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In society today, messages about current-day issues, such as politics, natural disasters, or social issues, are portrayed more and more often. This is especially true in newer sit-com television shows. Since pilot episodes of sit-coms are typically only 20 to 22 minutes, there is little time to develop multiple characters enough for the show to naturally pull in the audience. Therefore, these shows typically use stereotypes, whether they be race, sex, gender, or religion related. Two examples of current sit-com television shows that use this method of drawing audiences in are The Mindy Project and Black-ish. Both shows use stereotypes to their advantage, but also counter or reject many stereotypes, which makes for a very interesting character development arc.
The first show to discuss is The Mindy Project. This show focuses around Mindy, a female Indian doctor. The pilot episode starts by laying the ground work of Mindy’s character, specifically how she met her now-ex-boyfriend, then how he broke up with her for a younger, more conventionally attractive, woman and Mindy drinks too much at her ex’s wedding and goes on a drunken rant about him, runs off, and gets arrested for public intoxication, among other things. This is where the main plot of the show begins, and Mindy decides to try move beyond her past and change her life for the better.
In the pilot episode, there are four other main characters; Tom, her ex-boyfriend, Gwendolyn, Mindy’s best friend, Danny, and Jeremy, who are both coworkers of Mindy. As far as each of these characters go, they all fit the stereotypical stereotypes in this show. Tom is a white, conventionally attractive man. Gwendolyn is a white, conventionally attractive blonde, who also happens to have a young daughter. Danny and Jeremey are also white men. With this main cast, Mindy is the only non-white, non-conventionally attractive character in the show.
This show reinforces a few typical stereotypes in order to drive the pilot episode forward as well. One stereotype that is clear from the start is the idea that women go crazy when their boyfriend dumps them. From nearly the very first scene in the episode, this becomes an integral part of Mindy’s story arc. Another stereotype covered in this episode to help develop the characters is the idea that non-English speaking immigrants are all poor and do not have any kind of health insurance. This idea is introduced to the show when Mindy receives a new patient, a poor immigrant that has her one son with her to translate, that is pregnant and is looking for a doctor to deliver the baby, despite not having any kind of health insurance. The stereotype is further reinforced when Mindy mentions to the office assistants to “send her more white patients” in the future, inferring that more immigrant patients would just be a hassle. However, there are also some instances of the show challenging stereotypes. Perhaps the biggest stereotype challenged is that not all successful women are white conventionally attractive women. This stereotype is blasted out of the water by the fact that Mindy is a very successful and competent Indian doctor in the United States.
The overt message of The Mindy Project centers around the fact that Mindy is not satisfied with her life because she cannot find love, and comes to terms with this fact after her run in with the law after her ex-boyfriend’s wedding ceremony. A similar covert message of the show is that Mindy is dissatisfied with her life not because she is struggling to find a meaningful relationship, but because she keeps sleeping with dates after the first date or so. This message portrays women who do such a thing as “slutty” and undesirable, meanwhile, one of the supporting characters brags about how many women he has slept with as a punchline during one scene.
Overall this show has some feminist representations throughout it. Despite the fact that the show attempts to show Mindy as “undesirable”, it really highlights the struggles a single woman that is past the age that is conventionally considered “prime dating age” in the dating pool. In one of the readings, Lorde states that “refusing the recognize difference makes it impossible to see the different problems and pitfalls facing us as women” (Lorde). This statement really lines up with this show because not only is Mindy a woman facing a pretty typical problem in everyday society for women, the show manages to do it with an unconventionally attractive, non-white woman. Due to this fact, one can say that this show does a good job of making the feminist representations intersectional. In one of the readings, Ava Vidal makes a point that really highlights the importance of intersectional feminism; “women experience oppression in varying configurations and in varying degrees of intensity” (Vidal). This intersectional feminism makes the show appealing to more audiences while still highlighting these issues and stereotypes, mostly in a positive way.
The second show is Black-ish. This sit-com is about the everyday life of a black family, and is narrated by the father, Andre Johnson. The baseline of the show basically outlines the family’s every day life. The main cast consists of Andre Johnson, the father, Rainbow, the mother, who is mixed race and a doctor, Andre Jr, the older son, Jack and Diane Johnson, the younger twins, and “Pops”, Andre’s father. Throughout the pilot episode these characters all portray and challenge various stereotypes commonly associated with black people.
There are a few stereotypes that the show reinforces during the pilot episode. The first, and most repeatedly mentioned, is that black people love fried chicken and grape soda. This is shown in two separate instances during the episode. First when Andre Jr’s friend comes over and just expects to find grape soda in the fridge. Andre calls this out, saying it’s rude to just assume that they would have grape soda in their house, but then instantly comments on how good it is once Andre Jr’s friend pulls one out of the fridge. Later in the episode, while they are eating a dinner of oven baked fried chicken, Pops makes a comment on how it isn’t real fried chicken and how “real” fried chicken is so much better. This further reinforces the stereotype. Another stereotype that was reinforced during the episode is that black people are expected to be good at and play basketball. This is apparent when Andre Jr tells his father that he plans on trying out for the field hockey team and Andre becomes upset because he was expecting his son to try out for the basketball team to “hold up the Johnson name”.
