Trading Races: Black. White. on the FX Network

Swapping Race on Black. White

Families Swap Race on Black. White on MSNBC

Black. White. is a six-week social and televisual experiment in which two families, one Black one white, attempt to experience what it is like as members of a different race. It is currently airing on the FX Network, with the last two episodes scheduled for April 5 and 12, 2006. It is produced by Academy Award-nominated and Emmy Award-winning documentarian, R.J. Cutler, and by rapper and actor, Ice Cube, who sings the program’s theme song (he also wrote the incendiary songs, “Black Korea,” and “F*** tha Police” when he was a member of N.W.A.). The producers state that the program is intended to expose the subtleties of racism, while at the same time, it doesn’t “aspire to say definitive things about race.”1

As I write about in my book on racialized servants on television, in approaching the topic of ‘the representation of race’ we are, essentially, talking about the representation of race relations2. Similarly, in this reality television set-up — one that doesn’t hide its expectation that things will heat up when you put these people into a house together — we witness interactions and hear statements made that are not ‘about race’ per se, but about the ramifications of being racialized. Such ramifications, of course, are confined and contrived within the context of a six-week Reality TV series involving individuals willing (and wanting) to be on television. Nonetheless, the program offers insights into racial discourse. Moreover, as one reviewer wrote: “… it’s not what happens to the folks on this show that is so revealing. It’s what goes on in our own minds as we watch and listen to them try to navigate the shoals of racial differences.”3

What Black. White. serves to do is to engage in and reveal the struggle of defining ‘racism’ in a post-Civil Rights era. The six participants/characters in this program offer the idea that there are at least six different ways to see — or not see — racism in American culture. And perhaps inevitably, in the mode of character identification, viewers find themselves adhering to (or abhorring) a particular political/personal view on the meaning of racism.

The first, and perhaps most prominently featured character is Carmen Wurgel, whose parents participated in the Civil Rights Movement and whose white liberalism is palpable. Her passion to “understand the Black experience” is earnest, and yet she cries often for herself when she feels her intentions have been misunderstood, for example, when she calls a young Black woman in praise: “a beautiful black creature” and people are seriously offended. Her counterpart — and if you study the publicity, you’ll see the visual and thematic mirroring of mother, father, and child in the two families4 — is Renee Sparks, a middle-class woman from Atlanta. Her general disposition is that of incredulous mother, for example, when her teen-aged son buys a $150 watch and her disciplining lecture is heard throughout the house. Renee is also incredulous as a white woman, when she meets a young white man who says that he washes his hands after shaking a Black person’s hand. And she is incredulous at some of the things Carmen says who thinks she is connecting with Black culture when she uses the phrase, “Yo bi—” with the dialect coach.

Carmen’s emotional enthusiasm is matched by Renee’s cautious level-headedness, though they are both shocked at what they learn. Carmen’s realization that people will turn away from, doubt, or reject her because of “her beingness” (when she is in blackface) is perhaps overwrought at first, but it is heartfelt. What Renee learns about the discourse of racism in 2006 is that her son, Nick, is not bothered by “the N-word.” But when it is uttered among a group of white kids and Nick says it’s okay, a sad, uncomfortable look in his eyes betrays the nonchalant façade.

Brian Sparks and Bruno Marcotulli were cast undoubtedly for their diametrically opposed views on racism: “You see what you want to see,” Bruno says, to which Brian responds, “And you don’t see what you don’t want to see.” It’s as simple and complex as that. When Brian and Bruno walk down a sidewalk together, both as Black men, a group of white women move aside which Brian interprets as fear or distaste and which Bruno interprets as a courtesy. Despite the frustrated efforts on Brian’s part, and in spite of the premise of the program to have people “trade races” and swap perspectives, Bruno is not convinced that he is treated any differently — that life is any different — as a Black man. Bruno clings to his belief about being optimistic and “moving on,” and that prejudice exists if you look for it. His position is met with the most opposition from Carmen, who remarks after they go to a Country-Western lounge as a Black couple that Bruno essentially acts like a white man while in blackface. So the question remains, is a white person in blackface really experiencing what it is to be Black? Likewise, we learn more about what it is to be white from the white characters, not necessarily from the Black characters when they go out as whites. Nevertheless, it is through this experience — of wearing/bearing the costume of another race, of coming back to the house to talk about it, and of showing it on television — that meanings of race and racism are discussed and disclosed.

Brian Sparks in black and white

Brian Sparks in black and white

While Brian works deliberately to articulate his experience of being Black, illustrated by how he is treated more hospitably and less suspiciously as a white man, Bruno is a racism-denier. My definition of a racism-denier is not a person who denies that it exists, but rather, who believes that racism does not exist in his or her world. In this regard, the young Black man and the late-40s white man share some similar ideas about racism in America.

Nick Sparks’ parents are baffled and disheartened at their son’s apparent lack of awareness. Nick expresses he doesn’t really understand why they are doing this, and moreover, he states that doesn’t think the store clerk watches him because he is Black, nor does he “pay attention to things like that.” Rose Bloomfield, however, is rather sensitive to race and racial politics, perhaps because she is a white teenager from Santa Monica. On one hand, as teens schooled on Eminem and Tiger Woods, “race is not an issue,” and on the other hand, racial mixing and crossing cultural boundaries have become a conscious practice in popular teen culture (in music, fashion, slang). Rose and Nick represent the next generation in race relations. As individuals, and at least in the context of this situation, they get along well. Rose faces her insecurities as a privileged white person and Nick’s ambivalence about school and “his future” is drawn out a bit. The two talk with each other, appreciate and learn from one another, and are able to form an alliance. This is heartening.

