The Black Best Friend

From Clueless: Dionne and Cher

In modern film media we see a conglomeration of all kinds of races, genders, and ethnicities. For example, the show Glee features a group of misfits that include, Asians, Whites, Blacks, males, females, there is even a student who is handicapped and confined to a wheelchair.

The show Glee includes all types of characters

The inclusion of all types of peoples in film media is a relatively new phenomenon. Before WWII many media shows and films were full of predominantly white characters holding major roles. If we think about the time period this makes sense. Pre WWII the U.S. was quite segregated socially and this was portrayed via the absence of non-white characters on screens. This does not mean there were no black or non-white productions, just that they were less popular with mainstream viewers who tended to be mostly white. We have learned about many black film makers from the early days of film around the beginning of the 20th century. Films like “The Birth of A Nation” and “Within Our Gates” were films that worked to describe the racial climate within in the country during this time (Squires).

Directed by D. W. Griffith
Directed by Oscar Micheaux

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These films are still remembered as being excellent works describing what the U.S. was really like, in comparison to the white-wash films that ignored realities.

By correcting the absence of color in film during the years of early film entertainment, typical types of characters were often portrayed. Unfortunately many directors chose to take stereotypes they had seen before in minstrel shows, and repeat these images on screen. As we read in Catherine Squires book, images from minstrelsy were typically used to reinforce racial stereotypes. These included: blacks as servants to whites, black bodies as grotesque, black physical features as objects of ridicule, and blacks as having an exotic or uncontrollable sexuality (Squires 89). Because of these trends were so popular in the U.S and well as Europe they became integrated into daily life. These stereotypes were also seen in advertisements in attempts to provide the white mass with a servile form of blacks that could be seen as non-threatening.

Aunt Jemima from the late 1880s and 90s
Uncle Ben

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Explicit character types were also taken directly from minstrelsy to provide the mainly white audiences with a familiar type of entertainment. The Mammy (female servant), the Savage (untamed black who endangers white society), the Uncle Tom (willing to betray blacks to help whites), the Black Wench (an immoral black woman), the Coon (male buffoon used for humor), and the pickanniny (a black child who provides comedic effect) were all types of characters seen in early film.

Example of a Mammy
An Uncle Tom figure
Advertisement for a Minstrel show. Showcases different types of characters.

Because of their predominance at the beginning of film these black roles persisted for decades and are still somewhat seen in modern times. Once blacks were in mainstream films they thought that these roles would change but this was not the case. Unfortunately, because audiences saw real blacks acting these roles they assumed that this was the way the acted all the time. And as we know, television plays an essential part in articulating and constructing racialized identities.

With this framework in mind I started my research on the black best friend. The purpose of this post is to identify how the black best friend is used in comedy television shows in order to portray a “post-race” society where everyone is the same and racism does not exist. To further frame my search I came up with a couple of questions: How does the media portray blacks in the best friend role by use of particular language and actions? And, How does the media use this role to create a post-race/colorblind production? I will answer these by analyzing literature on the subject as well as by analzying several clips from television shows and observing how characters are acting.

Literature Review

In order to fully explore how and why the black best friend exists on-screen I researched the history of different ideologies surrounding race and its portrayal in the media. The first source I found was a book titled, “The Colorblind Screen: Television in Post-Racial America” (edited by Sarah Turner and Sarah Nilsen). The discussion begins with the central beliefs that surround how racism is portrayed in modern media. The colorblind racial framework works to put race and racism in the past, implying that they do not influence current social and economic realities. Media supports this ideology by using racial differences to celebrate multicultural assimilation while denying inequalities that define race relations in reality. By doing this the entertainment industry reminds viewers of America’s segregated past and attempts to make whites comfortable with race and racial inequality. In this was the colorblind screen secures and encourages rather than challenge racial lack of interest. In other words, mainstream audiences to not want to be affronted with racism every time they turn on the TV so media portrays an alternative reality to keep ratings high and money flowing.

The Crosby Family

The Crosby show is one representation of a colorblind production. The show never explicitly discusses race and acts as if race does not affect day-to-day life at all. This is objectively false just based on the time period that the show was run during. The early 90s were a time of high racial tension in the U.S. The absence of such a well-known social issue in the show lead audiences to believe blacks and whites had the same social and economic opportunities and failure to achieve equality was individual not systematic. This further displays how this show and others portrayed a colorblind ideology.

