It Takes a LIFETIME: Television for Black Women
Gerald Butters/Aurora University

Pastor Brown

Image from Pastor Brown

The number of scripted fictional television series which feature African American women is miniscule. Unfortunately, the only television series which seem to star African American women are reality television shows. Basketball Wives, the Real Housewives franchise, La La’s Full Court Life, The Bad Girls Club and Love and Hip Hop Atlanta portray African American women as full of drama, contentious, materialistic and fame seeking. Any outsider who considered this the “reality” of African American women’s lives would have a highly negative image of black women.

Recently, it has come to my attention that cable broadcast network Lifetime has made a concerted effort to appeal to African American women. Four new Lifetime movies feature black female protagonists as the major leads. It would be racist for me to assume that African American women only watch other African American women on television. If this were true than black women would watch very little television since the number of network shows that feature African American women in the leads is so small. But Lifetime’s attempt to diversity its programming is unique and needs to be explored.

Lifetime has taken the lead in fictional portrayals of African American women that doesn’t tread the confrontational territory of reality television. A significant number of these films center on the black church and the role of African American women in this community.

Pastor Brown was written by Rhonda F. Baraka and directed by actor Rockmond Dunbar. Shot in Atlanta in 2009, the film didn’t make it to the television screen until 2012 due to entanglements over legal issues. A convoluted tale of an exotic dancer who returns home pending her father’s death, his dying wish is that she take over leadership of the Mount Olive Baptist Church, an Atlanta megachurch. Pastor Brown is a religious parable of a prodigal daughter who returns home to her son, sister, dying father and childhood congregation “to find her own shoes.” Jessica, the exotic dancer, does not take over as pastor though as she determines that this was her father’s way of helping her adopt a more stable life. In order to return the church to patriarchal control, she willingly submits and leaves the leadership of the church to the associate pastor, who believes that he is the rightful successor to Pastor Brown.

Far more nuanced is Twist of Faith starring R & B singer Toni Braxton. The church also plays a prominent role in this film; in fact, the establishing shot is that of a small Methodist church in central Alabama. This trope of the church, which appears in all four films under discussion, is perhaps over-determined, but it emphasizes the significance of the black church in the lives of many black women and the pre-eminence that they play within black congregations. Braxton is Nina, a single mother and teacher, who lives with her son and her uncle next door to an all-black church. Much of Nina’s life centers around the church and her leadership role in the choir. She doesn’t have a man in her life, despite the attempts by her brother to fix her up. Nina’s story is interwoven with that of Jacob, an Orthodox Jew from New York City, whose entire family is tragically gunned down on a bus. Jacob, distraught, leaves the city without warning, wandering without a destination until he lands in Nina’s home town. Jacob and Nina’s lives cross paths, and an eventual romance ensues. Twist of Faith does not shy away from the realities of African American life, particularly in the South. Mo, Nina’s uncle tells Jacob, “A black person who doesn’t own a gun is kidding himself.” Two rednecks vandalize the church and Nina attempts to stop them. They consider raping Nina, and hundreds of years of sexual exploitation of black women bubbles to the surface. Jacob eventually stops them and shoots one of the rednecks despite his aversion to guns since the massacre of his family. The interracial or interfaith aspects of Nina and Jacob’s relationship are never explored since their mutual attraction is not recognized until the final ten minutes of the film. But Twist of Faith, while illustrating an idyllic black South, does not fail to comment on troubles regarding racism and renewal.

Betty and Coretta has an even higher pedigree due to its all-star casting. Angela Bassett, one of the most respected African American actresses in the black community, plays Coretta Scott King and hip hop stalwart Mary J. Blige holds her own remarkably as Betty Shabazz, wife of Malcolm X. The film focuses on their lives as the wives of two of the most significant black leaders of the twentieth century, their widowhood, and the relationship the two women forge as a result of their shared grief and committed activism. One stroke of genius upon the part of the producers is having Ruby Dee narrate the film and interject her remembrances throughout. As a friend of both women, she was present at some of the most significant events of both their lives, and she shared the private pains of both of them. While the film suffers due to the “creation” of conversations that the women had over the course of their lives, the fact that Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz are front and center in this movie, rather than in the sidelines, is significant. Betty and Coretta also does not shy away from difficulties in the women’s lives not related to their husband’s assassinations including King’s discovery of her husband’s infidelity and Shabazz’s relationship with her tragic daughter Qubilah.

