#NotMyAriel: Safe Race-Swapping and the Casting of a Black Woman as Fish
Shearon Roberts / Xavier University of Louisiana


Casting of Halle Bailey
Halle Bailey announced to be Ariel in Disney’s live-action adaptation of The Little Mermaid.

On the 10-year anniversary of The Princess and the Frog (Clements and Musker, 2009), Disney announced it will offer audiences a second Black princess. Like her predecessor Tiana, she will follow in similar fashion, and instead of being a frog, she will get a slight improvement, she will be a fish, who at least is half-human. The casting of Halle Bailey as the Little Mermaid lit up social media at the end of summer 2019. The hashtag #NotMyAriel trended at the same time as #Tiana, and a line can be connected between the two. Fans of the original 1989 animation claimed the race-swap casting was a loss for redhead representation. Some even resorted to Trumpism slogans demanding to “Make the Little Mermaid Great Again.” Fans of the race-swap argued that there have been three redheads among the princesses: Ariel, Merida, and Anna, despite redheads only accounting for less than two percent of the global population, and Black women, a far larger number.


Diversity check on redhead representation
Fans conduct a diversity check on redhead representation in Disney Princess films

Supporters of Disney’s race-swap argued that Tiana spent over 90-percent of the film as an animal, diminishing audiences the opportunity to be entertained fully by a Black princess. They demanded that it was time Black audiences got a second Black princess. Opponents pointed out that it should be open season on race-swapping and that Tiana, Mulan, and Pocahontas can now be acceptable race-swaps and cast by white actors in live-action remakes.


Diversity check on redhead representation
Fans debated whether non-white Disney princesses can be cast as white in remakes.

The social media back-and-forth descended into a mix of racism, discussions about reverse racism, and oppression Olympics,[ (( Martinez, Elizabeth. “Beyond Black/White: The Racisms of our Times.” Social Justice 20, no. 1/2 (1993): 22–34. ))] but the larger argument missing from the race-swap of The Little Mermaid (Marshall) was that it was safe. In fact, it was the least controversial move Disney could make in its current era of remakes, reboots, sequels, and live-actions that comprise the company’s second revival era.

As 2019 showed, Disney’s global media dominance resulted in record setting economic success. The company bested its previous record in 2016 by earning its total box office revenue by mid-year 2019 with still at least two more potential billion-dollar films to go (Frozen II [Buck and Lee] and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker [Abrams]). In fact, there is evidence in 2019 alone that “safe” race-swapping can bring diverse audiences to the theaters and result in billion dollar success. One glaring race-swap in 2019 was the casting of Genie in Aladdin (Ritchie) as Black (Will Smith). The iconic role was played by Robin Williams, but technically it was not a white man’s role, just a funny man’s role, and the Genie was blue. The race-swap of a racially neutral character meant that Genie could be Black in 2019, and audiences could accept this. Not only would Genie be Black, he would be from the region along the Silk Road, which included North Africa, through the Middle East, and onward to Asia. Therefore, there was nothing controversial about Genie’s race-swap, other than the CGI look of Smith’s blue and whether he could live up to Robin Williams-levels of comedic performance. At the end of the summer, Aladdin returned $1.046 billion at the box office and drew in the global audience Disney hoped it would earn by casting the largest diverse cast it has assembled.

Besting Aladdin in summer 2019 was The Lion King (Favreau) at $1.616 billion, which dethroned 2017’s Beauty and the Beast (Condon) to earn the top spot for Disney’s remakes. The Lion King also had a casting race-swap, although much quieter and expected, as after all, the film features a storyline and setting on the African continent. Where the 1994 original animation barely featured Black voices cast in the lead roles, save for James Earl Jones as Mufasa and Whoopie Goldberg as Shenzi the hyena, the 2019 photo-realistic remake had a predominantly Black voice cast led by Beyoncé and Donald Glover. This was also safe recasting for Disney, as today’s audiences would likely not accept the argument that films with Black (voice) leads would not become global sensations in a post-Black Panther era. Like Genie, the lions, hyenas, and baboon of The Lion King are not human. They are animals or magical beings, and since they are not human, they can be any race, or rather Disney can make a case for what race they should be.