Still, there are shortcomings, namely, the program is noncommittal and there isn’t a strong enough frame around what happens in the show. In terms of its structure, the selection of Black or white “experiences” (going to a Black church, attending etiquette classes in Bel Air) are over-determined and remain loose if not random; and they are not tied well into a narrative or set of narratives. This looseness, perhaps part of the reality-documentary directive and certainly as part of television’s polysemic nature, leaves the social/televisual experiment hanging and the point(s) about today’s racial dynamics unclear. Furthermore, having received skeptical advance press as “a Fox show,” it is notable that Black. White. airs on the FX Network, and late at night. (It is also available through pay-per-view, marking it as exceptional and/or forbidden.) The boldness in the “broadcast” is actually only being narrowcast. We have to wonder: why exactly has the program been considered so ‘controversial,’ and by whom?

The program indicates that race matters, and that it doesn’t matter, depending on one’s personal perspective. While different perspectives are shown, do the participants really see the world through different eyes — and for that matter, do the viewers? Halfway through the series, some of the characters are beginning to see the world with a changed perspective through their own eyes, while walking down the streets of various L.A. neighborhoods in a different skin color. And at this point in the program, a “plot twist” as arisen: Will Carmen and Bruno stay together in light of Bruno’s inability to, as Carmen says, have compassion. Compassion is a form of sympathy, of “feeling with.” Empathy is defined as “feeling into,” it is the ability to not only detect what others feel but also to experience that emotion yourself. It seems that in order for this experiment/experience to work, a person – whether a participant in the show, or a viewer of it – needs to develop empathy, to experience the feelings of another person.

Black. White. offers glimpses of breakthroughs in communication (Rose-Nick), as well as cultural impasses (Bruno-Brian), and moments of empathy (Carmen-Renee). Such set-ups may be generational and gendered, and they are certainly framed by genre. Reality television combines the seriousness of documentary with the sensationalism of “trash television.” This generic form enables race to be represented — to be representable. The cutting edge make-up techniques also make this program possible. Cutler states that Black. White. is not “some kind of make-up driven freak show” nor was he looking for “cheap conflict.” And while some critics say cosmetology is its most impressive feat, I disagree. What this program achieves is to get people talking about race in an age when they just don’t want to do it anymore.

Today’s discourse on race focuses on the debate about perceptions of racism, especially in a “post-race” era. This is “the era of Oprah Winfrey5 and Barack Obama6,” and of post-/anti-affirmative action. Depending on your personal politics, Oprah has risen to the top of the media world as an African American woman despite being Black or no matter being Black or white. While the new FX series defers to its characters and doesn’t quite shape a clear narrative about race relations, it does not promote a “color-blind” approach. After all, black and white are colors — especially on TV.

1 Black. White. on MSNBC. 27 Feb. 2006.
2 L.S. Kim, Maid in Color: Race Relations on and through American Television.
3 Nancy deWolf Smith, Wall Street Journal; Black. White. on Metacritic.
4 Bruno Marcotulli is actually Carmen’s boyfriend, and he’s also a part-time actor.
5 Incidentally, Oprah hosted the cast from Black. White. on an episode in which she also entered “the Race Machine” to see what she would look like/feel like as a white person, and Asian person, etc.) See:
“Trading Races”.
6 Clarence Page, “Trading races drama: Can we ever get out of the skin we were born in?” Chicago Tribune, 12 March 2006.

Image Credits:

1. Families Swap Race in Black. White on MSNBC

2. Black. White. on NPR

Please feel free to comment.

“AZN Television: The Network for Asian America”

by: L. S. Kim / University of California, Santa Cruz



In March 2005, a new American television network launched. It was a quiet affair, announced mostly word-of-mouth and through the Asian American independent film festival circuit. AZN — “The Network for Asian America” — currently broadcasts in a handful of major markets including Los Angeles, The Bay Area, Seattle, New York, and Houston. It’s too early to know how the network is doing and who is watching it, but it’s a good time to consider the emergence, significance, and implications of television targeted towards Asian Americans.

What is Asian American television? As in defining ‘what is television’ more generally, we begin with the level of the text, include a consideration of the production context, and of course, emphasize the level of the reader or audience. At the same time, the concept of Asian American television floats as an open signifier, filled in by various parties and perspectives. For example, some non-Asian Americans might assume it means Asian product, and indeed, AZN regularly airs films (subtitled) from Asia; likewise, advertisers might not be clear about how to market to Asian Americans as distinct from Asian immigrants; and Asian American viewers themselves are newly discovering what Asian American television is, simply for the fact that it has never existed before.

So does it come down to the producers and programmers at ethnic networks to define “ethnic programming?” Is carving out a niche for the vastly diverse Asian and Asian American populations viable? How might looking at other ethnic networks (BET, Univision) inform the development of Asian American television, in terms of content as well as business structure? There are philosophical questions too. Following the observation/criticism that the television landscape might be gaining in diversity but in a way that amounts to segregated programming, is racial programming like racial profiling?

It Speaks Your Language

I do believe that Asian American programs — and at the least, programs with rich Asian American characters — are important and needed. How such programs are programmed (i.e., on a niche channel, basic cable channel, or major network channel) is a separate though related question. The promo for the niche network, AZN, is a quickly-paced montage of images and personalities from shows on the network which announces in a hip, young, male voiceover:

“It’s television that speaks to you, by you, for you. It’s AZN prime, redefined. Prime-time programming in English, you know, your language. Every night starting at 7 p.m. … Only on AZN Television, the Network for Asian America.”