Image from Betty and Coretta

Image from Betty and Coretta

Lifetime also remade the 1980’s hit Steel Magnolias with an all-star black cast including Queen Latifah, Alfre Woodard, Phylicia Rashad and Jill Scott. The comedic melodrama focuses on the lives of six black women in Louisiana and their relationships as they support each other through triumphs and tragedies. The film was the third highest Lifetime Original film in terms of audience, with over 6.5 million viewers turning in when the film premiered on October 7, 2012. (( Nellie Andreeva, “’Steel Magnolias’ Remake Posts Ratings Records for Lifetime, Draws 6.5 Million,” (8 October 2012), Alfre Woodward was singled out for her performance and received numerous acting award nominations including those of the Screen Actors Guild and the NAACP Image Awards.

Image from Steel Magnolias

Image from Steel Magnolias

All four of these films are set in the South. While they do not depict the South as paradise, the South is “home.” Jessica in Pastor Brown returns to Atlanta to leave her hedonistic New York lifestyle. Jacob and Nina find love in small town Alabama; Jacob leaves New York City after a quadruple murder annihilates his family. Much of Betty and Coretta takes place in the South and all of Steel Magnolias is set in a northwestern Louisiana parish. The South as a nucleus of African American female self-discovery and sisterhood is an interesting phenomenon that repackages the region in wildly disparate ways from post-Civil Rights dystopian dramas.

Lifetime’s recent focus on developing films featuring African American women dovetails with the success of ABC’s hit series Scandal. Created by Grey’s Anatomy producer Shonda Rhimes, the series stars Kerry Washington as a political “fixer,” and has been both a critical and ratings success. Scandal is significant in that it is produced by and stars African American women. As Olivia Pope, Washington is the first African-American female lead on a major network show in 38 years. During Scandal’s season finale in May 2012 the series attracted 1.8 African American viewers, making it the top rated show for the black television audience. ((Sarah Springer, “Scandal Updates Image of Black Women on Network Television,” (25 May 2012) Associate Professor Kimberly N. Brown argues that “ aside from the excellent writing, I watch Scandal because it is rare to see professional black women, particularly brown and dark women, featured on television, least of all in a drama. . . I am particularly drawn to Scandal because it moves the conversation about race and representation beyond the level of positive and negative portrayals of black women, to depicting Olivia Pope as a fully realized complex character. She doesn’t fit neatly to any of the traditional stereotypes of black women.” ((Interview with Kimberly N. Brown, Associate Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, (4 March 2013).))

Lifetime has had a very successful year in the ratings in 2012. Their viewing audience is up 15% over 2011 in their key demographic, women 18-49 years of age. ((Sarah Bibel, “Lifetime Scores Third Quarter of Year-On-Year Growth,” (2 October 2012), It would be fascinating to see whether any of this ratings growth can be attributed to their new attention on African American women. The depiction of the lives of black women on the television screen is grossly underrepresented. Kudos to Lifetime for waking up to this fact.

Special thanks to Rachel Balderston and Kimberly N. Brown

Image Credits:
1. Image from Pastor Brown
2. Image from Betty and Coretta
3. Image from Steel Magnolias

Please feel free to comment.

Iconic Television and Pathos
Gerald R. Butters, Jr./Aurora University

Final Moments of MASH

Final Moments of MASH

From the 1950’s through the 1980’s, the medium of television created a number of iconic moments. I define “iconic moment” as a piece of entertainment or historical event that was shared by a large mass of the American public. Specifically, in this time period, it included the birth of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s baby on I Love Lucy (1952), the exoneration of Richard Kimble in the final episode of The Fugitive (1967), the “Who Shot JR?” episode of Dallas (1980) and the series finale of M.A.S.H. (1983).