Therefore, Disney’s casting of Halle Bailey, a young, African American singer-songwriter-actress with dreadlocks as the Little Mermaid, is not revolutionary. She will be playing a fish. Although exhibiting human-like features, mermaids are ultimately an evolved form of amphibians, and as Ariel sings, she is an outsider who longs to be “part of that world.” While Disney itself did not weigh in on the controversy, one of its channels, Freeform, schooled critics on the casting choice in a Twitter post titled “An Open Letter to the Poor, Unfortunate Souls.”


Diversity check on redhead representation
Freeform Twitter Post: “An Open Letter to the Poor, Unfortunate Souls,” July 6, 2019.

The Freeform post argued that The Little Mermaid was originally a Danish tale, but that Ariel is set in international waters, and the crab Sebastian is Jamaican. The channel post notes that there are even Black Danes, and that they can also genetically have red hair. However, the most important argument of the Freeform post to audiences is that “the character of Ariel is a work of fiction.” In other words, there is a precedence set for race-swap casting. If a character can be classified as “fiction” or non-human, it passes a threshold for a tolerated race-swap in casting. Likewise, the race-swaps and gender-swaps happening across the Marvel Cinematic Universe also pass this threshold because super-heroes are technically unreal. Like Genie and mer-folk, superheroes are fiction, imagination, and cannot be referenced as real life individuals or traced to historical events. Therefore, the diverse castings of the MCU, like Zendaya Coleman as Mary Jane, or new diverse castings going forward, like Salma Hayek (Ajak) and Lauren Ridloff (Makkari) in The Eternals (Zhao, 2020), fit the test for safe race-swaps for Disney works. It is why few fans agreed with the counter-argument that Tiana, Mulan, or Pocahontas can also be race-swapped because their characters are “real,” as in, based on real, historical figures whose racial identities are known.

This rule-of-thumb allows Disney to hail its woke choices around diverse casting without truly offending traditional audiences. It draws more audiences of color to the theatres to see beloved diverse leads or to root for diverse leads while maintaining traditional Disney-Marvel-Lucasfilm, etc. fans. It has resulted in tentpole experiences and billion-dollar box office records. It allows Disney to sell both Black mermaid and redhead mermaid dolls at the same time. It keeps Disney’s stores, parks, digital streaming services, films, merchandize and series consumed by the widest cross-section of audiences, including all groups and alienating few. What it does not do is move the needle on who audiences consider as cinematic leads. To date, outside of T’Challa and Simba, there is no Black prince or king anywhere among Disney’s studios. Likewise, there has yet to be a major Disney work with a Black woman lead who is elevated to equal status afforded white princesses. In fact, scholars acknowledge that fans of the Disney princess franchise have rated Tiana, Mulan, and Pocahontas as the least desirable and likable princesses.[ (( See Dundes, Lauren, and Madeline Streiff. “Reel Royal Diversity? The Glass Ceiling in Disney’s Mulan and Princess and the Frog.” Societies 6, no. 4 (2016): 35.))] Although Disney has provided diverse princesses their own films, their treatment in these works have rendered them second-class. Or in the case of Moana, in exchange for empowerment, they are not the interest of any man’s affections nor do they seek affection. In order to be a strong woman of color, they must eschew love, at least in Disney works.

Diversifying casting through race-swaps can arguably become token nods to calls for inclusivity in an industry that historically relegated Black and minority actors to sidekicks. However, the choices made to date can be classified as safe and in some cases problematic. The casting of Black women leads with white or non-Black male leads continues an erasure of the Black male as a leading man,[ (( Jackson, Ronald L. Scripting the Black Masculine Body: Identity, Discourse, and Racial Politics in Popular Media. New York: SUNY Press, 2006.))] and perpetuates the desirability of a white male gaze on “othered” women.[ (( Kaplan, E. Ann. Looking for the Other: Feminism, Film and the Imperial Gaze. New York: Routledge, 2012. ))] This occurred in A Wrinkle In Time (DuVernay, 2018), which erased racial difference to the point that all major male-female relationships were racially diverse. On one end, this casting can be considered progressive, imagining a world where love and affection is color-blind. At the same time, Meg Murry (Storm Reid) only accepts her curly hair after Calvin O’Keefe (Levi Miller), her white co-star, insists to her that he likes her natural hair, reminding audiences that the fictional world Meg inhabits still connects to Black women’s real world insecurities around their natural hair and white acceptance of their beauty as the only legitimate kind.

