By, Phoenix Robertson
This is a story all about how one little show turned the world upside down, and if you’d like to take a minute— just sit right there—I’ll tell you all about the spectrum of the black identities on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. (doo, doo, doo, doo!)
In honor of Black History Month, which has been observed since 1986 in America, I’ve decided to talk about how the television show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air examines the spectrum of black identities and the intersectional nature of identity.
Who’s the Fresh Prince?
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is an American sitcom that first aired in 1990 and lasted for six years. The show follows the Fresh Prince, a.k.a Will Smith, and his adventures around Bel-Air, California with his rich cousins after an altercation with some “bad guys who were up to no good” in his home town of West-Philly. Over the course of the show, viewers are introduced to a plethora of Will’s family members, including cousin Carlton Banks, a smart, preppy, nerdy do-gooder; Hilary Banks, Carlton’s older sister who is well known for her lax attitude when it comes to anything that isn’t fashion;; cousin Ashley Banks, who is the “younger sister figure” to Will; Aunt Vivian, who is the sassy mother figure, played originally by Janet Hubert and in later seasons played by Daphne Maxwell Reid; Uncle Phil, who is the authoritative father-figure with a no nonsense approach to just about everything;and the Banks’ butler, Geoffrey, who is always ready to chime in with his personal opinions on the family’s affairs.
Spectrum of Characters
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air does an excellent job of demonstrating that there is no one way to be a black person. The two main leads of the show, Will and Carlton, represent two different extremes on the spectrum of identities. Will represents the stereotypical view of what a young black man is and even the show’s theme song portrays these views. The song’s hip-hop and rap tones are accompanied by lyrics that talk about dealing with living in a rough neighborhood and running into trouble with the law. These are all situations that are stereotypically associated with black people, specifically young black men. Throughout the course of the show, Will is used to perpetuate this dangerous stereotype, which has for decades contributed to the systemic oppression of black people. These experiences were frequently highlighted on the show, especially when Will first arrived in Bel-Air. Examples shown on the show include the many assumptions made about Will from other people in the Bank’s predominantly high-class community and the extreme pressure that Will often expressed because he was of a different status than his new Bel-Air neighbors.
Carlton’s character is presented very differently than Will’s. Carlton has spent the majority of his life in the wealthy Bel-Air, attending upper-class, predominantly white schools, being shaped greatly by these experiences. He struggles a great deal throughout the show with both white and black characters stereotyping him and discriminating against him because of interests and appearance. This aspect of Carlton’s life is highlighted in the 8th episode of the 4th season, which was titled “Blood is Thicker Than Mud”. In this episode, Carlton and Will attempt to get into an all-black fraternity. The heads of the fraternity inform Will that he is a shoe-in to join their group, but Carlton isn’t exactly the kind of person they want to allow into their fraternity. When Will inquires for more information, they confess to him that, by the fraternity’s standards, Carlton isn’t black enough. Carlton is told that the way he dresses is wrong, the way that he talks is wrong, the things he likes are wrong, and that he doesn’t fit in with the rest of the fraternity’s members. When confronted by the fraternity leaders, Carlton is enraged and confused, saying that, “Being black isn’t what I’m trying to be, it’s what I am.” This is a problem that is still faced by many people of color. Many people are frequently told that they are “too black” or “too white” or “too something else that isn’t true”. Everyone deserves to be themselves and not be judged for their existence.
Despite the fact that Will and Carlton are vastly different people, they do share multiple experiences due to their shared identity as black men. An example of an episode that demonstrates the struggles faced by both characters is “Mistaken Identity”. In this episode, Will and Carlton are driving a Mercedes which they were permitted to borrow, but were taken in by the police because the officer assumed that they had stolen the car due to his own racial biases and profiling. This kind of situation is sadly one that many black people can relate to. In fact, a recent study found that black people were 7 times more likely to be wrongfully convicted, were more likely to be the targets of police misconduct, and more likely to be imprisoned longer before being exonerated. This is a long standing issue in America that has caused a great deal of distrust between the black community and many law enforcement officers.