The idea of a Sameness Mentality is also described in the work. This approach rejects the problem of race as an issue and depicts every character as the same (even if they are not, based on race or gender). Working to put whites and their black counterparts into the same role actually discredits the notion that their social lives may be different. The characters are the same therefore they experience the same kind of treatment within society on a day-to-day basis. This type of portrayal is false and can be proven as such just by looking at what is happening in the Republican party for the 2016 presidential election. Currently non-whites are under attack in the U.S. by the main candidate for the Republican party who is threatening to ban Muslims from the country and build a wall that blocks the U.S. from Mexico. Racial tensions have been increasing in recent years however, if you only watched television shows you would not be aware of the phenomenon.

Interracial Buddy Films

Narratives of interracial friendship work to communicate and sustain a post-race colorblind ideology. In the late 80s and early 90s the buddy film appeared. Films such as Trading Places,

Directed by John Landis

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Showtime, Brewster’s Millions, The Defiant Ones,

Directed by Stanley Kramer

48 Hours, Money Talks, Clueless, Men in Black, and Shawshank Redemption are just a few examples.

These films created a character of the black best friend as non-threatening towards whites. In fact this character is often more willing to help the white protagonist that the white is to accept the aid. This legacy of interracial buddy film is relied on heavily when creating a supportive sidekick to a white lead. It has been found that the sidekick often has their needs sublimated in order to help the white protagonist (more on this later). The fiction that the buddy film creates simplifies race relations and attempts to confirm America’s continual goodness.

In an article by Davi Johnson Thornton, “Psych’s Comedic Tale of Black-White Friendship and the Lighthearted Affect of ‘Post-Race’ America” the television Show Psych is analyzed for characteristics that qualify it as a Post-Race interpretation of modern life.

Shawn Spencer and Burton Guster

This book claims that popular television media is operating in a Post-Race Era. Meaning that the world we currently live in, according to media, does not rely on race identities. We no longer congratulate ourselves for the amount of popular TV representations of race we consume, but instead we congratulate ourselves on our indifference to such images of race. This era in media requires safely contained images of visual diversity that work to confirm the irrelevance of race by verifying the successes of integration and our ability to alleviate guilt over past injustices. When we combine Post-Race with colorblindness we end up with the belief that race does not ultimately matter, politically or historically, we are beyond such a simple understanding of race now. As we know from everyday life this is untrue. The media is not portraying society accurately by ignoring race relations, they are only attempting to satisfy mass audiences that want to believe race does not matter. Race definitely matters. This can be proven true if you look at any of the police news within the last couple of years.

Thornton explains several theories that work within the show, Psych, to create humor and negate racial tensions. The assimilationist theory depicts blacks within white worlds. In Psych, Gus is portrayed as “whiter than white” (425) and he is able to fit into the predominantly white society of Santa Barbara. Gus is the sidekick of Shawn, the team works together to restore order to the community by solving crimes. By creating a white point of view the show communicates to audiences that racial humor enhances interracial intimacy. This framework distances white viewers from race and racism allowing them to joke without social or ethical risk. It also works to bond the interracial relationship through laughter. In this comedy Gus is seen as an “exceptional black” a character who accommodates diversity without threatening the privilege of whites. However, only certain blacks can preform this role due to exceptional talent of some kind. This can be seen in many assimilationist comedies.

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Thornton explains three theories of humor that work in this show, as well as other with similar character relationships, to create a light-hearted attitude about race that invokes laughter (I will give examples of these in the upcoming sections). The first he discusses is the Incongruity theory which states that tension arises from a violation of an expectation and when it is resolved laughter ensues. The second theory is the Superiority theory which implies that humor always implicates relationships of power. In other words, the character in a ‘higher’ position is allowed to make fun of the ‘lower’ without repercussions from other characters. The final theory is the Relief theory. Relief works to create laughter as a release of nervous tension that is associated with the resolution of an uneasy situation. This theory and the Incongruity theory are often seen working in tandem to create humor and laughter for audiences.

The BBFF

The black best friend, or BBFF, is the loyal sidekick to the white protagonist. They are obedient and, as previously stated, willing to drop anything to come to the aid their best friend. At a glance TV shows may seem multicultural but upon further analysis it can be seen that diversity is presented in such a way that constructs position and privilege of white culture. TV shows that parallel the BBFF character include Scrubs and Psych. First, I will discuss the character of Turk in Scrubs and identify the ways in which he and the other characters create a colorblind world. Then I will analyze similar themes relating to the character Gus, from Psych. Through these clips I will show how the theories of humor described above play a role in creating light-humor about race and race relations.

Scrubs

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Main cast of Scrubs

In this medical comedy we see a white protagonist, JD and his loyal best friend, Turk, go through many different kinds of situations most of which do not involve race at all. The setting of this show is a hospital but more than that it is a  assimilationist representation.