On the other hand, in Black Panther, Okoye snatches her own wig as liberation, and as a strong general, still loves, as she can both lead war and have a relationship with W’Kabi. However, Black Panther stands alone because in creating a fully fleshed out Black nation and civilization, it includes the widest spectrum of Black experiences on screen.[ (( Bowles, Terri P. “Diasporadical: In Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther,” Family Secrets, Cultural Alienation and Black Love.” Markets, Globalization & Development Review 3, no. 2 (2018); Toldson, Ivory A. “In Search of Wakanda: Lifting the Cloak of White Objectivity to Reveal a Powerful Black Nation Hidden in Plain Sight (Editor’s Commentary).” The Journal of Negro Education 87, no. 1 (2018): 1-3.))] This is something that a token, safe attempt at race-swap in a film whose world is shaped by existing hegemonies will struggle to do. And while Wakanda is also fiction, it demonstrates a model for how far films must still go to truly offer more expansive representations of Blackness on screen to wider audiences. In the meantime, offering diverse audiences a Black mermaid is giving them one chair at a table while Disney cashes in from the meal. It leaves diverse viewers at least full for now but wishing the meal had more salt.



Image Credits:

  1. Halle Bailey announced to be Ariel in Disney’s live-action adaptation of The Little Mermaid.
  2. Fans conduct a diversity check on redhead representation in Disney princess films.
  3. Fans debated whether non-white Disney princesses can be cast as white in remakes.
  4. Freeform Twitter Post: “An Open Letter to the Poor, Unfortunate Souls,” July 6, 2019.


References:




Nomi/No Me?: Race, Gender, and Power in No Time To Die
Lisa Funnell / University of Oklahoma


The first Black female 007
Lashana Lynch, the first Black female 007.

James Bond has been an icon of global popular culture for nearly six decades. While the superspy is known for his ability to ensure the physical safety and geopolitical security of the UK and its allies like the US, the figure is also largely defined by his privilege. As a white, cis-gender, heterosexual, upper-middle class, able-bodied British man, Bond utilizes his privilege to access places, resources, information, and even people for professional and personal benefit. The series has long been criticized for not only depicting but at times also celebrating the espousal of discriminatory sentiments (i.e. sexist, racist, heterosexist, classist, ableist, xenophobic) that naturalize and justify Bond’s maintenance of privilege as he embarks on colonizing missions around the world.

While the longevity of the Bond series—with 24 films released between 1962 and 2016—renders it a unique case study, the franchise, like many other film series, has continually responded to social[ (( Funnell, Lisa. “Negotiating Shifts in Feminism: The ‘Bad’ Girls of James Bond.”Women on Screen: Feminism and Femininity in Visual Culture. Ed. Melanie Waters. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2011. 199-212.))] and political changes[ (( Black, Jeremy. The Politics of James Bond: From Fleming’s Novels to the Big Screen. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.))] as well industry trends[ (( Chapman, James. Licence to Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films. New York: Columbia, 2000.))] in order to remain viable in the global film market. This is most apparent in our current “billion dollar blockbuster” era with Bond producers going to great lengths to ensure the success of their forthcoming film, No Time to Die (Fukunaga, 2020), such as firing director Danny Boyle and hiring scriptwriter Phoebe Waller-Bridge at the prompting of actor Daniel Craig. As signaled by these actions, the success of a Bond film has long been attributed to the actor playing the coveted role. This is reflected in the typology governing the series whereby films are categorized into eras based on the tenure of the star (e.g. the Connery era). While media speculation over “who will be the next James Bond” is nothing new for the seasoned franchise, the dialogue surrounding the casting for No Time to Die has been particularly volatile.

