By: Mathew Galvao
The representation of family is something that you’ve seen in television for years now. From “The Cosby Show” to “Family Matters” and even “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” All of these shows have one thing in common, they’re all sitcoms on the lives of three different African-American families. One is not like the other. “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” went away from how the average African-American family was portrayed on television and went with a different representation.
In television it’s difficult to find African-Americans portrayed as wealthy. You have shows like “Family Matters” that portrays the Winslow family as hard-working middle class. What’s different with a show like “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” is the Banks family is a wealthy African-American family living in a very wealthy part of California.
According to Kimberly Gedeon in her article on madamenoire.com states that the show uses very successful parents and a wealthy lifestyle to go against the stereotypical norm of African-American families. “Phil Banks — the respected judge in the area. Aunt Viv, a retired doctor, held a PhD from UCLA. Phil and Viv Banks, married with three kids (and a butler!), definitely challenged the common stereotypes placed upon.” This is exactly why “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” does things differently with the representation of family on television.
Television’s history of portraying the African-American family hasn’t always been great. According to family.jrank.org “The Cosby Show” was really the first show that portrayed African-American families in a positive light, as far a success goes. “The positive and upscale images in Cosby contrasted with earlier negative images of African Americans. Historically, the portrayal of minority families has been distorted, with African-American individuals often depicted as irresponsible, lazy, and the target of humor.”
“The Cosby Show” takes you through the lives of the Huxtables who are a well-to-do
African-American family that has a pretty good life financially and lives in a good neighborhood. It was the first time that television saw this and it was groundbreaking in that sense. Kimberly Gedeon of madamenoire.com references Oprah Winfrey when saying that “The Cosby Show” was truly a groundbreaking show for African-American families on television, ““There probably wouldn’t have been a President in office if it weren’t for the Bill Cosby show,” Oprah said. “The Bill Cosby show introduced America into a way of seeing Black culture that they had not seen before.”Is this true? No one knows.”
Once “The Cosby Show” ended in 1992 another sitcom was on the rise, this time, an African-American family would be portrayed in a way like never before.
“Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” held the Banks family in a different light than most other African-American families. For really the first time, television showed an African-American family at the peak of life. The family was made up of “Philip Banks” who was a very successful lawyer who worked his way up to a judge, “Vivian Banks” who was a doctor and also “Carlton Banks” who was a straight A student that was accepted at Princeton as well as two daughters.
The family lives in a mansion in one of the wealthier parts of California. They also are accompanied by a butler. It really is one of the most groundbreaking television sitcoms for African-American families. It was big time, and the Banks family arrived.
There was a few different ways that made “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” different from the other shows mentioned earlier. Yes, the show pictured an African-american family in high society, but what also made it a great representation of family was that they went through normal everyday things as well. You have the fact that they brought in Vivian’s nephew Will from West Philadelphia, a world that was totally different from the world that they lived in in Bel-Air.
Throughout the show you saw worlds collide at times with Will coming from West Philadelphia to Bel-Air. You saw in the first ever episode when the Banks’ had a gathering with Phil’s law firm and will didn’t really know exactly what he was supposed to do or how to act in that formal setting. You also saw that he struggled at times with school going to Bel-Air Prep. There you saw Will interact with students that didn’t really get where he came from because they had lived their lives in Bel-Air and didn’t really understand where will came from. It that sense it was cool to see how this show took these two worlds and put them together to make one show.
What really made this show stand out from the others was it’s ability to not only portray the family as wealthy and only look at that part of their life, but also the ability to use Will’s experiences from a rougher upbringing add an equal balance to the show. You basically get a little bit of everything when you watch “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
In television’s history family has always been pretty prominent. African-American families have come a long way in television. From being viewed in a comedic point to being viewed as upper-middle class in “The Cosby Show,” and then having the ultimate portrayal in “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” when the family was a very wealthy one with both parents having good jobs and living in a very wealthy neighborhood in Bel-Air.
What made this show stand out from the others was the fact that even though the Banks family was well off they still combined both worlds. They took what Will went through growing up in West Philadelphia and incorporated that into the show as well, so it works as almost a hybrid in a way. This is why “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” incorporates family in television in a different way than others do.