All of these events were pieces of television entertainment, significant enough that they were watched by tens of millions of Americans and the majority of the television viewing audience. But iconic television moments of this era also included television coverage of significant historical events including the Kennedy-Nixon television debates (1960), Neil Armstrong walking on the moon (1969), Richard Nixon’s resignation speech (1974) and the explosion of the Challenger (1986).

These were shared historical moments that were intensified by the medium of television both with the immediate coverage of these events and then with the saturation follow up in their depiction.

Television, in its first thirty years, was a medium almost unrecognizable to today’s generation of youth. In most markets, including major urban areas, television viewers had three or four choices when the television was turned on. The major networks – NBC, CBS and ABC – each had their own channel in major markets. There also was often a UHF station and after 1969, a PBS affiliate. But this only applied to major markets. Rural areas often had even more limited viewing opportunities. Nevertheless, from the 1950’s through the 1970’s, Americans had far more commonalities in their viewing patterns due to the limited number of choices. Whether one was discussing Perry Mason, Archie Bunker, The Fonz or the Clampetts, there was a cultural televisual literacy that the majority of Americans shared.

The medium of television began changing with the introduction of cable television nationally in the 1970’s. By the end of the decade, nearly 16 million households were cable subscribers. Cable television often appealed directly to adult television viewers though. The lack of FCC regulation on cable networks such as HBO and Cinemax allowed the networks to feature more adult entertainment. The advent of the VCR in the early 1980’s and the explosion of videotape rental businesses gave Americans more of a choice when it came to their home entertainment decisions. By the 1980’s, Americans were no longer solely dependent upon the major networks; cable television and videotapes offered a multitude of entertainment possibilities. This began to have a precipitous impact on network affiliate viewing. In 1985-1986, 45.1% of U.S. households were tuned into the major networks on a nightly basis. In the 1980’s, there were still television shows such as The Cosby Show, Family Ties, and Cheers that had mass audiences though. By 2000-2001, the network share had dropped from 45.1% to 32.6%, a 28% drop. The winner for the viewing audience was basic cable which saw its share go from 3.9% in 1985-1986 to 28.2% in 2000-2011. This was a 1382% increase. Even more important, basic cable was almost claiming as many viewers on a nightly basis as network television. The number of choices in basic cable also exploded in the 1980s and 1990’s with channels devoted to home shopping, history, sports, news, children’s programming and home design. (( Bill Gorman, Where Did the Primetime Broadcast Television Audience Go? TV By the Numbers )) This meant that Americans were far more fractured in their viewing patterns.

The concept of the mass audience for a televisual entertainment event collapsed with the new century. The first major American reality television show, Survivor Borneo, captured over 51 million viewers in the season finale on August 23, 2000.

The behemoth that is American Idol had its first finale on September 4, 2002. Twenty-three million Americans watched Kelly Clarkson crowned as champion. But that was less than half of the mass audience for Survivor. For the first twelve years of this century, no American television event that is considered entertainment has captured a mass audience. Only 25% of the viewing public still watch a network channel on any given night. Sporting events, primarily the Superbowl, are still able to capture huge audiences but no fictional or reality television show can claim these ratings.

Does this mean that Americans no longer share iconic television moments in our culture? Well, we do, but they are coverage of historical events. And almost all of these events have been significant tragedies. The horror of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the sheer destruction of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the recent massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary school (2012) all were tragedies which were covered intensely by network and cable news teams, watched by tens of millions of American viewers.
[youtube] [/youtube]

What does this mean for our culture when the only shared events we have are tragedies; television accounts of suffering and pathos? What does this mean for the medium of television as a cultural force in our nation? If the only shared moments that television can bring to the American people are tremendous losses of human life, inhumanity, violence and terror, what does this say about the future of the television medium? As an “imagined community” are we united only by our sharing of grief, anxiety and tears?

Since its inception, television, as an artistic form, has rested on its appeal to the audience’s emotions. Those singular iconic television moments that resounded throughout our culture were often dependent upon universal human events (births, marriages, deaths) or finales which masses of people could relate to. Now that the American television audience is fractured into millions of individual components, with individuals not only viewing hundreds of different television channels but also watching television when they desire, be it streaming, on demand, on the internet or on DVD, the singular iconic television moment in the form of entertainment, ceases to exist. So all we have, as a shared community, are historical incidents of deep pathos. If the only iconic television moments we share are depictions of suffering, does this reflect the deep cultural and political divides in our nation? Victories, be they political or judicial, are not shared by an American people deeply fractured.

