The Portrayal of Black Characters in Teen Shows

When you're a teenager you look to the media for ideas about beauty and fashion, but you also pick up ideals about friendship and relationships. Too bad most of the teen shows in the U.S. are marketed toward white teens. Take a second, without Google, name a teen show other than Grown-ish that stars a black actor or actress.

Introduction

I already talked about teen movies, now I'm coming back to teen and children's shows. Representation matters, especially to young children and teens who are just navigating the waters of self discovery and establishing self worth. It's annoying to never see yourself reflected in your favorite sitcoms and even more disheartening to know that studios have forgotten about your demographic. Growing up there were few shows I remember that had a black lead, and those that did had an all black cast.

Shows Marketed for Black Youth

Off the top of my head Sister, Sister, Smart Guy, One on One, The Famous Jett Jackson, and That's So Raven, are the shows that come to mind from my youth. The only current show I can think of that is specifically for teens that has a black main character is Grown-ish. While the other shows all have their place in my heart, Sister, Sister really takes the cake for me (it might also be the longest running of the shows I've listed). The show follows twins Tia and Tamera as they navigate through all the ups and downs of high school and on through college. It is to me what Boy Meets World or Saved By the Bell is to whites who grew up in the same era.

The Countless Other Shows

Though I love the shows mentioned above, the most mentioned and memorable shows from my youth are almost exclusively white. Boy Meets World, Growing Pains, Gilmore Girls, One Tree Hill, Dawson's Creek, Saved By the Bell, Blossom, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, The Lizzie McGuire Show, Even Stevens... If you pick randomly from an exhaustive list of teen shows from my generation, chances are you'll pull a show with a majority white cast and a token minority. From what I've seen, the next generation of shows (Pretty Little Liars, So Awkward, The Vampire Diaries, Girl Meets World, Riverdale etc.) aren't doing much better. For example, The CW re-envisioned Josie and the Pussycats as an all black group and fell into the trap of creating sassy black women stereotypes of them, but they didn't touch the four main characters—Archie, Jughead, Betty, and Veronica. So once again, we have black teens in the background while the white teens get to shine in the spotlight. That's the message most of these shows send.

Ramifications

I'm not going to harp on how this effects black children and teens psychologically because I think anybody can figure that out. We have countless campaigns trying to teach women to love themselves despite the distorted images we see in the media, so you can connect the dots that lack of racial representation is also damaging. What I want to talk about instead, is how enables young white stars to kick off their careers in a way black stars do not. Let's talk about Disney, specifically. Disney churns out teen celebrities (particularly female teen celebrities) the way factories churn out parts. Granted, many of them end up with a heap of problems, it is still a launch pad for building a career in the industry. Very few black stars have this opportunity. When I think of black actors and actresses, they are usually older, with teens not represented.

Let's go back to Disney. I can think of 4 black teens to appear on Disney recently: Raven Symone, Keke Palmer, China McClain, and Zendaya. When Raven Symone began working with Disney, staring in That's So Raven, Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century and The Cheetah Girls, she was already a household name for black viewers thanks to The Cosby Show. She had already been in The Little Rascals and Doctor Dolittle before Disney cast her as a supporting character in Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century in 1999. Keke Palmer, who was never given her own show on Disney but starred in the TV movie Jump In, was also already a household name for black viewers by the time Disney cast her. She had already starred in Akeelah and the Bee as well as appeared in Madea's Family Reunion and Law and Order. Chine Anne McClain also appeared in Madea's Family Reunion, as well as Daddy's Girls, A Dennis the Menace Christmas, and House of Payne before appearing as an extra on Disney's Hannah Montana. She would go on to appear in NCIS before getting a supporting role in Disney's Jonas and Wizards of Waverly Place before starring in Disney's A.N.T. Farm and receiving a starring role in the TV Movie How to Build a Better Boy. Zendaya is the only of these ladies to get her start in the industry by the Disney Channel. She was able to costar in Shake it Up, then go on to star in K.C. Undercover and Zapped.[4] Whether coincidental, or evidence of colorism, Zendaya is also the lightest of the aforementioned black women.

