Prisons and What We Show to Children
Briefly, something that has caught my interest in writing my previous article on media perpetuation* of the status quo is the way we handle convicts on the screen. This is specifically as it pertains to “positive” portrayals and portrayals which include the outside world while the person is in prison.
A while ago I came across a fascinating method of analysis for diverse media, and I regretfully cannot find its original source, but I wish to share it nonetheless as it will aid this conversation greatly. Basically, it is the idea that, in order for a piece of media to exhibit a representation that in some way is jarring to the audience, that media must simultaneously uphold the status quo. An example of this is famously the number of Black (and more recently, gay) cops in media. In the eyes of the producers, if the audience saw a Black person living their life as usual on television, they might become less comfortable with that media, losing the studio money as less people relate to and view what they produce. So, instead, studios push that diverse voices in their media uphold the status quo in some way, shape, or form, in order to ensure that the audience does not see this representation as an “upset” to their worldview. Another way this may be accomplished is through showing, say, a Black person incarcerated, and have them uphold the status quo by being portrayed as “deserving it.”
Interestingly, this phenomenon falls apart in some very specific instances. For example, there recently has been a spike in portrayals of Black men presenting in feminine ways. While this seems positive on a surface level, we do have to ask why it is that masculinity in Black men is, in some media, never seen. Is it perhaps because of a sociocultural view of Black masculinity as inherently dangerous? I would wager to say, yes, and that the progressivism surrounding such media portrayals is a guise behind which people only show presentations of race and gender expression with which they are comfortable. That is not to say I do not think feminine Black men should not be shown on the screen, far from it. I think that gender nonconformity is increasingly important and it is integral for gender nonconformity not to be seen as something only applicable to white people. However, if a piece of media is willing to show masculine white men in a positive light but not masculine Black men, that prompts further questioning into the motivations behind that media’s creation.
One instance where this does not, however, fall apart is Sesame Street. Sesame Street is a children’s show which specifically intends to depict the inner cities of New York, as their target demographic in creating the show was to encourage Black children of low income households to engage with education on their own, and be excited to learn. As such, when such media handles issues of diversity, we must take a closer look at what it is doing, why it is doing it, and how it can be improved.
In this clip, we see that a puppet’s father is in prison, and the puppet is having a hard time coping with and talking about it. He gets approached by his friends, and a human woman expresses to him that her father has experienced incarceration as well, prompting his friends to sing him the song “You’re Not Alone” during which we see accounts from many real-world children about how incarceration affects them. Importantly, we see families in which the mother is incarcerated, and families of varying races. This is an important scene, as its targets are young children living in urban areas who might not understand how to deal with the incarceration of a parent. A crucial scene in this clip comes around the 1 minute and 40 seconds mark, in which a young human girl expresses frustration with having to see nuclear families normalized when she does not get to be with both her parents.
Interestingly, a large aspect of this which is coming to light today is the representation of incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people as exclusively non-Black. The two examples that come to mind are that Sesame Street clip and the cartoon series Big City Greens**. While Sesame Street at least includes accounts from real children who we are meant to empathize with, ultimately, the main characters are a non-Black puppet*** and a Hispanic woman. Additionally, Sesame Street has always understood that the puppets are the main focus for children and, as such they focus first and foremost on establishing empathy through puppet characters. Both Sesame Street and Big City Greens implore us to empathize with characters who are colorful in the literal sense, having skin tones made up of colors not possible for humans to exhibit. As a result, establishing a racial identity to these characters is difficult, however, we can fairly securely state that these characters are at the very least not coded to be Black. For people not familiar with the concept of a character being racially coded, despite being of non-human skin coloration, I would say to look no further than Steven Universe.
Here we see that, while not explicitly being Black, the characters of Amethyst (purple) and Garnet (red) are portrayed as Black through stereotype and through vernacular. In the instances of Big City Greens and Sesame Street, what we are being show are examples of families who are fundamentally “good” in the eyes of the audience, but have to face the challenge of an incarcerated family member. These characters, while having no human skin tone, are most definitely not portrayed even through analogy as Black. And these are the good representations. In good representations of convicts, there is always a reluctance to show the majority of sympathetic convicts as Black. Orange is the New Black, Shawshank Redemption, and Grand Budapest Hotel all suffer from this problem, showing some Black people in prison, but ultimately centering a white narrative. On the flip side, however, we see almost an over-eagerness in negative portrayals of incarceration to depict criminals as Black.