 

 

In this video clip (below) JD and Turk discuss race in a way that makes it seem like race is something unknown to them.

In this scene JD is called a cracker and takes it as a compliment. This demonstrates incongruity because most audiences know that ‘cracker’ is a pejorative term applied to whites. This is an example of using a special lexicon, in that ‘cracker’ or ‘cracka’ is a slang word used mostly by non-whites to describe whites. It is then up to Turk to explain to JD what it means and why it is bad to have people call you that. The clip then divulges into a discussion about family life growing up for Turk and brings race into the conversation. In this scene Turk is acting as an exceptional black by teaching JD a lesson about how good he had it compared to Turk. The conversation is tense at first but by the end of Turk’s story he has created humor and relieves the audience of any racial tension they were feeling throughout the discussion. The scene ends humorously when Turk calls JD a cracker jokingly and the audience is able to laugh off any mention of race.

In this next clip Turk is receiving a lesson from a ‘superior’ white character about what it actually means to be black. This involves superiority humor as well as relief humor at the end of the scene when a joke is made.

The topic of race is brought up humorously because it is thought to be mostly a non-issue in this show. Turk says that he is cool simply because he is a black man and Dr. Cox goes on a rant to disprove him and show him how little he knows about the NAACP and what it truly is to be black. Dr. Cox describes Turk as being more white than black which may not have been realized by the audience because Turk is not even seen as black. He is portrayed as the same as JD and therefore race is irrelevant in their friendship. What Dr. Cox says serves as a reminder that race exists but in a way that is humorous and causes tension to build which is then relieved when the dialogue ends with a joke.

In this scene JD and Turk are discussing a medical condition that JD is experiencing and a conversation ensues.

The language used by JD when he says “knows a teensy bit about adversity” stresses the ‘teensy’ word to exaggerate that he actually knows a lot about adversity. Tension is created here when JD says “and why is that Turk?” the audience assumes that race is going to be discussed next. However, when Turk answers and says “because I’m black” JD says “no because you have diabetes. What’s hard about being black?” Implying that JD has no idea about the history of our country and the race relations therein. When Turk says, “because I’m black” his tone makes it seem like this answer is obvious, and yet JD still does not understand why this is and he questions him. When JD says, “no because you have diabetes” relief from the subject of race occurs. This scene shows that JD and the other characters exist in a post-race world where race is not even considered as why Turk would experience adversity.

This clip shows two scenes where a racial stereotype is being discussed by JD and Turk.

The stereotype is joked about by both characters bringing humor into a discussion based around race. This stereotype portrays black as being overdramatic in response to something that is not real. In the first part of the clip Turk says “you didn’t go to the black family yelling at the movie screen stereotype did you?” in a sarcastic tone because he knows that it is exactly what JD was thinking. His tone implies that he is accepting that JD assumes this stereotype and that this is a real phenomenon. In the second scene tension is created when Turk says, “here we go” in response to JD’s question about Turk being black. Turk is willing to listen to what JD has to say even though it will probably be somewhat offensive towards himself. Turk sacrifices his dignity and lets JD have his moment of wishing to be black just so he can yell at a movie screen. What JD forgets is that being black is more than just this stereotype, but this is not discussed in the clip.

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In all of these clips Turk is speaking in African American English. He uses slang, “cracker,” “y’all.” And other features of AAE such as phonological variation (changing –ing to –in). The relationship created between JD and Turk is meant to be based on the fact that they are the same. However, by analyzing the language, tone and action of the characters in these clips we can see how the theories and ideologies defined previously work within the interracial relationship and the show to create a non-racialized portrayal of the world.

Psych

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This comedy television show is centered around a white-black duo that work together to solve crimes in an unusual manner. The white protagonist, Shawn, is very adept at noticing small details. He uses this talent to portray himself as psychic and Gus as his sidekick. This is the premise of the whole show. There is a relationship of power existing between Shawn and Gus because Shawn has his special ‘talent’ and Gus is just there to support him and make sure he does not get found out. From this position Shawn constantly jokes with Gus and mocks him, he is able to openly acknowledge Gus’s race because this only occurs within the context of friendship. Gus reluctantly accepts that he will be the butt of most jokes because he is loyal to Shawn.

In this first clip Shawn is seen patronizing Gus by telling what not to be. This is just a short compilation of this type of dialogue, it continues to happen throughout every season of the show.

The use of a patronizing tone by Shawn puts him in control of the relationship and as such he say basically say whatever he wants. This may seem like it wouldn’t be funny but the phrases Shawn tells Gus to not be like are impossible situations making the interaction humorous. Gus is kept in the position of sidekick throughout this scene due to Shawn’s tone and their body language. Gus does not actually speak in the scenes but you can see his expression of exasperation. He is defeated by these phrases Shawn makes but he accepts them because he loves Shawn and continually chooses to support him.