The “you” is clearly an Asian American person. The address and appeal are direct, forging an affirmation of Asian American viewers — as consumers and citizens. Moreover, it announces the concept of ‘Asian America’ (we haven’t heard the term African America, or Native America). This emphasizes a declaration of belonging, that Asians are located here, in America. The following are statements from the promo for the New York-based ImagineAsianTV, which also declares a sense of place (both promos can be viewed at the respective network’s website):

“What does it mean to have an all-Asian network?
It’s a place where I can relate, where I can call home. …
On general TV, there’s nothing I can relate to. We never get to see people like us on TV — unless it’s the computer geek, grocery owner, Chinese delivery boy. imagineasiantv has the potential to make us feel worthy and proud.”{emphasis mine}

The promo ends with actors repeating the name “imagineasiantv!” in a victorious tone. First, both names of networks are clever: “AZN” are like call letters, or a sorority/fraternity organization — a club — for those who identify as azn; “imagineasian” of course, sounds like “imagination,” connoting creative, innovative programming for those in the know. Second, both networks carry the theme of being able to ‘see myself’ — one’s reflection, or people like us — thus asserting a subjectivity for Asian Americans, one that hardly exists in mainstream film and television stories; these are stories about (and “for”) Asian Americans. Third, the programs are created “by you,” meaning by Asian Americans, in a way that does not humiliate or dismiss and instead makes you/us feel worthy and proud; there is a sense that trust is fostered based on authorship because the writers/producers know where the viewers are coming from — and visa-versa. And fourth, both networks indirectly express that the need for Asian American television networks stems from a deficiency in “general TV” which does not seem to be a hospitable realm where Asian Americans matter or register in any significant way. AZN and ImagineAsianTV give Asian Americans priority.


The AZN Network has its roots in the International Channel. The former, ichannel, has been re-branded as AZN Television. The channel now targets the fast-growing, young, affluent and English-speaking Asian American community with original programming produced in the U.S. I also read the following line in a recent article about ANZ being picked up by a large Houston cable operator:

“Programs are in various Asian languages, with many of them subtitled in English to accommodate more acculturated Asian American and non-Asian viewers.”

On one hand, part of the discourse surrounding AZN flatters Asian Americans as a desirable demographic. But another part of the discourse reminds Asian Americans of their (or their parents’ or grandparents’) foreign status as some are more “acculturated” than others, and moreover, as they stand apart from the “non-Asian” viewer, i.e., American and white. Is this a schizophrenia linked to the larger social and discursive struggle to define Asian American — as ‘American’ or ‘Asian’? There are both Asian American (U.S. produced in English) and Asian programs (Asian-produced in other languages) on AZN and imagineasiantv. Why and how does this constitute Asian American programming?

The program line-ups on the AZN schedule are organized according to broad, somewhat loosely defined genres, and the days of the week: AZN MOVIES, ANIME, ORIGINALS (“Fresh, new original programs from leading Asian American talent”), which to me, is the most significant form of programming in that it unequivocally fits the category of Asian American television. Noticeably, many of the original shows are about Asian Americans in the media and popular culture. Programs such as POPCORN ZEN, CINEMA AZN, THE BRIDGE, and STIR TV feature Asian Americans working in the film, music, and fashion industries. Continuing during the week: DRAMAS, VARIETY, specifically music-related programs (“Asian recording artists are now among the creative forces in the worldwide music scene”), NEWS (the news programming that I saw was in Korean, and was not subtitled), and MASALA, a diverse mix of programming produced in India and/or geared towards a South Asian audience.

Speaking of masala and a mixing of elements, not only is there a dual address in terms of the U.S. produced-English and imported-Asian language programming, but also in terms of the shows’ making an appeal to young, hip viewers while the advertisements jump suddenly to topics of home equity loans and life insurance. Examples of the numerous 1800-ads that fill the commercial spots are for Ditech lenders, CreditGuard of America, SMC start-your-own-business, and dental insurance. Also consistent are the advertisements for the U.S. Army; along with the commercials for Devry, these could be seen as being aimed at twenty-something people of color and/or immigrants or children of immigrants. This, however, is a different path to upward-mobility than that which is connoted in AZN’s own advertisements.

From the Ford Fusion Website

From the Ford Fusion Website

The one sponsor that stands out as not discordant is Ford Fusion, whose style of advertisement is similar to the way-cool Mitsubishi ad campaign (you’d recognize the tune upon hearing it, and might even begin to bob your head in rhythm). Moreover, you can visit a special Ford Fusion website which features a kind of television show, with pseudo characters all of whom are Asian/Asian American. What is fascinating about this ad campaign and its employment of what I identify as ‘Asianess,’ is that the origin and location of these characters in their cool cars is transparent and moveable: when you enter the website, you choose a language — English, Chinese, Korean, or Vietnamese — and only the printed words change, all the images of faces, fashion, cityscapes, and streets remain the same. This signifies, literally and figuratively, the Pan-Asian disposition that I think AZN is taking. Moreover, it expands the notion of Pan-Asian beyond Asia, indicating a fluidity between Asia and the United States.

