Would you really want to hang with the Fresh Prince today? The classic TV show has lingering issues around respectability politics, street harassment, and colorism.
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I could not have been more than nine years old when I fell in love with Will Smith on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. I was born in 1997, so I wasn’t alive when the show aired its final episode in 1996. The smash hit was syndicated on Nick at Nite from 2004 through 2009, a cycle that became common with other favorite ’90s Black sitcoms like The Cosby Show and Family Matters.
I can understand why Fresh Prince was such a staple for six seasons during the Golden Age of Black Sitcoms. It’s a Cinderella story about a boy from the hood surrounded by the freedom that money can buy. Fresh Prince sells the idea that with a couple of tweaks to your identity, and the proper upbringing, the American Dream for poor Black Americans is attainable.
As the call for more diverse media grew loud during the summer of 2020, popular Black sitcoms of the 1990s and 2000s were finally added to streaming services. (Netflix streamed Friends for five years before having a single Black sitcom on the platform; it finally acquired seven in August of 2020.) When HBO Max premiered in May of 2020, I was overjoyed to finally binge my favorite Fresh Prince episodes. For years it had bewildered me why these Golden Age sitcoms hadn’t made a comeback. But during my rewatch, the answer became clear: as a culture, we’ve evolved.
Today, hanging with the Fresh Prince would be an absolute nightmare. As a charming ladies’ man, Will Smith’s character turned out to be pretty cringe. His catcalls and harassment of women throughout all six seasons did not age well after the #MeToo movement. As a woman who has experienced street harassment, having a young Will bark at me while I’m trying to leave an elevator, or bothering me to get my number as I attempt to order a coffee at The Peacock Stop, is far from appealing.
One of the things I always admired during the Golden Age of Black sitcoms was the rise of good role models for Black kids. It represents a turning point for Black people on television after the minstrel era, which often resulted in Black stereotypes without positive imagery. The first Black television show was Amos 'n' Andy in 1951, which was a television spinoff of the radio show, where two white men played stereotypes of how they saw poor Black Americans, tainting it from the start. In 1992, Rick Du Brow wrote for the LA Times about NBC’s growing commitment to shows that depicted positive family life in the Black community. The Cosby Show, which debuted in 1984, paved the way for the genre, showcased a doctor and a lawyer leading the wholesome Huxtable family. Its spinoff, A Different World, promoted Black excellence at HBCUs. In Fresh Prince, Uncle Phil is a big-time lawyer and, in later seasons, he becomes a judge; Aunt Viv is an esteemed professor at a university, although she does spend a few episodes chasing other careers. It was, and still is, important for Black kids to know that such hopes and aspirations are possible.
But upon a revisit, the show’s attempts to sell the Black American Dream become stale. Uncle Phil’s backstory of growing up on a farm is revealed in Season 1, Ep. 4, “Not with My Pig, You Don't,” which tackles his embarrassment coming from poverty. In many episodes, he takes a self-righteous approach believing he’s fighting inequities in the Black community the “right way” by becoming a lawyer. And in Season 2, Ep. 20, while he didn’t entirely out Marge — his comrade from the 60’s during the Black Power movement — to the authorities when she came to visit as a fugitive, he was quick to lecture her about how she needed to grow out of her radical attempts to fight against justice. After a summer of watching the worldwide protests for the Black Lives Matter movement, his words left a stale taste in my mouth.
In her recent cover story for The Atlantic, Hannah Giorgis looks at the writers rooms during this Golden Age of Black Sitcoms, where diversity in front of the camera wasn’t reflected behind cameras. The Fresh Prince was created by two white showrunners, Susan and Andy Borowitz. According to the story:
During the season that they worked together on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Felicia Henderson and Larry Wilmore were the only Black writers on the show... When we spoke, Henderson recalled that much of her job amounted to answering a single question: “Is that what Black people do?” She remembers white colleagues on another show looking her way and asking, “Does that sound right to you?,” as though there were a single specific way to be, or to sound, Black. Henderson would reply, “I was at a meeting of the All Black Writers Who Know What All Other Black People Think just last night …”
Behind the scenes, Will Smith, like his character, showed a lack of respect for his female co-stars. In season four, Janet Hubert’s Aunt Viv is replaced by Maxwell Reid for the remainder of the series. When the reunion aired on HBO Max in November 2020, we found out how NBC and Smith pushed Hubert out the door after she had a child. Firing Hubert because getting pregnant was a violation of her contract is blatant misogyny, especially since they figured out a way to write baby Nicky into the show. Smith had the nerve to blackball Hubert by saying she was difficult to work with, which Hubert described during the reunion as “the kiss of death” in a racist and colorist Hollywood.
