“Pluralist” Representations of Blackness

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, starring Will Smith, originally aired on NBC from 1990 to 1996.  The show is centered around Will Smith, who is sent from his home in West Philadelphia to his uncle’s mansion in Bel-Air after getting in a fight on a local basketball court.  Throughout the show’s runtime, the viewer is given the opportunity to explore blackness in different ways.  However, some of these representations of blackness are problematic, bthe-fresh-prince-of-bel-airecause they tend to appeal to the white, middle class audience.

Will is sent to stay with in Bel-Air is the Banks family.  Phillip Banks, Will’s uncle, is a judge in the Los Angeles area; the family is obviously upper class.  At the time in network television, it was important for the network to display white, middle-class ideals throughout their shows.  Familial stability, self-sufficiency, and a strong nuclear core to the family unit are all representations that were important to the political landscape at the time, so it was important for the networks to portray such things.   The Banks family epitomized all of those things, continuing the problem of a lack authentic black representation on network television.

The best way to define The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is as a pluralist representation of blackness.  This means that although the characters of the show are predominately black, the manner in which they think and act are parallel to the way that a white family would act.  It is as if the producers are situating the Banks family as an example, showing black viewers the successes of these black characters, and insinuating that these successes are also possible for black viewers.  By utilizing a pluralist representation, NBC benefits by not appearing biased, as the characters of the show are black, but also do not have to show authentic black representations.

By maintaining a pluralist representation, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air appeals to white and black audiences alike.  White audiences enjoy watching this show because of its comedy, and because they do not have to feel uncomfortable with the struggles of thinking about race.

At times, other representations are evident on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.  Most often, assimilationist ideals can be detected in addition to pluralist themes.  Assimilationist themes promote universal harmony and colorblindness, and show blackness as an individual problem rather than an institutional one.  The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air employs this by showing that the Banks family had the drive to “overcome” their blackness and succeed in the world despite their race.

Overall, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air provides mixed representations of authentic blackness.  By using pluralist ideals, NBC was able to attract advertisers, draw an ideal audience, and still show black bodies on television, making this show seem to be a perfect package.  However, when analyzed thoroughly, it is evident that problems exist within the structure of the representations of the show.


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