The Stages Of Viewing TV While Black, As Told By The Fresh Prince
This is a story all about how my life got flipped, turned upside down.
The Hollywood Reporter scrubbed five decades of television history to produce a spread last week titled "53 Years of Trailblazing TV."
"Trailblazing," for the article's purposes, included only producers who have won Emmys for Best Comedy or Best Drama — which no black showrunners apparently have. (That trend continued Monday at the 66th Primetime Emmy Awards.) For the sake of conversation (not just because it's a factual statement), can we agree these parameters are a bit limited?
If this is agreeable, let me move on. An article celebrating lily-whiteness as an aspect of "legendary" television only serves to sadden me as a black viewer because it punctuates just how much things have changed during my lifetime.
To help me illustrate these changes, I've solicited some help from one of the most enduring figures of my television-viewing adolescence: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. You ready, Will?
Stage One: A Land Flowing With Milk and Honey
When I was a kid in the early '90s, my family went to church on Thursday nights. This meant my father set the VCR (!) to record Fox's primetime lineup: Martin, Living Single, and New York Undercover.
In one night, I could look forward to a sitcom set in my hometown of Detroit, another comedy about four female friends and their romantic hits and misses (long pre-dating Sex and the City), and a drama about a pair of detectives who were Latino and black.
It never occurred to me that one day these images would range from scarce to non-existent.
In third grade, my class had to fill out some kind of self-profile, in which I distinctly remember writing that Frasier was my favorite TV show. I'm sure my teacher, Mrs. Adelstein, found this amusing.
The point here is that we didn't go out of our way to only watch black television shows. We didn't have to: At one point in time, L.A. Law followed Cheers, which followed A Different World, which followed The Cosby Show on NBC — but then shows like Seinfeld and Friends took the place of the former two, shows that were hugely successful and unapologetically non-diverse.
So, while television viewing wasn't necessarily segregated in my house... the television landscape began doing the shifting for us.
Stage Two: Forced Exile
When I entered middle school, my family left the suburbs and moved back to Detroit. My parents also decided that cable was unnecessary. This was a golden age for music videos, so I was bummed by their decision, but I have always been a scripted-television kinda girl, and broadcast television was still making great ones. All was not lost...
But all the shows with black lead characters had been deposited at UPN and The WB.
Though I adored the singer Brandy at that time, I refused to watch her TV show because I had never heard a name as ridiculous as "Moesha" in all my 10 years of life. My less bourgeois friends didn't seem to mind, plus the newly created television ghetto had a variety of (mainly mediocre) black comedies for me to watch instead, including Sister, Sister and The Wayans Bros., both of which I loved. Also, Homeboys in Outer Space.
This was also a time when adults loved to ask, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I wasn't entirely sure, but thanks to Jimmy Smits, Malik Yoba, and Michael DeLorenzo, I knew being a detective looked cool. One thing was damn clear: I desperately wanted to skip over high school. Whitley, Dwayne, Ron, Kim, and Freddie had made college look like the most fun yet important place to be. Every time A Different World came on, I stood and threw my cap in the air too, just like they did on the last note of the theme song.
Stage Three: Thirst and Famine
My parents had a baby when I was 14. I was a ninth-grader, ergo a built-in babysitter, which I realized would involve watching a substantial amount of children's programming. My sister loved Dora the Explorer, which made me happy. But after she outgrew the precocious Latina adventurer, the dearth of brown characters on TV was a panic-inducing omission. That's really when I realized how lucky I had been.
Though I was older, I watched The Proud Family on the Disney Channel, because it was good and I was genuinely grateful for its presence. My sister was more interested in Kim Possible. She also legit wanted to be Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, or Belle. I let the kid dream, because hey, that's what kids are supposed to do.
Shortly thereafter I left for college, and the 4-year-old was left to fend for herself amid a television landscape that offered her few reflections of herself. I, on the other hand, didn't even have a television the first two years of college because real life was far more entertaining.
Stage Four: Guess This Is Better Than Nothing
My sister is now the same age I was when she was born.
