The New York Times described Beverly Hills, 90210 as “perhaps the most popular show on television among the youth of the 1990s.” It was a bold statement–prophetic, even–given that the article’s review date was in 1991, and the show had seen only one year of runtime. However, by the 1993-1994 season, it had obtained multiple Golden Globe nominations (including Best TV Drama Series), as well as was the number one show among 18- to 34-year-olds. In its nine seasons, 90210 was established as the teen soap, integral to an adolescent and young adult’s Thursday (and later Wednesday) night schedule: one viewer explained that “I turn my ringer off, I won’t answer the phone, I mean–and people know. Sometimes I’ll leave a message, I go, ‘You know what I’m doing. Why are you calling?’” (McKinley 13). Given such a religious experience of watching the show and the intense loyalty of its fanbase, one specific question should be raised: what exactly were these viewers consuming?
In Watching Race: Television and the Struggle for Blackness, author Herman Gray writes that television “constituted a significant social site for shaping, defining, contesting, and representing claims about American society” (15). He was speaking directly in reference to television’s social and cultural representations of blackness within the 1980s: as he explains, constructions of appeals to race found their way into the media, where “television was never just a neutral player, an invisible conduit, in these representations and constructions.” As he argues, it was during this era that right-wing whites became convinced of their lack of privilege: they conveyed their frustrations into a political focus on morality, traditional family values, and the dismantlement of welfare–which in turn led to extreme affluence and the Reaganomic wealth distribution to the top one-fifth. This wealth was inherently personified through television, specifically in programs such as the intensely popular Dynasty and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, where “poor blacks, among others, embodied the discursive and cultural sign against which the new affluence and how to achieve it were measured” (28). It seems worthwhile to note that Aaron Spelling, executive producer of 90210, was also the producer of Dynasty.
Beverly Hills, 90210 is situated uniquely, falling directly after Reagan’s presidency and the decade’s legacy of television portrayals of the elite white and their right-wing, capitalist values, but certainly before an established culture of the 1990s, and before Clinton’s presidency which, as noted by Gray, established “a more welcoming and less hostile relationship to African Americans and questions of race” (174). This given, this essay will seek to explore the ways in which Beverly Hills, 90210 established a predominant discourse of whiteness within the show, exemplified in the ways in which Other races receive treatment, amid the concerns of the emerging teen and young adult viewership. The portrayals expressed within the show, both through the images of whiteness and in the rare images of other races (most constantly, blackness), thus help to continue the hierarchy of whiteness within media, but one that is complementary to the transitioning political waves of the early 1990s and its associated Gen-X culture.
The Politics of Beverly Hills, 90210
Granted, the show began its first season in the fall of 1990, one year after Ronald Reagan left office, but the beliefs that were born from his presidential era were not abandoned. George Bush, notably Reagan’s vice president during his two-term presidency, was elected as Reagan’s successor. Bush’s presidential term continued in the same vein of Reagan’s platform, in that, while indeed focused on foreign affairs, oriented itself around a support of an elitist class through the protection from taxation, fueling the beliefs of a meritocratic society that upheld a higher “deserved” positioning of whites. For example, in Bush’s 1988 campaign for presidency, a Republican political action committee released a commercial in his support, aimed at promoting American society’s need for policy reform towards violent crimes: it centered around Willie Horton’s 1986 kidnap and rape of a woman upon his release as part of a Massachusetts’ criminal furlough program, and played explicitly to white America’s fears of black criminals., Despite the intense negative reactions from the black community and requests to remove the ad due to its message that ‘blacks are criminals,’ Bush did ask for the ad to be pulled until several weeks later. Gray’s argument is congruous also, then, with Bush’s presidential term, building on the opposition between whiteness and blackness as part of the American popular imagination.