Brautwurst and Wasabi

So the “open signifier” I mentioned at the beginning of this essay is filled with Pan-Asianess, which comes to signify Asian American television on AZN. One of AZN’s most frequently run promos reveals this message. In it, Eugene Lee the host of POPCORN ZEN says “when two things collide — like brautwurst and wasabi,” Holly who hosts XBYTES and is of mixed Asian heritage from Hawai’i, says, “if you have two different ideas,” an Asian American man adds, “two different things,” and an Indian American woman says, “bam! they come together”…”You’ve got to check this out.” The historical goal of cable television was to promote and enable diversity. Many agree that this hasn’t necessarily happened. AZN is filling at least one empty frequency on the (proverbial!) dial.

Some may criticize the existence of ethnic-specific cable channels that provide content “for and by” specific ethnic groups as essentialist, but at this racial-historical juncture, the need for ethnic-specific networks and programming is acute. A new African American cable channel has recently come on to the scene. TV One is a joint venture between Radio One, the nation’s largest black-oriented radio broadcaster, and Comcast, the nation’s largest cable company. Kristal Brent Zook has written that TV One acknowledges an eclectic group of urban and upscale viewers, and “represents a welcome change for an industry plagued by UPN sitcoms like HOMEBOYS FROM OUTERSPACE.” While she argues that some in the industry “just don’t get it” that Black people are not monolithic, AZN seems to pitch its programming fare to a single Asian America. According to Nielsen estimates, Asian Americans represent 3.8% of all American TV households, though this number increases dramatically in metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, where the figure is 11.4%, and San Francisco, where Asian Americans make up 19.6% of the television audience. Whether ethnic niche cable networks like AZN have decided to acknowledge, affirm, and attract Asian Americans as a matter of politics or a matter of profit is inconsequential to the fact that it answers a similar call MTV viewers shouted out 20 years ago: I want my A(ZN)TV!

MTV Desi

Image Credits:

1. AZN TV Logo

2. From the Ford Fusion Website

Please feel free to comment.

Elevating Servants, Elevating American Families

by: L.S. Kim / University of California, Santa Cruz

The pursuit of domestic bliss has been around since our country’s forefathers declared the pursuit of happiness as one of America’s founding principles. What constitutes a good home has been in the making (and in the cooking and cleaning) ever since. In the Television Age, “household help” has meant more than just domestic workers; the television box itself has been the central educational device to help housebound women learn domesticity. From Julia Child to Martha Stewart, and with companies such as Procter & Gamble, a producer of soap as well as soap operas, television has introduced women to cleaning products and other goods and services rendered essential for the proper maintenance and management of the American home.

The figure of the domestic servant and the television, come together to teach Americans parenting skills. In the form of British nannies on television who parachute into dysfunctional homes, this class of workers enables American mothers (and fathers, too) to reclaim the domestic skills that somehow have degraded along with the rest of traditional “family values.”

The British Are Coming
In two new programs, Supernanny on ABC and Nanny 911 on Fox, regular folks employ the help of British women to get their house in order. The offer of assistance is appealing and welcome: “When your kids are full of trouble, help is there on the double. The British are coming … on Nanny 911.” In each episode, head Nanny Lilian (who amazingly has her own butler, Fraser) is given cases of American families in need — of domestic help. She has a cadre of trained professionals to choose from, who she assigns to different American households, each of which undergoes an “extreme makeover” facilitated by their nanny.

The nannies are “professionals” trained in child-care. By deploying the figure of the British nanny who is accustomed to a class system and who is temporarily placed in the American family’s home, and by focusing her on child-rearing (rather than toilet-scrubbing), the odd contradiction of ‘middle-class’ Americans living in a so-called classless society yet having servants in their homes is smoothed over. Moreover, that the servants are white and not American, avoids the sticky real-life history and contemporary situation of employing (legally or informally, paid or enslaved) servants of color in American households.

Maids Since the Beginning of Television
Of course not all servants are alike. A domestic is different from a housekeeper, and mammy is very different from nanny. There is a built-in hierarchy among servant work according to tasks, as anyone who has seen the British series Upstairs, Downstairs or who has read about house slaves and field slaves, has learned. In the history of television, the representation of servants is steadfast and yet specific to social and racial contexts: Hattie McDaniel, who won an Academy Award for playing Mammy in Gone With The Wind in 1939, reprised the role a decade later in Beulah, one of America’s first television series. Japanese star and Hollywood film actress, Miyoshi Umeki, famous for her role as bath-giving wife to American G.I. Red Buttons in Sayonara, played maid Mrs. Livingston in The Courtship of Eddie’s Father in the late 1960s, providing a pleasant alternative to the images of a losing war against the Vietnamese (and a different kind of portrayal than small, Asian women as Vietcong soldiers). Notable among numerous television servants are: Alice in The Brady Bunch, Marla Gibbs’ character in The Jeffersons, Mr. French in the 1960s, Mr. Belvedere in the 1980s (both were significant eras in which women pushed from the private space of the home into to the public spheres of work and school), and of course, The Nanny — whose striking Queens accent is perhaps rivaled only by Rosie the Robot’s Brooklyn accent in The Jetsons. Even cartoon families have maids in America.

As middle-class American culture became suburbanized, both the maid and the television set became components of a household’s status and success — a mark of upward mobility and an idealized family lifestyle. Domestic perfection and the private sphere of the home have long-been married to the notion, and the representation, of a feminine head-of-household in American television history. The television was, after all, a piece of furniture to be placed (and dusted) in the home. Moreover, television programming acknowledged and hailed female viewers, offering stories and characters to which women could and can relate. Most specifically, these stories and characters portrayed, and continue to portray, the family ideal.

