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Monday, 30 December 2013

Genre Studies: The African - American Situation Comedy, part 1

Genre plays a crucial role in examining audience and consumers tastes and interests in a range of media products; thus determining how they behave, as well as the media and entertainment industries recognizing what their needs and wants are & to serve those interests. As consumers ourselves, we can easily search for and establish our favourite genres. Online sites such as Amazon, have specialist categories where we can find different products and items. 

In a way, having genres makes life easier for us because instead of us physically assigning texts, such as TV shows, movies, music into categories, genres do that for us. And because we recognize and learn about the conventions of that genre, it means that in turn, we appreciate and understand it more (Barker, Wall, 75). 

What is 'Genre?'

A genre simply means 'order', a type, class or category of presentation that shares distinctive and recognizable features. Examples of genres include comedy, drama, cartoons, science fiction and news. 

Genre is a concept used to classify or group media texts into different categories. Media texts belong to a genre, adapting codes and conventions and appealing to a variety of different audiences, hailing from every part of the world & consisting of different nationalities, Black, White, Asian, Latino, young and old, gay and straight. 

Because many media programmes belong to a particular genre, this genre acts as a portal through which the audience receives media messages. Each genre presents a view-world that shapes the ways we think about the world, the characters within that particular world (Silverbatt, 3). The themes and subject matters & issues may remain the same, but it is the way these are told and presented on-screen that makes it a 'genre' or type of programme. 

The concept of function in the study of genres refers to the purpose for creating & receiving media texts, addressing the following issues: 

- Why do media communicators, such as producers, TV networks, writers, directors, create and produce certain genres?

- In watching a reality show or sitcom, what purpose is being served?

- Why are we, as an audience, attracted to various and particular genres? Is it through taste and preference? the iconography such as costumes, props and objects that are used by actors? Or is it because it is the way they tell stories that makes us compelled to become a fan of that genre? 

- And lastly, by identifying its functions, i.e. what is the purpose of this genre and its existence in media and entertainment? Take Science Fiction; one could say the purpose of Science Fiction is to demonstrate what life is like, or could be like 200 years from now in the future. (5, Silverbatt) 

The Impact of Genre in TV

Feuer stated that institutional uses of genre has resulted in the advent of the remote control and multi-channel TV, leading to programmes being 'customized' and designed to attract an increasingly fragmented audience (1992, 57). At the same time, genre, has become important as an institutional indicator of the target audience and demographic.

Channels such as Comedy Central, BET, QVC and TV One showcase particular programming based on TV genres, whilst the proliferation of other Cable & Pay TV networks are structured around branding & marketing to niche audiences interested in genres such as sports, documentaries, home and lifestyle.

Neale says generic forms of the genre must develop and evolve to keep pace with audience interest, citing ER, Chicago Hope as examples (Devereux, 288). And thus, we should add Grey's Anatomy to this list as well.

Genre is important in terms of a) establishing an audience, b) certain people can develop their skills by working within that genre, i.e; choreography for a dance performance on television, c), stars associate themselves with that genre, i.e. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis are known for action movies and c) fans of that genre can easily identify the codes.

In the world of television, film and music, genre characteristics are used to create style and appeal, in order to attract particular audiences. One example of genre characteristic is that by taking a movie and breaking it down according to the genre styles it incorporates. In say Snow White and the 7 Dwarves, you have comedy (the dwarves being funny, silly), musical elements (Hi Ho, Hi Ho it's off to work we go), a bit of a thriller (Snow White eating the poisoned apple) & romance (Snow White and Prince Charming get together and fall in love) (14).

The African-American Sitcom

Robin Means Coleman cites that it remains a weekly series of self-contained episodes with its story-lines revolving around an umbrella plot, and centering upon a cast of characters (Coleman, 6). 

Black situation comedy is programming that employs a core cast of African- American or Black characters & focuses on their socio-cultural, political and economic experiences (Coleman and Mcllwain, 125). Black sitcoms follow the same formula, same construct, same genre conventions as White sitcoms on television; the only differences being the African-American characters and the use of Ebonics. Ebonics is a variety of English spoken by many African- Americans.

African - American situation comedies such as The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Good Times & The Cosby Show, focus upon a main set of Black characters & their artistic, cultural, personal, social & economic experiences (Means Coleman, 8). Many of the earlier African-American sitcoms, as well as some of the 1990s Black sitcoms, were lambasted and criticized for using negative and stereotypical depictions of Blackness to promote humour. 

Cosby's representation of ethnicity and gender in shows A Different World and The Cosby Show, occurs in a challenging context. Black scholars draw on semiotic and mythic analysis to describe and prescribe the Black presence in the industries of White media (Bill Cosby and Recoding Ethnicity, Michael Real, 225 et al Joanne Morreale).

Real says the representation of Black ethnicity in The Cosby Show contrasts with traditional stereotypes; thus highlighting, coding and re-coding the concept of Blackness and what it represents, in a predominately White industry of the media today.

It is argued The Cosby Show's depiction of the Huxtable family is a continuation of the development of Blacks during the 1970s, 80s. However, whereas The Jeffersons, Benson, Diff'rent Strokes were set in a predominantly White world, the Huxtables were Black. The family were of Black, upper-middle class, living in Brooklyn, New York, & the show had no main or supporting White characters (The 80s: Black Like Whom? The Cosby Show and Frank's Place, 228, et al Boyd).