In the era of social media, the voices of (potential) viewers and critics, and especially those who dissent, can be amplified through the processes of “liking” and “sharing” posts online. Recently, some users have embarked on campaigns aimed at inundating social media platforms and especially movie review websites with enough negative comments to diminish the appeal of films, at times even before they have been released. These campaigns often target projects utilizing casting strategies that promote diversity on screen such as “gender swapping” in Ghostbusters (Feig, 2016) and “race swapping” in The Little Mermaid (Marshall). The sexist and racist vitriol fueling this “backlash” highlights the desire of “core audiences” to maintain the status quo by precipitating the financial failure of these remakes thus discouraging such “diversity tactics.”


Ghostbusters rebooted with women in lead roles
Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, released in 2016, is a female-casted reboot of the original 1984 film.

The announcement of the 25th Bond installment was met with a flurry of media speculation about who would play the lead role. A few actors even threw their hats into the ring. Idris Elba and Gillian Anderson elicited the greatest reactions ranging from overwhelming support to calls for boycotting the series with all commentary centering on how each actor differed in one way from the status quo—via race (Bond as a black man) and gender (Bond as a white woman) respectively. This type of essentializing is common in Hollywood action films, which have historically been the bastion of white male privilege.[ (( Dyer, Richard. White: Essays on Race and Culture. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.))] Only a small proportion of films features marginal figures as heroes—most often black men and white women—who are presented through an “explanatory narrative” that frames them as being “exceptions to the rule.”[ (( Funnell, Lisa. Warrior Women: Gender, Race, and the Transnational Chinese Action Star. New York: SUNY Press, 2014.))] As a result, they are granted temporary access to the space of physical action while the norm (of heroism) remains largely coded through white masculinity. When Craig (finally) signed on for his fifth film, conversations about race, gender, and power in the Bond franchise largely halted on social media platforms.


description of image
Idris Elba and Gillian Anderson throwing their hats into the ring to be the next 007.

The recent casting announcement by Bond producers that Lashana Lynch, a black woman, would be playing agent 007 in No Time to Die unleashed a tidal wave of commentary that included both racist and sexist statements. While some of the negative reactions are rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of her role—Bond (Craig) has retired from the service and his agent number has been reassigned to Nomi (Lynch)—this does not explain or excuse the discriminatory tone and tenor of the comments.


Lashana Lynch in Captain Marvel
Lashana Lynch in Captain Marvel (Boden and Fleck, 2019).

On the one hand, Nomi is the first black woman to hold a “license to kill” in the Bond franchise. Similar to Bond, Nomi has completed the elite training program and earned her position at MI6. As such, she is more like Bond (i.e., the heroic status quo) rather than an exception to the rule, and her role in No Time to Die challenges the longstanding tradition of defining heroism as white and male in the action genre. The Bond franchise in particular has a long history of depicting racial minorities and especially women of color in limited and stereotypical ways.[ (( Funnell, Lisa. “Objects of White Male Desire: (D)Evolving Representations of Asian women in Bond Films.” For His Eyes Only: The Women of James Bond. Ed. Lisa Funnell. New York: Columbia, 2015. 79-87. ))] From Rosie Carver (Gloria Hendry) in Live and Let Die (Hamilton 1973) to May Day (Grace Jones) in A View to A Kill (Glen, 1985), black women are frequently hypersexualized and presented as disposable figures.[ (( Wagner, Travis. “‘The Old Ways Are Best’: The Colonization of Women of Color in Bond Films.” For His Eyes Only: The Women of James Bond. Ed. Lisa Funnell. New York: Columbia, 2015. 51-59. ))] While Skyfall (Mendes, 2012) features Naomi Harris as Eve Moneypenny, thus adding greater diversity to Bond’s inner circle at MI6, she is introduced as a defunct field agent who is demoted for botching a mission and accidentally shooting Bond[ (( Shaw, Kristin. “The Politics of Representation: Disciplining and Domesticating Miss Moneypenny in Skyfall.” For His Eyes Only: The Women of James Bond. Ed. Lisa Funnell. New York: Columbia 2015. 70-78. ))]; unlike Bond who is given a redemption narrative in Skyfall and other films after making mistakes, Moneypenny is encouraged to take a desk job (and told by Bond that “fieldwork is not for everyone”). While the casting of Lynch suggests Nomi’s success in the field, it is hard to see a pathway for her character that does not center on her incompetence or disposability if Bond, who is being called out of retirement, is to end the film with his original agent number. While progressive on the casting front, No Time to Die (much like Skyfall) might be regressive in its representation of women of color.


