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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Is Fox’s ‘The Cleveland Show’ nothing more than a 21st-century minstrel show?

I haven’t seen an episode of The Cleveland Show, Fox’s new Sunday-night animated sitcom — I’m not a fan of Seth MacFarlane, and I can’t stand Family Guy — but from what I have seen (trailers, TV ads, and such) and from what I know about MacFarlane, I don’t find it much of stretch to accept Jasmyne Cannick’s critique of the show at New America Media (via AlterNet):

It could be because for the first time America has a black president and the First Lady is a sista, and together with their two beautiful black daughters overnight improved the international image of black people, let alone Americans. But leave it to the diabolical minds at Fox Networks to pick up where BET left off with the debut of their newest show “The Cleveland Show,” where in just 22 minutes they managed to portray black mothers as unmarried promiscuous sexual objects, black teenage girls as headed down the same path as their mothers, young black boys as sexual deviants, and black people period as being unable to speak anything other than Ebonics — all in the name of comedy.

Just like with the character Shirley Q. Liquor, a black unmarried welfare mother who guzzles malt liquor, drives a Caddy, and has 19 “chirrun” some of whom are named Cheeto, Orangello, Chlamydia, and Kmartina, who is routinely performed by a white man in blackface, there’s nothing funny about an animated television series that seeks to legitimize and reinforce every negative stereotype about black people during primetime to the delight of white audiences from coast to coast.

Of course, I’m sure there’s an argument to be made — though not necessarily a cogent or plausible one — that what Cannick describes is meant to be satirical, meant to be sending up stereotypes instead of reinforcing them. But as The New York Times notes:

[T]he show has… amended its opening theme to remove a lyric in which Cleveland refers to his “happy black-guy face.”

And, perhaps more telling (or perhaps not):

[S]ome members of the “Cleveland Show” voice cast said they were surprised to discover that the show’s protagonist was played by a white man.

Hmm.

What do you think? Is Fox’s The Cleveland Show nothing more than a 21st-century minstrel show? Or is there legitimate comedy to be mined out of such stereotypes?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)



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  • I like Seth MacFarlane, and from what I’ve seen of his other shows I’m pretty sure the *intent* is to send up those stereotypes, not reinforce them. How well he accomplishes this may be in question.

    On the other hand, we run into the problem of white-male protagonists can have every negative feature under the sun, and for most people it’s just funny — Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin, etc.

    It’s a fine line between not making non-white male characters blandly perfect so as to not offend anyone, and not coming across as racist or sexist if you make all characters equally vile in the name of comedy. Whether Seth MacFarlane has the sensitivity and skill to pull this off will remain to be seen.

  • bitchen frizzy

    I’m inclined to agree with bzero, though I’m not so sure of McFarlane’s harmless intentions at all times. Sometimes I’ve seen genuine viciousness beneath a too-thin disguise of harmless lampooning.

    OTOH, overreaction isn’t helpful. Is it really reasonable to suggest that using a white actor to voice a black cartoon character is the same thing as blackface?

    A bit off-topic, but one problem I have with all of this is that some of these stereotypes are very stale and overused. Flogging dead horses is characteristic of McFarlane (my theory is that his ego convinces him that he can succeed in making an old joke funny again where others have failed).

  • MaryAnn

    It’s a fine line between not making non-white male characters blandly perfect so as to not offend anyone, and not coming across as racist or sexist if you make all characters equally vile in the name of comedy.

    The definition of “not a stereotype” is NOT “bland and perfect.” The opposite of “stereotype” is a complex, flawed, realistic, *individual* character. Characters can be vile and still not stereotypical.

  • bitchen frizzy

    I don’t think complexity and stereotypes are opposites, or at least they’re not mutually exclusive. A developed character can have traits that reflect stereotypes. That’s a staple of sitcoms, and it’s almost necessary for satire.

  • Core2

    “…young black boys as sexual deviants…”

    This is a stereotype? Maybe I’m sheltered, but I’ve not seen this portrayed very often, myself.

  • The only thing wrong with The Cleveland Show is taht it’s a direct copy of Family Guy with different characters. Every critique listed here can also be applied to the parent series, which means there’s nothing inherently racist about the show (despite the accuracy of the criticism).

    It’s just a dumb show and it’s only “racist” because it features black people being dumb instead of white people.

