Girlfriends and Sex & the City: An Intersectional Analysis of Race, Gender and Commodity Feminism

Article excerpt

From the time television became a staple in American homes, its content has been segregated. During the Civil Rights era, African- Americans appeared on the small screen only when TV news covered the rising violence toward blacks in the South. The lack of minorities on TV continued for several decades (Consoli, 2010). Gradually, however, "black shows," with a majority black cast, began to move into prime time, first on the major networks and later on networks targeting black viewers. Yet only The Cosby Show, which ran for eight seasons on NBC in the 1980s, represented a black show with true crossover success by appealing to as many white viewers as black.

The TV landscape has changed since the heyday of The Cosby Show. Today, an African- American family occupies the White House, however, a recent msnbc.com headline posed this question: "Where are the black TV shows? Roles for minority actors are at an all-time high, but programs in decline" (Consoli, 2010). Comedian and writer Franklyn Ajaye, who has worked on shows such as Fox's In Living Color, the comedy program with a predominantly black cast, suggests this decline may signal the gradual disappearance of the medium's color line (Braxton, 2008). As blacks moved into mainstream culture, segregated series become less relevant, perhaps indicating "the time for 'black shows' has passed," Ajaye said.

Has the time for black shows passed? The broadcast networks have made significant progress in recent years toward diversifying primetime TV. Many popular "ensemble shows" today are integrated, from Grey's Anatomy to the CS/ franchise to the recent hit Criminal Minds. And taking into account reality programs, "you might actually be able to make the case that there are more AfricanAmericans on broadcast TV than ever before," writes media researcher Steve Sternberg (Consoli, 2010, 1). Yet there is little meaningful interaction among those minority characters, notes African- American TV critic Eric Deggans: "Black people are starved for shows which not only feature lots of black actors but that put black culture front and center in a way they enjoy" (Consoli, 2010, 1).

Critics argue that race, or the effect race has on the lives of significant characters, is one issue that receives little attention on integrated television shows. Being Anglo - a member of the dominant racial group - has long been perceived in American society, if subconsciously, as the default condition against which all racial and ethnic identities are measured (Entinan and Rojecki, 2000). Therefore, what it means to be black in America today goes unexplored on whitedominated or integrated shows, just as the characteristic of "whiteness" goes unexplored. With black programming disappearing from prime time, this article examines whether a "black" television show delves more deeply into issues of race than a program with a predominantly white cast. Two similar TV series - Girlfriends, a favorite among black viewers that originally aired on the UPN network, and the HBO hit Sex and the City - were selected for analysis. Both shows feature female-dominated casts; this allowed the researcher to compare levels of attention paid to characters' ethnicity and gender in situations where intersectional theory suggests gender, a shared form of disadvantage across the two programs, would be a thematic focus. Discourse analysis - or an analysis of each program's interpretive themes and frameworks - was the research method employed. Research questions addressed included:

Does the discourse in the series focus more on race/ethnicity or gender?

Which do the main characters in the show appear to identify with more - gender or race/ethnicity?

Theory

The concept of intersectionality served as the theoretical framework for the study: Intersectionality has been defined as the intersection in any one individual of different forms of disadvantage - disadvantage based on race, ethnicity, gender, disability, class, age, etc. …