Ironically, the Cosby Show's series finale in 1992 ended at the same time when racial tensions in Los Angeles engulfed the Californian city (229, Boyd). The show presented an idealized notion of the Black upper-class experience of the American dream.

The success of the Cosby Show paved the way for a large number of nationally network & syndicated network- run Black sitcoms during the 1990s, which had more diverse (and positive) depictions of the African- American family. These shows led to more African-American personalities, making a name for themselves within the industry. The likes of Debbie Allen were a catalyst for the successful interpolation of Black programming into mainstream US television (Means Coleman, D. Mcllwan, 126) .

According to Taflinger, there are 3 distinct types of sitcom: actcom, domcom and dramedy: the actcom can be based on numerous themes, family, religion, occupations. The emphasis is on action, verbal and physical. Domcom has a wider variety of themes, events and is serious. It involves more people, such as the family. Examples include Roseanne and The Cosby Show and Good Times; sitcoms that predominately take place at home. Dramedy is not devoted to evoking laughter, emphasis is on presenting themes that are not humourous. Examples of dramedies include Ugly Betty and Everybody Hates Chris (Taflinger, 1996). 

In genre study and theory, the 3 main key concepts are Iconography, Codes and Conventions & audience. 


Iconography or reoccurring images, such as props within film, is a key means of giving its genre its identity. Iconography is similar to Mise-en-Scene. Mise-en-Scene is a French film studies term meaning to 'put in the scene'. For example, the Iconography of a Western is cowboys, cowboy hats, saloons, horses, guns, sheriffs. It gives the genre its own identity and flavour. 

Codes and conventions 

When audiences familiarize themselves with the concepts of codes and conventions of that genre, it becomes easier for them to read the text, and seek ideas and points of view that other people unfamiliar with genre study, are unable to detect (Barker, Wall, 75). Like all media theories, at first it's difficult to understand, especially if you haven't studied media or film studies before, but once you read more into it, and think of ideas and examples and link them to that theory, it becomes easier. 

Codes - Signs are people, characters, places, colours, objects, words. A code is a system of signs. There are 2 types of codes: technical & symbolic. Technical refers to the equipment used during production of a show. A camera used during a shooting of a scene in a sitcom is a sign. Camera, director, actors, costumes, props, music. Symbolic codes refers to signs within the narrative or story considered as important or significant. I.e. tears streaming down a person's face may indicate sadness or sorrow. 

Conventions - Conventions are ways of doing something; set of rules that are more genre- specific. The conventions of the traditional sitcom are 30 mins long, it has a studio audience or canned laughter, has main and supporting characters, running jokes, a beginning, middle and end & irony/sarcasm (Codes & Conventions- Teaching Media Studies). 

A running joke or gag is an amusing situation, funny one-liner, character trait that appears throughout the series of the show. One of the best examples of a running joke, is during the Fresh Prince of Bel Air  where Will's friend Jazz, gets thrown out of the house by Uncle Phil. 

Audience - Audiences read and enjoy their media products differently, depending on their lifestyles, preferences, tastes and likes. They are organised into different groups, based on their finances & social circumstances and such by producers, advertisers and broadcasters and TV networks. These people then target their consumers, who have spending power, and bombard them with offers, product placements, TV and print ads (Teaching Media Studies). 

The Aim Of The Essay 

By using a range of examples from classic African-American sitcom shows, I will seek to highlight and address the social, political, cultural and ideological themes and concepts within African-American communities. Thus, probing these meanings associated with African-Americans & their experiences, through the medium of television and the sitcom genre. Additionally, this will prompt numerous questions; such as how they are portrayed in sitcoms, whether or not these character representations reflect or challenge the general consensus of African-Americans & their own cultural & racial identities. Finally, I will explain why nationally networked Black sitcoms are of cultural importance and significance to the Black viewer, in the face of growing reality TV & drama shows on the 4 main US networks, ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox. & why we need them to return to U.S national television. As well as examining what these sitcom representations say, notwithstanding American and Western society's ideas as to what Black and African-American cultures entails and pertains to. 

(to be continued in part 2....)


  • On the Real Side: A History of African American Comedy from Slavery to Chris Rock, Mel Watkins
  • Media Studies: The Essential Resource
  • Media Studies: Key Issues and Debates, Eoin Devereux
  • Critiquing the Sitcom: A Reader, ed. Joanne Morreale
  • African Americans  & Popular Culture, ed. Todd Boyd
  • African American Viewers & The Black Situation Comedy: Situating Racial Humour, Robin R. Means Coleman, 1998
  • The Sitcom Reader: America Viewed and Skewed, Robin R. Means Coleman & Charlton D. Mcllwain, 2012
  • Media Knowall: Genre Explained, Karina Wilson, 2013
  • GCSE Media Studies for AQA, ed. Mandy Essen, Martin Phillips, Anne Riley
  • Transparency Now: Situation Comedies and the Liberating Power of Sadism, Ken Sanes
  • Sitcom: What It Is, How It Works, Richard F. Taflinger, 1996 
  • Genre Studies in Mass Media: A Handbook, Art Silverbatt 
  • Teaching Media studies: Codes and Conventions, TKI Media Studies 
  • Teaching Media studies: Audiences, TKI Media Studies 
  • As Media Studies: The Essential Revision Guide for AQA, Jo Barker, Peter Wall

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