  • On second thought:

    …in just 22 minutes they managed to portray black mothers as unmarried promiscuous sexual objects

    Yes, sleeping with 2 guys (including 1 husband) is certainly promiscuous. This is ridiculous.

    black teenage girls as headed down the same path as their mothers

    What’s wrong with this, exactly? You’ve painted a woman who had a 15-year monogomous relationship, who is now divorced, as promiscuous, and said her daughter is heading down the same road.

    young black boys as sexual deviants, and black people period as being unable to speak anything other than Ebonics — all in the name of comedy.

    I can’t even being do describe how wrong this is. There is hardly an ebonic to be found in the pilot episode, first of all (or the second). And young boys as sexual deviants? What show was this person watching? Family Guy’s Stewie is far more deviant than the two boys of Cleveland and really he’s just flamboyantly in-the-closet… It’s just… ugh.

    This entire quote infuriates me.

  • stryker1121

    I don’t think anyone should be “protected” from satire, black, white, Hispanic, etc….Are Cleveland Show’s jokes worse than Eddie Murphy’s mockery of white guys as uptight nebbishes? Apples and oranges, maybe, and i have not seen this show myself. Although from what I know of Family Guy, the comedy of the Cleveland show is probably as crass and obvious, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Frankly I think people need to chill out w/ the political correctness…as someone repping a minority w/ its own history of oppression I’ve seen plenty of similar comedic attempts to send up my people. i only get offended when it’s not funny.

  • John

    “… the delight of white audiences from coast to coast.” I really doubt that, but OTOH American Dad somehow lasted beyond its pilot.

  • AJ

    If you cant stand Family guy it’s probably going over your head. Big surprise, considering the kind of shows you drool over.
    It’s also no surprise, then that you don’t realize that the problem with TCS is that it’s not funny, not that it has stereotypes. But nice to see you falling over backwards to be PC and send out a swift critique for a show you, of course, haven’t even seen.

  • Der Bruno Stroszek

    Copy-pasted from the last time I said this in the I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell thread, because people are predictable:

    This is some weird new hypocrisy that I seem to be noticing all over the place these days; anyone who’s upset about racism, misogyny, homophobia etc is a vicious, censorious, stuck-up crybaby, but anyone who’s upset about someone criticising Tucker Max or Family Guy or something… well, that’s important stuff! Why won’t the world take them seriously? They are surely the most oppressed class of people in America today and we must treat their pitiful mewling with the gravitas it deserves.

    “I’m so much more unshockable and mature than you, you PC liberal scold! Now will you please stop being a big meanie and start liking my favourite show, or I might cry!”

  • The definition of “not a stereotype” is NOT “bland and perfect.” The opposite of “stereotype” is a complex, flawed, realistic, *individual* character. Characters can be vile and still not stereotypical.

    I do agree with you there, but on the same token I’m not sure you could say the original pilot of Family Guy wasn’t filled with just as many white stereotypes as cardboard cutouts to hang jokes on. Of course, since you don’t like Family Guy, that’s not much of a defense, but my point was more that it’s not necessarily racist in intent even if it comes off that way in execution.

  • Patrick

    As a sort-of fan of MacFarlane’s work–that is: pre-cancellation “Family Guy” (1999-2002) and “American Dad!”, and a detractor of everything else he’s done; it’s not entirely unfounded that “The Cleveland Show” skirts on racism. But in fairness, if the show said that *all* black people were buffoonish or were *all* one way or another then I’d be in the “yes, it’s a minstrel show” camp. As it stands, it’s what it advertises to be: “‘Family Guy’ with an afro.” Everybody in the MacFarlane universe basically gets made fun of unmercifully.

    Unfortunately his more successful shows “FG” and “TCS” rely waaaaaaay too much on shock humor than on that wonderfully catty, snarky dialogue sometimes shines through.

    Oh well. Long Live “American Dad!”

  • Cleveland Brown has always been a too-nice guy that tries to fix the problems of the people he cares about, whether he’s the one who’s at all part of the problem or not.

    And there’s a white stereotypical redneck across the street.

    and a fucking BEAR living next door.

    yeah. it’s so realistically, believably rooted in reality that i can’t help but think it’s racist.

    dumbasses.

  • No one is sticking up for russian bears in all this, are we to believe they are all cynical creatures who sneek smokes when taking out the garbage and make wise remarks when someone says “Oh a bear”

    Just sayin’

    I saw it, had some funny moments, not as good as family guy but funnier than American Dad. So it works on some levels. Racist, I wouldn’t say that at all.

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