Recent media on media coverage of the upcoming Fall Television Season (does TV even still have seasons? Doesn't it feel like new shows are just constantly premiering?) has focused heavily on television becoming a lot less "whitewashed," mostly due to the multiple productions of Shonda Rhimes (Grey's Anatomy) and a few others, including upcoming pilots with Hispanic and Asian leads.
Now, I'm not sure if any American, no matter what their ethnicity or sexual orientation, has ever been able to find a television character to whom they relate completely (for one thing, most of us live 24/7, not one hour a week - summers off). But, when it comes to my kids, ages 14, 10 and 7, the offspring of a Soviet-born Jewish mother and an African-American father, that task becomes even more difficult. Because, while TV has made massive strides towards showcasing people of color, they have yet to do equally well for people of many colors; specifically those who identify as such. (My oldest son is always asking, "Why do they call Obama the first Black president, instead of the first biracial one?")
And while I would never look to television exclusively for my kids' role models, I would like it if there were some they could, if not identify with, at least catch a glimpse of once in a while.
Wizards of Waverly Place Cast Image via The Disney Channel
They do exist, but few and far between.
My brood is too old for Super Why, where Princess Pea's father, Prince Charming, is white, and her mother, the original damsel who had such a hard time getting a good night's sleep, is Black, or Sid the Science Kid, where, in between experiments, Sid celebrates Christmas and Kwanzaa with his mother and Hanukkah with his dad (though, technically, neither parent is Black or white, as the entire family is best described as shades of orange).
And they're too young for Jennifer Beals on The L Word, Jackson on Grey's Anatomy, even Emily on Pretty Little Liars.
Two shows that would fit the bill almost perfectly are The Wizards of Waverly Place, where the parents' marriage isn't only Latino/European, but also Wizard/Non-Wizard (there's a mixed couple you don't see every day), and Pair of Kings, where the leads are fraternal twins, one dark-skinned, one light, facing the all-too-common challenges of orphaned adolescents ruling a Polynesian island. But, both of those shows are on cable. And we don't have cable.
This leaves me with shows either currently on the air, or those we can catch on broadcast reruns. On Sister, Sister, the twins eventually learn that their late mother was Black, while their biological father, who didn't even know they existed, was white. But, for the run of the series, they are being raised by their adoptive, African-American parents. So not really much to work with, there.
Welcome Back, Kotter had Juan Epstein, with a Jewish father and a "Signed - Juan Epstein's mother" who was nominally Puerto Rican (though her maiden name, we're told, was Bibberman), and Phineas and Ferb features Isabella Garcia-Shapiro. Thanks to her, my kids often break out into songs about the "matzoh ball-ritos" you can eat at "The Mexican-Jewish Cultural Fair." They also relate to Isabella's hair issues, as described in the ditty, "Izzy's Got the Frizzies."
I previously wrote about how well Girlfriends handled their interfaith/interracial issues, and whether sketch show or sitcom, Maya Rudolph seems to play characters with the same ethnic background as her own (African-American mother, Jewish-American father) without much drama. Though, in her recent variety show, the bit my son liked best was when she assayed a stereotypical Russian woman, complete with leopard print dress. (Like I said, we've got a lot of cultures intermingling at our house.)
There was that Cheerios commercial everyone was up in arms over exactly a year ago. Though while I had some issues with how the mom and dad were portrayed in it, my husband observed about the version that ran during the Super Bowl, "So... are they suggesting that an interracial baby is the same thing as a puppy?" (Like I didn't say and maybe should have, we overthink things a lot at our house.)
And then there are The Jeffersons. TV's best-known and longest running interracial family spent 10 years living next door to George and Louise; Tom Willis was white and Helen Willis was Black (and how they ever managed to get past a New York City luxury co-op board in the 1970s, no one will ever know). But I don't want my kids watching The Jeffersons. George's bullying, insulting, superior attitude towards the couple and their daughter (who eventually ended up marrying George's son) is not one I want my kids emulating. Or, quite frankly, while they're this young, even knowing that it exists. I don't want them hearing it, and I especially don't want them seeing how all the other characters simply shrug their shoulders and say, "Oh, that's just George." As if that makes it okay.
On the other hand, there is just so much I can protect my kids from (and for just so long). My oldest son, who is very light-skinned, has for a long time been sensitive to charges that he isn't "black enough." The situation isn't helped by television shows that imply it's impossible to be both African-American and not fit the prescribed physical stereotype.
On Louie, nobody can stop talking about the fact that the actress playing Louie's ex-wife is Black, while the little girls playing their daughters are white. Posters on the internet debate endlessly about whether it's supposed to be postmodern, absurd, provocative, insulting, emasculating, colorblind or insensitive. Nobody mentions that it's also genetically possible.
And then there's my favorite show of all time, Soap, where two separate gags on two separate episodes focus on the fact that Benson, played by Robert Gulliaume, couldn't possibly be the father of two white characters, like he is foolishly mistaken to be.
Finally, on 2 Broke Girls, when Max (Kat Dennings) is assumed to be the daughter of Cedric the Entertainer, she quips, "Yes, and my mother was a piece of chalk."
My son literally fell off the couch laughing. He now uses that line at every opportunity. As they said on The Simpsons, "It's funny because it's true."
In the end (as it often is with kids), all my efforts to find them a biracial character to watch on TV was undermined by them selecting their own role model. One I never even thought of.
Star Trek's Mr. Spock.
As my 7 year old explained, "He's my favorite on the Enterprise, Mommy, because he’s half and half. Half-Vulcan and half-human. He’s the only one who’s just like me."
- Alina Adams
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