Throughout history, the roles assigned to African Americans have been influenced by the dominant society’s stereotypical views of what Africa Americans are like or of how they behave. African Americans have been compared to the Caucasians and were believed to possess more negative qualities than the members of the dominant society who saw themselves as more moral, intelligent, or hard-working in comparison to African Americans. It is important to understand that the stereotyped images of African Americans have ideological intent and that they served as a form of oppression of African Americans. Early films and television shows functioned under the dominant ideology and did not reinforce critical commentary on race. African American actors and actresses were casted into a limited range of roles and were forced to play stereotyped characters which portrayed them as either conformists who are contented with their menial position in the society and who do not question the social order or as characters who were seen as threats and menace to the society because they were lazy, had violent tendencies, had lower mental capacity, or were sexually aggressive.
A more complex or accurate portrayal of African Americans which would show more diversity was missing for a long time. The history of slavery or of the struggle for equality was erased and African American characters were often portrayed in isolation from their culture and appeared “raceless.” A wave of change came during 1960s and 1980s when television shows began to be more aware of racial issues and when a wider range of African American characters could be seen on television screens. Moreover, in 1980s a significant shift in demographics occurred and the television networks started to realize that African American audiences are becoming increasingly important for them. However, many critics nowadays claim that the complexity is still missing in the portrayal of African Americans and that the tendency to reconstruct the old stereotyped images is still alive.
Some of the old stereotyped images may be observed in 30 Rock’s characters as well but the series manages to move beyond them and projects a rather complex view on race and racism in the United States. 30 Rock challenges the old categories when the conformist character of James Spurlock who identifies with the dominant society’s ideals and who lives in isolation from his community is not viewed as the ideal to which African Americans should aspire but is mocked for his attempts to fit in. James’ character can be viewed as a parody of the Uncle Tom character who was viewed as the “good” character and who was appealing to the Caucasian audiences.
Tracy Jordan’s character represents the struggle of an African American entertainer. Tracy works for an industry which is driven by profit and Tracy is asked to preserve a certain image. In some ways, Tracy may be viewed as the contemporary version of the coon whose primary objective is to amuse the audiences and who demonstrates his craziness, laziness, and unreliability on numerous occasions. But this is not who Tracy really is, Tracy is not the ridiculous and incompetent man, he is a self-made man who was able to succeed despite his underprivileged background but he stands in a difficult position in the society which is not willing to take him seriously.
30 Rock is not avoiding the discussion of complicated issues and manages to cross the boundaries of the stereotyped categories and makes a parody out of them. The series makes fun of the stereotypical and prejudiced depictions of African Americans when Tracy finds out that he actually is a descendant of Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, and when he discovers that he is “genetically mostly white” (“Fireworks”). The series is thusly demonstrating the irony of the stereotyped images and the hypocrisy of the society.
The stereotypical portrayal of African Americans as hyper-sexual is also mocked when Tracy’s alleged promiscuity is revealed to be something Tracy does “just for show” (“The Ones). Tracy Jordan and his wife Angie actually are one of the most stable couples on the whole series. 30 Rock keeps making the stereotyped portrayals a parody when it keeps breaking their boundaries time and time again. The parody of the show is clearly visible when the “Black Crusaders” are going after Tracy or when Tracy acts as an exaggerated stereotyped version of the chicken and watermelon loving coon at the GE golf tournament.
The series presents various issues, 30 Rock demonstrates how easy it is for an African American entertainer to be viewed as a brute when the series showcases Tracy’s inclinations towards committing crime. The series is aware of the fact that the issue of violence in the African American community is a complicated one. The so-called “hip-hop black masculinity” is African American men’s oppositional identity which developed as a response to the emasculation of African American men and is Tracy’s way to gain respect in his community but also makes him look dangerous in the eyes of the dominant society although he is not actually a violent man at all or a menace to the society. In fact, Tracy donates money to help the underprivileged people in his community because he remembers where he came from.
30 Rock recognizes racial issues as it widely questions and comments on the position of African Americans in the society. The series acknowledges the fact that although African Americans are nowadays doing materially better than they did in the past, their position is rather complicated. 30 Rock refuses to stay blind to the fact that racism is still a big issue in the American society. The series also manages to provide commentary on the history and the present state of television portrayals of Africans and demonstrates its awareness that television could always do better when it comes to the representation of African Americans.
This Diploma thesis deals with stereotypical portrayals of African Americans on television. Historically, African Americans have been assigned many stereotypical roles in films as well as on television. Basic stereotyped image of African Americans are introduced in the first chapter of the thesis and a limited range of roles which were assigned to African Americans is discussed as well. This chapter is also concerned with contemporary images of African Americans and the reasons why African American audiences are becoming increasing important are presented in this chapter too. The aim of the thesis is to trace the progress of the portrayal of African Americans. The second chapter of the thesis is concerned with the analysis of African American characters on a contemporary comedy television series called 30 Rock (2006-20013). This comedy series represents a suitable material for the analysis because there are several African Americans characters casted on this sitcom. Also, the fact that the series aired on one of the biggest television networks in the United States is another reason why 30 Rock was chosen for the analysis. The focus of the thesis is put mainly on the first four seasons of the television series. I argue that 30 Rock has greatly contributed to the discussion of the portrayal of African Americans on television.
