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Drawing the Primetime Color Line: A Critical Discourse Analysis of Interracial Marriages in Television Sitcoms

Author: 
Rightler-McDaniels, Jodi Lynn
Committee Members: 
Dr. Catherine A. Luther
Date: 
May 2014

Abstract: 

Changes throughout history, particularly those surrounding race relations in the U.S., frequently have a direct effect on personal social experience and the current structure of society. Although public discourse often emphasizes the rhetoric of racial progression, subtle racism abounds – both in society and in media – masked under the façade of equality. This is especially true when examining race relations between Blacks and Whites, particularly those involved in intimate heterosexual interracial relationships, as they have traditionally been viewed as negative, dangerous, and threatening to the status quo.

Television representations are often socially and culturally rooted with real issues, hence their mass appeal. Critical television studies involving race (and gender, class, and power) situate questions about these representations and struggles within the context of American entertainment media. By engaging the text together with context, in line with cultural studies, meanings can be deduced from media discourse.

As such, this study explores and traces Black/White interracial intimate relationship portrayals on exemplary American network television sitcoms representing the 1970 and 2010 decades. Building on the intersection of existing mass communication and cultural studies research about both intimate interracial pairings in American society and in mainstream television, this dissertation focuses exclusively on the first season of two situational comedies featuring a heterosexual Black/White interracial couple that were broadcast during primetime hours on major commercial networks – The Jeffersons (CBS/1975) and Happy Endings (ABC/2011). Using critical race theory, this critical discourse analysis systematically examines the U.S. television industry-created sitcoms’ depictions of interracial marriages between Black and White individuals.

Although important social, legal, and political events pertaining to race relations took place during the study’s chosen time frame of 1975-2011, little variation existed in the thematic representations of Black/White interracial couples. Furthermore, consistencies in themes between each sitcom existed.