A journey through race and representation in the family sitcom
By Bridget Kelley (’22)
Who Is the American Family? is a theorized exhibit that could be planned for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. It traces race and representation in a classic genre of American television: the family sitcom. Combining methods from my studies in American Studies, Anthropology, and Collaborative Innovation, I draw on best practices in cultural and media studies, curation, and user experience to develop an exhibit that guides visitors to engage with representations of the American family in sitcoms and leave as more critical consumers of media. My goals for this public engagement project are to create something that is easily accessible, reaches impressionable demographics, and requires active participation in learning so that visitors think critically about the role of race in constructing the family through sitcoms.
The exhibit includes modules dedicated to seminal family sitcoms, and each module will include material, audiovisual, and analytical elements related to the show. Costumes, props, and set pieces will show how materiality plays a role in signifying race and ethnicity. Clips from TV shows such as The Cosby Show, All American Girl, and One Day at a Time will show visitors examples of race and representation. Interpretation of these materials will be guided by video and audio with actors, producers, and writers discussing their roles and how they tried to portray racial identity, as well as written pieces that give historical and contextual background. The exhibit moves chronologically through time, showing how representations have improved but still require immense progress. This proposal identifies and interprets artifacts for the exhibit, and details plans for implementation.
Who Is the American Family? is situated within three key realms: the television sitcom, the American family, and the representation of race in visual media. The first sitcom dates back to 1947, and the genre began to flourish in the 1960s and 70s after the success of I Love Lucy in the 50s (1). The family has long been an important part of the genre. Sitcom scholar Jeremy Butler asserts that “I Love Lucy’s enormous ratings success and its innovative mode of production certainly distinguish it, but it was also important in terms of confirming that television comedy would follow radio comedy in its privileging of the American family as the site of humor” (1). The notion of the “American family”—and who belongs to it—has a long history that takes into account race, gender, age, class, and geography. However, representations of the “typical” American family on television have mainly been white, middle class, and heteronormative, reflecting whiteness as the default identity in America and under-representing non-white people even as the country continues to become more racially diverse.
Who Is the American Family? is influenced by the large body of scholarship on race and television as well as other projects that center on race and representation. For example, the Paley Center for Media—first established as the Museum of Television and Radio—has an extensive collection of audio and audiovisual artifacts from the past century and has had interesting, immersive exhibits about specific TV shows. Another influence is the 2015 exhibit Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television at New York City’s Jewish Museum, which arranged art, design, TV clips, and memorabilia to illustrate the influence of the avant garde on TV in the 1940s-70s. Who Is the American Family? will be similar in that it makes an argument through the visual and physical artifacts in the exhibit. That argument is that television sitcoms have long contributed to the dominant ideology that whiteness is the default identity for the American family, and representations are improving despite TV still having a long way to go in racial representation.
Statement of Purpose
The central purpose of this project is to use something familiar and comfortable—the family sitcom—to discuss more complex and uncomfortable ideas about race and representation, ultimately in pursuit of a more literate viewing public. In the introduction to On the Sitcom, Morreale writes, “Sitcoms address significant ideas and issues within seemingly innocuous narrative frames, and analyzing them can help us account for the complexity and complications involved in the production and reception contexts of popular culture” (2). The exhibit will capitalize on the popularity and “seemingly innocuous” nature of the family sitcom to educate museum visitors about racial ideology in America. “Who Is the American Family” is also intended to fill a gap in existing museum programming. The National Museum of American History, the planned venue for my exhibit, has a collection of television ephemera ranging from the original Kermit the Frog puppet to Jerry Seinfeld’s puffy shirt, and even a collection of TV-themed thermoses and lunchboxes. This is useful for understanding how material objects help us understand TV’s relationship to culture and representation, but my exhibit will look at a single genre and specifically address race. Similarly, while the Paley Center has events and educational programming, the first goal of the museum is “to acquire and preserve local, national, and international radio and television programming” (3). This exhibit expands upon the Paley Center’s work by focusing more on interpretation than preservation.
The goal for “Who Is the American Family?” is to reach the 3 to 5 million visitors that the National Museum of American History typically receives each year. They range in age and background (4). For older visitors, the exhibit puts a new, more critical lens on the content they grew up with. For younger visitors, the exhibit will help them become thoughtful television consumers and more conscious of race and representation when they become the writers, actors, and producers of the future.