In contrast, stars like Kirsten Storms (Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century), Miley Cyrus (Hannah Montana), Selena Gomez (Wizards of Waverly Place, Rowan Blanchard (Girl Meets World), and Christy Carlson Romano (Kim Possible, Even Stevens), came to Disney with significantly shorter resumes. Kiersten Storms was relatively unknown, having on 2 minor credits before being cast first in Disney's Sing Me A Story With Belle, then as the lead in Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century.[5] Miley Cyrus had only 2 supporting roles before starring in Hannah Montana.[6] Rowan Blanchard and Selena Gomez both appeared in the Spy Kids franchise before appearing on Disney, though I don't know if they were recognizable faces from these appearances.[7][9] Selena Gomez appeared on Barney and Friends as well, but once again, that didn't catapult her into household name recognition.[7] Christy Carlson Romano, who was a Disney megastar during my pre-teen years, had only minor roles (some of which were so minor she was uncredited) before landing the lead in Even Stevens.

Black teen stars are basically already established by the time Disney takes note, while their white counterparts are usually still trying to graduate from guest roles. Why is that? Sure, you could argue that some of Disney's white stars (like Bella Thorne, for example) had impressive resumes before appearing on the network, but you can't deny that black Disney stars are not promoted the way the others are. Halloweentown, a franchise which managed to have no minority characters in the majority of the movies, was given three sequels. High School Musical which features minorities as secondary characters but centers around the white main characters, was given two sequels,—one of which was released in theaters—a spin off movie, and a fourth movie plus a TV show is in the works.[10] Contrarily, the heavily diverse and equally successful Cheetah Girls only received 2 sequels (and no theatrical release).

Shows From Other Countries

If you're looking for diversity in a teen show, you should look to other countries. Canada's Backstage is great at providing diversity without focusing on race or making the characters stereotypical. The U.K.'s Free Rein is also a great find, placing people of color in the world of horse training.

Thoughts for the Road

Lately, it's been a "thing" to reboot beloved series from my generation's childhood. Full House, Gilmore Girls, and Boy Meets World have all gotten a reboot. As of yet, no show from this era staring a black character (or even having black regulars in their cast) have been remade... Here's to hoping the Sister, Sister reboot comes to fruition.[11]

References

  1. "Raven Symone". IMDB; visited February 2018
  2. "Keke Palmer". IMDB; visited February 2018
  3. "China Anne Mclain". IMDB; visited February 2018
  4. "Zendaya". IMDB; visited February 2018
  5. "Kirsten Storms". IMDB; visited February 2018
  6. "Miley Cyrus". IMDB; visited February 2018
  7. "Selena Gomez". IMDB; visited February 2018
  8. "Christy Carlson Romano". IMDB; visited February 2018
  9. "Rowan Blanchard". IMDB; visited February 2018
  10. Noelle DeVoe. "Everything We Know About "High School Musical 4" So Far". Seventeen. February 12, 2018
  11. Karla Rodriguez. "Tia Mowry Gives an Update About the ‘Sister, Sister’ Reboot: ‘Everything Is in Place’". US Weekly. January 27, 2018

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Author Image Author Image I love reading the Word of God. With prayer God's Word reveals so much: from comfort to temperance, from perspective to affirmation. Digging into the depths of the Word, cross-referencing history, language and time differences, is a passion of mine. In March of 2015 I decided to go back through the Bible doing an in depth study on each section I read. Eventually I decided to share my journal of notes as I partake in this journey. I hope you are blessed by God and inspired to pursue a deeper relationship with Him. I love reading and learning about God, nature, and science. I am interested in how it all connects. The Creator's fingerprints are all over his creation. We can learn so much about Him and how we came to be by exploring the world around us. Join me as I explore the world and draw closer to the One who created it all.
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