Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Boondocks: Grand Dad put Down the Belt


I have been aware of The Boondocks since it's first season, but was not curious enough until recently to check it out.  It was not until this season, when McGruder decided to do the infamous Tyler Perry Winston Jerome episode, that I sat down and watched an entire episode.  At the time, I noted the homophobia, but I thought that this was a device employed to attack Tyler Perry, who many in the Black community believe is firmly ensconced in the closet; however, homophobic commentary is only one of the regular features that is problematic about this show.  I intend to write a post for each character examining what tropes they reify. Much of the political commentary on The Boondocks is quite brilliant, but that does not mean we should over look the times that McGruder fails.  When we consume any kind of media, it is important that we watch critically.

The first character that I would like to focus on is Robert Freeman AKA Grand Dad.  Robert is the guardian of his two grandchildren and we have not been told why the boys parents are missing.  Most of his scenes involve lying regarding his involvement in the civil rights movement and trying desperately to find a woman for a relationship.  Each attempt at love turns out to be a disaster, but delving into Robert's love life will involve a second post because of the misogyny involved. Today I would like to look at Robert the disciplinarian.

There can be no doubt that being a single parent is difficult, but I find it interesting that in this case, Robert is clearly upper middle class, despite the fact that he sneaks into movies to save money.  He has none of the struggles that routinely face single Black mothers and is not seen as a drain on the system, despite the fact that the patriarchal racist state is designed for the failure of Black women. The parental stereotype that McGruder does choose to stick with is beating children with a belt as a form of punishment.   The belt is almost like appendage; the equivalent of a third arm.  He brings out his belt to battle against people that are trying to harm him like Stinkmeaner and he brings out his belt to whip Riley in almost every episode.
All of Riley's beating occur off screen, though one can hear the crack of the belt and his screams.  It is common to see spankings played for comedy in Black themed drama.  How many times have we seen Madea issue whippings to kids?  Comedians from Chris Rock to Eddie Murphy, to Sin Bad have all made jokes about beatings kids in their various routines.  It is something that is seen as acceptable and even funny to look back on.  In this case, McGruder is not the only one to play violence against children for humor however it does not make it acceptable.

This action has become so normalized that few will even bother to think about the fact that Grand Dad is whipping an eight year old boy.  Yes, Riley will come out and say that it didn't hurt, sniffling trying to act tough, but the truth is that it hurt -- it had to have hurt. I know that we are talking about a cartoon, but the ritual reduction of violence against children is harmful and only helps to support those that believe that discipline involves violence.

If McGruder were really trying to make some sort of social commentary regarding ritual child abuse (yes, if you are hitting a child with a belt it is abuse), then some sort of punishment would have long ago been issued to Grand Dad for his violence with his grand children. The audience would certainly not be encouraged to laugh as though such behaviour is not appalling.  It is particularly problematic that he is beating boys because when it comes to beating children in the Black community, boys are beaten more frequently and much more viciously because of their gender.  It is assumed that because they are male they can handle it, never mind that they are just children. 

The Boondocks in many cases calls attention to much of the social malaise in the Black community but in its treatment of children it is a solid failure.  You cannot claim that it is a simple little cartoon and then on the other suggest that it is about brilliant social satire.  Either the aim is to encourage conversation or to simply support many of the negative items that plague the community.  Courage would mean not falling back on tropes we know to be harmful; it should mean encouraging the idea that even the smallest person matters.  It does not matter that adults now say that they are unharmed by the various whippings they had as children, because the truth is they were and it is time that we all start to admit that any violence against a child does harm.