The one unique exception to this model was the 2012 London Olympics. Prior to the summer of 2012, many cultural commentators believed that the Olympics were passé, a relic of the twentieth century. Yet more than 219.4 million Americans watched the Olympics, making it the most watched event in U.S. television history. NBC’s coverage of the Olympics was wildly castigated by the critics as human interest stories (rather than sport) seemed to construct the coverage and that the network almost exclusively focused on American athletes. Yet this combination of Lifetime/Hallmark emotion and rampant nationalism played well with the American people, with over 31 million Americans watching the coverage every viewing night. Perhaps this sharing of a sporting event, draped in melodramatic emotion and patriotism, supplanted the relentless parade of tragedy on television. (( London Olympic 2012 Ratings: Most Watched Event in TV History, )) This relationship between a mass medium, iconic shared moments, and national identity, in the twenty-first century, is ripe for exploration. The old models no longer apply.

Image Credits:
1. Final Moments of MASH

Please feel free to comment.

Real: Older Gay Men in Popular Culture
Gerald Butters/ Aurora University


Ernie: Uncle of Friend of the Author

My good friend, Jim, recently lost his uncle Ernie. Ernie and his partner Sal had been together since 1947. Yes, 1947! That is a sixty-five year relationship. As a media critic, my immediate thought was, why have I never seen this type of story before? Sixty-five year relationships are celebrated and praised in straight culture. There are scores of films and Hallmark television movies that show young couples falling for each and then later depict them as an elderly pair, deeply in love. I can’t think of one fictional television or cinematic depiction of a gay couple that stayed together that long.

Ernie and Sal had a fascinating story. Ernie was a Navy chaplain in World War II before the two met in a large lecture hall class at Columbia University after the war. Sal was of a large Italian immigrant family of 11; Ernie was a dyed in the wool Wasp. They both held executive corporate positions later in their lives and navigated the tricky contours of 1950’s and 1960’s career-killing homophobia. This successful hardworking pair ended up living quite comfortably. Yet no screenwriter has been able to have this type of life experience depicted in popular culture on the screen.

New Normal

The Young Gay Men of The New Normal

One may consider this a result of both ageism and homophobia. Certainly, there are more depictions of gay men in American television than ever before. But television writers usually succumb to cookie cutter imagery of gay men – white, in their 30’s or 40’s, upperwardly mobile with readily available disposable income. The New Normal and Partners are both examples of this phenomenon. Gay men, like the vast majority of characters on television, are to be young and good looking. This trend extends into motion pictures; with the exception of high profile biographical films such as Milk, gay men in films are young and usually depicted in coming-of-age or coming out stories. Ezra Miller’s scene stealing performance in Perks of Being a Wallflower continues this trend.

Perhaps this is what is so remarkable about Christopher Plummer’s Academy Award-winning role as Hal Fields in Beginners.  [youtube][/youtube]

Christopher Plummer Winning an Academy Award for Beginners

The film bucked every stereotype of what older gay men in motion pictures were supposed to experience, feel and look like. Hal Fields was a groundbreaking character. Beginners is based on writer and director Mike Mill’s own life. [youtube][/youtube]
His parents were married for forty-four years before his mother died. Six months later, his father announced that he was gay. Christopher Plummer, as Hal, looks directly into the camera minutes into the film and plainly says, “I’m gay.” Our establishing shot of Hal is him with a homemade fireworks display. After his announcement, Hal continues telling his son Oliver, “I loved your mother. I don’t want to just be theoretically gay. I want to do something about it.” Oliver explains that Hal changed all of his clothes, got a boyfriend and a personal trainer who was studying for his professional pyrotechnics license. The fireworks, thus, are symbolic. Hal, it is revealed, has been a faithful father and husband and a respected museum director. But he has lived in the shadows and his coming out releases his inner fireworks. Hal Fields is not the obsessive older man clamoring for a teenager (Death in Venice) or the cranky old queen The Browning Version.[youtube][/youtube]
Hal is a vibrant and alive 75 year old man, surrounded by friends and actively engaged in his community (movie club, political work). He may not be hip to all of the contours of gay culture (Oliver has to explain that the thump, thump, thump music he is listening to is called house) but Hal is never, ever, a subject of ridicule or pity. He finds an out gay priest to guide him spiritually and sees a therapist for the first time in his life.  

