Discourse & Identity III (Discussion)

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Television on the study of race and ethnicity

  • Group 1: Sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant reject the idea of racial essentialism and propose an approach based instead on a racial formation. Explain these concepts and compare them to the "gender identity" approach we discussed last week. Is there anything in the Girlfriends episode we watched that helps explain these concepts?
  • Herman Gray identifies three African-American discourses in TV.
    1. Group 2: Explain what he means by the assimilationist category and why he puts Designing Women into it. Should the Girlfriends episode we watched be put in this category? Why or why not?
    2. Group 3: Explain what he means by the pluralist category and why he puts Girlfriends into it. Why or why not?
    3. Group 4: Explain what he means by the multiculturalist. Should the Girlfriends episode we watched be put in this category? Why or why not?

Beretta Smith-Shomade

Beretta Smith-Shomade (pronounced "show-ma-day") examines "four intertwined elements in [1990s] television comedy that define and give meaning to Black women's representation there: work roles, characterization, class, and identity" (48). Each group should consider one key aspect of these elements and discuss how Girlfriends illustrate that aspect (or doesn't).

  • Group 1: work and class. When Joan snoops in Marcus's apartment, she notes music by John Coltrane and Macy Gray and a novel by Walter Mosley. What do these allusions tell you about Marcus's social class? Also, elsewhere in the episode there are allusions to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, Nelson Mandela, and Rainbow/PUSH. Each is a significant allusion within black culture. What/who are they?
    • The items in Marcus' apartment allude that he is well-off, cultured, and educated. They represent a higher class because many working class individuals may not be interested in those matters.
    • The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment subjected many black men to the disease without proper treatment or information before the experiment. This contributed to a growing mistrust between the black community and medical professionals.
    • Nelson Mandela was jailed for 27 years in South Africa for fighting to end apartheid. This represents racial injustice around the world.
    • Rainbow/PUSH is a non-profit intended to empower black individuals within government positions. PUSH stands for People United to Serve Humanity.
  • Group 2: identity: language. How does the way they speak define black characters? What differences do you hear in the Girlfriends characters' speech?
    • Many of the times when the characters spoke to each other it was in a very personal and honest way so it implies a level of realness and comradery within black characters. One example of this was when the black women and even other black men in the show would call black men “brothers” even without knowing them. Also, another aspect of the way they spoke was that they made many references to black celebrities and black culture which added a layer of community to the already diverse cast. In terms of the differences in the character's speech, Joan had a more calm tone and was more reserved and logical in her speech but Maya spoke pretty quickly, used more slang, and was more spirited than some of the other characters.
  • Group 3: identity: skin shade. How does skin shade define black characters? Describe how this episode directly addresses this issue in the black community. Is there a moral to this story?
    • Skin shade in the show made some characters more or less appealing to others. For instance, a man with a darker skin shade was too black for one of the women. This lead to a black is beautiful talk by one of her friends because the darker-skinned woman thought she had to work harder to be beautiful and that she could not marry a darker man because her children would be even darker. One of the women had a lighter skin tone due to being half black and because of this she was forbidden to weigh in on the skin tone conversation by the darker-skinned woman.
    • The moral seems to be that a person should accept themselves and not put societal pressure on themselves to look or act a certain way. They should see themselves as beautiful and not worry about what others will think (although they still made fun of the boyfriend with wide hips, but that did not seem to be a part of the main message about race).
  • Group 4: identity: hair. How do hair styles define black characters? What hair-style differences do you see in the Girlfriends characters and what do they tell you about Toni, Maya, Joan, and Lynn?
    • Lynn had the longest hair which was loose and comparatively more wild.This is indicative of her more wild personality. Also may relate to her identity as a woman of mixed race
    • Joan has shorter hair which relates to her professionalism and success in the workplace.
    • Maya has dyed her which represents her sassy and fun personality
    • Toni's straightened short hair relates to the value she places in her appearance. May also relate to her internal struggles due to her race and skin tone
  • All groups (if time permits): characterization (i.e., conventional roles and stereotypes). Does Girlfriends rely on African-American stereotypes? E.g., "mammy," "sapphire," "tragic mulatto," etc.
    • Group 1: Girlfriends relies on concepts of black identity and culture. The stereotypes are present, but they are not reinforced. Much of the comedy pokes at stereotypes, and racial commentary and conflict is a definitive aspect of the show.
    • Group 2: From what we could tell, the show did not rely on stereotypes or conventional roles to portray a point or as the but of a joke. For the most part, we felt as though the show tried its best to portray everyone as having their own degree of originality and depth.
    • Group 3: It references many stereotypes but it usually is in passing and does not lean into any one in particular that we noticed. For instance, the watermelon joke in the show was a reference to a stereotype, but then the characters moved on and it was not brought up again. While there were many heated debates, we did not feel like none of the characters fit the "sapphire" stereotype because there were not malicious in their intentions just opinionated and concerned friends.



Fresh Off the Boat

  • Eddie Huang (Hudson Yang)
  • Louis Huang (Randall Park)
  • Jessica Huang (Constance Wu)
  • Emery Huang (Forrest Wheeler)
  • Evan Huang (Ian Chen)
  • Grandma Jenny Huang (Lucille Soong)


  • Andre "Dre" Johnson Sr. (Anthony Anderson)
  • Dr. Rainbow "Bow" Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross)
  • Zoey Johnson (Yara Shahidi)
  • Andre ("Junior") Johnson Jr. (Marcus Scribner)
  • Jack Johnson (Miles Brown)
  • Diane Johnson (Marsai Martin)
  • Ruby Johnson (Jenifer Lewis)
  • Earl "Pops" Johnson (Laurence Fishburne)
  • Josh Oppenhol (Jeff Meacham)
  • Leslie Stevens (Peter Mackenzie)

All groups

  • We've looked at identity (gender and race/ethnicity) through the lenses of:
    1. Stereotyping of women, races, and ethnicities ("Images of women" and "Images of race/ethnicity")
    2. Gendered viewing and raced viewing
    3. Gender identity and the closely related concept of racial formation
    4. Third-wave feminism
  • Which of these approaches did you find the most useful way to analyze identity? Why? Which was the least useful? Why?


  1. Jeremy G. Butler, Television: Visual Storytelling and Screen Culture (NY: Routledge, 2018).
  2. Beretta E. Smith-Shomade, “Laughing Out Loud: Negras Negotiating Situation Comedy,” Shaded Lives: African-American Women and Television (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002), 24-68.

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