Another part of the spectrum is explored through Uncle Phil’s character, for he is a perfect example of the middle ground between Will and Carlton. While Uncle Phil lives and works in an upper class, predominantly white area, he grew up in a poor farming town in North Carolina which was very different from the world he grew to live in. He also demonstrates the shame that many people–not just people of color–often feel when talking about their backgrounds which are far from the world they now live in. In one episode, titled “Not with My Pig, You Don’t”, Uncle Phil’s parents come to visit him and his family in Bel-Air. His parents share anecdotes about their lives in North Carolina and about what their son Philip was like as a child. They talk about how much Philip enjoyed playing in the fields with his best friend, a pig named Melvin. The more Uncle Phil’s parents share, the less he wants them to be involved with his public life. Sadly, this situation is one that has been experienced by many. Shame is often associated with being a lower class person and with not coming from a long legacy of wealth and power. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. There is no shame in being poor and no pride in being rich. No one deserves to feel shame for the things they can’t control about themselves and their families. I think that people who attempt to instill this shame in others are the ones who need to examine their relationship with themselves more carefully.
Intersectional Nature of Identity
While the main focus of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is to discuss the struggles faced by
the black community, it also confronts the intersectional nature of identity. No person is just one identity. All people are composed of a multitude of identities, and each are equal and deserve to be treated with the proper respect and care. The concept of intersectionality describes the ways in which systems of inequality based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, class and other forms of discrimination “intersect” to create unique dynamics and effects. The show addresses this in various ways, such as discussing the experiences of diverse characters from various backgrounds. It is impossible to identify the issues faced by a person and not address their multitude of identities, as these factor into the way they are perceived and treated in society. In a non-Fresh-Prince-of-Bel-Air example according to Malcom X, “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman”. This is due to the discrimination faced by black women on multiple fronts, both because they are black and because they are women. It is important to recognize that when we examine the treatment of others by society, it should never be through one myopic lens. There are layers to Black identity that often aren’t explored.
Issues with the Show
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is a far from perfect show. The characters of Will, Carlton, and Uncle Phil have a lot of issues with sexism. Will and Carlton frequently catcall women and make problematic remarks about women’s appearances, and this normalization of the sexualization of the female characters in the show is disgusting.
Uncle Phil’s character also had his share of problematic remarks. In one episode, “Fresh Prince After Dark”, the Banks’ oldest adult daughter, Hilary, is contacted by Playboy magazine to be featured in a “Weather Girls Across America” spread. Despite the fact that Hilary was a legal adult at the time of the episode and her parents considered her mature and responsible enough to live alone and work a full-time job, Uncle Phil forbade her from participating in the photo shoot. This shows just how small minded Uncle Phil’s character is. He is perfectly okay with Will and Carlton’s frequent hyper-sexualization of women despite the fact that they were still in high school, but when Hilary wanted to model in the magazine as a self-sufficient adult, it was completely out of the question. Ultimately, Hilary does participate in the photoshoot and Uncle Phil was pleased to know that her photos were not as revealing as he had assumed they would be. I appreciate that Hilary still participated in the photoshoot, since it was something that she wanted to do, but I don’t like all of the hoops the show had her jump through to be able to make her own decisions. The show also has a lot of issues with fatphobia, other forms of appearance-based discrimination, and the defamation of femininity.
As a young woman of color,the stories in The Fresh Prince resonate with me a great deal. I appreciate the way that the show communicates the importance of community, family, and learning to accept yourself. Being different from the stereotypical image that most people have of you is difficult when your identity is already one that is frequently persecuted. “The Fresh Prince” tells a story that many people of color, despite age demographic, can resonate with because of the larger themes that it touches on. These themes include being stereotyped, dealing with racist police, and being “accepted” to meet a group’s diversity requirements. Despite the many problems that the show has, I appreciate its cultural relevance and how the show has the ability to make people across various spectrums of identity feel seen and understood.
Thank you for reading this article and I hope you found it both educational and interesting. In celebration of Black History Month, I recommend that you take a bit of time this month to become more mindful of your biases and the way that you perceive others. Remember, everyone is different, and different is good because different is human. You are not the same as the people who look like you, and no one expects you to be. Find joy in being yourself and let others find joy in being themselves. Happy Black History Month, be yourself, be respectful, and stay fresh.