In her recent Flow article, the structural format that Allison McCracken observes in episodes of Wife Swap (which like ABC’s Supernanny, it has its Fox knock-off, Trading Spouses) are common in the nanny shows as well. In both sets of Domestic Reality programs, there are three major similarities: 1) the situations presented emphasize the ‘feminine’ in relation to domestic life, placing the burden of responsibility (and blame) on the woman, 2) the programs provide a venue for patriarchy to be called out, though clearly not overturned, and 3) houses and home-life are evaluated and judged, by the exchange-mothers or the visiting nannies, and by viewers as well.

Supernanny to the Rescue
The interpersonal exchange that occurs in bringing a “new mommy” into a household (the real switch is not in spouses, but in mothers; there is no “wife swap” for families without children!) is more definitively positive — even sparkling — in Supernanny and Nanny 911. These programs tell the (fairy) tale of a magical lady who brings about astonishing changes in a family and their home. Episodes are structured according to a one-week schedule; likewise, the solution for the families with children who have run amok and with parents who have lost control, is the schedule of rules which the nanny establishes and works to enforce in her 7-day stay. The usual schedule goes something like this:

Day 1: Nanny arrives and observes harried housewives, distant non-contributing husbands, and wild-wild children (hopped up on carbs and boldly ignoring bedtime) heading towards real trouble (divorce, maybe?).
Day 2: Nanny dispenses the new rules to establish order and discipline in the household.
Day 3: the rules don’t work, because they aren’t being followed by truly malbehaved children.
Day 4: the rules don’t work, because they aren’t being enforced by reluctant or doubting parents, and by specifically the mother, who often clashes with the nanny.
Day 5: when children and parents listen to nanny, their home life is miraculously improved (and suddenly the images edited into the scenes are of smiling faces rather than of screaming children and shell-shocked parents).
Day 6: Nanny goes away for a day, having access to footage from “hidden cameras” in the house — a twist on the “nanny-cam.”
Day 7: Nanny returns to tutor, but also to praise and affirm that the family is on the right track. Her job is (well) done. She says goodbye.

It is notable that all ten families on Nanny 911 thus far have been white; Supernanny, too, sidesteps race and questions about race relations by having a white servant in a white family’s home. Perhaps “appropriately” so. Since Nanny (and not Mammy) is here to save.

Nanny is also here to teach. How else would otherwise industrious Americans accept the fact that they are faltering as parents? (Parents are quite often in denial and shown as offended by Nanny’s comments, at first.) In comes British nanny whose accent might belie that she is not part of the “uppercrust,” but who, to most Americans, has the voice and demeanor of authority. She is just what today’s laid-back American family needs. That is, we are willing to acknowledge the existence and practice of “domestic help” in ways that do not delve too deeply into questions of assigned gender roles, of racial positioning in the labor market, and of class stratification. This willingness is demonstrated through at least two mechanisms — the expression of gratitude to the nanny (she is showered with thanks, kisses, and hugs at the end of her stay), and moreover, she is elevated while simultaneously being a servant. (She is now a TV star, after all, isn’t she?) The bio for “Nanny Jo” Frost on the Supernanny website describes her admiringly: “Her practical, no-nonsense style was honed over 15 years of nannying in the U.K. and the U.S. Now American families can tap into the secrets of this modern-day Mary Poppins.”

Collapsing class differences and hence, ignoring the fact of class privilege, denying that there are racial boundaries, and blurring gender prescriptions that are, nonetheless, there, these are cultural and political projects that promote a contradictory and yet very American sense of identity. Racialized domestic servants (which include white British ethnic identity) portrayed on television serve to idealize family dynamics and racial harmony and to mythologize middle-classness and the American Dream.

Happy Ending
The figure of the domestic servant appears in television precisely at times when both race relations and the structure of domestic life are undergoing profound change, and when national identity is under scrutiny. British nannies, like their Prime Minister, serve as reassuring allies in battles to preserve “traditional values.” Mary Beth Haralovich’s fascinating essay analyzing the links between reality television and Italian neo-realism, and its roots in social documentary is relevant here. The website for Nanny 911 is designed around the family portrait, the picture of the perfect, “normal” American family. There is a “before” picture of a maladjusted family “in crisis,” and the happy “after” picture of a healthy family, echoing the happy conclusion to each episode. The images in the web pages as in the television programs themselves, sit on what Haralovich calls a “continuum of hybrid photographic arts,” telling a particular story of family, happiness, and nationhood.

Jo Frost, “Supernanny,” has authored a parenting book, recently released in the U.S. Is this proof that a miss from the working class can, indeed, pull herself up by her Mary Poppins bootstraps? Hattie McDaniel is known to have said, “I’d rather play a maid, than be one.” Amazing Nanny can do both.

Supernanny homepage (U.S.)
Supernanny homepage (U.K.)
Laurie Ouellette’s column on Nanny TV from Flow Volume 1, Issue 11

L.S.Kim is finishing a book on the figure of the racialized domestic in American Television. Please feel free to comment on this essay, or the topic in general.

Please feel free to comment.

Black Zen Masters in the Dojo of Reality Television

by: L.S.Kim / University of California, Santa Cruz

Typically in reality television, the host is white — famous examples include Jeff Probst in Survivor, Ryan Seacrest in American Idol, and Regis Philbin in Who Wants to be a Millionaire? whose through-the-roof ratings jump-started the reality programming watershed. But in America’s Next Top Model, The Road to Stardom, and Pimp My Ride, the hosts are African American and already stars.

