal, suburban family to a more diverse and engaging form of text. This evolution reflects progress, more specifically progressive time periods. Through a critical analysis of ideologies, culture, and the genre of sitcoms. The evolution of sitcoms and ideologies go hand in hand when talking about the Black-ish series, as it captures the style of modern-day sitcoms and promotes the ideologies of equality and social awareness. The history of sitcoms has digressed from the traditional, white, suburban family to a more diverse and engaging form of text. This evolution reflects the progressive time periods; Black-ish encompasses motifs and themes that have rarely ever been seen before. It captures African American resilience in the face of structural racism and appropriately adds a comedic hue to that experience.
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