DANIELLE COHEN '18
Recently, Ujamaa, Wesleyan’s Student of Color Organization, conducted an event called “Race, Representation, and Television: Idiot Box or Inspiration.” This group met last month to plan events for Black History Month and has been leading various events all month. The discussion, a response to the recent surge in black representation in television, included clips of TV shows followed by discussions about the ways in which the shows represented the culture they were depicting, and how accurate these depictions were.
The most common thread of discussion seemed to be a debate between whether portraying certain aspects of black culture enhances a show’s relatability and provides role models and relatable characters for black audiences, or simply perpetuates stereotypes and provides black audiences with yet another image of themselves that is untrue and generalized. During the first half of the event, Alexandra White ’16 led a conversation focused on drama TV – specifically, Lee Daniels’ “Empire,” a show about hip hop record producers fighting for control of their company, and Shonda Rhimes’ “How to Get Away with Murder,” a show about a lawyer and law professor who employs her students as interns in her cases. While “Empire” portrays a cast of majority black actors, “How to Get Away with Murder” includes three main black characters, one of which is portrayed by Viola Davis and has been discussed widely as a revolutionary representation of a black woman on television. The discussion about “Empire” tackled various issues raised by the show and its audience, such as whether the villainization of black people in the media is a conscious choice or simply a habit. A general thread throughout this conversation was the fact that we generalize the representations of minorities, and not of white people, that we observe in entertainment.
The clips shown from “How to Get Away with Murder” focused on Davis’ character and the way that the show represents black women. In one scene, her white husband throws stereotypes about black women’s sexuality at her, and in another memorable clip she takes off her wig and makeup, creating a moment of exposure and vulnerability. The question of whether stereotypes are acceptable to express on television came up most strongly here: Is it beneficial that a show is finally honest about the ways black women are stereotyped and defined by their sexuality, or is an enactment of this stereotype simply perpetuating it? The group was generally positive about this show in particular, but not overall comfortable with other portrayals of stereotypes on television.
After about an hour, Christian Hosam ’15 switched the focus of the discussion to comedy, showing clips from a scripted show called “Black-ish” and a late-night show hosted by Larry Wilmore, bringing up the complex issues at play in this genre. “Black-ish” is a show about an affluent black family and their daily life. The first and foremost discussion centered on the name itself, which some argued implies that any semblance of wealth automatically makes someone less black. The clips, which showed members of the family struggling to maintain their identity as African-Americans according to “black rules,” were overall received with laughter. However, the discussion about whether these “rules” were true sparked debate, as well as the question of whether, no matter their level of truth, they should be depicted at all since they correspond to stereotypes about black people.
Finally, the group viewed clips of Larry Wilmore, the first black late-night host, who replaced Stephen Colbert’s political satire show with his own late-night panel talk show. On this show, he tackles a variety of subjects with a group of discussion members at a table. In this clip, Cory Booker, Talib Kweli, and Bill Burr took part in a comedic conversation about the state of black protest. While most of the group simply did not find the show funny, members also took issue with the way that Wilmore was making sexist, and sometimes even racist, jokes. The complexities of comedy arose here, and the group discussed when comedy can be a good place to discuss serious subjects, and when it becomes an offensive arena.
Eventually, Dreisen Heath ’15 posed another question entirely: When can we throw away representation and just take it as entertainment? Must we interpret every show on television as a representation of the culture or race it depicts? Or can we simply enjoy watching these shows without attempting to interpret them on a deeper level than they intend? This question is one that we, as an audience, must answer for ourselves. As viewers of a show, we determine how we will interpret it and which aspects of our life we plan to apply it to. The discussion was fruitful, not in necessarily answering any of these difficult questions, but rather in sparking a crucial dialogue and change in mindset about the ways in which we view television and generalize issues that we see in the media.