In my first article for FLOW, I raised the concept of personal transformation as the underlying logic of reality television programming, particularly as it relates to race. Through an explicit display of Gratitude, a Sympathetic Back-Story, and Hard Work, reality television winners are shown to triumph, no matter what their race is. In this sort of “double-bind” (of having racial diversity on the small screen, but within a specific ideological framework), the article also points to the fact that reality television contains more characters of color than any other genre in primetime. Furthermore, few (if any) other genres proffer African Americans in positions of authority and roles as knowledge-giver.

“Miss Tyra,” Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliot, and X are key decision-makers, glamorous celebrities, and mentors. What Victoria’s Secret supermodel Tyra Banks says, fourteen wannabe supermodels do, or at least try to do, as they strive to learn the inner secrets of modeling to earn entry into the temple of fashion. Grammy-winning artist Missy Elliot is music priestess to thirteen “wannabe artists” who hope to gain immortality with a $100,000 recording contract. And Rapper Xzibit endows young dreamers with the ability to “go from dirt to pimped” on MTV’s popular show where clunkers are transformed into “tricked-out masterpieces.”

Race or ethnicity would not have been an obvious prerequisite for the job of host in these series. On the surface, a white supermodel is just as qualified to mentor and evaluate novice models, a popular white singer can just as skillfully spot a striving young artist’s talent, and a white entertainer can host a show about car culture as easily as an African American entertainer can. Is this simply a case of bringing faces of color into roles that are primarily race-neutral? Or are these roles essentially racialized, offering an alternative in the representation of characters of color as well as in the way viewers participate in racial discourse?

All three series involve multicultural, multi-racial “casts.” As with many reality programs, the characters consist of those who do the transforming and those who are transformed. (Just as Extreme Makeover, for example, has a cast of plastic surgeons, cosmetic dentists, and personal trainers who literally transform the physical appearance of the cast of participants, Pimp My Ride has a cast of mechanics, auto body specialists, painters, and other car experts together with a cast of car-owners.) While the contestants on America’s Next Top Model and the young performers on The Road to Stardom distinctly consist of a rainbow coalition — and white singers who master the hip hop beat are especially intriguing — it is notable that the “transforming” experts (i.e., the panel of judges and advisors) are a rainbow coalition of races and ethnicities. And the clear masters of the game, the hosts, are African American.

In this regard, the role of host is much more than an emcee. The host is a paragon of what the contestants strive to become, and is the means — the necessary instrument — through which they can reach a higher level.

America’s Next Top Model is a tightly-constructed, smartly-paced program that involves a group of young women participating in weekly tests in their effort to get into the succeeding round of judging. Each episode is a lesson on multiple aspects of the fashion industry: photography, make-up artistry, clothing style, and publicity. Each competitor realizes she must learn how to model: how to pose, how to express emotion in a still image, how to convey that she understands the concept of the task at hand whether it is to pull off a squeaky clean Cover Girl close-up, or an edgy experimental “art shot.” There are people on the ground training the women, featured prominently are “Mr. and Mrs. J” — Jay Manuel, who helps direct the models at the shoots and just J, a very tall Black man who instructs the women on how to move down the catwalk.

It is Tyra Banks — her style, her look, her experience and expertise, her personality that is both motherly and sisterly — that is the guiding force in the program. Although her catchphrases, “The judges will now deliberate” and “Congratulations, you’re still in the running towards becoming America’s Next Top Model” are subject to ridicule in Saturday Night Live skits, Banks’ success with the series is no joke. Moving into its 4th cycle, Tyra Banks is creator, executive producer, and judge of the hit “dramality” series, and she is also founder of Bankable Productions. She lends the wisest and most earnestly taken advice to the young women. Miss Tyra is quite literally, a model for them in her success in the fashion industry, and as a self-possessed, strong Black woman.

In the three seasons thus far, there is a running discourse about owning up to who you are, specifically for the women of color. April in season 2 who is Japanese and Caucasian made statements such as “My Mother said I could never be a model … but it’s her fault that I look this way.” Tyra advised her to embrace her looks and market herself as ‘an Asian model.’ April agreed, if not to the idea to accept who she is, at least to the strategic suggestion. In a photo shoot that transformed each contestant into a famous figure, Xiomara’s skin was made darker with body paint to resemble Grace Jones; she was clearly upset with the choice and rejected the persona. Miss Tyra later schooled the young woman, and all the women, on Grace Jones’ place in history as a beautiful, dark-skinned, “fierce” model who helped pave the way for her and other “non-traditionally beautiful” (read non-white) women.

Being non-traditional is a vital part of Missy Elliot’s achievements as a writer, performer, and producer. Her ground-breaking work as an artist who crosses and combines genres — rap, hip hop, pop, and techno — has garnered her numerous accolades. She is highly regarded among music critics and kids alike and her videos are impressive, avant-garde pieces with musical, lyrical, and political bite.

On the show, she comes across as a near mystical figure. Her aloof demeanor can be daunting. Seated and surrounded by a coterie (her dancers), beautiful and regal, clad in a phat outfit and signature baseball cap, unsmiling and sucking on a lollipop, Missy Elliot delivers such lines as, “I think you’re going places . . . just not with me.” She tells you whether you are good enough — to be on tour with her, to be a performer of her high standards. Contestants act as willing pupils, hoping to have the honor of sharing the stage with her. Unlike Miss Tyra, she does not interact closely with the contestants. Like Banks, however, she is the avatar of cool everyone seeks knowledge and approval from.