Tato diplomová práce se zabývá stereotypním zobrazováním Afroameričanů v televizi. V minulosti byli Afroameričané obsazováni do stereotypních rolí jak ve filmech, tak v televizi. V první kapitole této práce představuji základní stereotypní zobrazování Afroameričanů a zabývám se tendencí obsazovat Afroameričany pouze do určitých rolí. Soudobé zobrazování Afroameričanů je v této kapitole diskutováno také spolu s důvody toho, proč jsou diváci z řad Afroameričanů čím dál tím důležitější. Cílem této práce je vypátrat, jakým způsobem se zobrazování Afroameričanů v průběhu času změnilo. V druhé kapitole práce se zabývá analýzou Afroamerických postavy v soudobém televizním komediálním seriálu pod českým názvem Studio 30 Rock (2006-2013). Tento komediální seriál byl vybrán pro účely této práce, jelikož se jedná o soudobý komediální seriál, ve kterém je obsazeno několik Afroamerických postav a jelikož byl seriál vysílán na jedné z největších televizních stanic ve Spojených státech amerických. Práce se zaměřuje především na první čtyři série tohoto seriálu. V práci tvrdím, že tento seriál významně přispěl do diskuze o stereotypním zobrazování Afroameričanů v televizi.
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1 Images portraying African American men as “care free and irresponsible” and as “simple, docile, [and] laughing” men who were “quick to avoid work while reveling in the easy pleasures of food, dance and song” and whose lives were those of “child-like contentment” were called “the Sambo” and were popular in early 1900’s songs and “became one of the classic portrayals of black men in film” (qtd. in Riggs).
2 The “blackface” characters emerged in minstrel shows, which were “a type of musical comedy variety show[s] that featured white actors impersonating blacks” (Benshoff, and Griffin 79). The first such character was brought to theatres in the late 1820’s by T.D. Rice who “saw a crippled black man dancing an exaggerated Jim Crow dance” and who “took the man’s tattered clothes and that night imitated him on stage.” This image was not a true image, “it was a devastating image” but it appealed to the audiences and it marked the beginning of the minstrel tradition which “emerged as America’s first form of national popular entertainment” (qtd. in Riggs). The first “blackface” African American character appeared on screen in 1903 rendition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the blackface practice continued to be popular during the silent films era (Bogle 3).
3 Even businesses made profits from the public’s affection for the stereotypical images of African Americans as African Americans appeared on various product labels ranging from pancakes, beans, syrup, tobacco, oysters, or different home decorative items (qtd. in Riggs).
4 The talking era in film industry started with the release of The Jazz Singer (1927), which is a film that makes use “of the minstrel tradition at its sentimentalized, corrupt best” (Bogle 26).
5 The Production Code was forced on Hollywood by The Legion of Decency (Ginneken 110).
6 The Communications Act “regulates U.S. telephone, telegraph, television, and radio communications” (Justice Information Sharing).
7 FCC is an independent U.S. government agency overseen by Congress and it “regulates interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories” (Federal Communications Commission).
8 The “buddy” practice also translated into films. In the “buddy” films African American actors “played side kicks to the white males in 1980s detective stories and to white women in 1990s.” (Larson 24).
9 The first African American couple kissing each other on television was seen on I Spy in 1967, they were Bill Cosby, Jr. and Janet MacLachan (Larson 29).
10 ABC, CBS, and NBC are called “Three major networks” because they “have dominated commercial television” (Black, and Jennings 324).
11 Entman and Rojecki make a similar remark about the effect of The Cosby Show. They contend that the Cosby family’s success had the dominant society members thinking that if some African Americans are unsuccessful, they only have themselves to blame because The Cosby Show sent the message that African Americans “could actually make it if they worked hard enough” (146).
12 Tokenism is also a common practice in films, non-Caucasian characters are placed “into a film in order to deflate any potential charge of racism. Token characters can often be found in small supporting roles that are peripheral to the white leads and their stories” (Benshoff, and Griffin 52).
13 Most shows were performed live in the early years of television (Black, and Jennings 322).
14 However, African American male actors appearing in drag is quite a popular and profitable practice. According to Dunn “Hollywood added Mammy’s alter ego—the emasculating matriarchal image of a ‘bitchy’ black woman […] which these days has been appropriated with huge financial success by cross-dressing actors Eddie Murphy (Norbit), Tyler Perry (Madea) and Martin Lawrence (Big Momma’s House)” (Dunn 51).
15 Tracy is making a reference to Carlton Banks character from NBC sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-6). Carlton’s character is known for being puritanic and “straightlaced” as it is explained by Jack Donaghy (The C Word).