Sunday, March 30, 2014

Orange Is The Old Black Too


Dan Brumbaugh
Melissa Zimdars
TV Criticism
Kenan and Kel
         If a child’s mind is like a sponge with what it can absorb at a young age, then today’s society makes television the water…or orange soda depending on what they watch. The show Kenan and Kel, a popular 90’s children sitcom, may seem innocent, because it is meant to be a simple children’s comedy, however, the amount of racial stereotypes that the show perpetuates, and arguably introduces, to children at a young age makes it detrimental to our society.  As a child who grew up watching and loving the show Kenan and Kel, this blog post somewhat pains me to write.  However, the critical analysis skills I have gained from this class outweigh old childhood affections, and lead me to pick apart something I used to love. 
            The show opens with the rapper Coolio, famous for the song Gangsta’s Paradise, riding around with Keenan and Kel saying, “Everybody out there, go run and tell 
your homeboys and homegirls, it’s time for Kenan and Kel.” The song remains very catchy, but basically paints the picture as Kenan and Kel being these two inner city buffoons that aren’t going far in life. “Kenan be schemin’
 with a plan or a plot to make it to the top, 
but they kinda in the middle, ’cause they always gettin’ caught.” These lyrics and portrayal of characters represent Kenan and Kel to be nothing more than a resemblance of two zip coon characters, or goofy characters trying to scheme their way to the top, but never quite getting there.  I would argue the character relationship isn’t so far from that of Amos and Andy, another former show heavily critiqued for perpetuating stereotypes. Donna Bowman agrees with these sentiments in her A.V. club article where she writes, “To look at Amos ’N’ Andy now doesn’t provide comfort in knowing how far we’ve come. Rather, it reinforces how little progress has been made.”
            When looking into the episodes of the show, there were a plethora of instances that framed Kenan and Kel as perpetuating serious racial stereotypes. For example, in the episode, Get The Kel Out Of Here, Kel drives Kenan’s dad crazy from his antics, which include stealing movies and eventually the VCR, a common racial perpetuation. In another episode, Girl-Watchers, Kenan and Kel pick up a white woman, knock her out somewhat accidentally, and try to bring her back to her boyfriend with her memory in tact. This instance is particularly fragile considering the connotations that black men were out to steal white women, and the only way to protect these women was by lynching. Furthermore in an interesting article I read, “Who Loves Orange Soda?!” the author illuminated a few other instances in Kenan and Kel that perpetuate stereotypes, including the most prevalent one in the show, Kel’s love for orange soda.  Kenan and Kel’s back and forth conversation of “Who loves orange soda?” “Kel loves orange soda!” “Is it true?” “I do, I do, I do, I dooooooo!” is present in almost every episode of Kenan and Kel. It is essentially a foundation of the show. “As a kid, I never gave this a second thought–I mean, hey, orange soda is damn tasty. It wasn’t until some time in high school that I thought, “Did he just say he loved orange soda? And that was a running joke?” A common stereotype of black people is that they love orange soda and watermelon. Which reminds me of an episode of Kenan and Kel when they go crazy about a giant display of watermelons that Kenan had in the corner store he worked at.” ( When this is a staple of the show, and a continually running joke, the idea that Kel and other black people love orange soda becomes stronger and stronger.  Kel is also seen frequently in the show barging into the grocery store that Kenan works at, making huge scenes, dancing around, and always eating or taking food that he didn’t pay for. These scenes, images, and representations are harmful because they introduce children of all kinds to these stereotypes. Furthermore, some white viewers who may not live in diverse neighborhoods, or may not know too many people of different races actually think: “This must be what black people are like.” As a credible white child I myself, somewhat thought things that happened on this show would probably also happen if I went to the inner cities.
            Some people may think, “What’s the big deal? Orange soda isn’t crack or anything, and its not like any of these stereotypes are that serious.” While it may be true that the show remains fairly PG parental guidance wise, the themes and representations of the Kenan and Kel implant their roots on a child’s developing mind. They become the building blocks for most children who haven’t had many diverse encounters. When these themes become building blocks in a child’s mind, they extend the stereotypes to pertain to all individuals of a certain race or ethnicity. In addition to this, the framings of African Americans in shows like Kenan and Kel set up and further the concept of “white privilege”. White privilege refers to certain advantages or life benefits more common in white people than others that usually go unnoticed by those who possess them. In Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, Peggy McIntosh talks about several white privilege moments. “I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed, and I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.” Comparing these to the show Kenan and Kel, Kel’s representation as a thief furthers white privilege because more attention in stores goes to minorities.
            Imagine being judged every time you bought a watermelon, or eyes always following you in a high-end store. These are just some of the troubles that African Americans go through due to the perpetuation and circulation of stereotypes. At a young age it is critical to see both sides of the spectrum, but the media frequently becomes one dimensional, almost always setting up African Americans as a cause for certain beliefs rather than the victims. Shows like Kenan and Kel inflict further harm because of their introduction to and reliance on stereotypes, and ultimately make society worse for blacks, whites, and everybody in between.


Works Cited Page
McIntosh, Peggy. "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack." N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.

"Who Loves Orange Soda." Racy Racism. N.p., 13 July 2009. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.

"Kenan and Kel." Wikipedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.

Bowman, Donna. "Amos 'N' Andy Was the Rare Representation of Black Culture on 1950s TV-but at What Cost?  · TV Roundtable · The A.V. Club." Amos 'N' Andy Was the Rare Representation of Black Culture on 1950s TV-but at What Cost?  · TV Roundtable · The A.V. Club. N.p., 07 Aug. 2013. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.

1 comment:

  1. While I agree that Kenan and Kel perpetuated many racial stereotypes, I believe that this show wasn't the only show to do so in a overt and obnoxious manner. Race, gender, sexuality and religion have always all been hot topics of comedy shows and while they might not always be the most tasteful, they're popular for a reason. These stereotypes give the shows a sense of humor and depending on how you interpret them, they can either succeed or fail miserably. Whether it's 30 Rock making fun of racist television or Saturday Night Live using race to exaggerate certain roles, all television shows incorporate race into the story line in one way other another. The only thing that differentiates tasteful shows from obnoxious ones depends on who the audience is and how they are interpreting it.


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