Won’t You Be My Neighbor? : Representation of People of Color In Media

By Lindsey Kriaris, Abby Ritz, and Helen Warfle

Many of us grew up watching Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, which is commonly referred to as one of the most wholesome shows to ever exist. And it certainly is, but in more ways than just the kindness exhibited by Fred Rogers himself— the show, which began airing in 1968, was one of the first to include a black actor in a positive role and one of the first with an African American in “a recurring role on a children’s television series.” François Clemmons played Officer Clemmons, the policeman who did rounds in Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. In real life, Clemmons was a black, gay man who, due to the prevailing homophobic attitudes of the time, remained closeted, but was embraced by Mr. Rogers both in the show and in real life, to the point where Clemmons viewed him as a father figure. The two of them remained friends until Rogers’ death in 2003.

Mr. Rogers and Officer Clemmons

Mr. Rogers embracing of Clemmons’ full identity was truly groundbreaking for the time — though Clemmons is now out, if he had been outed while the show was still airing, it could have been disastrous both for him and the show. This is especially relevant to one of the most significant scenes of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, where Mr. Rogers invites Officer Clemmons to share his foot-bath. While it may seem inconsequential (after all, what’s the big deal about two friends sharing a kiddie pool on a hot day?), this scene really was significant in many ways, especially as this episode aired during the time that public pools were in the process of being desegregated, leading to violence against black swimmers. And symbolically, this gesture is also potent — in Christian iconography, which we have been working with this semester through Steve Prince’s work, foot-cleansing is symbolic of humility, servitude, and repentance. When Mr. Rogers dried Officer Clemmons’ feet with a towel, he was not only illustrating that his friend was equal but in fact performing an act of servitude, which can be interpreted as an act of reconciliation.

Additionally, that Clemmons played a police officer is also significant in a time of police brutality against people of color (which unfortunately continues to be an issue to this day). Overall, Clemmons, as a black actor, representing not only a person on an equal level to Mr. Rogers but also playing a police officer, who is in a position of power, is a symbol of how Mr. Rogers Neighborhood  was also a space where Rogers helped viewers confront their own fear and prejudices, leading them past them in his own non-threatening way. From the beginning, Rogers specifically challenged the nation’s understanding of race through his friendship… with Francois Clemmons.”

Thus, from the early days of television, it is clear that representation does matter. But since that time, we have made progress in how representation can and should be done. Beyond simply including characters of color, it is so important to represent people in their full reality and to allow for space for people of marginalized identities to represent themselves and their truths as they wish to be represented.  Oftentimes, when people of color were first represented in major media outlets the characters were idealized representations, only allowed so much subjectivity and dynamism. Of course, shows with such characters, such as The Cosby Show, represented people of color in an idealized manner in order to purposefully undermine specific harmful stereotypes (the Huxtables were an upper-middle-class family, with Mr. Huxtable working as a doctor and Mrs. Huxtable working as a stay-at-home mother with uncompromisingly feminist views; their children attended college and went into fields meant to provide service to the community); additionally, The Cosby Show was one of the first shows that represented people of color to have and reflect the creative input of people of color (much of the purposeful efforts to undermine stereotypes and begin the effort of representing realistic black characters was done by Cosby himself), thus, it began to make space for people of color to be represented as they wanted to be represented. While we recognize that The Cosby Show is now a controversial cultural marker due to the harmful actions of creator and star Bill Cosby, its current controversy does not mitigate the fact that The Cosby Show was an extraordinarily influential cultural occurrence during its time. It introduced representations of full casts of black characters and stable black families in their homes and allowed for the growth of diverse representations of people of color.  The Cosby Show and other early representations of people of color on television initiated the process of representing marginalized identities both in all of their diverse characterizations and forms and how they wanted to be represented.

Director and comedian Jordan Peele’s work is a contemporary example of people of color being represented both realistically and as they want to be represented. Peele creates with the intention to address racial imbalance in media (particularly, in horror films) and to normalize the presence of black artists behind and in front of the camera. Get Out speaks specifically to the black experience and racial tension present in America. However, Us sends a different message to its audience: that it should be just as normal for a black family to be the subject of a horror movie as a white family, not something that has to represent the black experience. In an interview, Peele explains that “…my first film had a black lead and it was very much about race, but I think it’s just as much of a statement to make a horror movie with a black family at the centre of it and to just have that be so.” Peele communicates the failure of the film and TV industry to equally represent people of color. Mass-media should be a reflection of the diverse world we live in and its consumers — the failure of the entertainment industry to equally include and represent diverse narratives and stories is a clear reflection of our society’s race issues.

