Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Core Response 5 - Complexities of Representation Then and Now

Race representation is an extremely complex topic and I've been having these conversations seemingly all my life. As Jennifer Esposito asserts in the opening to her analysis to one episode of Ugly Betty "One place where racial discourse is especially powerful is within the institution of popular culture" (522). Growing up in an all black neighborhood in the south (a suburb of North Little Rock, AR) my home life was a very homogenous African American experience while at school I was exposed to a certain level of what I like to call "segregated desegregation". Of course going off to New York City for film school opened a world of cultural diversity I had yet only seen on television and in the movie theater. In this way, the media we consume has a particular importance in framing our perspectives of ethnicity when combined with our real world experiences. I was raised watching shows like Saved By The Bell, Clarissa Explains it All as well as The Cosby Show, Family Matters and A Different World. But I'm not sure that at such a young age the racially insular nature of these programs was apparent to me.  

Gray delves in to a deep analysis of cultural and political factors that affected the "representation" of blacks in the 1980's. At this time we began to see a shift in programming brought on by a number of factors that Gray outlines: changes in ratings monitoring, competition between netwroks and new cable outlets, proliferation of VHS recorders and video games (58). All of these factors worked to pressure programmers to re-package content. The Cosby Show and its success at NBC was an undeniable factor in pushing networks to produce content aimed at black audiences.

I'm interested in Gray's approach to discussing the political influence of President Reagan and the culture of the 1980's. Gray observes that during the time there was a conservative reproach of "permissiveness" associated with black culture. Christine Acham looks even more closely at the effect of Reagan's ideals, "The rhetoric of Reagan successfully cemented the strong racial division within American society" (104).

White audiences, however did not have to be "permissive" of the Huxtables. This family, while black, was upper middle class, well spoken, wholesome and most of all entertaining. As Ellen Seiter observed in last week's readings, white audience felts "comfortable" with the The Cosby Show and the Huxtables to the point that they were able to relate to them while distinguishing them as exceptional for black families. This assimilationist form of representation made the black family acceptable for whites and in turn aspirational for black families. As Seiter points out, this thinking is problematic and leads to the types of misguided post-racial assumptions that Esposito confronts in her Ugly Betty Analysis.

In the year 2015 and in diverse cities in the US, families are not experiencing "otherness" only on their TV screens anymore. In fact the diversification of our everyday lives at home (as multiracial families increase), at school, at work and at play almost assures that mediated televisual representations of minorities are not the only basis for which we form opinions. In 1978 when David Morley's "Everyday Television" study was published, white families were not likely to have black families as neighbors in many parts of the country. However, these days more complexities arise in realm of representation as Esposito addresses with her reading of Ugly Betty as commentary on affirmative action.

Esposito aptly observes that while this episode overtly addresses attitudes toward affirmative action, the resulting statement is convoluted. While the text would have us believe that "all is well that ends well"when Betty and Marc both get the YETI fellowship, there are many loose ends concerning acknowledgement of privilege and questions of meritocracy. Television is considerably more successful at or willing to employ diverse casts and deal with diverse story lines than its culturally tone def comrade the film industry. In a new age of programming color on television exists in both racially homogenous (Empire, Black-ish, BET) and mixed ensemble (How To Get Away With Murder, The Mindy Project, Ugly Betty, The New Girl) content worlds.  It is the latter realm however,  that breeds the most debate on representation. Is separate but equal programming more easily palatable for minority and majority audiences even in 2015?

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