Three critical steps for getting Who Is the American Family off the ground are soliciting funding, bringing together a team, and assembling source material. I will first reach out to Benjamin Filene, the Associate Director for Curatorial Affairs in the Division of Cultural and Community Life at the National Museum of American History. The division covers film, popular culture, and family structure among other aspects, and Filene’s areas of expertise–American cultural history, popular music and social change, and race and children’s literature–match well to a project about racial representation in television. I plan to collaborate with three other curators in the division: Dwight Blocker Bowers, who studies popular culture and is researching the history of TV comedy; Robert Lintelman, a scholar of American comedy who is working on the museum’s Entertaining America exhibition project, which explores the history of American culture and identity; and Margaret Salazar-Porzio, who specializes in media studies and specifically the visual and material culture of Latinas/os in the U.S. (5). The Museum receives about 60% of its funding from the government, and I will also apply for a museum exhibit grant through the National Endowment for the Arts to fund this project (6). The funding will help in assembling the artifacts used in the exhibit, which will include television clips from the Paley Center’s collection and scripts, shooting drafts, props, costumes, and other ephemera assembled by reaching out to television studios and writers. I will also record retrospective interviews with actors, writers, and producers to provide first-person analysis of the clips they were involved in.
The content of the exhibit will build the argument that the family sitcom has represented the family in a way that forms and is formed by American national character, contributing to a shared set of meanings about who and what is American (7). To that end, the exhibit will travel chronologically through time from the 1950s to the 2020s, beginning by taking a critical approach to whiteness by establishing the archetype of the middle-class white sitcom family. Each module will address a specific TV show, highlighting both notable and typical TV families. Each will highlight a key concept or term that helps visitors understand how to read racialized situations and themes on television, as well as a different type of primary source artifact. The following are three representative examples of the family sitcoms that will be included in the exhibit and their relevance to the exhibit’s argument about race and representation.
- Julia (1968). While Julia revolves more around the character than the family unit, I believe it’s necessary to include within the family sitcom genre because it was the first TV show to have a non-stereotypical Black lead and it shows a non-traditional family structure (a single mother), challenging the norms set by 1950s sitcoms. The exhibit module for Julia would include clips from the show as well as conversations with Diahann Carroll, similar to this clip. Julia has a wealth of additional artifacts available to help communicate the story, as the director Hal Kanter had an extensive collection of annotated scripts and letters from viewers. Drawing on Aniko Bodroghkozy’s use of the Kanter papers to explore how Julia’s racialized and gendered meanings were contested by producers, writers, and audiences, the exhibit will include two of the letters to Kanter. First is a letter from a Black male viewer who was dissatisfied with the show’s lack of representation of Black culture, asking that Kanter “choose some people whose expressions and manners are unquestionably black” (8). I would also include the letter of a white female viewer who drew ire from the “sloppy” presentation of Julia’s white neighbor. She wrote to Kanter, “If your show is to improve the image of the negro woman, great! But–please don’t accomplish this at the expense of the white housewife” (8). I would use the first letter to explain the relationships between race, ethnicity, and culture, and the second letter to expand upon gendered stereotypes and the racial anxieties of the time.
- The Cosby Show (1984). The Cosby Show is highly contested in conversations about representation. It simultaneously uplifted Black Americans by showing a well-off, functioning family that “happened to be black” (2), but also reinforced a rosy view of the Black experience that contrasted the decline in economic prosperity and increase in incarceration in the period leading up to and during Cosby’s run (9). Despite mixed reviews and interpretations about the racial representations, Cosby is a seminal text in the story of race in family sitcoms because it was a distinct departure from the white families of 1950s sitcoms and the negative representations of Black families in previous sitcoms like Sanford and Son (9). This module will discuss the key concept of assimilationist representation, which Gray defines in opposition to pluralist and multiculturalist discourse in television. He argues that The Cosby Show illustrates how “the discourse of multiculturalism/diversity offers a view of what it means to be American from the vantage point of African Americans” (10), which is different from many scholars’ views but connects to the exhibit’s larger goal of illustrating how TV contributes to the idea of Americanness through the family. The module will also address the tension around how Cosby largely ignored the racial realities of its time. The additional artifacts for the Cosby module will include art from the set of the show to explore the politics of representation and how the African American art in the living room set “is culturally significant because of the productive space it cleared and the aesthetic constructions of black cultural style is enabled” (10). I would show a clip from “The Auction” (S02E14), in which Claire purchases the artwork at right, “The Funeral Procession,” which is a real-life work painted by Black artist Ellis Wilson (11). Focusing on the art and a storyline that centers around Claire also serves to take the focus off Bill Cosby in light of his sexual assault conviction, while still recognizing the cultural importance of his show.