We discuss Teen Wolf with a passion; outside of that we don't speak the same language. She's into Pretty Little Liars, Glee, and a bunch of other shows that blur together and have all-white lead characters. Where could she go to see herself, even if she wanted to? Certainly not NBC, CBS, Fox, or The CW. I suppose she could split the difference somewhere between Nicki Minaj and her anaconda, or the ladies who lunch so they can fight on Basketball Wives and Love & Hip-Hop.
At her age, I loved watching One on One, about a single male sports anchor raising his teenage daughter. Now BET has proffered Being Mary Jane, in which a single female news anchor "has it all" — except a man — which she wants so badly that she sleeps with married ones. I'd hate for my sister to watch that. You know who else is a side chick in a sharp suit? Olivia Pope.
*pauses to take a sip of tea*
Stage Five: Fight or Flight
I'm nearly 30 and don't have cable, but I read that Oprah discovered that black people watch TV (!!!) and hired her friend Tyler Perry to churn out a bunch of soaps for us to watch on her network. Oprah, you're far too kind.
Nielsen data from July suggests African-American viewers consume the most TV on a monthly basis, and that on a year-over-year basis, African-American TV households increased their traditional TV viewing by more than six hours per month.
Let me say that again, using language directly from Nielsen's 2013 report, The African-American Consumer:
No group watches more television than African-Americans (37% more) who lean heavily toward programming that includes diverse characters and casts. Black women watch more television than their male counterparts.
This loyalty is not rewarded, however. It is simply a fact that diversity on television does not reflect the actual diversity of America, and while I find Girls to be a boring show about bland girls with silly, first-world problems, I deserve to see the mundane details of my life on screen too, 'cause let's face it: My friends and I are closer to those women than the Real Housewives of Atlanta.
With that said, many of us have turned to the web, where we can either create the nuanced images we want to see or support those who have: Think Issa Rae and Awkward Black Girl.
Others of us who still tune in choose to raise our voices and fight. It was after social media outcry, after all, that Saturday Night Live threw us a bone by hiring a black female cast member early this year and adding two black writers. Their capitulation felt more like an insult than a victory — when I was 8 I could see a much funnier sketch comedy show, with a black cast, producers, and writers. It didn't take public outrage for In Living Color's creators, the iconic Wayans family, to include a white cast member either. They knew Jim Carrey was talented and would make the show better. Maybe they were on to something?
Stage Six: Keep Hope Alive
So what's it like today to watch television while black? It's like waiting with bated breath year after year for someone to get it right, only to be let down again. With new fall shows premiering in just a few weeks, we are again on the edge of our seats. What are we asking for?
The answer is not a secret parcel of TV where white people aren't invited. The beauty of network television especially is that everyone is invited. There are people in other countries who learn English by watching the content created here. While it's a powerful image to see a well-to-do black family with parents who are educated professionals, it's possibly more important to see Grey's Anatomy, for example, where black people, Asian people, white, gay, and straight people save lives side by side as surgeons and doctors.
The subversive genius of Shonda Rhimes is not that she enabled Kerry Washington to be the first African-American actress to lead a network drama series in 40 years. The genius is that multicultural casting leads to normalization. It is my abiding hope that access to images that equally and accurately reflect the fact that all people fall in love, work, raise kids, have sex, do good things and also bad things will ultimately translate to us seeing the humanity in one another in real life. It makes sense to people of color as a human issue. But good faith isn't an impetus for change — money is. As Rhimes herself told the New York Times last year:
"I think it's sad, and weird, and strange that it's still a thing. ... It's 2013. Somebody else needs to get their act together. And, oh, by the way, it works. Ratings-wise, it works."
So while we may never get another The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, I'm encouraged by Black-ish, Cristela, and Fresh Off the Boat. I'm encouraged by Sleepy Hollow, Power, Survivor's Remorse, Luther, How to Get Away With Murder, and Empire. I'm happy to see Jada Pinkett Smith as a villain in Gotham, John Cho on Selfie, Danai Gurira on The Walking Dead, and even Bow Wow as a hacker in CSI: Cyber.
And I look forward to a day when the shows of my childhood are points of reference for how great it can be, not just relics from the good ol' days.
Ain't that right, Will?