Meanwhile, it became obvious during the 1990s that Generation X-ers (generally teenagers to early twenties during this decade) experienced a unique set of problems that were not properly being addressed in the ideals laid forth by the Reagan and Bush administrations, and subsequently were unexplored through popular media. Central issues that framed youth culture in the 1990s such as teen pregnancy, sexuality, AIDS, drugs, divorce, and even race relations were present in society, but denounced by conservative beliefs, void of a realistic public, political discussion. AIDS, for instance, is critiqued as an issue largely ignored by Reagan’s presidency in legitimate action to address its realistic tragedies: communications director Pat Buchanan is reported to have commented that AIDS is “nature’s revenge on gay men.” Finally, in 1987, the presidency addressed education initiatives on AIDS (six years after announcement of the epidemic), advocating that sex education include AIDS awareness. It is important, however, to note that these education plans opted for self-discipline and abstinence as its preventative measures. Teenage sexuality was thus discussed as a conservative call for lack of teenage sexuality.
Uniquely, Beverly Hills, 90210 represented the first time in the history of television that networks aimed to include youth-skewed programming, otherwise known as “in-your-face programs that mom and dad hated and the kids loved” (Miklitsch 21, qtd. from Owens), creating a space for a public (yet safe) discussion of teen issues which were attacked, and created specifically due to Fox’s quest for new audiences and ratings. Spelling attributes the success of the show to this very idea of youth-oriented issues in a 1991 New York Times interview:
“We didn’t want to do one of those high school series of ditsy kids running around outsmarting their parents. We didn’t want to do silly things. We wanted to deal with real issues. We wanted to do a drug show, but we’ve seen teen-age drug shows 16 times, so we showed a mother being on drugs and the effect it had on her child.”
As discussed by Robert Miklitsch in “Gen-X TV: Political-Libidinal Structures of Feeling in Melrose Place,” Spelling’s 90210 (and spin-off Melrose Place) was posited in a strange mix of political and cultural circumstances, in that the show has“everything to do with the cultural logic or “structure of feeling” of late capitalism, which the “free generation” depicted…collides with the determinate realities of post-Reagan America.” He continues: “The net effect is as engrossing and paradoxical, as engrossingly paradoxical” (16). To be clear: Beverly Hills, 90210, though drawing from Dynasty’s legacy in portraying an elite white society, was situated in an intersection of cultures, addressing the issues of Generation X through the lens of conservative values.
Gen X, while confronted with a new set of issues, had not traded in conservative beliefs totally. In what one article hails as ‘partial remoralization,’ trends of youth culture in the 1990s seem to, despite the negative connotation, fall towards moralistic and traditionalistic behavior, attributed to by their parents’ emphasis on ‘hard work’ and conservative values of constraint. At the same time, however, social tolerance increased within middle-class communities, in which attitudes became “less absolutist” and obedience was “no longer so prized as a childhood virtue by parents” (Ashebee 197), justified in a belief that individualism theoretically will, in end, return and revolve around moral rules (198). As the author argues, it is this such generation’s remoralization that “placed limits on the credibility and electoral appeal of those conservatives who still talked of the nation’s cultural collapse” (199), and the result was a socially-enlightened youth generation, with morals that integrated traditional approaches to no-longer taboo topics .
Such aspects of remoralization seemed decidedly integrated into the youth issues of the teen-drama. These issues, as McKinley addresses, served as an innocuous version of discussion (15). While she argues for their inoculation of female viewers through acceptable mainstream approaches to femininity, it may similarly also be noticed that such an approach ultimately upheld the traditional family values of the previous political era. Nothing “bad” could happen to the white upper-class main characters as long as they returned to these ideals: their protection, though danger was breached, was secured through the clause of the “almost,” highlighted in plot analysis conducted by McKinley (26): Brenda is almost pregnant, Kelly is almost raped. In its celebration of teenage individualism and experimentalism, the show was also able to praise racial hegemony: the teens’ return to safety in these situations also indicated a return to the conservative values of the 1980’s, as well as a return to the hierarchical social order, exemplified by the whiteness that is Beverly Hills. Ultimately, it is their privilege as participants of white supremacy that keeps them safe. The results from the teen protagonist’s compromising situation in these issue-oriented episodes enforce, in turn, the 1990s teen viewer’s return from individualism to a mainstream system of meritocracy, morality, and traditional family values.