Beginners abandons clear chronological progression; it alternates between Hal’s enjoyment of his openly gay life, his battle with cancer and eventual death, and Oliver’s attempt to cope with the loss of his father and his relationship with his girlfriend Anna. Even when Hal is dying from cancer, he is not a person to be pitied; he is purposeful and fully alive.

Numerous scenes throughout Beginners demonstrate Hal’s abandonment of pretense and his willingness to experiment with his life. It is perhaps this lack of control that is so attractive and makes him such a sympathetic character. While in the hospital, Hal kisses his much younger boyfriend Andy on the lips in front of the nurse. In another scene, shortly after he comes out, Hal explains to Oliver that younger men don’t go for older gay men. Hal sits by himself in a gay bar but he is not lonely; he is fully open for whatever may happen. And we know what happens – he meets his boyfriend Andy.

One may argue that Hal is in denial when his oncologist explains that that further surgery is impossible and that radiation treatment will only make him weaker. When Oliver pleads with his father that he has Stage IV cancer and must tell his friends, Hal just explains that this is simply the stage after Stage III. Even as he is dying, Hal is a remarkable combination of vitality, dignity, hope and wonder. It is perfectly fitting that in perhaps the most touching scene in the film, Andy and Hal romantically slow dance, and then Hal dances with his son, while Oliver recites a passage from the Velveteen Rabbit:

What is Real?  
Does it hurt?
Generally by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off,
And your eyes drop out, and you get loose in the joints.  
But these things don’t matter at all because once you are Real,
You can’t be ugly . . . except to people who don’t understand.

When Brokeback Mountain was released, critics argued that the character of Ennis Del Mar was a breakthrough role. If this is true, than Beginners Hal Fields is downright radical.  Screenwriters of the world – it is now time for a story like that of Ernie and Sal.

Image Credits:
1. Ernie: Uncle of Friend of the Author, Author’s Personal Collection
2. The New Normal

Please feel free to comment.

Queering Hip Hop: Frank Ocean and Homophobia
Gerald R. Butters, Jr. / Aurora University


Frank Ocean turned the black popular culture world upside down by announcing he is gay

In a large urban area with real traffic problems like my native Chicago the easiest way to get from one part of the city to the other is by elevated train. I take the “L” most places in the city because it is convenient but also because the train is a microcosm of the latest fashion, music, technology and social pathology operating in the culture. Within the past week I have witnessed two extreme violently homophobic rants against passengers on the train. In both cases the perpetrators were working class African American men. Similarly, in both cases the victims were working class African American men. I blame wunderkind musician Frank Ocean.

“Blame” is perhaps the incorrect word choice. While bloggers have written reams of prose about the significance of Ocean coming out of the closet, I found their rhetoric often superficial and written from a suburban perspective. The problem with Frank Ocean, and why he is so threatening and intimidating to these two African American perpetrators on the train, is that he is so much like them. In popular culture and the media at-large black gay men come in two varieties: Down Low men who keep their sexual lives with men behind closed doors and have no intention of hitting on straight black men – and “queeny” effeminate black gay men who are easy to spot a mile away (True Blood, RuPaul’s Drag Race and Glee). The DL men are of course a threat because they have potentially infected women with HIV for years, but the fact that they are not in the face of straight black men eases the tension. The effeminate gay black men, be it in real life or in the media, can be considered a joke, a good laugh, and if a problem, easily beaten down. They reinforce a stereotype that homophobes are comfortable with.