Like ANTM, TRTS also uses a multi-racial panel of judges. Among them are singer Teena Marie, producer Dallas Austin, and president of Violator Management, Mona Scott. The goal of Scott’s company is: “To better market hip hop to Hollywood . . . to successfully promote mainstream products to the urban consumer, a consumer not defined by ethnicity, but rather by lifestyle.” The website for the program also proffers the idea of cultural sharing, and the sentiment that ethnic and racial identity is not as important as style: “The next big superstar could spring from a variety of backgrounds, but what each participant has in common is amazing talent, distinctive style and fresh attitude.” A contestant’s ethnicity may or may not be immediately relevant, but the racialzed derivation of that “lifestyle,” “distinctive style” and “fresh attitude” is unmistakably Black, or more importantly, learned from a Black mentor.

Style and attitude are exactly what contestants hope to gain from Pimp My Ride. They begin their transformative journey by appealing to MTV and Xzibit for help. Many are college students (including one of my own from UCSC), driving, for example, their soccer mom’s old Nissan. There usually is some element of charity involved in each episode, not only towards the car owner, but also for another group — helping an aspiring singer drive to teach kids music lessons, for instance. When Xzibit comes knocking on the front door, the car owner goes crazy, jumping on X, acting like Publisher’s Clearing House just showed up, only more excited. There are many who dream to come face to face with this man in baggy jeans, a basketball jersey, and cornrows.

Whether you are Black, white, Asian American, male, or female, Xzibit’s crew — the working class, minority men at aftermarket West Coast Customs — will take you from 0 to 60 in the eyes of your friends and family. These guys have pimped cars with turntables, a ping pong table, a big screen monitor, and even a fireplace in the trunk. Video games with monitors installed in headrests practically come standard.

Theme Song Lyrics
So you wanna be a playa?
But your wheels ain’t fly
You gotta hit us up
to get a pimped out ride

To what ends is the creation and representation of Black sensei figures in these reality series? It is the promotion and cultivation of respect and reverence for the African American hosts. While Miss Tyra and Missy Elliot have more to specifically teach than Xzibit (and arguably, their level of accomplishment is higher than his, his recent album has not sold well), all three are examples of Black hosts/African American figures as benefactors — bequeathing opportunities upon youth primarily, and whites often.

One could argue that this is a form of exoticism, that Black culture has long held “the cool factor” desired secretly and now openly by non African Americans. But most things on television are exotic or cool, that’s what gets them good ratings (Ex: The O.C.). I also want to make note of not only a multiculturalism that is proffered in all three of these television discourses, but a cross-culturalism: The latest season of ANTM is set mostly in Tokyo where Tyra Banks wants to educate the models about experiencing another culture; Missy Elliot’s most popular and award-winning video engages with an aesthetic that is both mystical (Chinese martial arts) and avant garde (Japanese fashion); and Xzibit essentially takes up Asian American “rice rocket” tuner culture. This is part of what I call a “Black-Yellow alliance,” which I don’t have time to expand upon here.

There is a bit of exoticism and idealism of the “Black Master” going on. But I think (I hope) there is also modeling. Viewers see African Americans in positions of authority, as lenders and gatekeepers of hopes and dreams and moreover, viewers see numerous and diverse contestants (“people just like us”) paying respect to them. And that’s something to model.

America’s Next Top Model
CBS Review, Pimp My Ride
Pimp My Ride Homepage
TV Tome — Pimp My Ride

Please feel free to comment.

Race and Reality…TV

by: L. S. Kim / University of California, Santa Cruz; UCLA

A prime-time line-up without reality television programming seems a lifetime ago. But it has only been three seasons since the last of the major broadcast networks added its first reality series. Just a few years of proliferation has splintered the form into subgenres, showering viewers with nightly lineups of alternate realities. But the more reality changes, the more it stays the same.

America’s historical love of self-help guidebooks and self-invention stories – the touchstones of the American Dream – have materialized in shows like Extreme Makeover, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Trading Spaces, Trading Spouses, Renovate My Family, and mentioning the unmentionable, The Swan. Horatio Alger tales are retold through as seemingly diverse fare as The Apprentice, American Idol, and even America’s Next Top Model. The trend began as contests of social politics leading to a cash prize (for the survivor of Survivor, one million dollars). New prizes include a job, a recording contract, a spouse. What the prize – and the moral of the story – really is, though, is personal transformation.

Top Model Logo

America’s Next Top Model logo

Personal transformation – whether from ugly duckling to “swan” or from poor country-bumpkin to rich, sophisticated entrepreneur – is integral to the grand American myths of race. It lies at the heart of how immigrants and their children are expected to assimilate. It also animates the expectations of those who believe in a “color-blind” approach to racial minorities, particularly African-Americans. It is telling, then, that reality television contains more characters of color than any other genre of primetime program. Furthermore, Reality TV is the only place in primetime where one can regularly watch integrated casts.

In stark contrast to the segregated nature of sitcoms, reality programs almost universally begin with a mixed cast of contestants. First, let’s deal with some terms here, like “contestant.” Certainly these shows are contests, but they are dramas, too. Stories are narrativized. Through the magic of editing, contestants are transformed into characters in what can best be described as an “ensemble cast.” The misnomer “reality” in “Reality TV” is a paper topic unto itself, but it suffices to say that from the viewer’s perspective, the participants on reality television programs are not mere contestants in a game show but well-developed characters in an unfolding story, rendered all the more dramatic by the fact that they are “real” people. The distinction is important. The color of a contestant on a classic game show like Wheel of Fortune may be irrelevant to the country’s racial discourse, for culturally-informed personality traits are of little import to the outcome of the game. Those traits are at the heart, however, of the social politics forming the contests on “reality shows.” Furthermore, producers shape our perception of these individuals. Editing, promo teasers, even the very unreality of the set-ups (e.g., fourteen beautiful women living together in a castle trying to woo a millionaire, or a man they think is a millionaire) mean that the personas we see depicted on our screens may or may not be accurate facsimiles of the contestants in real life.