Now I do not want my point to be misconstrued. I do not want more Black criminal depictions. I think the association made between Black people and criminality in a lot of media is absolutely terrible and that we need to break that link in order to stop the solidification of this stereotype that Black people are inherently more criminal. Instead, I think that more positive portrayals of criminality need to center Black voices. As discussed earlier, some of the only times that we see diverse representations outside of the status quo are when the characters must be able to generate sympathy. Therefore, when it comes to criminality, a lot of media producers seem to feel it is too jarring or potentially impossible to attempt to generate understanding from the audience when a Black criminal is the “good guy.” Especially when there are no positive white criminals to which the Black criminal can be compared.
Importantly, what many of these depictions seem to mess up in handling is that Black people are not more likely to commit crimes, they are simply more likely to be convicted. The distinction here being that police forces patrol Black communities with an increased ferver and, as a result, tend to catch more people than in white communities. Many of these arrests obtain increased sentences as a result of the person’s race. Additionally, many arrests are made of false premises, with the goal simply being to antagonize Black people. While I think that the George Floyd protests recently should have illuminated this point to the vast majority of readers, it bears reiterating in a conversation like this.
When it comes to the typical representation of incarceration, we either see criminals as terrible people inherently, or we see criminals as terrible people in a broken system, but what seldom changes is the Batman-esque idea of criminals as the innate “bad guys” in the world. And that says a lot about how we view penal justice, because in a system where “bad guys” can exist, there is no way for there to be any alternatives to handling crime outside of violence or incarceration. When we start to realize that criminals are often committing crimes out of necessity, circumstance, or accident, we start to realize that perhaps the criminal justice system creates crime more than it prevents it. The common thread linking through all of this is that, while a large amount of de jure discrimination against Black people exists, through ID card requirements to vote, through restrictions on jobs, through school zone laws in urban areas, and more, all of these problems are de facto. They originate primarily from society’s perceptions and attitudes towards Black people. A bad media portrayal or a cop unfairly antagonizing people are social perception issues more than they are legal ones. While some social issues can be solved through law, such as an abolition of policing such that there is no way for such social factors to influence Black incarceration****, not all issues can.
While I wish that I had some call to action, some punchy line to end off this article, the truth is that there is not one. I can say “push for content creators to create more diverse media” or “watch more diverse media so that networks see that this is what we want” or even “watch media which gives you varying perspectives on issues” but none of these lines truly solve the problem. The truth of the matter is that, wherever racism exists, these portrayals will continue to reflect that. What we really need is for the public consciousness to change around these issues, and to finally see the majority of people agree that something needs to radically change.
This article focuses solely on the dichotomy of Black and white people. However, it is important to acknowledge that there are other racial groups each with their own needs surrounding media portrayals. As I noted, the Sesame Street clip does have a Hispanic human woman as a central character. These things do matter, as non-Black people of color also need media representation to improve. However, in order to discuss the issues of specifically criminality and incarceration, I must center the conversation on Black people, as Black people are most affected by these depictions.
*and in preparation of a future article on how intersectionality, while good, is cursed by its simplicity to be appropriated easily
**I acknowledge that Orange is the New Black and the picture book Visiting Day are also positive examples of this, however, since Visiting Day is in written media, a child may not consume it incidentally, and instead would have to go looking for that book. Orange is the New Black is a complex show, but again, it ultimately is a show about prison and not a show solely featuring prison. It is also not targeted at children.
***in order to address this before I get a lot of comments trying to correct me, saying that Sesame Street never has Black puppets, I would point to Roosevelt Franklin, who was on the show from 1970 to 1975, and recently, as of this year, more Black puppets have been finally introduced to discuss race directly. I personally think that it shows a lot that Sesame Street is acknowledging that puppets are the characters children empathize with, and that some issues truly are solely about race and must be treated as such amongst the puppets.
****or even an abolition of incarceration for that matter.