Afriancan American’s Role Of TelevisionThe roles African Americans play on television are not satisfactory. Though the roles have changed during the development of television, the current relationship is not representative of true African American people or their lifestyles. The question is how do the past roles African Americans play in television sitcoms compare to the current roles? How does this affect society’s perception of the African American in American culture? Throughout the history of television the roles and the representation of African Americans has developed with the changing cultural conditions. However, the representation of African American’s has not fully simulated into today’s society. What the average citizen views on his or her television does not accurately portray the African American’s influence on America.
The early days of television held great optimism and hope for this new form of media as an avenue for African Americans to assimilate into white American culture. However, a pattern became evident, a pattern of type casting African Americans in roles which did not accurately and wholly portray the individual. A misrepresentation of African Americans became the common image on television. Variety shows initially promoted the new media as an opportunity for equal representation and communication between the races. However, a trend developed with African Americans often being “portrayed as custodians, maids, servants, clowns, or buffoons” (Crenshaw). The negative image, which was developed by these stereotypes, was perpetuated in the Amos and Andy Show. This television show began as a radio show featuring two white men
portraying two comedic black men. When the show was transferred to television, two African American men were cast in the roles, acting as buffoons. The popularity of the show was overwhelming. This was the initial image of African Americans in television, which reached mainstreams Caucasian America and was the foundation for which future stereotypes were created. A new image of African American families was presented in the eighty’s with the Cosby Show. The Huxtable’s were a successful African American family with a life similar to the accepted and established Caucasian mainstream. This show was not accepted fully because it failed to represent the full cultural scope of African Americans. The current trend of television shows in the ninety’s is a divide between the programs and audiences watching them. Caucasians tend to watch programs with primarily Caucasian casts, and African Americans tend to watch programs with primarily African American casts. Television has the power to influence American culture in many ways. For example, the images, which are presented on television, become what individuals expect in the real world. As negative images, or images misrepresenting African Americans are projected; the mass culture has a greater tendency to accept the false images as the truth. It is important for Americans to examine the basis of the expectations they have from television sitcoms and be careful in accepting its relation to the real world. The conclusions Americans of all races draw from this are important in lowering
the stereotypes on television and the interaction between all individuals.
With the 1980’s came a new portrayal of African American’s on television. Shows such as The Cosby Show depicted African American’s with middle-class lifestyles. Characters were seen as successful doctors, nurses, and lawyers. This idea was not readily accepted. In fact, ABC originally turned down the idea of The Cosby Show because they did not believe America would be able to handle the idea of an average, middle-class African American family. (Johnson, 59) The Cosby Show was completely different from any previous African American show. Before The Cosby Show, African Americans on television were most commonly characterized as singers, dancers, maids, servants, and buffoons. The Cosby Show was different. African Americans were viewed with average jobs and average lifestyles. The African Americans on this show talked intelligently and about important issues. An article in Ebony magazine titled “The Huxtables: Fact or Fantasy” stated, “The Cosby Show presents a high level of positive images which are far ahead of other Black sitcoms.” The show continued to allude to famous African American art, authors, and universities. The intelligent African American was constantly depicted on the show through things such as the anti-apartheid poster on Theo’s door and the naming of Sondra’s children (Winnie and Nelson) after Winnie and Nelson Mandela.
Bill Cosby tried very hard to eliminate all stereotypes of African Americans in his show. In fact, Cosby even hired someone specifically take out any
stereotypes or racial jokes he found in the scripts. He wanted his show to view
African Americans in a positive light in order to change America’s concept of them. (Racial Stereotypes Persist, 12) However, he was criticized for this very thing. Many popular critiques said the problem with The Cosby Show and others like it is the characters were acting white. John Killens asserts,
The Black folk [on these shows] are full of understanding and wisdom, sympathetic all the way. No basic problems between the races. All men are brothers, right? An undramatic, middle-classish situation, which hardly has anything to do with the Black experience. (Torres, 71)
Many found The Cosby Show to be unrealistic, saying their world was too perfect, but The Cosby Show, in actuality, did a great job of portraying the middle-class African American. Its depiction of the African American family was not too perfect; it was just a dramatic change from what the American people were used to. The Cosby Show quite realistically portrayed the middle-class African American family, and in doing so helped to change America’s perception of African Americans. During the eighties it seemed as though African Americans had gotten past the point of there being blaxploitation on television. With shows like, The Cosby Show and
