Is it ‘not realistic’ or just not in your world?
Please stop saying positive black films and TV are unrealistic
“I don’t watch that show,” the 21-year-old brotha told me. “It’s not realistic.”
I raised an eyebrow at him, pondering on what exactly was so unrealistic about ABC’s “Black-ish.” Was it that the grandparents were living with one of their kids? That couldn’t be it. His first cousins had done that for many years. Was it that the kids were well-educated? That couldn’t be it because the young, black man talking to me was noticeably well-spoken. Was it that the black couple were married? Nope, that wouldn’t work either because his own mother had just gotten married that same year. I’d worked in Public Relations and marketing for about two years and could say first-hand I’d had many experiences like Andre, boss included, so I know that wasn’t far off.
However, his issue with the show was Andre was a marketing executive and married to a black, female doctor. Once again, this was giving me the same headache that critics of “The Cosby Show” used to have about Clair Huxtable being an attorney married to a gynecologist.* I used to grind my teeth at this claim as a child, especially growing up in a household with two married parents — a banker and a credit union manager — one older brother, and a dog (at some point a cat and a fish came along, which made us look like a coloring book). Meanwhile I had god relatives and friends of my parents who were also black, married with kids, and gainfully employed.
So why is it exactly that some African-American viewers have such a bone to pick with middle-class or elite black families on television? I had a conversation a couple of years ago with a cousin who helped me vaguely understood the root of the issue.
I noticed “Black Love” was on OWN and started chatting with my mother (who is now married for 40 years) about how cool this show is. She also was a regular viewer. During this conversation, my cousin rolled her eyes and asked me to change the channel. I was startled, wondering what her issue with the show was.
“I can’t relate,” she muttered.
I paused, wondering why a show that she cannot relate to would make her not want to watch it at all — especially considering I knew that she did want to be married to her long-time boyfriend. If “not relating” is grounds for not watching this show, I definitely should have been the least interested. I have never seriously humored the idea of being married. While other girls daydreamed about their bridal dresses, wedding parties, honeymoons and husbands growing up, the only thing I was thinking about was how I was going to be a fiction novelist and make a career out of it. Anyone asking me about marriage right now is like asking me do I want broccoli in my potatoes; it sounds healthy and has plenty of upsides, but I can’t help myself from frowning and saying “nope.”
Although I was surrounded by married couples with kids, that’s not my personal day-to-day as an adult woman — and I’ve never wanted to be a mother. But I can always see the entertainment value in them. Quite frankly, I’m relieved to not see the same stereotypes on my television screen. Carl and Harriette from “Family Matters” were corny as hell, but I still watched. Although I had a hard time getting into Light-Skinned Viv initially, that didn’t stop me from enjoying “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” When Martin and Gina got married on “Martin” and Overton and Sinclaire did so on “Living Single,” I grinned through the whole episode. And although I still believe Dwayne Wayne breaking up a wedding in front of all of Byron’s friends and family is a surefire way to get jumped, I think I stood in front of the television during the entire “A Different World” wedding, squealing away.
Any show that comes with Black Boy Joy and/or Black Girl Magic, count me in! So what is it about certain viewers that make them turn away from the screen when seeing something that they cannot directly relate to? Why do so many who cannot stand shows like this only want to see black folks struggling on TV (i.e. “Good Times”) — or at least if they’re not struggling, they’re constantly trying to remind themselves of the struggle (i.e. “The Jeffersons”)? Instead of looking at these shows as a point of reference for how one’s life could be if ever moving from a lifestyle of paycheck-to-paycheck, there’s a level of hostility and dismissiveness that I could not grasp.
So I went right back to reevaluating the conversation with my cousin and OWN’s “Black Love.” Summarizing the dismissiveness of positive black shows as someone being resentfulness and/or jealous seems like a cop-out. But the same people who will say “Black-ish” or well-to-black couples aren’t realistic will be the first ones liking a photograph of [insert rapper here] for an unnecessarily expensive chain or a money phone. How is that much money on jewelry or carrying that much money around realistic? Why is it cool to blast a song about being filthy rich, but a couple on TV with an expensive piece of art or taking viewers on a day-in-the-office is lame?
The one proven conclusion I could come to was this. As rare as it would be for someone to have a stack of cash around, those who admired it also wanted to hang out with people who would do that. Those who know what Bring Your Daughter to Work Day is like or family dinners (with men at the head of the table) understand the appeal of this. In my case, I would much rather hang out with Whitley and Dwayne or Bernie and Wanda (of “The Bernie Mac Show”) or the couples on “Black Love.” Why? Because in my world, that’s comforting — and George Jefferson would annoy the shit outta me.
Instead of saying one lifestyle is “not realistic” because it’s not yours (or your social circle), I think the bigger issue is finding a world that makes you comfortable and potentially replicate. The other is just not in your wheelhouse. Shunning one world for being unlike yours will cheat you out of learning about other (career/relationship) opportunities. Whether it’s goofy money phones (I agree with Jay Z) or putting on full R&B choreography in the living room in front of your grandparents, as long as black folks are winning, I’m in support of it all.
* Please spare me the imprisonment results of comedian/actor Bill Cosby. This post is not about his real life; it’s about these fictional characters that can actually be real-life black professionals. Rants about the comedian will be immediately muted.
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