It is possible that through this sense of privilege that these upper class white kids from Beverly Hills possessed that they were allowed–enabled– to discuss the issues that conservative society could not viably touch. (That white privilege is, for instance, a possibility why The Cosby Show, a show that housed similarly traditional values among both parents and children, was not able to effectively discuss race as an issue). Thus, the show is congruous with Gray’s examined effects of 1980s Reaganism, from which it is not deterred by the teen culture/remoralization of the 1990s. It is perhaps the juxtaposition of these two systems–of white privilege communicated through the Beverly Hills persona, along with liberal “realistic” confrontations of youth issues–that allows 90210 to negotiate modern issues of race.
90210 and the Role of Whiteness
In the New York Times interview referenced earlier, the journalist notes that Spelling “has been the target of considerable interest and gossip because of the 1.2 acre Dynasty-like mansion that he and his wife, Candy, have built in Holmby Hills, Calif. The mansion reportedly includes a bowling alley, ice rink and a wing devoted to Mrs. Spelling’s wardrobe.”
When asked to comment on how he keeps in touch with ‘ordinary people,’ Spelling remarks that “basically, I’m an average middle-class person. I really am. My only regret is that my Mom and Dad didn’t live long enough to see all this, but I still think it’s all going to be taken away from me. I’m probably the most insecure person that’s ever lived.” Then, the journalist glowingly recaps Spellings upbringing, from growing up in a poor Dallas neighborhood as the son of an immigrant and getting beat up every day, into the success that he became.
The connections between Spelling and the claims of white society as a result of Reaganism seem undeniable, and harken back to the victimization of middle class whites described by Gray (17). Upper class, inarguably what Spelling was, is obviously included within this idea of victimization, in the group’s unwillingness to identify as a top tier as its status in supremacy is constantly threatened (and perhaps due to this, cannot be totally accepted by Spelling). It is important to perceive the communication of Spelling’s wealth as a growth away from his background as an immigrant’s son, as the Other, as an acceptance of American meritocracy and white responsibility in order for him to have reached the status and level of success he represented in 1990s popular culture. It seems only natural, then, that these values be reflected within the constructs of his creation.
While indeed prefaced in racialization by both political identifications of the time and by its creator’s own position within society, Beverly Hills, 90210 also effectively communicates within its narrative a framed hegemony of racial discourse. Analytical discussions of general narrative elements, characters and two selected episode plots–specifically that fall within the aftermath of the Rodney King beatings and directly after the Los Angeles uprisings, i.e. season 2-3– will reveal a concurrent identification with the political elitism of white society and inherently expose the constructs of otherness that are contiguous to what Gray describes as a “continuum ranging from menace on one end to immorality on the other, with irresponsibility located somewhere in the middle” (17) yet integral to the sign of whiteness.
Narrative Functions and the ‘Realism’ of 90210
The most noticeable narrative component of the show is its soap-operatic format. By definition, this form of drama seeks to progress narrative through solution to a central problem–defined by Bordwell finding resolve in stasis from a disequilibrium (McKinley 23). Significantly, the drama observed within 90210 is generally resolved by the end of the episode and conceptualized around an educational experience for its viewers to guide teen thinking (24).
Episodes are generally framed by such problems: for instance, episode thirteen in season one (“Slumber Party”) highlights Kelly’s rude friend and the associated drama she brings to Brenda’s sleepover. In end, the rude friend is exposed for taking diet pills (explaining her irritability), embarrassed, and then accepted despite her previous behavior by the group. Acceptance, it seems, becomes a central theme of the show. Additionally, these narrative themes of resolve never are completely free from political agendas; in fact, “narratives by their very form necessarily serve certain political interests over others, and reinforce certain “realities over others” (McKinley 25). In the case of 90210, these realities are recognized certainly as conservative tolerance, education, and achievement (25), and seem to mimic the Reagan traditional values that 1980s white society embraced.