Naomie Harris in Skyfall (Mendes 2012).

On the other hand, Nomi has been given the number long associated with the identity and brand of Bond. While Craig’s Bond, throughout his tenure, has been depicted as both familiar (via references to previous Bond films) and older/classic, especially in Skyfall,[ (( Dodds, Klaus. “Shaking and Stirring James Bond: Age, Gender, and Resilience in Skyfall (2012).” Journal of Popular Film and Television 42.3 (2014): 116-130. ))] Nomi is less familiar (in both the Bond series and action films at large) and a member of a next generation essentially replacing the “old guard.” As a black woman, the casting of Lynch alone challenges of the legacy of white masculinity and its connection to British identity in the Bond series. Negative reactions to this might be reflective of a broader sense of uneasiness in the UK (manifested through Brexit) as well as the US (via immigration “reform” in the Trump era) about the changing demographics of the populace and anxieties about “white male replacement.” This is where nationality intersects in powerful ways with race and gender as British (as well as American) identity in popular consciousness has long been framed in relation to white masculinity. As such, the social media backlash, particularly by white men, to the casting of Nomi as 007 (who can be understood here as “no me”) might be tapping into broader concerns about the rising social status of racial minorities and women who continue to claim more institutional and economic power. Social media thus becomes a new/digital battleground for the expression of distain over the loss of privilege in the real world as it is being reflected through film.


Daniel Craig as 007
Daniel Craig as 007.

While blockbuster films like No Time to Die as well as the (social) media commentary surrounding them is often dismissed as “only entertainment,” it is important to recognize the role that popular culture plays in shaping popular, populist, and even nativist consciousness. Culture binds individuals and institutions together through its justification and normalizing of privilege. Films like No Time to Die relay messages about identity and power that influence the way people see themselves, each other, and the world around them. There is a lot (more) at stake as film producers try to appease and entice viewers as they compete for maximum ticket sales in the “billion dollar blockbuster” market. Thus, in the era of social media, where individuals and “digital swarms” can potentially undermine the financial success of a film, it is imperative that we explore how the experience of losing privilege, which is often misinterpreted as a form of oppression (i.e. “white male replacement”), is fueling digital backlash campaigns aimed at dismantling “diversity practices” in an attempt to control (popular) culture and (re)establish white male privilege in the symbolic realm (from “no me” to “yes only me”) in order to maintain the institutional and symbolic status quo.



Image Credits:

  1. Lashana Lynch, the first Black female 007.
  2. Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, released in 2016, is a female-casted reboot of the original 1984 film.
  3. Idris Elba and Gillian Anderson throwing their hats into the ring to be the next 007. (Author’s screen grabs)
  4. Lashana Lynch in Captain Marvel (Boden and Fleck 2019).
  5. Naomie Harris in Skyfall (Mendes 2012).
  6. Daniel Craig as 007. (Author’s screen grab from Skyfall)


References:




Primetime Pedagogies: Racism, Primetime TV, and the Limits of Dissent
Phoebe Bronstein, University of California, San Diego

Blackish Cast Photo, courtesy of ABC

The cast of ABC’s Blackish

In 1959, Harry Belafonte starred in and produced a groundbreaking Revlon special, Tonight With Belafonte. For the program, Belafonte envisioned “a portrait of Negro life in America told through music,” for which he won an Emmy [ ((Belafonte, Harry. My Song: A Memoir. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011, pp. 209-210.))] The initial special’s successes led to CBS and Revlon signing Belafonte for five more specials—over which he would have complete creative control. In 1960, Belafonte’s second special New York 19 premiered on CBS, reflecting “the musical heritage of the inhabitants of this multi-racial, midtown Manhattan area” [ ((Salmaggi, Bob. “Madison Avenue is Dead End,” Los Angeles Times. (November 18, 1960): A12.))]. In New York 19, while Belafonte occupied the center of the screen and framed the production, whites remained on the periphery, sharing the screen equally with African Americans, Latinos, Jews, and the other inhabitants of the New York 19 postal zone. The series garnered critical acclaim; however, Revlon canceled the next four installments, pointing to anxiety about how southern white viewers would react to this multi-racial cast. [ ((Belafonte, 220.))] Diversity was okay in primetime, the logic went, so long as shows reinforced the color-line.