Not only are characters of color present in reality television series, sometimes they even win. Vecepia Towery on Survivor: Marquesas, Jun Song on Big Brother 4, Ruben Studdard on American Idol, Harlemm Lee on Fame, and Dat Phan on Last Comic Standing are some recent examples. Winners are not determined objectively (another departure from the game show model), but by judges, by the voting television audience, or sometimes by fellow contestants, always based on subjective evaluations.

Indeed, the structure of the genre relies on the absence of objective standards of victory. For reality programs, the selection of the winner generally follows certain unspoken rules:

1) Show of Gratitude. A successful or compelling player must be grateful for the text, e.g., by praising and thanking the show (or God) for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see his/her dreams come true. Those receiving makeovers must give heartfelt thanks to “the dream team” of doctors, dentists, trainers, and stylists for giving them (and by extension, their families) a new life. Bachelorettes must repeat their appreciation of the experience of being on the show and emphasize that they believe in “the process.” If you treat the show as a joke you won’t win, no matter how talented you are. You will be perceived as disrespectful. But of what, exactly? Reality TV? The audience? Or the myths that underlay the genre?

2) Sympathetic Back-Story. A Reality TV contestant may be popular, talented, and winsome, but s/he must have a good pre-existing story, one that follows a Horatio Alger and/or immigrant tale. Viewers love to see a rags-to-riches story, so if a contestant is poor, the odds are improved that s/he will make it past the preliminary rounds and into the finals. Both Ruben Studdard and Adrianne Curry lived in cars with their single mothers (in the South and Midwest, respectively) before becoming the dramatic winners (in Hollywood and New York City, respectively) on American Idol and America’s Next Top Model. On the other hand, “having it all” (intelligence, talent, good looks, and having been born into privilege) is almost inevitably a losing hand. Perhaps this is the most unreal aspect of Reality TV.

Top Models

Top Models

3) Good Work Ethic. The winner of a reality television story must work hard. The opening theme song for Fame, a singing-dancing-acting talent contest, had the contestants sing: “We’re here to work-work-work!” Survivor contestants work and starve. Fear Factor contestants work and eat terrible things. Even if the work itself is contrived and meaningless, American viewers must see these people exerting energy and emotion in order to be worthy of becoming the winner or hero of a reality television text.

With these unspoken standards for achieving victory, Reality TV gives us heroes who uphold, reflect, and affirm core American values of equal opportunity for social and economic mobility in a democratic capitalist society through hard work, chutzpah, and a little talent, too. The talent may be the gift of being able to belt out a pop song, the skill to manipulate others to get them to achieve your aims, an ability to seduce a millionaire (bachelor) or impress a billionaire (bachelor) with your business acumen. Americans take comfort knowing (and seeing) that in Reality TVland, if not in real life, race is of no consequence with regard to possessing such skills and achieving such goals.

The very artifice of the “realities” created on the shows, together with the youthfulness of the genre, allow for multi-cultural casts that play out these myths. In contrast, from the birth of television, situation comedies have been set primarily within families, whether actual nuclear families or familial cohorts like Friends. The very structure of the sitcom genre was – and remains – inevitably segregated. Workplace dramas have offered greater opportunities for integrated casts and storylines, but the preponderance of police series risks the reinforcement of negative stereotypes of minorities. Because Reality TV is a relatively new invention (though of course it has its antecedents), Reality TV doesn’t have the same historical constraints and audience expectations of those other genres. In fact, notions of race and ethnicity actually play to the genre’s underpinnings – what better example can there be of self-reinvention with Gratitude, Backstory and Hard Work than that of a talented yet unthreatening member of a “model minority”?

William Hung on American Idol

William Hung on American Idol

Of course, not all reality series are alike and even the same program can be contradictory in its racial politics. While being open and possibly innovative in negotiating racial discourse, there are still racial tropes that capitulate to the lowest common denominator. Glaring examples include William Hung, the ‘Asian geek’ whose dance moves (and virginity) were exactly what we would expect them to be, or the derogatory character type of ‘the black –itch’ embodied (and edited!) so well in Omarosa.

But because Reality TV literally mixes up the usual television order-of-things, there is a bit more latitude in the ways in which characters of color can emerge. One can complain that the starting casts of reality shows seem too neatly to be “rainbow coalitions” of mere tokens, but there is no denying that in a largely segregated television universe, Reality TV proffers racially integrated casts. Mimi White brought up the idea of liking and disliking the same program at the same time. Likewise, can a viewer (and television scholar) praise and critique a television program or genre simultaneously? Admire its inclusiveness of race, class, gender, and sexual difference, but boo its conventional range of ideological values? I believe we can be both pessimistic and optimistic about television. This mode is in some ways, the very mode of television criticism. Reality television as hybridized and intertextual does not invoke simple viewing or simple pleasures, and it demonstrates that “getting real” (the tagline for The Real World) with racial difference is not such The Simple Life.

Home page for Fox’s The Swan
Home page for Fox’s American Idol
Home page for CBS’s Survivor
Home page for NBC’s Fear Factor

Image Credits:

1. America’s Next Top Model logo

2. Top Models

3. William Hung on American Idol

Please feel free to comment.