Also significant in this concept of ‘reinforced reality’ is a question of the central dramatic problem itself. Given that fictional characters are communicating solutions for realistic teen issues, the framework for viewer understanding is notably loaded, and seems based around the concept of strengthening pre-established values within those depicted communities (rather than intended for accurate viewer identification). It is strange, then, that race should be framed as an issue-of-the-week, alongside the issues of teen drug use, pregnancy and alcoholism: issues which are all addressed and written-off within the 45 minute episodes. Is it plausible that racial topics and their inclusion among plots depicting teen “deviance,” or expressions of individualism, may be conducted due to their assumed similarity? Miklitsch postulates that Melrose Place, in the fashion of Spelling soap operas, allowed viewers a space to engage in fantasy “as well as to negotiate, if not resolve, pressing cultural problems” (26). While he speaks directly to the show’s melodramatic depictions of romance and sex, it seems important to interpret the author’s connection of the plot to viewer, as well as repressed societal views of “perversion”: the issues discussed within the episodes often times may appeal more to the ego or to the viewer’s sense of desire than to the issue’s actual connection in its status as a confrontational device of societal issues. Perhaps, then, the inclusion of race as an issue is just as taboo or dangerous as the issues of teen sex, relationships, and drug use. But while the show does attempt to blend realistic Gen X issues within the show, it must always resolve within the structure of traditional values and morality, and more importantly, views that are congruous to the white American middle/upper-class value system that Beverly Hills families epitomize within the show– conveyed succinctly through the Walsh family (later discussed). Brenda, for instance, echoes the Reagan/Bush abstinence education slate, stating after her pregnancy scare that “I guess I shouldn’t have sex if I can’t take the consequences.” At the show’s resolve, the viewer, like Brenda, is sheltered from anything “bad” happening, but interestingly, while Brenda is allowed to escape an ill fate, it is necessary for the viewer to comply with her choices.
In “Recombinant Realism/Caliutopian Re-Dreaming: Beverly Hills 90210 as Nostalgia Television,” Crystal Kile analyzes the narrative framing of 90210 as a participant in nostalgic California culture. This is obvious through several narrative elements: for instance, depictions of a retro-1950s/60s Beach Boys’ surf culture, Brandon’s 1965 Mustang, Dylan’s “James Dean” bad boy persona, and the ‘50s-themed diner, The Peach Pit. As Kile notes, the thematic mode is just as nostalgic: it is, she determines in end, “a mode that implies inertia and containment, the end of ideology, politics, history. A mode that implies a flat-line panic about the future. A mode that works beautifully, mythologically speaking, to contain such distressing little blip-threats as the L.A. riots. This is the troubling and the illuminating thing about the ‘realism’ of 90210.” But once again, it seems, the characters are safe within the confines of the television show, within Beverly Hills, and specifically within their hierarchical space. It seems natural, then, for the viewers to question their own safety, and to aim to achieve similar traits of moralistic individualism in order to secure their spot within a similar isolated realism, represented through racial hegemony.
Characters of 90210 and Family Values
Rather than depicting a generational conflict, the show translated into a blending of generational beliefs through the Walsh family. Brandon and Brenda, and parents Jim and Cindy, had their lives turned upside down when they relocated from Minnesota, finding themselves confronted with the alien culture of Beverly Hills, California. As described its first advertisement in TV Guide, “the nice, normal Walsh family just moved from Minneapolis to Beverly Hills. It might as well be Mars” (qtd. from Kile). Despite this premise, the differences from the Walsh’s midwest culture versus the consumer-driven glitz of their new hometown are shed completely after the first season, as if the family has easily accepted their role in the socioeconomic sphere. However, their moral stances are not compromised: as Kile suggests, the Walshes become surrogate parents, role models, for the rest of Beverly Hills. Effectively, Beverly Hills has influenced the Walshes through wealth and power, while the Walshes have influenced Beverly Hills with their positive models of family values. Both have concurrently, then, granted each other privilege.
Brandon, as the central character, deserves analysis. He represents the most obvious blend of 1990s Gen X liberal remoralization with values of the Reagan era. For instance, his liberalism is perhaps expressed through his junker Mondale, his beloved car (as well as reference to Minnesota’s Walter Mondale, Vice President to Jimmy Carter). Interestingly, however, after Mondale is tragically destroyed in a car crash–perhaps a metaphor in its own– Brandon, through a summer of hard work and long hours, trades up Mondale for his nostalgic dream car: a ‘65 Mustang, which becomes a personal status symbol, specifically of merit through his hard work. Especially in the few episodes involving racialization, Brandon becomes the moral authority, instructing properly how to navigate the situation to the episode’s close. Significantly, what establishes Brandon as the central character is fueled by his participation in both Reagan values and 90s Gen-X values; both in Beverly Hills culture and Midwestern culture; it helps to establish him as an inoculated character–one that compromises the radical with conventional in order to create a strengthened version of being. While seen for his whiteness, he is also seen for his sensitive approach to individualism, interestingly granting him a privilege that other white characters do not possess.
