Spanking was the topic of Wednesday night's episode of Black-ish, titled "Crime and Punishment." It's a debate that never really ends, and one that boiled over last month after disturbing news that Adrian Peterson beat and left bruises on his son and called it a "whooping." Instead of implying that there's a morally superior approach to the issue of spanking, this episode of Black-ish revolved around the thought process and the confusion around the decision to do it or not.
The decision at hand is whether Dre (Anthony Anderson) should spank his youngest son Jack as punishment for hiding from his mother Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) while shopping, so that he understands the severity of his actions. In the process of figuring out whether they'll spank him or not, Dre and Rainbow manage to address a bunch of themes: the procedural aspect of whoopings, the fear, the purpose, the long-term consequences and even the dilemma of which parent takes on the responsibility.
There's also the unspoken "etiquette" of it all: "You don't wanna whoop a child just before he goes to school!" says Pops (Laurence Fishburne) at one point. "Crying in the car? Tears all over the leather seats?" It's all both a joke and very real, and the show handled it with the necessary caution and humor.
Throughout the episode, Dre and Rainbow are constantly weighing whether they're doing "the right thing" by spanking Jack (they state that they've whooped the kids before, so this isn't a new thing). This is no doubt the easiest way to tackle the topic without choosing sides. The reality is that some parents want to be feared, but not monstrous. Some refuse to repeat their parents' mistakes. And some are just confused, as I imagine I'll be when the time comes.
The scenes between Dre and Pops, especially, show how much of the debate involves reflecting on what your parents did and whether you should continue that tradition. In the beginning of the episode, Pops asks Dre, "What should I wear to the whopping? Black 'cause it's a somber occasion? White 'cause you're whooping virgin ass?"
When Dre says he'll opt out of whooping and instead "have a sensible, intelligent conversation" with Jack, Pops calls him "soft." Pops and his nonchalance are a symbol of the elder who sees the non-spanking parenting approach as naive. The subtext here is that: Black parents don't have "the talk" because it's ineffective. Five episodes in, I've noticed how many layers of blackness are often discretely packed into one simple statement on this show. It's easy to miss the significance of what was just said if you're more of a voyeur than a participant.
What's also important is that we see this issue from different sides. On the surface, it's about the fatigued dad who's debating the fine line between physical repercussion (and potential emotional scarring) versus stern verbal discipline. But there's also the point of view of the child who's instilled with fear at a young age. The part where Jack powwows with his siblings about how this one singular spanking will affect their future behavior in the house is all too familiar for me.
This episode was just as much about the child's perspective as it was about the parents'. While Dre is prepping his wardrobe for the spanking (he can't wear a wife-beater to a child beating), we see Jack putting on layers of clothing to avoid what's not outwardly stated here, which is that this whole process will be painful.
"All those clothes aren't gonna protect you," says Dre.
Before the spanking goes down, though, he and Rainbow have a heart to heart. In reality, this would be a much more drawn-out decision that requires multiple conversations. But this is a 30-minute family drama, so it happens in one scene. "I don't think I can do this," says Dre, again having second thoughts. Rainbow agrees and says, "I don't think you should do this. We were wrong. I don't think we should re-introduce whooping into the house."
Pops, of course, is adamant about getting the job done and says, "Quit stalling!" He offers to do it himself: "Get the other children. I think it's very important that they see this." I laughed out loud.
In the end, the storyline, as family shows do, is wrapped up too neatly. Dre ends up expressing his disappointment in Jack, who runs off crying, sad that his dad maybe doesn't like him for a moment, which is a terrible thing for a kid to consider. Meanwhile, the viewer's reaction is either: That never works. Or, yes it does because I've been there.
I generally enjoy this imperfect show and it's because of episodes like this that add a lighthearted touch to serious topics without diluting the importance of them. I liked the idea of showing the simple act of reconsidering a thing. It's cool if you're vehemently pro- or anti-spanking/beating/whooping, but some of us (especially those who aren't parents yet) are still up in the air about it.
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