Sitcoms: do they help or hinder the perpetuation of stereotypes?

Help.

The recent trend toward diversity in TV, particularly with ABC’s latest sitcoms, marks important progress in improving race relations and acceptance. Shows such as Fresh Off the Boat and Black-ish feature minority casts and explore topics of race and race relations in America through comedy. By using a minority main cast, both shows tackle racial stereotypes by offering more nuanced views of the minorities portrayed in the shows, opening the audiences’ minds to other races.

Graphic: Alizeh Shamshad

Black-ish also offers a more nuanced view of a minority group, portraying an affluent black family seeking to avoid allowing their economic success from alienating their children from their cultural roots. The show clearly continues the tradition of sitcoms featuring black casts breaking down racial stereotypes begun by The Cosby Show: the show’s portrayal of an upper-middle class black family living in a wealthy part of New York completely changed the paradigm for blacks on TV. Moreover, the show used comedy as a tool to access a wider audience with a deeper message regarding the reality of blacks in society. Similarly on Black-ish, rather than conforming to racial stereotypes, the eldest son of the family plays field hockey and loses touch with his culture so much that he asks his father to throw him a bar mitzvah. Again, the humorous charm of the main cast presents an opportunity for the audience to sympathize with and understand a minority group who they otherwise may have overlooked, leading to more racial integration and understanding.

A similar trend can be seen when analyzing Fresh Off the Boat. While the show uses racial stereotypes as a tool for comedy, when taken as a whole, the show breaks down stereotypes by portraying an Asian-American family that any American can relate to. It too builds upon the precedent set by earlier shows featuring racial minorities, but shifts the focus to a new group—Asian Americans. Rather than being a “nerd” as racial stereotypes would dictate, Eddie Huang is rebellious in school and religiously follows hip hop, often wearing clothing featuring rappers like The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac; Huang’s father doesn’t own an Asian restaurant, which would play into preconceived stereotypes, but rather operates a steakhouse. While the show does play off of Asian stereotypes at times for comedic effect, it uses comedy as a vehicle to access a greater audience. All viewers can relate to the struggles of a new kid fitting into school or a family’s struggle to achieve “the American dream.” Audiences are charmed by the humor of the Asian cast and can see racial minorities in a new light, shifting their perception of Asian Americans as a whole for the better.

As proven historically, racial diversity in sitcoms can be a potent tool for breaking down racial stereotypes. When combining an appeal with portrayals of minorities as complex characters rather than crude stereotypical characterizations, audiences shift their perceptions of racial minorities. Thus, the recent trend towards more diverse sitcom and casts can be seen as a step in the right direction for promoting diversity and understanding of minorities.

Hinder.

This year in television, shows such as ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat and Black-ish have caused some controversy. Both shows present a minority main cast and purport to tackle racial stereotypes through comedy. However, covering the sensitive topic of stereotypes in sitcoms presents several problems.

Graphic: Alizeh Shamshad

While racial diversity in television definitely opens up many opportunities for minority actors, show executives can misuse diversity by singling out characters due to race. It is the superficial treatment of the characters and the perpetuation of cliché stereotypes that distances the shows from their audiences.  Members of the cast play exaggerated and offensive caricatures of themselves, whether it be the strict Asian tiger mom or the sneaker-loving black father.

While watching Fresh Off the Boat, it was laborious trying to understand Eddie Huang’s family. His father and mother all perpetuate the Asian parent stereotypes: they force their children to excel at math and study harder. They make inane cracks that reflect the most popular, offensive, and untrue notions about Asian Americans; no, our moms don’t constantly feed us math questions and threaten us with death when we do poorly on tests. Ultimately, the characters stand out because of their race; they are isolated and put into the spotlight not for their actions as human beings, but for the color of their skin. Too quickly are producers of these shows ready to jump onto the stereotype bandwagon and paint colors rather than flesh out individuals.

Another potential problem with sitcoms playing off racial stereotypes is that they are prone to creating the perception that people of other races are somehow “separate” or “different” from the norm. While it is true that there exist cultural differences between races, sitcoms that play off of racial stereotypes accentuate these differences, highlighting them for their comedic value. Thus, sitcoms exploring race tend to continually focus on what makes each race different rather than find the commonalities that make us all human. Andre Jr., the son depicted in Black-ish, is framed as “nerdy,” and is thus not “black” enough for his father Andre. Andre then tries to force Andre Jr. to make more black friends instead of white friends. The episode then plays off the distinctions between white and black culture and almost separates the two cultures entirely. While it is definitely crucial to spot the aspects unique to each culture, exaggerating or emphasizing the differences between two or more cultures for comical relief segregates one from another and makes it seem as if none can get along.

With new shows that preach an in-depth and realistic view of underrepresented races, there comes expectations and new understandings of new cultures. Yet, as seen with popular shows like Fresh Off the Boat and Black-ish, the use of racial diversity has negative aspects that strongly conflict with the opportunity of seeing a racially-diverse main cast, usually resulting in a mix of ignorance and misunderstanding of racial diversity.

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