90210 was not a show known for a diversity of characters. As Magic Bullets to Shooting Blanks explains, “like most teen magazines, Beverly Hills, 90210 is an almost exclusively White program. There are no non-White main characters. During the fourth season, Andrea married a Latino, who was featured during the fifth season in the opening credits, but the couple left the show at the end of the season…Like teen magazines, this marginalization of people of color reinforces the idealized beauty norm is think, fashionable, and almost always White” (78-79).
Interestingly, the show contained what seemed to be a white hierarchy within the show, determined specifically by who made the cut as a main character. Emily Valentine, a punky transfer from Seattle and Brandon’s love interest in Season Two, for instance, could not be acknowledged as productively assimilable to Beverly Hills culture due to her inability to subscribe to traditional family structure, morals, or Reagan-based nostalgia, and was subsequently dismissed from the show by being committed to a mental institution. Andrea is another important example in this divided hierarchy of whiteness: her achievements and ambition are effectively “undermined by her marginalized status: with her simple clothing and glasses, Andrea is Jewish, poor, intellectual, “other”” (29). She fights to stay a main character within the show’s narrative, but seemingly is included to set an example: as if in Spelling’s tradition, she fights for a progression in societal status, but has not yet succeeded. Nevertheless, she is unable to compete with Donna, Kelly, and Brenda for the focus; she is, as noted, the only character which seriously interracially dates, and seems to be “punished” for it in an unplanned pregnancy which leads to the couple’s marriage. Andrea has thus not advanced in whiteness enough to secure her safety or privilege from negative repercussions.
The few characters of color rarely are depicted in the series past their inclusion in one solitary episode, in which they generally serve as an integral to the explored problem or dramatic issue. Among the nine seasons of episodes, there do exist a handful of problematic portrayals of otherness that stand in direct opposition to the established whiteness. (For instance, season one contains an offensive portrayal of interracial dating between a Latina and Brandon; each time they connect romantically, through glances, kisses, or otherwise, a soundtrack of passion-hungry Spanish guitar followed by the clicking of castanets plays in the background). Most interestingly, however, are the connotations of race that occur within the run of the second and third season. In its gaining popularity, the show attempted to directly tackle, though minimally, a discussion of race, accomplished implicitly through mentions of the Rodney King beatings and the Los Angeles uprisings/riots. These issues are exemplified within the following two episodes.
Racial Plots of 90210
“Ashes to Ashes” Season Two, Episode Ten
In this episode, a black family moves to Beverly Hills and into the Walsh family’s neighborhood, creating quite the stir within the surrounding white community. While the central plot of the show at first pretends to revolve around Brandon’s newfound photojournalist, Robinson Ash, the black family’s son, the episode evolves to showcases race relations in within Beverly Hills. Interestingly, this episode was framed by advertisements to revolve around Brandon’s possible love affair with the black family’s daughter, Sharice, played by a young Vivica Fox. Sharice (who Brandon does takes on a date) and Devo, her hard-ass problem-child black friend become the legitimate central focus of the show: Devo, attempting to enter the neighborhood to visit Sharice, is harassed, beaten and taken away by security guards. Simultaneously in the show, the Walshes have installed a new home security alarm due to an “increase in crime.”
Eager to report for the Blaze and give Devo a chance to tell his side of the story, Brandon travels from the safe zone of Beverly Hills into an ethnically-diverse zone of Englewood. As he drives with the top back in his Mustang, the screen depicts the bold and vibrant colors of signs offset with stares from Other characters on dark block corners, accompanied by a distinctly different soundtrack of hiphop/rap music infused with police sirens. Brandon, despite his disjuncture from the safety of Beverly Hills, still is portrayed as both calm and suave: again, due to his liminality in white privilege, he is able to negotiate this dangerous presence in otherness.