And if I’m completely honest, I never liked the “new” Aunt Viv. Hubert’s Viv was depicted as a strong, outspoken, independent woman. One episode that stands out to me is when Aunt Viv turns 40, and she decides to pursue her dream of becoming a dancer, leading to the iconic scene where she is determined to show up the younger women in her auditions. Reid’s character was so lackluster and became stagnant. Her sole purpose was to be a caretaker for Nicky. She was always dressed in a suit with a skirt and pearls but with nowhere to go.
Firing Hubert for no longer representing the show’s image, as a newly divorced mother who was “difficult” on set, is fitting for a show that puts so much emphasis on respectability politics. The show’s entire premise rests on the reason Will has arrived in Bel-Air, as outlined in the iconic theme song: Will lacks discipline, and it’s the job of the Banks family to fix it. The show’s writers and producers must have struggled to find the right balance between discipline and assimilation. In the episode “How I Spent My Summer Vacation,” Will returns to Bel-Air after spending a summer with his mother in Philadelphia. He returns to the Bel-Air mansion with a new sense of style that begins to rub off on his younger cousin Ashley. He shows up with his uncombed hair, notifications from his beeper, and a “property of the US Govt.” jumpsuit to interrupt a business luncheon where Uncle Phil is trying to keep a certain image amongst his predominantly white colleagues. Uncle Phil kicks Will out, underestimating how far he’ll go not to come home. As Ashley, Hilary, and even Carlton defend Will’s right to express himself, Uncle Phil agrees, but grounds everyone except Will until he gets rid of the clothes and his new beeper.
But there are times where Will’s defiance rewards him. When he first joins Carlton at the Bel-Air prep school, Will loopholes the school dress code by wearing his suit jacket inside out, making friends and finding allies with faculty by simply being himself. Will’s goofy personality and his upbringing also have a significant impact on the family. The mood of the household becomes lighter. In a hilarious moment from the first season, cousin Ashley raps to say grace at the dinner table. And Carlton is insufferable early in the show, but the rise of “The Carlton Dance” and his exposure to Will’s confident attitude humbles him into a character that grew on all of us. Plus, the show does poke fun at parts of the Banks family’s life. Who can forget butler Geoffrey, whose hilarious one-liners in every episode mock the Banks family for their ridiculous wishes?
So while Vivian and Phil hold the same esteem as the characters on The Cosby Show, the plotline has more in common with The Nanny — a white sitcom from the same period about a woman from Queens, New York getting hired as a nanny for a rich white family. But there’s so much more at stake for a Black family that has to hold up a certain image in order to retain wealth and status. Code-switching is, unfortunately, a valuable skill. Accessing certain spaces as a Black person often requires you to play by “their” rules. It’s a frustrating reality that I wish had been addressed with more nuance. Ultimately, the show never completely lets go of its emphasis on respectability politics. So while there were moments where Will’s personality was a breath of fresh air, there were sharp boundaries that could not be crossed. A room full of white writers couldn’t possibly get it right in the short time slot. It hits different because the show no longer represents the progress as a culture we’ve made toward rejecting assimilation.
I don’t think Fresh Prince will ever stop being a comfort show for me. I don’t think we have to write off 90’s sitcoms as inherently wrong, but we shouldn’t be in a rush to bring them back, either — at least not in the same way. A pivotal representation, to me, of where Black TV shows are now is on the iconic “Papa's Got a Brand New Excuse” episode. Will gives his emotional monologue about his father’s second departure from his life, ending with a quivering lip and a soft cry: “How come he don’t want me, man?” It’s followed by a hug from Uncle Phil — a definitive performance in both of their careers. More present-day shows like Black-ish, Dear White People, and Insecure bring comedy but with more nuance and messier endings, without the previous need to neatly wrap everything up. As we continue to demand that Black people stop playing the sidekick in traditionally white programming, I think Black people as main characters will be an everyday reality, rather than something reserved for traditional Black viewers.