- One Day At A Time (2017). This family sitcom provides a contemporary example of representations of the family and privileges the Latino/a perspective. This is a key text to include in the exhibit for several reasons. First, it is a remake of the 1975 One Day At A Time, which featured a white family, and thus illustrates how today’s family sitcoms can represent the increasing diversity of the American family while still addressing evergreen themes. However, while the themes may be similar, One Day At A Time is a distinctly Latino show that incorporates Cuban cultural influences, while also directly addressing the struggles and triumphs associated with the family’s experience of being Latino. To illustrate this point, I would use a clip from Elena’s quinceañera, which was a site of generational, gendered, and racialized conflict among the characters. The portrayal of Latinidad represents a departure from Julia and The Cosby Show, which have both been criticized for being assimilationist (2). For additional source material, this module utilizes interviews with actors and addresses the burden of representation through listening to Rita Moreno. I will use clips from Moreno’s 2019 talk at Notre Dame, where she addresses the challenges of coming up in Hollywood as a Latina woman, being typecast, and bearing the burden of representation. During the talk, she said, “Now, we have to get better representation for Latinos, which we don’t have in Hollywood and especially in films. I think we are under-represented…The door is somewhat open, but we still have a long way to go,” (12). Her first-person perspective as a cast member of One Day At A Time who has also experienced negative representations would provide insight into how trends have changed over time in ways that now allow the family sitcom to represent a Latino family.
In addition to these three examples, the exhibit will include several other family sitcoms dealing with race and representation which there is not space to detail here. Some include All American Girl, the first network show to focus on an Asian American family; All In the Family, which was novel for its satire of the bigoted Archie Bunker’s racism (1); George Lopez Show, a seminal show for Latino representation; and recent programs like Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat that directly address race, ethnicity, and immigration and whose mainstream success combat the underrepresentation and misrepresentation of non-white families in previous eras. However, the section dedicated to this era will also include some of the many family sitcoms that reinforce the normative family standard. One such show is The Middle, which is premised on a white family dealing with the challenges of being middle-aged, middle class, and living in middle America, implying that the average or typical–the middle–is a white nuclear family in a suburban community.
To illustrate how race has been a salient part of sitcoms since their inception, the exhibit includes a timeline above the main content that shares moments in race-related history in TV and in America as a whole, connecting them to the trends in the family sitcom. Below is a sample of events that might be included:
- 1953: The NAACP’s near-boycott of Amos ’n’ Andy for racist representations of African Americans, an early example of media activism (13).
- 1964: The passage of the Civil Rights Act, legally ended segregation.
- 1968: The Kerner Commission’s recognition of under- and misrepresentation of people of color in broadcast coverage after the 1967 race riots. It included that Black actors “should appear more frequently in dramatic and comedy series” (14).
- 2021: The all-white slate of Emmy winners despite 44% of nominees being people of color, and the #EmmysSoWhite online movement modeled after #OscarsSoWhite (15).
The goal of the timeline is to visually track how TV representation and the broader sociopolitical landscape influence one another, utilizing the spatial layout of the exhibit to understand history in a more three-dimensional way.
This exhibit will capitalize on the Museum of American History’s built-in audience to educate millions of people about how race functions in America and how dominant notions of the American family are shaped by race. I hope that it illuminates the ideologies guiding the family sitcom, bringing something tacit to the surface in explicit ways. The key terms and concepts highlighted in the exhibit will be listed with their definitions on the exhibit brochure so that visitors can take the basic knowledge with them. Hopefully, this will encourage visitors to think more about the concepts and how they apply to life outside of the exhibit and refer to them when watching TV in the future. I also hope that the exhibit will be empowering to people of color, both those who visit the exhibit and whose work is featured in the exhibit. I would like the exhibit to be a contribution to socially and racially conscious curation by turning the museum, historically a white space, into something that both represents and attracts people of color. Finally, I think that coverage of this exhibit could help spark media activism around representation on television, taking debates off of Twitter and transforming them into structural change in the industry.
Bridget Kelley is an American Studies major, with minors in Collaborative Innovation and Anthropology, at the University of Notre Dame. Her project was originally created for Professor Jason Ruiz’s American Studies course, ‘Race and Popular Culture.’