In this series of clips we see all of the names that Shawn makes up for Gus throughout their detective work.

(Don’t need to watch the whole thing to get the idea) We can see right away that Gus disapproves of Shawn making up names for him. His facial expression and his body language convey that he is annoyed with Shawn’s antics. He sometimes sucks his teeth to show his annoyance. By calling Gus nicknames Shawn puts Gus in awkward positions that Gus must then work his way out of. Even though we can see that Gus is annoyed we also see his loyalty and how quick he is to forgive Shawn for any wrongdoings that result in Gus being in an awkward position. Again Shawn is using a patronizing tone in many of the clips which reinforces the fact that Gus is his sidekick. In one of the clips Shawn even says, “this is my sidekick… Magic Head” (0.13). Typically Shawn refers to Gus as his partner when introducing him which makes it seem like they are equals even though Shawn is really the superior.

The last clip includes a section that I want to focus on in which Gus is portrayed as an exceptional black. (0.14 to 0.27). However the entire clip exemplifies more of Shawn’s use of patronizing tone that reinforces Gus’s position as sidekick.

In this section Shawn is saying that he pleads the third and in response Gus corrects him. Shawn then plays it off by saying “I’ve heard it both ways.” In this role Gus knows more than Shawn, Gus also has a real job at a pharmaceutical company. Throughout the show Gus is seen as the responsible one who actually has money, a job, and intelligence. These characteristics are what Shawn typically bases his jokes off of in an attempt to equalize the differences between the two. Because they are seen as being equals Gus is allowed to correct Shawn within the realm of their friendship and that is where Shawn makes the joke “I’ve heard it both ways.” When Gus corrects Shawn tension arises because the sidekick is acting superior. By responding with a joke Shawn discredits Gus as being smart because Shawn is seen as being clever with a quick retort.

Overall there are large differences between these two shows and the relationship of the white protagonist and the BBFF. In Scrubs the relationship is very equal, they are both doctors and on the same playing field. They both make jokes about one another fairly regularly and these balance out in number. The friends are both loyal to each other even though technically Turk is the sidekick he is not seen as such. The language used by Turk allows the audience to identify him as a speaker of AAE and accurately label him as a black character. JD sometimes uses AAE when speaking with slang terms but in these instances he is just attempting to copy Turk and make a joke about differences in race. These joke covers the actual reality of race and makes it seem like race is something that can be laughed off and disregarded in the context of the show.In Psych the Gus is seen as the sidekick and is treated as such. He is the butt of most of Shawn’s jokes but because of his loyalty he accepts his position and almost always agrees to do what Shawn wants to do. The show attempts to create a colorblind screen by having Shawn’s jokes based on topics other than race. However race is always a factor in power relationship dynamics even if not explicitly stated. By ignoring the reality that race does matter the show discredits the notion that racism exists between certain groups.

Conclusion

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This research has allowed me to realize what kind of world the media portrays through interracial relationships. I would not have even noticed these power dynamics and the slight jokes at race realities if I had not done this project. By preforming this analysis I am now able to better understand how the media portrays race and recognize when race is being ignored on screen. Obviously our country has a history of racial tension that still affects how race is interpreted today in popular culture. Because media is such a powerful medium for discourse and race relations it is crucial that we are able to recognize the reality of a situation when the opposite is being portrayed via a movie or TV show. This recognition will allow viewers to understand that media does not always portray reality as it is and taking what the media says with some suspicion. Usually the media is trying to tell a certain message based off who is funding the particular source. Awareness of this will lead to understanding of actual race relations and enable a productive discussion on what can be done to create a society that recognizes differences in race and accepts them. By doing this we will be able to create an equality based system that does not put everyone in the same box, but understands that it is normal for everyone to not be the same. Differences are what make life interesting and meaningful, they do not need to be a bad thing!

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Works Cited

Squires, C.R. (2009) African americans in the media. Section two: Film. Polity. 89-110

Squires, C.R (2014) Watching while black: Centering the television of black audiences. Cinema Journal, 53(4), 164-168

Thornton, D.J. (2011) Psych’s comedic tale of Black-White friendship and the lighthearted affect of “Post-race” america. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 28(5). 424-449.

Turner, S.E, & Neilsen, S. (2014) The colorblind screen: television in Post-racial america. New York: NYU Press.

Turner, S.E. (2014). BBFFs: interracial friendships in a post-racial world. NYU Press.

Written by Molly Flannagan

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