Peele states that Tim Burton is one of his major directing influences. Burton is very well-known for his very distinct aesthetic which he builds with gothic-romantic elements, quirky humor, dark muted colors, and pale (almost ghoulish) characters. Over a 30-year film career, Burton only first introduced a black leading actor in 2016 – and he was the villain. Whether it is a live-action or an animated film, all of Tim Burton’s main characters – and secondary characters – have been white (that is, until he cast Samuel L. Jackson as the villain in his most recent film Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children). This is not only problematic, but it is also repetitive (and boring). Burton’s choice to exclude people of color from his films in order to maintain his artistic “vision” brings up many questions; for example, how he views the world and its racial issues. When confronted about his lack of diversity in an interview, Burton explained: “things either call for things, or they don’t… I remember back when I was a child watching “The Brady Bunch” and they started to get all politically correct, like, OK, let’s have an Asian child and a black — I used to get more offended by that than just — I grew up watching blaxploitation movies, right? And I said, that’s great. I didn’t go like, OK, there should be more white people in these movies.” Burton admitted that he believes that black characters exist in stories for political correctness unless it is a blaxploitation movie — which is a limited genre from over forty years ago that was revolutionary in terms of black representation, but also highly stereotypical.

Similar to how The Cosby Show represented an idealized characterization of a black American family, blaxploitation films highly sexualized black women, hypermasculine black men, and glorified street violence. It is important to recognize that at the time, these films provided desperately needed on-screen representation and accurately reflected aspects of the black experience (such as mistrust in the government and oppression) that hadn’t previously explored in film. In films before this period, black actors usually only played subservient roles; such as waitstaff, maids, or servants. Thus, in historical context, blaxploitation films were: pushing back against the black respectability…was pushing back against Hollywood’s expectation of black people and their thoughts on how [they] act.” However, Burton’s claim was not made in the 1970s, it was made in 2016. Blaxploitation films would not hold the same weight if they were made in the 21st century, because they have already served their place as both a barrier-breaker and as a stepping stone to further explore the black narrative in movies.

Burton is personifying the underlying racial issues in Hollywood: why are people of color only valued in highly limited, exploitative roles, or as tools to perpetuate political correctness? These are voices, stories, and faces that deserve to be heard, told, and seen at the same level of its white counterparts. White creators like Tim Burton who want to continue to restrict black artists are engaging in a form of violence. As explained by Maurice Berger, a research professor and chief curator  at the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture at the University of Maryland, “White artists should, and indeed have a responsibility to, examine the most vexing and intransigent issue of our time: white racism in all of its forms, from that of the complacent liberal to the neo-Nazi supremacist. But cross-cultural work demands insight, respect, sensitivity, and rigor. It also requires honesty about and self-inquiry into one’s own racial attitudes. To be an artist, no matter how expressive or interpretive, does not give anyone license — or cover — to casually appropriate African-American history and culture.”  

One example of representation done right that we have encountered in our course this semester is Kim Vaz-Deville. Like Peele and unlike Burton, Vaz-Deville takes into account what the subjects of her works want, which is especially important as she has contact with members of the group she works with: the Baby Dolls. In the introduction to her lecture, she talked about the importance of creating reciprocal relationships with the Baby Dolls. Specifically, for The Baby Dolls, her first book, she mentioned how a lot of the Baby Dolls were excited that she was collecting their history but that there were structural barriers preventing them from benefiting from and appreciating this work; for example, some of the Baby Dolls were illiterate. So, Vaz-Deville, as she said in her lecture, has been working with them to increase literacy. And this is part of her larger goal: to represent the Baby Dolls both realistically and how they want to be represented. After all, how can they provide input on a work that they can’t understand?

For this reason, we believe that Vaz-Deville is a good example of how representation should be undertaken — she really and truly cares what the people she is representing think about the work she is doing to the point of doing everything in her power to make sure they have access to her work. Her two books, The Baby Dolls and Walking Raddy are important because they are an account of the Baby Dolls as the Baby Dolls want, and unlike many other authors, it is not just an impersonal study. It is clear that Vaz-Deville deeply cares about the Baby Doll community and because she cares, she represents them in a realistic and empowering way, not just as an artifact of New Orleans culture.

Similar to artists such as Rogers and Peele, Steve Prince also uses his platform to educate others and to promote equality. As often brought up in class, Prince’s artwork is “a call for action,” it is a visualization of the black experience in America throughout history, it is a promotion of love and empathy for others. It is a pathway to communication, learning, and better understanding. Steve creates art with the intent of reminding his viewers that we are individuals apart of a larger community — or neighborhood, if you will. As Steve himself asserts, “We have a responsibility of the self and others in which we are in contact with. We are ‘our brothers’ keeper,’ and you are my ‘neighbor.’”

The use of art to educate others and promote equality is especially relevant in the context of historical representations of people of color and people of marginalized identities in art. The concept of the Other has permeated Western representations of people of color and has perpetuated harmful stereotypes within the canon.  Thus, Steve’s use of visual art and reuse of tropes from visual art of the Western historical canon not only promotes education and equality but purposefully subverts the use of art to promote the marginalization of people of color and people previously conceptualized of as the Other.  

It is an unfortunate part of human nature that people find it easier to relate and connect to representations of people in media as opposed to real people. However, for this reason, it is incredibly important that representation in media is done correctly, as often times people are more exposed to different types of fictional characters than they are to real people. Thus, they are representative of real people in that way and absolutely can and do influence the way that people see others. For this reason, we absolutely have to hold ourselves and each other responsible for ensuring accurate representation of all identities in realistic ways. We all have a social responsibility to listen, educate ourselves, use our voice and platform to raise awareness about issues pertaining both to ourselves and to others.

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