by Lavern Merriweather
When I was little, there were two different TV shows that I absolutely loved, and they were NBC’s Different Strokes and Gimme A Break. In my house both of those shows were very popular and we watched them religiously. In fact I don’t think I ever missed an episode. Back then I thought those programs were very enjoyable. They were funny, engaging and sometimes even thought provoking. As an adult, however, I have a much different perspective. I still find the shows funny when I watch the re-runs, but now, I watch them with a bit of trepidation over the content.
In one show you have a rich, middle aged, white male who adopts his maid’s kids and in the other you have a fat, loud, ‘sassy’, black woman helping a single, white father raise his three girls. (Give me a minute while my head pounds from the foolishness!) First of all, in what biazzaro universe would you have a rich white male who even knows the last name of his black maid, let alone want to take in her two kids both of whom are male? And you know you are rich when you have an apartment with an upstairs an apartment with a second floor. That’s some Bill Gates bank right there. On top of that, he has a prepubescent daughter himself. So, he’s going to just invite two black boys to grow up around her. Yeah, and I have a bridge to sell in Brooklyn.
Granted, I understand that they would grow up together as siblings, but still, come on now! What makes watching this show especially troubling today is the whole ‘white guy to the rescue’ trope. It’s like a TV version of the Sandra Bullock movie The Blind Side, since us pathetic Negroes can’t truly raise our kids right, white people must take over for you. I could very well be wrong, but that’s the impression that I get. And even when they did have an episode where a black family member came to claim Willis and Arnold Jackson (how original), he turned out to be just a very shady con man trying to bilk them out of an imagined fortune. Now, that I think about it, most of the black people who appeared on the show besides Willis and his brother were usually stereotypes. This is pretty ironic considering that the show, on many occasions, would have that ‘special episode’ where Willis and Arnold would face some form of discrimination. Always with their benefactor, Mr. Drummond, right there to give sage advice. I never saw the episode where they expressed any disgust that he didn’t 100 percent get just how f—ked up what they had to deal with was.
It even spilled onto their real lives. Not a day would go by without some snide or malicious comment being made by a member of the media towards the two sole black stars of the show, usually in regards to their drug problems which inevitably led to other arrests. Weird, but I never heard any vitriol directed towards their white female co-star Dan Plato even though she also many times had ran afoul of the law. In Dana’s case it was ‘sad and tragic’ that her life had fallen apart like that while for Todd Bridges and Gary Coleman they were just losers who couldn’t get their s**t together. I wonder how Mr. Drummond would tell them to deal with such blatant racially selective persecution?
As for Gimme A Break, which starred Tony award winning actress Nell Carter, I always find it strange watching it today how the writers would mock the whole mammy stereotype when that is pretty much exactly what she was. Even if the show did have a slightly more acceptable premise than Different Strokes, she was doing a favor for a dying friend after all. And the show’s gruff father figure played by one time real life cop turned actor Dolph Sweet would have scarred his daughters for life. So, to some extent I found that plotline a little more believable.
What I didn’t like, however, was her overbearing personality. It was stereotypical to the point of being offensive. I mean I know it’s just a TV show but jeeeeez! Adding insult to injury was Ms. Carter’s sizable weight, which has always been a sore spot for most black women still trying to recover from decades of Beulah, Aunt Jemima, and Hattie McDaniel. Apparently it wasn’t enough that she be loud and bossy. She had to also be the same size as a baby beluga whale rendering her completely sexless. The absolute antithesis to America’s standard of ‘beauty’.
Despite how the late Ms. Carter may have felt about her own attractiveness, the show’s writers would never let her forget that it didn’t matter. She was a black woman who was morbidly obese. Therefore, she was the perfect big butt of their jokes. If you watch the re-runs yourself, you can almost do a countdown to the point where her figure will eventually become a punchline. That’s unfortunate, and I see that not much has change, especially when I watch those Pine-Sol commercials featuring actress Diane Amos as the latest mammy model.
The more things change the more they stay the same, and when it comes to racialized images we see in entertainment, that statement is truer than ever before.