In the first part of this column, I use Belafonte’s canceled Revlon specials to consider television’s pedagogical potential, highlighting this potential as an early structural anxiety that policed representations of race in primetime. Ultimately, I am curious to think about how these anxieties about television’s potential for teaching remain encoded into the medium’s content. Near the end of the column, I turn to the recent “Richard Youngsta” black-ish episode, following Herman Gray’s contention in Watching Race that the early years of television shaped and established patterns for subsequent representations of race on television, a point “Richard Youngsta” makes explicitly. I’m curious, here, about how contemporary shows build overtly instructional components into their content, thereby mobilizing primetime television’s imagined pedagogical potential for seemingly progressive ends.

Anxiety about what audiences could learn about race from television structured early television depictions of race broadly and blackness especially. Here, I am drawing on Lynn Spigel and Michael Curtin’s contention in The Revolution Wasn’t Televised, that “prime-time programs were not mere escapism, but were centrally involved in sustaining, interrogating, and even transforming social relations and cultural affinities throughout the decade [1960s].” [ ((Spigel, Lynn and Michael Curtin. The Revolution Wasn’t Televised, Sixties Television and Social
Conflict. Eds. Michael Curtin and Lynn Spigel. New York: Routledge, 1997, p.11))] As television rapidly became a national medium in the 1950s, debates over its pedagogical value were inextricably tied to racist network and advertiser concerns about black representation.

As Spigel articulates in Make Room for TV, early [television] “was the great family minstrel that promised to bring Mom, Dad, and the kids together; at the same time, it had to be carefully controlled so that it harmonized with the separate gender roles and social functions of individual family members” [ ((Spigel, Lynn. Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. p. 37))]. Television could, following this logic, bring the family together by teaching viewers how an ideal American family should look, behave, and function. By the late 1950s, this vision of family was inextricably tied to whiteness. Furthermore, as Spigel notes, television networks went beyond the “consumer educator” model, hoping to teach “women and their families how to consume television itself” [ ((Spigel, 84))]. This harmonizing effort worked to reinforce racist constructions wherein Black American experience, when it was represented at all, was always ushered on-screen through and for the white gaze. The latter is what made Harry Belafonte’s work for Revlon so threatening to the dominant order of early 1960s television–a white primetime landscape inflected by the rise of civil rights news coverage.

The diversity of New York 19, Belafonte’s star text–including his social justice work as part of the Civil Rights Movement–and his central role threatened to disrupt the white conformist message of early television by reimagining New York life from a Black authorial perspective. This racist anxiety of what television could teach viewers persisted throughout the decade: later in 1968 CBS would pull Belafonte’s 8 minute “Don’t Stop the Carnival” superimposed over images of the riots at the 1968 DNC, set to air during a Smothers Brothers episode. Belafonte’s star-text and experiences in television challenged the “familiar and foundational myth of the happy Negro living in a world shut off from white experience and privilege” [ ((Classen, Steven D. Watching Jim Crow: The Struggle over Mississippi TV, 1955-1969, p.94))]. Belafonte’s experience with Revlon, alongside other examples ranging from Nat King Cole’s short-lived NBC variety show to later colorblind primetime fare like I Spy and Julia, reveal an anxiety about the potential of television to upend the white supremacist message of much of primetime.

