Demanding more than stereotypes from primetime TV

MAY 17, 2016 By Lori Tharps

I’m just going to admit that I enjoy watching TV and that I enjoy watching TV with my kids. I have three children ranging in age from four to 14, so you can imagine how difficult it is to find a program to please everyone. We watch a lot of cooking shows and documentaries about animals.

Is it crazy that I envision a day when the entertainment industry will offer up quality, family-friendly sitcoms with diverse characters? Hollywood has never been known for it’s diversity output, but there were a handful of good ones that peppered my childhood. The Cosby Show, A Different World, The Facts of Life, and even Diff’rent Strokes offered characters that looked like me and moved through the world in ways that mirrored my own. There wasn’t any cursing, the humor was relatively clean and sometimes they addressed serious issues that I could relate to.

Today, in contrast, when I turn on the television during primetime, I do see some real attempts at moving past standard white characters, but sadly diversity seems to translate to stereotypes on the small screen.

Let’s begin with the show that seemed to start the whole “diversity is cool” again in primetime, ABC’s Modern Family. With a story line that includes a white man married to a Columbian immigrant single mother and two gay men who have an adopted an Asian daughter, ABC seemed to jump head first into the idea that families no longer had to be all white, nor all heterosexual to be worthy of a sitcom, and yet, upon closer inspection, Modern Family’s “diverse characters” are so unoriginal, they appear to have been plucked straight from the stereotype casting couch. Sofia Vegara’s Gloria character seems to have been inspired by Charo from the Love Boat. Every time I watch Modern Family (which isn’t often) I expect Gloria to break out in a “cuchi-cuchi” dance.

ABC gets big props for trying to add color to their primetime lineup. In fact, it seems that someone at the network decided that diversity was going to be their “new thing.” Not only do they air Modern Family, but ABC also carries Fresh Off the Boat about a Chinese-American family, the Goldbergs about a Jewish family, The Real O’Neals about a dysfunctional Irish-American family and the network’s biggest new diverse hit, Black-ish about an upper middle class black family. I’d say ABC’s primetime offerings are so colorful, they should be the one displaying a rainbow peacock instead of NBC.

But even my 11-year-old son pointed out how many of the characters on these new “family” shows are simply fulfilling stereotypes. Despite the fact that the premise of Black-ish is to showcase a black family that is not straight out of the hood, and Fresh Off the Boat is about a Chinese-American boy who actually wishes he were from the hood, everything else about these shows traffics in tired, ethnic and cultural stereotypes. The father on Black-ish spends too much money on sneakers, eats junk food and makes fun of his half-white wife. The mother on Fresh of the Boat is the epitome of a so-called “tiger mom.” And the just-out-of-the-closet gay teen on The Real O’Neals loves Reese Witherspoon and kitchen gadgets.

I am not so naïve as to think that sitcoms are supposed to traffic in original humor, and I understand that when you only have 22 minutes to tell a story, relying on stereotypes is necessary sometimes. And admittedly, sometimes stereotypes are funny. Still, I can’t help but think that the American public who still watches network television has been bamboozled. We’ve been led to believe that simply because there are now all of these colorful faces on our television screens, we’ve somehow progressed. But is it really progress if the networks are simply trotting out tired stereotypes for laughs? But on the other hand, do we really want to complain given how precarious our place at the Hollywood table currently is? I can hear the network executives already.

“We gave you Black-ish, but you’re saying it’s not black enough or it’s too black? Is there any way to satisfy you people?”

Here’s how I’d be satisfied. Keep the diverse casts. Keep the basic storylines, but hire some writers who can create unique characters who aren’t based on stereotypes.

Would that be so hard?

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