B&W TV: Racism on Network TV

The recent awarding of Emmy statuettes for excellence in television broadcasting helped symbolize an aspect of prime-time programming that is surely less than excellent.No people of color won any awards on Sunday's program.That's really not news, since very few people of color were nominated. Even that's not a revelation since minorities are a non-protected endangered species on television to begin with. And while Asians and Latinos are virtually invisible in prime time, the presence of blacks in consistently demeaning roles might make them wish for the same. There is a very real, obvious segregation and ghettoization now taking place over the nation's airwaves. The concept of separate but unequal has evidently not ascended to the penthouses of the entertainment conglomerates. Shows such as Murphy Brown, The Nanny,Frasier, Cybill and Ellen take place in urban environments that are serenely colorless, while such "urban" shows as The Wayans Brothers, Living Single, In the House and Sister, Sister exist in some television-only non-white world.NBC shows Friends, The Single Guy, Seinfeld and Caroline in the City have no regular black characters. The Manhattan these programs inhabit is not a great international interracial mixture of cultures, but a sterile, homogenized yuppie enclave. NBC's New York is more like the small southern town in Douglas Turner Ward's satirical play A Day of Absence, where all the black people mysteriously disappear. A crucial difference between Ward's satire and "Must-See TV" is that Absence's townsfolk notice the black citizenry are gone. Segregation is not only a staple of the television product but a pattern that reflects the viewing habits of the different groups. A potentially revealing question is: Which came first?According to the Nielson ratings, there is no overlap between the five most popular prime-time shows in black households and the five most popular prime-time shows in white households. The only overlapping show in both groups' top 10 was Monday Night Football. Not one of the 10 most popular sitcoms in black households is in the 10 most-watched sitcoms in white households.Living Single, the favorite sitcom among blacks, is a bottom-of-the barrel second to last on the major network popularity chart. Friends, which is the second favorite sitcom of whites after Seinfeld, ranked 118 among all 148 TV shows with blacks. Friends doesn't feature any pals of color, a fact Oprah Winfrey noted during an appearance by the cast on her show in 1995.Many prevailing views suggest that most whites and most blacks differ greatly when it comes to the subject of race. A number of polls and surveys indicate the majority in both racial groups have rather divergent views of social race-related issues. A Gallup poll from October 1993 found that 70 percent of blacks thought new civil rights legislation was necessary to reduce racial discrimination, while only 33 percent of whites held the same view. The same survey found that 70 percent of whites but only 30 percent of blacks believed that job opportunities were the same for both races.Both Fox and UPN see these disparities as "opportunities" and have taken to counterprogramming against their more established network competitors. In particular, NBC's all-vanilla Thursday night schedule has been a huge windfall for Fox, which has countered with shows that rate Nos. 1, 2, and 6 among black families: New York Undercover, Living Single and Martin.Within the minority diaspora on TV the presence of blacks is truly a good news/bad news situation--the good news being that they are there, the bad news is that it generally hurts to watch. It's rather difficult to see the current television product as anything more than simply a '90s presentation of the Jim Crow past. Instead of "Must See TV," we get "Minstrel TV" with The Wayans Brothers becoming a kind of hip-hop Amos 'N' Andy.The press release description of the The Wayans Brothers is unintentionally revealing. "Shawn and Marlon Wayans portray Shawn and Marlon Williams--two brothers with more in common than they think. Marlon lives for the moment--always getting himself and those around him into trouble. Shawn lives for his girlfriend, Lisa. Marlon works part-time in his Pop's diner (when he isn't being fired or quitting for another get-rich-quick scheme)."The American Book Award-winning Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows describes Amos 'N' Andy in strikingly similar terms. "Set in Harlem, Amos 'N' Andy centered around the activities of George Stevens, a conniving character who was always looking for a way to make a fast buck." The entry goes on to detail the show's problems with civil rights groups, but then backs away from criticizing the show, instead offering: "As to whether the program was in fact racist, there was no agreement on that."While that apology is something like saying not everybody believes there was a Holocaust, the book does point out the humor of Amos 'N' Andy was based on negative stereotypes "unfairly applied to an entire race ..." The ironic conclusion states it is unlikely Amos 'N' Andy will ever be seen again on television. But the writers didn't figure on the revisionist racism of the '90s.The Wayans Brothers are purely caricatures, but the problem is that the caricatures are guaranteed to get laughs from some segment of the population. Here is a sample of what passed for humor in a scene from the season premiere:Marlon opens the door and his date, Lena, is there wearing zebra print hot pants and a tight, black T-shirt. Marlon: Whoooaaa!Audience track: Whoooaaa! (Lena strikes a brief pose allowing herself to be admired, then hugs Marlon.Marlon steps back to leer at her butt/pants.) Marlon: Get on with your tiger self. Lena: Meoww.(They move into the room to meet his brother.)Marlon: This is my brother Urkle (audience laughs), I mean, Shawn. (She extends her hand to Shawn, who takes it, all the while inspecting her from head to toe. He twirls her in a 360-degree spin.)Shawn: Will you look at that! (focusing on her butt) Girl, you look like you're hiding two midgets back there. (She grins. The audience laughs.)(Marlon intercepts Shawn.)Marlon: Excuse me, do you think you could stop drooling on my date? (Moving between them, whispering to his brother) Do think you could spot three dollars? Me and Lena are thinking about making a run for the border. (audience laughs) (Shawn makes a face.)Shawn: You'd better peace out.Marlon: C'mon, man. I'll give you another peek at that booty.(Shawn eagerly concedes, reaching into his jeans for some money.)Shawn: All right. Peek first.(Marlon goes back over to Lena.)Marlon: Whatta you say we go get something hot to eat?Lena: Oh, I got all the hot you need, Big Poppa.Marlon: (crossing eyes) I love it when you call me Big Poppa.(He grabs her in another hug, spinning her around while Shawn bends down to get his eyes at "booty" level. He hands his brother the bills and they exchange a thumbs-up.)Of course, there are low-brow shows featuring white casts, though not many (Married With Children would be the most obvious example). The real difference is that there is a balance with the more "sophisticated" white comedies for which there is no minority equivalent.The more telling deficit is in the non-comedy prime-time programming. Minorities don't exist beyond the occasional ancillary character. With the rare exception of complex characters like Andre Braugher's detective on Homicide: Life on the Streets and Capt. Fancy on NYPD Blue, minorities don't lead serious enough lives or have concerns beyond getting laid or getting rich quickly that warrant being examined.There is significance in how people of color are portrayed in the media, but there is an equal significance in how they are not. How they are most typically not portrayed is as people with human desires and emotions that have nothing to do with the color of their skin. They are typically portrayed as people who obsess on sex and are willing to indiscriminately have it with just about anyone. Rarely seen are individuals who want to fall in love and have satisfying emotional relationships. They are much more likely to be fast-talking con men who want to make easy money and live in outrageous luxury, not people who want to have interesting jobs and comfortable homes.In shows like The Wayans Brothers, it's not black women who are getting dissed--but all women. It's not black men who are made to look ignorant--but all men. The failure of networks to realistically and creatively represent the world we live in demeans us all, not simply the segments of people not shown or shown inaccurately. If we so easily allow television creators and programmers to separate us by superficial racial characteristics, then we'll get neither the art nor entertainment the majority of us deserve.

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