Devo is a son of a poor mother with two brothers, one of which is jailed and the other who is addicted “to the crack pipe.” Framed as the Rodney King episode, the show references the beating, but merely through Devo’s mention of listening to a news report on the radio. Distinctively, it is Brandon who attempts to understand and “accept” Devo, but Devo resists: “you tell me what’s worse, man: being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong color…of course it’s not fair, but that’s the kind of world we live in today.” Brandon responds: “You’re so full of it you stink! You look me in the eyes and tell me this doesn’t make you angry.” After Devo has negotiated his own anger and “more importantly, sadness” for the situation, the two strike somewhat of an understanding. When Robinson arrives and accepts Brandon after previously labeling him as a racist, the discourse becomes clear: by opening up a discussion of race and confronting issues outside of typical white supremacy, Brandon has progressed from Reaganistic ideals of white privilege into a multi-culture-appreciative zone of progressive Gen-X beliefs…and so have the viewers. But when the episode ends, Brandon has returned to safety, to his white privilege, and the Ash family is never mentioned again.
“Home and Away” Season Three, Episode Ten
In this episode, Beverly Hills, 90210 directly confronts race relations in the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots. As explained in Kile’s article: “the post-LA riots episode in which West Beverly Hills High officials, operating from ‘fear of racial violence,’ cancel a football game against a South Central high school that West Beverly Hills High is to host, is an excellent example of the series’ nostalgia-warped politics of containment: students from both high schools prove that they can ‘all get along’ by mixing without incident at a WBHS. While the ‘Other’ may get the occasional guest spot on the series, he or she is summarily excised after he/she has taught the 90210-ers some lesson about life.”
“Home and Away” perfectly highlights the established white hierarchy, in that it details the relations between Beverly Hills and Shaw High as an established social order of a dominant class and a lower, insidious class. It also, then, represents the hegemonic relationship of West Beverly High School, the dominant White power, with the distinctly black Others of Shaw High. Gramsci describes, for instance, that relations of dominance are concealed, and that forces in power do not “simply impose their will; rather, they naturalize the “reality” of their control and win the consent of the oppressed to their lot” (McKinley 34). It is through this way that the television show is able to, for example, repeatedly disguise situations of the unequal, disadvantaged and lesser privileged as finally equated in whiteness. In end, the racial tension at the dance is abolished when “blacks and whites start to dance together to rap music… The bottom line: Be true to your dreams and all will be well” (Simonetti 40). Brandon and the gang have properly inoculated the harmful influence of Shaw. However, it is important to note that, again, no white characters were placed in negative or compromising situations: West Beverly High was just as much a victim in this show as was Shaw, somehow despite the fact that its student body lost two of its own black students in the gang violence.
Beverly Hills, 90210: Cultural Significance
Why are these signs of whiteness so problematic, specifically in this context? As explains Gray, a reader must take these isolated moments of blackness or otherness primarily as conceptualizations of race by white society. Moreover, these signs of Otherness in their portrayals represent what is interpreted as the epitome of that race. In an article examining female adolescent formation of self as depicted through 90210, author Darcy Granello details the ways in which audience members commonly confused the line between the show’s fiction and reality; developmentally, those under 21 were unable to understand the importance of conflicts within the show, instead focusing on the establishment of relationships within the main characters. The implications for how youth identifies with solutions for racial difference, then, are complicated: if Brandon’s relationship with Devo, for instance, has been solved in their understanding, viewers may take this as a solution for racial conflict in general. Interestingly, the article attributes such reactions of identity development to age, geographical location, and of course, gender, but no discussion of the developmental aspects for women of color in relation to the show are examined.
Ultimately, the sign of whiteness as a narrative function of the show helps to frame and uphold the racial hegemony established within Reaganism, but still effectively blends enough of the values of Generation X to seemingly convince viewers of its legitimacy in liberalistic individualism, where all are appreciated, special, and mostly equal…despite the fact that some are very distinctly more privileged. The power of privilege within the show is ultimately never questioned in terms of whiteness, but instead framed from the perspective of economic prosperity that is a result of successful adherence to meritocratic ideals.