Whether centering blackness and racial specificity like Belafonte’s work or featuring Black leads in colorblind worlds, like Julia or the much-more recent Grey’s Anatomy, primetime representations of race reveal the ways in which “power must accommodate dissent, if only to remain powerful” [ ((Spigel and Curtin, 8))]. Belafonte’s resistance and Revlon’s reaction to New York 19 reveal the limits of what Revlon and CBS would willingly incorporate in 1960, particularly programmed amidst Civil Rights news broadcasts featuring regular calls for de-segregation. Revlon’s fear appeared in what television could teach viewers, through advertising, and primetime representation: that neither whiteness nor the white nuclear family were harmoniously natural.

Within this frame, I want to turn to black-ish’s “Richard Youngsta” episode. The episode focuses on a preview of Dre’s new ad campaign for Uvo Champagne, wherein a rapper (played by Chris Brown) pours champagne on a Black woman and turns her into a white woman. Expecting praise from his family, Dre is shocked when his wife and mom (Bow and Ruby respectively) instead offer critique: “My son is a Stepin Fetchit,” Ruby asserts, “He sold out his whole race just to be in the damn movie.” This moment initiates a montage of old filmic images and a monologue defining the “Stepin Fetchit” trope. Bow says “Stepin Fetchit,” “whose popular character dubbed the laziest man in the world set up the coon archetype […] He was denounced by the NAACP.” To further her point, Bow even invites over the family’s racist white neighbor, who gleefully laughs and dances to the commercial. As the montage ends, the next shot reveals Bow clearly reading off her phone. Snatching Bow’s phone out of her hands, an exasperated Dre responds, “what you are not reading off the Internet is that he was the first Black actor to earn a million dollars, the first Black actor to get an on-screen credit […] He broke down barriers at a time when roles for us weren’t that plentiful.”

Stepin Fetchit on screen.

Stepin Fetchit on screen.

Only later in the episode does Dre regret the ad campaign and reflect on his own anxiety about what media can teach us when he walks in on Jack pretending to pour champagne, or “Uvo,” all over a stoic Diane. This moment recalls the earlier image in the ad of a Black woman being turned into a white woman, and the repetition of this moment–via the twins–envisions the ways in which white supremacy, and “selling out his whole race” relies on exploitation and here the literal erasure of Black women. (Ultimately, Dre remakes the ad to push against the very stereotypes his early ad had embraced.)

The episode as a whole articulates a more complicated vision of Black representation in Hollywood than Ruby and Bow’s initial reading suggests, asking questions about the economics of television and the power of media broadly to teach and impart dominant and racist values. We see here, through the twins, what mainstream television has long taught and naturalized: white supremacy. At the same time, the episode works to teach viewers, some of whom who are perhaps unaware, about that same history through the discussion of “Stepin Fetchit” and by featuring family conversations about Black representation. By centering questions of Black representation in pop culture, black-ish makes explicit the ways in which primetime television teaches viewers about race, arguing in this instance for the medium’s potential to teach a more progressive racial politics.

Bow and Ruby discuss Black representation

Bow and Ruby discuss Black representation.

Henry Giroux articulates in “Public Pedagogy as Cultural Politics,” that “For theorists such as Hall, Grossberg, and others culture is a strategic pedagogical and political terrain whose force was a ‘crucial site and weapon of power in the modern world’ (Grossberg, 1996b: 142)” [ ((Giroux, Henry. “Public Pedagogy as Cultural Politics: Stuart Hall and the #Crisis# of Culture.” Cultural Studies (14:2, 341-360). 9 November 2010. p.342))]. From Harry Belafonte to black-ish, moments like those I’ve discussed here strategically articulate a politics that argue against the conservative and racist messaging that has long dominated network television. As black-ish teaches viewers about the Stepin Fetchit trope, so too does it self-referentially reveal the ways in which black representation on network TV is always working within and co-opting racist tropes. While black-ish seems revolutionary, we have to understand this show as still working in conversation with the same anxieties that led to the cancellation of Belafonte’s New York 19. This major shift doesn’t necessarily reflect a growing radicalism within primetime TV, but instead shows how primetime TV responds to cultural and historical shifts, incorporating dissent and mobilizing the medium’s pedagogical potential, perhaps as a means to stay relevant, marketable, and connected to viewers.

Image Credits

    1. black-ish cast
    2. Stepin Fetchit (author’s screen grab)
    3. Bow and Ruby (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.