Thursday, December 9, 2010

Media Column: Post-racial television

The election of an African American president was supposed to usher in a new era of post-racial America. It didn't happen. We're still divided; at least in the political realm. Two years of Barack Obama's presidency has shown us that people can still revert to ugly (though, sometimes latent) generalizations about race – even if it takes the guise of an assumed Muslim faith and Kenyan nationality.

But one element of our culture has evolved recently: popular television. A place that once showcased a myopic vision of minorities and homosexuals – reducing these and other groups to gross caricatures and fodder for cheap one-liners – has introduced smart and complex shows with realistic and well-intentioned individuals, who for once can be judged by the content of their characters.

Black characters were once relegated to their traditional role as sidekicks (Daryl from The Office, Deacon from King of Queens) while gay people were simply happy to be invited to the party as something acceptable to laugh at (Will and Grace). Both ABC's Modern Family and NBC's Parenthood offer sober and vibrant examples of the struggles, challenges, and pleasures inherent in fostering a 21st Century extended family, with blemishes and all.

In a recent episode of Modern Family a married gay couple patiently waits in the office of a prestigious private school. As they ponder the chance of getting their adopted Vietnamese daughter into the elite program, they tacitly acknowledge the inherent stereotypes being played out in their ploy:

“Lily’s Asian. We’re gay. In the school admissions poker game, we’re the winning hand.”

Sure, the statement is acknowledging gay stereotypes. But the important distinction is how it’s not we, the audience, who are being targeted. We don’t expect gay couples to play into pre-defined categories and stereotypes. Instead, it is this other entity - the snooty, callow, upper crust of private school acceptance boards – that posses these shallow conceptions of gay characters and gay life. Now we can sit back and laugh at them, instead.
In Parenthood, even the single mother defies the normal typecast. Lauren Graham's character (Sarah Braverman) is not an over-achieving do-gooder, who overcomes adversity to multi-task a family into healthy, fully functioning adult life. She’s a screw up. Not able to hold down a job or a husband, Sarah is even called out by her teenage children for being a less-than-idealistic mom.

As recently as 1993 Vice President Dan Quayle re-ignited an age-old culture war between Washington and Hollywood by attacking the CBS comedy Murphy Brown. The lead character had made the cavalier decision to raise a child out of wedlock. Shocking. This rather benign plot sequence was critiqued as an attack on traditional ‘American’ values. The firestorm was a laugh line for liberals but a rallying cry for social conservatives who regularly dismissed single moms as “welfare queens.”

But, back to the current day. Oddly enough the school application scene appears again this season on the more dramatized Parenthood, where punch lines are not required. A bi-racial, unmarried couple sits in the office preparing to meet their judge and jury. How will they impress the principal? What sets them apart from other parents?

In the ‘90s, Will and Grace epitomized the lampooning of gay culture. With the insertion of two gay characters into popular culture, the taboo subject was finally launched into living rooms. However, it seemed the only way the culture can be included was if all jokes referenced their 'gay-ness' and ancillary homosexual attributes.

“Help, police! I’m surrounded by homos,” an elderly woman screams in a typical slapstick scene from Will and Grace.
Minorities played into well defined typecasts as recently as the 2000s. On George Lopez, the ABC sitcom with arguably the first exclusively Latino American television family, Latino stereotypes were commonly used as a fallback laugh line. George Lopez regularly brings up the poor, uneducated, 'suburban ghetto' mentality of his culture. The Lopez mother is a boozy reminder that they are just one generation away from deadbeat dads and morally ambiguous moms.

The Latino characters on Modern Family are markedly different. The fiery knockout Gloria, played by Sofia Vergara, is the wife to Jay, or Ed O'Neill (a veteran of dysfunctional family television as Married With Children's Al Bundy).

Gloria is not a converted cleaning woman - ala Adam Sandler's Spanglish - but a sassy, and devoted wife. She’s quite a contrast from the inept and awkward characters like Fez from That 70s Show (Wilmer Valderrama), whose broken-English is a built-in punch line.

More notable however, is Gloria's son, played by a precocious Rico Rodriguez. Manny is a pre-teen intellectual. In one scene we see Manny sipping espresso and reading Hemingway. When Jay fires an employee at his factory, Manny hires a lawyer (his uncle) to defend the employee. Jay is annoyed, though nonplussed by the boy's actions.

Far from the underachieving, South American slacker, Manny is quite another caricature - perhaps, of the polar opposite of an expected Latino stereotype. He doesn't steal cars, or write graffiti. He overachieves and surpasses the white characters in his intellectual prowess.

Part this shift toward more complex and diversified castes may be due in part to the advent of cable television. HBO brought such daring, provocative - and ultimately popular - television series’ like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. The residual popularity of these programs may have caused a ripple effect onto the network sitcoms and dramas.

But a sociological shift has taken place as well. Since 2003 five U.S. state governments have legalized same-sex marriage. In 2005, Texas became the fourth state to have a majority non-white population.

"Whites are on the verge of becoming a minority,” The Wall Street Journal noted in June, “marking a demographic shift that is already reshaping the nation's politics and economy."

The idea that the election of a black president would eradicate all forms of racism was certainly Pollyannish. A traditional segment of the American population will hold on to their beliefs of Country Club exceptionalism. But soon they will be outnumbered. A sitcom with uppity, white sidekicks used specifically for a comic foil may be coming to a small screen near you.

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