It is also interesting to think that these beliefs were conveyed to an audience which was either unable to vote or new at voting: the blend of political identification in fiscal conservatism and liberal social beliefs was portrayed most obviously through Brandon, perhaps a role model for this new political affiliation that served as the ego ideal of Generation X. This was the generation that, in essence, elected Bill Clinton for office in November 1992 and 1996. As the show transitioned into and through the Clinton years, the concept of family shifted to rely more on the structure of friends and external relationship than within the traditional family. While this of course can be justified through the characters’ progression through college and leaving home, emphasis also slightly shifted away from lessons of family-oriented values and into the dramatic explorations of female/male relationships. Inclusions of race were also attempted in the college years, explained by a Fall 1993 Entertainment Weekly article, “Oh Right, Like This Is A Real College,” but as one observer expresses, such portrayals were still used as tokenisms. After the run of that discussed season, the fourth in the series, viewership dropped from nearly 22 million to just above 14 million, and in following years, the numbers continued to drop. This was partially due to the show’s outdated ability to discuss “realistic” issues that the now twenties-based Generation X was concerned with: specifically, the issue of class, recession and the anxiety of “downward mobility” that instead became portrayed on Melrose Place (Miklitsch 24). White egos, thus, were communicated not through successful, rich Beverly Hills characters, but instead through a “professional managerial class,” also known as a postmodern fractured middle-class that had faith in upwards mobility.
The New Generation of 90210
Premiering in 2008, the new generation of Beverly Hills came to exist weekly on the CW. The new series, entitled simply 90210, examines a new take on the 1990s hit–but with one controversial difference.
Once again, the series revolves around the students of West Beverly and centers around the Wilsons, a midwestern family who has relocated to the Hills–this time from Kansas. The Wilsons are comprised of father and school principal Harry (conveniently the brother of Kelly, now the high school counselor), actress mother Debbie, and their children Annie and Dixon. The controversial difference comes in that Dixon is the family’s black adopted son, so obviously posited in a white family. His identity as a black character is questioned personally within the first episode, but does not develop as a problem within the continuation of the series. While the show seems to revel in its post-racial environment, an inquisitive viewer may wonder if this is actually a progression: as discussed in Color Adjustment, black characters were seemingly never granted a traditional family structure, and the black stereotype of lost parents within 1960s and 1970s television was prevalent.
Distinctly different from Beverly Hills, 90210, the 2008 spin-off approaches race outside the constructs of perceived whiteness through a noticeable “blending” or “colorization” of the main characters. Dixon is commonly paired against the tan, glowing Annie; perhaps this is why all characters within the show cannot be protected from the negative repercussions of their teenage explorations. Even so, interesting portrayals of race exist, but this time in question of American-ness; for instance, in the season four finale, the only depicted Latino character ends up being an illegal immigrant and is deported; Raj, the only middle-eastern character, is killed by cancer, just as his immigrant mother was. But Annie, the “legitimate” white daughter with Kansas roots who in most ways now embodies the role of Brandon, inherits an estate from a friend’s will. One cannot help contrast Annie’s luck with Dixon’s, who suffers a mild stroke within the episode.
The show falls in the interesting political era of Obama’s election, in a time that believes itself post-racial, especially in the wake of the election of the first black president. An Atlantic Magazine article published in early 2009 and entitled “The End of White America?” begins: “The Election of Barack Obama is just the most startling manifestation of a larger trend: the gradual erosion of “whiteness” as the touchstone of what it means to be American. If the end of white America is a cultural and demographic inevitability, what will the new mainstream look like—and how will white Americans fit into it?” Interestingly, the article seems to explain this “blend” portrayed within the new generation of 90210, in that popular culture of the time revolves around ethnic ambiguity. But with all things considered, does this mean that society has progressed, or found another way to conceal its undermine race, as per Gramsci’s previously mentioned theory of hegemony?
In end, the article is decisive in its post-racialization argument: “Maybe this is merely how it used to be—maybe this is already an outdated way of looking at things. For the young Americans born in the 1980s and 1990s, culture is something to be taken apart and remade in their own image. “We came along in a generation that didn’t have to follow that path of race,” [an interviewee] goes on. “We saw something different.” This moment was not the end of white America; it was not the end of anything. It was a bridge, and we crossed it.”
The answer to that question, then, seems (unambiguously) clear.
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