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black-ish Whips Up a Conversation About Spanking

5 minute read

I liked the pilot of black-ish a lot. But–as often happens with sitcom pilots–I wondered how the show would sustain the premise over a series. Would it, on the one hand, be a string of variations on “Is our family black enough?” questions? Or, on the other hand, would it settle in and become another ABC family comedy, with hijinks and conflicts and special holiday episodes?

Over its first few episodes, though, black-ish has shown that at best, it can be something more nuanced and rewarding than either. “Crime and Punishment,” the show’s riskiest episode and its best yet, uses a universal parental question–how to discipline kids–to both bring out illuminate its characters’ group identity and treat them as specific individuals.

“Crime and Punishment” gets at the racial dynamics of spanking, which came up most recently in the Adrian Peterson child abuse case. The injuries that Peterson’s son received went well beyond “spanking,” of course, but the controversy also raised the charge that Peterson’s critics were imposing outside values on black parents who still favored corporal punishment.

[Note! I’m not trying to draw sweeping conclusions about how black or white parents discipline, but that’s the argument people were making. And for disclosure’s sake, I’m not a spanker nor was spanked–though I was told my parents spanked my older siblings, so maybe they were just worn out by the time I came around. In any case, I’m not trying to adjudicate the spanking issue here, but feel free to have at it in the comments.]

Unlike the pilot, which underlined its points about what is and isn’t “a black thing,” “Crime and Punishment” doesn’t directly identify spanking as a racial-cultural issue. It doesn’t have to–by bringing Pops into the conversation (“An ass is an ass is an ass is an ass“), it shows that André and Rainbow’s ambivalence has everything to do with the tension between how they were raised and where they are now.

But that tension isn’t simply about race–it’s about time passing and social mobility and the different boundaries of acceptable parenting in different social and economic classes. It’s not “White folks punish their kids like this, but black folks punish their kids like that!” here. With impressive concision, the episode makes the point that there isn’t one “white” or “black” position on discipline–when it comes to parenting, there are millions of opinions, each certain it’s right (and terrified it’s wrong).

When André polls his coworkers, their experiences bring in other cultures (South Asian, Korean-American), different generations (his older boss remembers spanking almost fondly), and general anxiety about the future and class security (“countries that beat their kids are beating our asses”). André and Rainbow’s own private discussions betray their own fears about Jack’s future, imagining what spanking and not spanking will do to him both ways he ends up homeless, though in one scenario he has a dog. (This too comically echoed some of the rhetoric around Peterson, who said that his own parents’ discipline kept him from being “lost on the streets.”)

What worked best about André and Rainbow’s dilemma is that “Crime and Punishment” presented it as a conversation they’d had before: André spanked Junior once, and they decided never again. (This again is an improvement on the pilot, in which the are-the-kids-black-enough questions, while funny, seemed to be suddenly hitting André for the first time, though at this point he’s the father of teenagers.)

The conversation was, for broadcast primetime, refreshingly direct: not just “spanking,” but “beating” and “whipping.” For all the parenting comedy on TV, corporal punishment rarely comes up as a question on sitcoms today–even though it certainly comes up in viewers’ homes. (The pilot of Modern Family, actually, included a subplot about Phil vowing to shoot Luke with a BB gun as punishment for shooting his sister, but it played mostly as slapstick.)

And it took its time coming up here too: according to an interview with Vulture, the episode was one of the first made, and producer Kenya Barris hoped it would air as the show’s second episode. After the Peterson scandal, ABC held off. But I hope the network gives black-ish the running room to be provocative like this in the future; there aren’t many sitcoms right now outside South Park that I could see doing a similarly funny-but-slightly-uncomfortable topical story.

And it gives me hope for black-ish as a series. “Crime and Punishment” was something different in a primetime network sitcom, in a way that wasn’t entirely about its characters race and wasn’t entirely not about race either. “Should we spank?,” it argued, is not simply a black parents’ question. But it’s also one to which these specific characters’ blackness is not irrelevant. It is–as they say–black… ish.

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