“All Skin Is Not Created Equal”: Televisual Flow and Racial Ideology

Curator's Note

We all likely have our favorite examples of televisual flow—those sometimes odd, sometimes hilarious, and often sadly predictable moments when the juxtaposition of program and ad expose more than either intended. Here is mine: a rerun episode of the oh-so 90s NBC sitcom Newsradio ("Daydreams," o.a.d. November 13, 1996) and a L’Oreal ad featuring Andie MacDowell. On a hot day at work, each of the station’s employees zones out in a daydream. Here, Catherine (the station’s and the program’s token African American member) dreams of a workplace with a few more people of color. I find the scene provides a useful commentary on two of the more noticeable and certainly interrelated trends of 1990s network television: the increasing segregation of prime-time programming (especially sitcoms) and the segregated viewing patterns of black and white America. But the kicker is the immediate cut to the L’Oreal ad. The extreme close-up of MacDowell’s extremely white face and her assertion/appropriation of the line "Not all skin is created equal" reveals just where the ideological flow of commercial television’s underlying current is really carrying the viewer. After I show this clip in class, I usually struggle to find something analytically insightful to say about it. For me it’s one of those examples that seems to speak for itself. Yet I think there is more to say to my students and would love to hear if people have ideas about how to get students to unpack this televisual moment.

Comments

Kathleen Fitzpatrick's picture

It would be interesting to

It would be interesting to get students to talk some about what happens in the gap between the program and the commercial. There are any number of interesting possibilities: the problem of “skin” and “equality” is rewritten as a beauty problem (i.e., one that’s only skin-deep) rather than a system of racial oppression; the corporate world steps forward with a solution to this problem (if your skin looked like Andie MacDowell’s, you wouldn’t be in this predicament!); etc. The most interesting angle of approach for me (right this very second, as I type), though, is the complete inversion of expectations about factuality and fictionality across the program/commercial border. Which one is composed of pure fantasy? Which one speaks about the world in which we actually live?

Very rich clip. Thanks for this!

Jason Mittell's picture

A little production history

A little production history adds another level here - Khandi Alexander left the show after three seasons, allegedly because she felt marginalized on the show, with the character always in the background & the (white) writers unable to make any real storylines for her. So Catherine’s complaints about being surrounded by white people probably rang true behind the scenes as well…

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