Frank Ocean presents an entirely different paradigm and one that could easily have led to these two hate attacks on the L. One may criticize me for reaching here but I believe it is important to consider this before similar actions take place. Within the past year, a number of male celebrities come out including newscasters Don Lemon and Anderson Cooper knocking down barriers for gay men in entertainment. But enormous brick walls of heterosexuality still tower over the fields of professional team sports and the hip hop/rap communities. Coming out as gay in both of these professions, while still active in the field or “relevant,” is considered career suicide. Those professional athletes who have come out as gay, such as Esera Tualo and Roy Simmons, have done so long after their career was over. No male hip hop or rap star has ever come out as gay.

Frank Ocean first came to notoriety in 2010 with two singles, ”Novacane” and “Swim Good.” Ocean joined the alternative hip hop collective OFWGKTA and his mix tape Nostalgia, Ultra gained notice from prominent performers such as Jay Z, Kanye West and Beyonce Knowles. Ocean’s debut album channel ORANGE was one of the most highly anticipated of 2012. Like Kanye West, Ocean was known for his lyricism and unique writing ability. On July 4, 2012, Ocean announced in his Tumblr blog that he had unrequited feelings for another man when he was younger. Rumors had swirled regarding Ocean’s sexuality prior to this announcement due to his pronoun choices in some of the songs on the channel ORANGE cd.

Ocean’s perceived heterosexuality suddenly became transmorphed into a gay or bisexual personae. The artist was able to sing strongly heterosexual lyrics such as “I blame it on the model broad with the Hollywood smile. Awww. Stripper booty and a rack like wow” in the hit single “Novacane.” Although the single was a strong indictment of a hedonistic lifestyle, one that was based on drug use and a “bed full of women,” those listeners who perhaps were not quite as enlightened could listen to the lyrics “fuck me good, fuck me long, fuck me numb” and conceive of a real heterosexual “playa.” This was reinforced by female imagery and the tiger metaphor of Ocean’s sexuality in the video.


Frank Ocean’s song “Novacane”

Ocean overturns this personae in channel ORANGE. In his blisteringly emotional “Bad Religion” he sings of unrequited love with the lyrics, “ I could never make him love me.” In the single “Forrest Gump,” Ocean is just as romantic describing his obsession as “so buff and so strong” and telling him that “you run my mind boy.” In “Forrest Gump,” Ocean is explicitly looking at his love, describing his body as he watches him run down the football field. It is perhaps this element – of having a gay or bisexual man look at and consider another black man as a sexual/erotic/romantic object that disturbs some African American men so much. In both instances on the train, the victims were verbally bashed for “looking” at the perpetrators. In the first incident the individual yelled, “What are you looking at you fucking faggot?” In the second, the middle aged perpetrator yelled, “What are you looking at? Do you need glasses?” In neither incident did the victims speak a word to those yelling the obscenities; they both sat in silence. When I witnessed the first incident, I was confused as to why the man yelled. The victim was wearing the “uniform” of the street in Chicago – an oversized white T-shirt and jeans, with tennis shoes. Then I figured it out; the victim was crossing his legs rather than sitting with both legs bent with knees and feet forward. This was observed as an effeminate trait. It did not matter if either victim were gay or not, they did not fit the social code therefore they were labeled as “faggots.”


Frank Ocean sings about unrequited same sex love in “Bad Religion”

Frank Ocean is as easily confounding. He has negotiated the hip hop community well, having been hired by some of the top people in the field to write them winning lyrics. Ocean dressed in hip hop or Kanye-preppy style and never stood out as anything other than heterosexual until the Tumbler posting when he announced, “I’m starting to think were a lot alike.” That, perhaps, is the most terrifying notion – that either all individuals have bisexual tendencies – or that being gay is really not all that different from being straight. And it is not as easily identifiable as some think. If one cannot immediately look at an individual and determine his or sexual orientation than the parameters of sex and gender become unstable. Perhaps in a world in which this paralyzing recession is crippling many working class African American men, gender stability and easily identifiable “difference” is all that they can hang on too. It is perhaps too early to determine whether Frank Ocean is a ripple or a tidal wave in the hip hop community. But he has opened the door.

Image Credits:
1. Frank Ocean turned the black popular culture world upside down by announcing he is gay

Please feel free to comment.