Why Television And Film Should Reflect The Reality Of Black Livelihood, Not A Farfetched White Standard

Representation is everything when it's accurate.

Photo credit:Photo: Disney

| May 10 2019,

01:56 am

Representation is everything. We advocate for Black superheroes, female protagonists, and natural hairstyles on the big screen. While this is a positive step in the right direction for racial and ethnic equity, we should also be looking for representation in the realm of socioeconomic status. How often do we see a single Black mother on the big screen doing well for her and her children? How often do we see Black teen pregnancy ending on a good note for the mother and the child? How often do we see Black characters striving for the idealized American household, consisting of a husband, wife, and 2.5 kids? Representation should not be limited to superheroes and hairstyles; we need to see representation on all levels. What we see on television should be an accurate reflection of our reality or a goal to strive for that has been defined by Black people.

In 2016, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that only 29% of African Americans were married and 50% had never been married at all. That tells us that marriage and the idealized American family, is not defined the same way in the Black community. However, we find this white American standard promoted and strived for in the television shows and movies that we consume daily.

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Popular television shows, such as The Proud Family, are centered around a Black family who is striving to reach a white idealized norm. The mother, Trudy, is a lawyer while her husband is an average business owner. Together, they have three children and live in a moderate sized house in a suburban neighborhood. None of the kids are required to have jobs and we can assume they are all living comfortably middle-class. Though I enjoyed the show when I was younger, I can’t help but notice now how much this family misrepresents the reality of Black life. The Proud Family aired from 2001-2005 and in 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average Black family did not own a house like the family in the show; in fact, 55% of Black families were renting homes. Of the 40% who did own homes, they were only one-unit, not nearly as expansive as the house the Proud family resided in.  The one family that was present in the show that did not fit into the standard American family, was the Gross family. The Gross family consisted of a husband, wife, and three daughters. Unlike the Prouds, they were poor and each of the girls had to help their parents and work in order to make ends meet. The fact that the girls were so poor that they couldn’t afford necessities, like lotion, was a comedic element of the show. Though the girls were bullies to the Prouds and her friends, they too were teased and ridiculed for not being in the same social class as the other characters on the show; just because a lifestyle is different doesn't mean that it should be considered deficient.

In more recent media, the horror film, Us also perpetuated the idealized American norms. The Wilson family was moderately wealthy, having enough money to travel every summer with two children. Both parents are college educated and at least one child is involved in activities outside of school. Though the film is a horror movie, viewers should not disregard the type of social narrative this film perpetuates. The Wilsons are not representative of the Black community; this does not mean that the family should have been a lower middle-class single parent household, however, not every Black family looks like the family in the film and the Wilson’s reinforce a White norm imposed on Black Americans. Creating a unit with a husband, wife, and 2.5 children does not have to be the goal, especially when in the Black community, it’s unrealistic for the majority. Viewers should be able to see themselves on screen, not just in the way the characters look but in the way that they live. How different would this film be if there was a single mother or father with a high socioeconomic status that had the support of extended family and friends? This film would have done more for the Black community if there was a variety of representation.

To be sure, I understand the importance of showing characters who are out of poverty and are doing well for themselves. However, our media should reflect our reality and should not attempt to fit us all into a social norm not established by a Black value system.

Representation is everything and while it’s great to root for Black superheroes, female leads, and natural hairstyles, it is equally as important to recognize the need to step away from the idealized norms that we see on the screen, and to create, promote and maintain our own standards unique to Black life and culture.