This show challenges a fair amount of typical black stereotypes as well during the pilot episode. One stereotype that this show challenges, that was also challenged in The Mindy Project, is that all doctors are white men. Similarly to The Mindy Project, Rainbow is not only a successful doctor as a woman but is also mixed-race. The biggest stereotype that this show challenges, however, is that al black families are poor. This one is challenged from the very start of the episode. Andre is a successful marketing executive, about to be promoted to a senior position, and Rainbow is a very successful surgeon. The show details how they both grew up in poverty, but have worked hard to get out of that neighborhood and make life better for their family. This directly challenges the stereotype that all black families are forever just stuck in poverty. Despite this important challenge, the show still does make a joke of it. When Andre goes to get the newspaper in the beginning of the episode, it makes a joke of how its like they are zoo animals in a zoo since they don’t “fit in” with the rest of the neighborhood. The show uses this joke to “demonstrate society’s collective urge to gawk at the poor and working class”, as Parker put it in a reading from this semester (Parker). While this analogy doesn’t fully fit here since the Johnson family isn’t exactly a working-class family, the producers of the show still used this idea as a punchline in the show.
The overt message of Black-ish is the struggles a black family goes through in an upper-middle class neighborhood where they are by far in the minority compared to the white families around them. The covert message of the show focuses on Andre’s desire to hold on to black society’s culture and balance out its influence and the appropriation of black culture in to everyday culture. One example of this is Andre’s reaction when his son’s friends want to call him Andy instead of Andre Jr. This upsets Andre so much because he sees it as his son abandoning black culture and appropriating himself into white culture. One very important note that this episode does a great job of hitting on is the fact that someone can offend someone else and not even realize what they are saying is offensive. The perfect example of this is when after Andre is promoted, one of his coworkers asks him how a black person would say “good morning”, as if they would for some reason say it any different way from anyone else. Obviously looking back this question is clearly offensive, but in the moment, it can be misconstrued as someone trying to be cultured and do the exact opposite, not offend someone. The episode also touched on tone policing during Andre’s initial presentation that nearly got him fired from his new position. As Maisha Johnson put it, tone policing is “when marginalized people speak up about our struggles, and people from more dominant groups focus not on what we said, but how we said it” (Johnson). Many of these representations and messages in the show come from “inferential racism”, which, as defined by Stuart Hall, is “ those apparently naturalized representations of events and situations relating to race, whether ‘factual’ or ‘fictional’, which have racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions” (Hall). Whether it be in cases of reinforcing black stereotypes or challenging them, many of the situations shown in the pilot of Black-ish can fall under the umbrella of “inferential racism”.
Between these two shows, Black-ish definitely does better at challenging stereotypes, but The Mindy Project has far better feminist representation in it. In Black-ish, when the writers/producers call out or challenge racial stereotypes they make it very clear what is happening and basically make so much of a joke of it, it becomes clear that what’s going on is not acceptable in everyday society. One great example of this is the series of scenes surrounding when Andre Jr’s son said he was trying out for the field hockey team. Andre says that it’s a woman’s sport. The very next scene, Andre’s assistant (who is white) at work mentions how his father was a very good field hockey player, reinforcing that field hockey is not just a woman’s sport. Since Black-ish was so self-aware of the jokes they were making, it made that show far better and challenging the stereotypes they were joking about. The Mindy Project, on the other hand, handled feminist representation, especially intersectional feminism, far better than Black-ish. The way The Mindy Project gave insight to the struggles a conventionally “unattractive” non-white female goes through, both in the workplace and in their everyday life really highlighted many feminist points very well and made the show very inclusive to many different audiences, which is incredibly important not only to the producers for making money, but also to spread that message of intersectional feminism.
Overall, both Black-ish and The Mindy Project use various stereotypes in their pilot episodes to assist in character development as well as retain an audience after just 20 minutes of content. Both shows reinforced some stereotypes, but also challenged many important ones at the same time. This is done in order to strike a balance between keeping the show entertaining enough to draw in the viewers but also moving media as a whole to a more socially accepting and inclusive environment. Additionally, both shows had covert messages in their pilot episodes that differed in one way or another from the overt message of the episode. Black-ish did a better job at challenging many of the important stereotypes that black people have to deal with in everyday society, while The Mindy Project did a far better job at intersectional feminist representation.
- Black-ish. Dir. James Griffiths. 2014. ABC Studios.
- Hall, Stuart. “The Whites of Their Eyes: Racist Ideologies and the Media.” Dines, Gail and Jean M Humez. Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Critical Reader. SAGE Productions, Inc., 2015. 104-107.
- Johnson, Maisha Z. What We Can all Learn from Nicki Minaj Schooling Miley Cyrus on Tone Policing. October 2017. Everyday Feminism.
- Lorde, Audre. “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining difference.” Guy-Sheftal (ed, ). Words of Fire: An Anthology of African American Feminist Thought. The New Press, 1995. 284-291.
- Parker, Asha. Will the memification and autotuning of news interviews with poor and working-class people of color ever end?? January 2016. Salon.com.
- The Mindy Project. Dir. Charles McDougall. 2012. Fox Entertainment.
- Vidal, Ava. Intersectional Feminism: What the Hell is it? (and why you should care). January 2014. The Telegraph.
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