By Shameem Razack
“I always want to make sure that young Black girls are in the forefront and see themselves in anything that they do…I’m creating stuff that I wish I saw when I was younger, and that is highlighting our beautiful Black queen.”
– Marsai Martin, Actor, Executive Producer (The Root)
The concept of focusing primarily on a Black young people (particularly age 10-18) in current sitcoms seems to be very rare, especially in having a Black ensemble cast. I want to be specific in naming that although the catalog of live-action scripted television may be limited in its focus on Black young people between the ages of 10 -18. The film industry has made significant strides in expanding the various experiences/coming of age stories that center Black children and young adults such as Moonlight, Pariah, Akeelah, and the Bee, and many more. The primary focus here will be to discuss the existence or lack of current television series focusing on black girlhood.
Recently I have only watched shows that I grew up with or initially aired in the ’90s or early ’00s. The COVID-19 Pandemic has shown various ways of how people cope or are trying to escape from the current realities. Nostalgia has been a mechanism that sometimes many of us use to cope. Conveniently enough, streaming services and the film industry have also become aware of nostalgia’s power even before the pandemic with the multiple reboots of tv shows and films within the past five years. With the recent announcement from Marsai Martin on the production of a new Disney Channel show that she will be starring in, Saturdays, I am thinking about other previous shows that I watched while growing up that focused on Black girlhood.
“We’re just bringing back the Disney Channel era that I grew up watching with That’s So Raven and Good Luck Charlie, the shows that I love, and i wanted to bring that back in a way where everyone can watch it, not just the kids, but the family.”
— Marsai Martin, Actor, Executive Producer(The Hollywood Reporter)
The year was 2003, and I began to watch a show on the Disney Channel, That’s So Raven (2003 – 2007). I was captivated by the sheer brilliance of the show. Although the sitcom lasted four seasons, the cultural relevance still reigns true today. The 2003 sitcom based in San Francisco centered on the life of a young teenage psychic, Raven Baxter (played by Raven Symone), who was involved in hilariously outrageous scenarios/situations with family and friends. At the time, this concept of centering a young Black girl(s) as the protagonist in a television sitcom was not so new as Sister Sister had debuted in 1994 starring Tia and Tamera Mowry. Later on, Moesha debuted in 1996, starring the pop star sensation Brandy Norwood. There would soon be a flood of various Black sitcoms produced and aired throughout the ’90s to early ’00s showcasing young Black actors. However, the difference with That’s So Raven is two key factors: 1) That’s So Raven would air on the Disney Channel, which planned to introduce more live scripted television series. Particularly after receiving much success and an increase of viewers from the Lizzie Mcguire show. Much of Disney’s catalog before the early 2000s included cartoon shows and movies with some live-scripted movies. 2) That’s So Raven would be the start of the resurgence of Black tween and teen sitcoms for the early 2000s to mid-2010s. This resurgence exposed a new generation of kids to shows centering the lives of characters who were not the average white American middle-class family. Before That’s So Raven, the Disney channel had The Proud Family (2001) and Famous Jett Jackson (1998), both shows centered on Black characters. However, Disney Channel did not have a live scripted television series centered around a Black teenage girl who was not a sidekick or a stereotypical role.
Disney was and still has notoriously erased Black experiences in their various projects just as much of the entertainment and film industry. It’s almost as if Black girlhood and boyhood are nonexistent in television, particularly on children-centered channels such as Disney Channel. Disney even was trailing behind in terms of various shows depicting the lives of Black and brown young people as Nickelodeon, who had already debuted their sketch comedy show All That (1994), Kenan and Kel (1996), and later on, would debut Taina (2001). To have a show such as That’s So Raven, air on Disney Channel was and still is a big deal. The show would, later on, create a resurgence of black tween/teen sitcoms or shows that included black characters such as True Jackson VP (2008), Ant Farm (2011), Cory in the House (2007), Ravens Home (a reboot of That’s So Raven) (2017), and as recent as shows such as Grownish (2018).
These shows all are not perfect in the slightest, and in fact, you could argue may not have been progressive as we had thought at the time. Even shows such as Grownish have received valid pushback and concern around the problematic casting choices (before Ryan Destiny’s arrival on the show). Nevertheless, much of the discussion around Kenya Barris’s produced shows are issues surrounding colorism in casting and even story arcs within these shows.
Marsai Martin, an actress of Blackish (2014), recently discussed how she would make a concerted effort to cast brown-skinned Black actors. For years and even decades, the conversation around colorism in Hollywood seems to be just that, a conversation that, for the most part, goes nowhere until there is a public outcry of a cast list. Martin is very aware of this urgency to cast and involve more Black experiences within television shows, so it is most noteworthy she is producing this show on Disney. Disney has also played a role in not casting brown and dark-skinned Black actors, as Coco Jones, former child star and singer, recently discussed her time with Disney in a youtube video.
“I have a couple of rules when you come into my office. When you come into my office, don’t give me this — I don’t do no Black pain. If it’s Black pain I don’t go for it because there’s so many films and projects about that, so that’s not who I am. I want to make sure that it is diverse and real in its own way. I know a lot of people don’t like the word “authentic,” but I just love real stories that people can resonate with, even when it doesn’t resonate with you personally but you know a friend who’s dealt with that or families.”
– Marsai Martin, Actor, Executive Producer (The Hollywood Reporter)
Further, the overall limited character development of Black characters is still prevalent; as Martin briefly discusses the new project, she states that she is not interested in ‘Black pain’ storylines. Just as colorism is prevalent in the casting of Black actors, it also seems as though storylines have only to center some form of struggle. As Hollywood tries to address/ be ‘aware of the current issues around police violence and the emergence of the movement for Black lives, it has almost become a blueprint within the past five years to now include a protest scene after the murder of a Black person.
Yes, it is crucial for the media we consume to acknowledge the systemic issues we, as Black people, continue to experience. However, how much of it is only surface level? It is no secret that the entertainment industry in the United States historically and currently influences our social-cultural landscape and has for decades built the industry on anti-black rhetoric and gatekeeping (Black artists, actors, writers, directors). Is it truly enough to dedicate one episode of a show to focus on race-related issues if there are no structural changes behind the scenes? It will be interesting to see the development of Martin’s new show on Disney. No, the project does not need to be perfect but hopefully can be authentic to some of the Black experiences she will be producing on screen. I am hopeful this project may open the door to more Black teen sitcoms and learn from previous shows.
Shameem Razack is a Contributing Writer for the Pedestal Project, LLC. Shameem recently earned a Bachelor’s degree in Gender and Women’s studies at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. Outside of being a student, Shameem is involved in various organizations that focus on social justice. You can also find Shameem on youtube, Sincerely Shameem, where she discusses all things pop culture, makeup, and book reviews. Be sure to connect with Shameem on Instagram (@SincerelyShameem) and Twitter (@box_hijabi)!