Shades Of Grey: Interracial Couples On TV

Shades Of Grey: Interracial Couples On TV

Volume 15, Issue 4 (2011-12-05)

Erica Chito-Childs, Associate Professor of Sociology
Hunter College, City University of New York

Showing interracial couples on television is not necessarily something new. In 1968, Star Trek aired what is widely regarded as the first black-white interracial kiss on television between William Shatner’s character, Captain Kirk, a white man and a black woman, Lt. Uhura, when the two were forced to kiss against their will by a galactic enemy.

Now, over thirty years later, media reports play up the idea that the numbers of interracial couples, both on-screen and off, are skyrocketing, and push the idea that these unions are so common that interracial relationships barely raise an eyebrow. Yet according to 2010 Census data, only eight percent of all marriages are interracial. While real-life interracial marriage remains low, interracial couples may be cropping up more frequently on television. Do the growing numbers of interracial couples on television signify increased racial acceptance and color-blindness or do these depictions overwhelmingly reproduce long-standing societal notions about the deviant nature of interracial sex and the location of these relationships in the margins of society?

Looking at the contemporary representations on television, interracial relationships are most often found as temporary relationships (lasting just a few episodes), in side-storylines or otherwise marginalized. These relationships are almost exclusively depicted as comical misadventures, introduced as part of a criminal case, used as symbolic of the different worlds that are being portrayed, or play on perceptions of difference, highlighting that racially matched characters are the norm.

Even among newer shows that are heralded for their diverse casts or cutting-edge approach, interracial representations are arguably problematic. There may be a trend to present interracial couples without mentioning race but that does not mean that these representations do not carry familiar racial messages. Still a number of television show producers maintain that they have adopted a colorblind strategy, which they argue transcends race. For example, on New Adventures of Old Christine, Christine is a divorced white woman who becomes interested in a black teacher at her daughter’s private school

…The question remains, if interracial coupes are portrayed in these problematic ways, then why do television shows feature interracial relationships at all? I argue that by showing interracial relationships yet parodying or fetishizing them at the same time, the shows can maximize their audience without alienating others. Difference sells, yet the presentation must be constantly adjusted to fit the contemporary discourses on race. Using interracial sex to push boundaries is widely recognized. Dana Wade, the president of advertising agency, Spike DDB, discussed this idea with television ads, arguing “certain brands might use interracial couples to convey a hip image” adding that “the whole personae of the brand is kind of risky, or on the edge.” Ironically these “hip” and “cutting-edge” depictions are actually just barely repackaged stereotypes…

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