A Different World African Americans were portrayed in a way, which was never shown on television before. They were portrayed in a way in which Caucasians were usually portrayed on television, as upper class and intelligent. For some reason these types of shows did not last very long. During the 90’s began a trend of African Americans once again being portrayed in and buffoonish and unintelligent light. With shows like The Wayans Brothers and Martin African Americans were once again shown as being able to be funny, but not being able to be serious. These sitcoms show African American males in particular in a buffoonish way. In both shows they do not seem to have any serious careers or goals in life. In Martin the character Martin is a disk jockey who does not seem very successful in his career because he is always aggravating his boss by acting foolish. In The Wayans Brothers, Sean is an amateur actor who goes to an audition for a job and gets high before he is about to audition. In predominately Caucasian sitcoms, like Frasier or Veronica’s Closet, viewers will not see this type of portrayal. In Frasier, the character Frasier plays a psychologist and his brother plays a doctor. In Veronica’s Closet, everyone works at a successful designing agency. When viewers turn on the WB and the UPN network they see these types of degrading African American shows. There are blocks of African American shows on Fridays and Mondays. The television companies do not even try mixing these shows with the Caucasian sitcoms. They bunch them all together, making it seem like these are the only types of shows African Americans are capable of producing. White producers are the majority behind the scenes and it seems as though they think African Americans are not good enough for prime time networks. “…In 1992 nearly one out every five characters on prime-time network entertainment programs was African-American. Last season, that number dropped to one in 10,” (Ebony Magazine, 83). Sitcoms are not the only place were African-Americans should be cast. There needs to be more serious dramas with African-Americans living an everyday life in the real world. On shows like “90210” and “Dawson’s Creek”, viewers rarely see an African American person. America is made up of so many types of cultures, yet some shows make it seem like it is just made up of spoiled, rich white kids. The public needs to know African-Americans have issues in their lives as well. Producers need to show African Americans going through relationship problems and family problems just like white kids in “white shows” go through. African Americans have at least been shown in different dramas. There have been lawsuits done by the nation’s oldest civil rights organization because there were not enough African-Americans on dramas. “Reports say new Black characters will be added to NBC’s Law ;Order, ABC’s Wasteland and Fox’s Manchester Prep (Ebony Magazine, 83).” The drama shows portray African Americans in a more positive, realistic way. On the popular show, ER there is ha Eriq Lasalle, who plays one of the doctors on the show and goes through the same types of dramas the other characters do. On Felicity they have Tangi Miller, who plays one of Felicity’s best friends. She is trying to get through college taking the same types of hard classes the Caucasian people are taking. Basically African Americans need more serious roles on television. African Americas should have sitcoms on television, but there needs to be a balance between the sitcoms and the dramas. Dramas would help to show African American’s in a more day-to-day, realistic role.
Many broadcast executives believe whites rarely watch shows, particularly sitcoms, with largely black casts. The networks broadcast relatively few shows with black or even integrated casts in prime time television spots. There are two popular, outdated stereotypes about African Americans. First, whites and non-blacks won’t wasted their time and money on anything perceived as “black oriented”. Secondly, blacks are viewed as marginal, if not irrelevant, as TV and film viewers and product consumers. According to the annual Burrell marketing survey, blacks spend as much if not more per capita than any other ethnic group in America on goods and services; moreover, 40% watch prime-time television. African American’s are marginal by no means; in fact, they are essential to manufactures, advertisers and the success of television shows.
Caucasian shows are for the most part, entirely white. On the other hand, primarily black shows have been forced to add white characters. “There is always a concerted effort by white executives to place white faces on black shows,” said Steve Harvey, whose show is on the WB network. “We have had to place white faces on our show this year. We didn’t ask for it. It came down on us. We happen to like those characters, and they’ve worked out well. But how often do you find it going the other way? There’s never an expectation in a white show which needs a few more black faces.” One of the reason’s why there isn’t more African American faces on Caucasian shows is because there isn’t a reported demand for integration; therefore, the executives don’t want to take the effort to integrate. Once again, African American’s aren’t marginal and should be portrayed accurately on Television.
Presently, the television is in over 99% of American homes (Color Adjustment). The television has a power to change mass habits and attitudes. Reverend Jesse Jackson says media depicts African Americans in “Five Deadly ways: Less intelligent…less hardworking…less universal… less patriotic… and more violent than we are.” African American’s when portrayed are done so negatively. Perhaps, if blacks were seen more frequently on television in roles comparable to white actors then the black real-life employment might be favorable affected.
One way to change the trend is to have more African Americans behind the scenes and in production in order to have realistic portrayals of African Americans. The past roles were based on cultural stereotypes of the era and did not realistically portray the lives of African Americans. The current roles are still not representative of African Americans. They are more encompassing of African American life, but they are far from reality. The television has the ability to shape people’s opinions, views and stereotypes of different cultures. If what one views is false, then he or she absorbs and projects false images. However, if views of other cultures are portrayed more accurately, then one will enrich the veiwers life and relate to one another more openly. America can then come to a better understanding of the many cultures it contains and the beauty each has to offer.
After giving the presentation there were many different views coming
from the audience which were not expected. The audience did not hold the same views presented to them. The point addressed was about how Will Smith was the buffoon on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. They did not feel Will Smith was acting buffoonish, they thought he just brought comedy to the show. The audience seemed to focus on black people acting white rather than black people acting ignorant. They brought up the character Carlton, and how he acted white. When asked the question how they knew he was acting white they said he went to an all white school and was influenced by the way they acted. The audience also said Will criticized Carlton for acting white. They excused Will’s buffoonish actions by saying white people were also made fun of through Carlton’s character. This brings up the question how do we know what is characterized as acting black or acting white, and what makes a show a black show or a white show. Again these questions revert back to the fact television shows have embedded stereotypes in our society. This makes people believe there must be a typical black person and white person.