This Diploma thesis is concerned with stereotypical portrayals of African American Americans in films and on television. Historically, African Americans have been assigned many stereotypical roles and many critics claim that “it is easy to still fit the vast majority of black media personalities today into these same old and well-defined categories” (Ginneken 110). Working with this assumption, the purpose of the thesis is to analyze the main African American characters on a contemporary comedy television series called 30 Rock (2006-20013)to discover in which ways the stereotyped images still survive today and to determine in which ways has the portrayal of African Americans changed throughout time.
30 Rock is an American sitcom which aired on NBC from 2006 to 2013. It was created by Tina Fey who also stars in the comedy series as Liz Lemon, the head writer of a fictitious variety show which she created. Tina Fey has experience with creating a TV comedy show since she formerly worked as a head writer and a cast member on NBC’s Saturday Night Live. 30 Rock provides its viewers with a behind-the-scenes look into the making of the fictitious variety show airing on NBC. The show takes place at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York, the GE Building, where the NBC television network headquarters are situated, the name of the sitcom is derived from the address of the network’s headquarters.
Tina Fey’s character on 30 Rock, Liz Lemon, is in her mid-thirties and is a single woman who has no children and who is trying to “have it all” and to find time for her personal life. Liz is usually working long hours because she is responsible for a team of writers and for the cast of the fictitious comedy sketch show called The Girlie Show. Liz’s job is highly demanding as it is but she also has to cope with her new boss Jack Donaghy (played by Alec Baldwin) who is the “Vice President of East Coast Television and Microwave Oven Programming” and who hires a new staff member, an African American actor and comedian Tracy Jordan (played by Tracy Morgan), who has bad reputation, into Liz’s show and changes the show’s name from The Girlie Show to TGS withTracy Jordan (“Pilot”). Jack’s decision to hire Tracy Jordan is unpopular with the current cast of the show as well as with the writers of the fictitious show and they all have to learn how to work together.
This comedy series was chosen for analysis in this Diploma thesis because it is a contemporary sitcom in which several African American characters are casted. Also, the focus of this thesis is put on the analysis of the dominant forces in popular entertainment—Hollywood production and broadcast television; therefore, this sitcom which aired on one of the biggest television networks represents a suitable material for the analysis. The analysis of 30 Rock in this thesis concentrates on selected episodes primarily from the first four seasons of the show.
The first chapter of the thesis provides a short historical outline of portrayal of African Americans in early films and on television. The chapter at first aims to explain the power of stereotypical images and it introduces the basic stereotypical images of African Americans, this section is supported by David Bogle’s classification of five basic stereotyped images. The basic tendencies of filmmakers and television show makers to cast African Americans into very limited range of roles are discussed in this chapter. This chapter is also concerned with contemporary images of African Americans and an explanation of why African American audiences are becoming increasingly important for producers of television shows, as well as for filmmakers and for advertisers is given.
The focus of the following chapter shifts to the discussion of the portrayal of African Americans on the comedy series 30 Rock. The ways in which this comedy series presents race and racial issues are commented on in this chapter. I claim that the series often demonstrates its awareness of the issues in its episodes. Consequently, the ways in which Tracy Jordan, the main African American character on 30 Rock, and his wife Angie Jordan fulfill the old stereotypical portrayals of African American men and women as well as the ways in which the series manages to move beyond these stereotypical portrayals are discussed. The Jordan family organization is also analyzed in the chapter. Furthermore, the only African American writer on the staff of the fictitious TGS is subjugated for an analysis in this chapter too. Tracy’s and James’ characters are compared and an explanation of why Tracy may be viewed as “bad” and James as “good” by the dominant society are given. I argue that the series 30 Rock has vastly contributed to the discussion of the portrayal of African Americans on television.