Over the weekend, I watched most of the first season of the television show Black-ish. I hardly ever watch network television or cable apart from the news, so I had missed this popular show (and its various spin-offs) when it first came out. And frankly, I only started streaming it because I love Laurence Fishburne.
At first, I found the premise of the show highly entertaining. You have a black family with successful, self-made parents bemoaning the fact that their kids have experienced no real struggles in life. An over-arching theme in the show is dealing with real racism, but also the temptation to manufacture discrimination where it doesn’t actually exist because you are being treated in accordance with your economic class and not your race. In many ways, Black-ish seemed like exactly the sort of comedy our country needs these days.
But the more I watched the show, the more disgusted I became with some of the humor in it, particularly the plots that revolved around the children.
It made me think about how much of comedy involves demeaning children now (see Young Sheldon for a white family example of comedy built on demeaning children). Is this a new phenomenon in a country with record low birth rates? Do the people who watch these shows also find it hilarious when Michelle Wolf jokes about how she loves abortion because then she gets to play God?
It’s a universal problem (race-wise) that when you experience material success it is difficult to raise children with strong characters. Kids who have everything handed to them do not develop discipline. You can drag your kids to soup kitchens on Thanksgiving, but you can’t force them to have a sense of charity in their heart. Most professions that lead to extreme wealth also involve treating other people as means to an end, and this is the kind of behavior affluent kids see being routinely rewarded. It seems natural for them to emulate it.
The couple in the show have four kids, and every single one of them has profoundly bad values. And the show portrays raising kids poorly as an endless source of comedy. Very little self-awareness emerges from any episode.
The oldest daughter is obsessed with her physical appearance and social status at school. She doesn’t value learning anything – in fact, the closest she ever came to appreciating “work” was creating a vlog about makeup and fashion where she took pride in perfecting a QVC-like phoniness. Her vapid pragmatism makes her the favorite child of her father who works in marketing. His daughter is a black Paris Hilton and he loves what he sees.
The second-eldest child, a boy, loves STEM pursuits and demonstrates a conventional nerdiness, but he’s unable to take advantage of those very useful attributes because he is being constantly belittled by his own parents, siblings, and people at school. His father sees his child being bullied by the white jocks at school and teaches him that the proper way to defend himself is to destroy the self-esteem of anyone he perceives as having slighted him. (Stay tuned for the future episode when the father righteously freaks out about Donald Trump.)
Instead of modelling a boy having a father who is a solid role model, in every interaction the boy seems infinitely more mature and well-adjusted than his own father. In a strange way, he has an intact, successful traditional family but no serious father figure.
Then there are the two twins, a boy and a girl. The girl is highly intelligent but she sneers at every person she meets. Every plot line she’s involved in involves her sneering at her parents, her siblings, her peers. They devote an episode to how she’s incapable of paying a compliment to anyone.
The only time the boy twin is mentioned in the show, it’s because he’s stupid. He fails at school, and that’s just so hilarious. He can’t be disciplined and runs off in department stores, so hilarious.
The story arc of the show is that the parents worry incessantly that their kids are not “black” enough – that they are so surrounded by upper middle class white people that they are starting to act more like upper middle class white people than normal black kids. They don’t like basketball. They play Romeo in the school play but can’t tell you anything about Martin Luther King, Jr. In one particularly ridiculous episode, the kids do not know that Obama was the first black president, as if that is not taught in school.
The parents are obsessed with raising kids with the “correct” politics and the “correct” emotions about things. It’s literally the only thing they care about. Whenever a kid is not sufficiently woke, that demands an immediate intervention by the parents. But the fact that two of their kids hate learning and are falling through the cracks at school merely demands cracking some jokes. Hahaha, Jack can’t read, but at least he can break-dance. Or, let’s face it, she’s obviously going to marry well.
The thing is, I think part of this show’s popularity is because there are many middle class families in America who do think this way. According to the College Board, fully half of the kids taking the SAT each year are not prepared to do college-level work. Two-thirds of the kids in public schools are not proficient in reading. A lot of families are pretty okay with their kids falling through the cracks.
Do kids have bad values because they lack struggle, or do kids have bad values because their parents have bad values? Because our society rewards bad values?
Is that what we are supposed to take away from a story about parents who put their children’s lives on autopilot while they devote all of their energies to maintaining their social status? It’s funny that your kids are illiterate but admirable that you have a luxury kitchen when you can’t even cook?
I don’t think this is a story that is exclusively about a black family. I know white families who care more about whether their daughters are feminists ideologically than whether they understand math and science, which is how they will actually achieve financial parity with men. I’d dare say their public school teachers are cool with this state of affairs too, as they place increasing attention on social activism than being literate or numerate.
I don’t think the irrationality of their behavior is even remotely apparent to them, and I don’t think the writers and producers of Black-ish even see that behavior as problematic.
This is in no way a suggestion that learning about black history or civil rights is not worth studying in depth. In fact, I would submit to you that by reducing the black experience in America to some cheesy, sentimental narrative, the parents in the show are not doing their children or their community any favors. If they cared more about the real education their children received, they would not be worrying that their kids were not taking history or civics seriously.
But that’s not the joke. The joke is that you know you’ve finally arrived when you find your children’s ignorance hysterical.