“The Boondocks” was an animated television series that aired from 2005-2010. It ran for three seasons with the third and final season taking a full two years to complete. The show starred the unusual and charmingly abrasive Freeman family, which is composed of a grandfather and two grandchildren, all with extraordinarily strong characteristics, and all African-Americans. The main protagonist of the series, Huey Freeman, is a ten year old of Marxist inclination who attempts, always, a rational view of everything around him with a sharp economic/political and critical/analytical eye. The show, and most specifically the first season, centered around Huey’s criticism of US politics, evaluations of black culture, especially Rap, Hip Hop, and pop culture, and ferreting out the hidden racism in the culture around him. This was the shows high point; Huey’s thoughts and tragicomic reflections on his encounters with a” back-words society” (a backwards society based on a language of oppression) were witty and thought-provoking. “The Boondocks” first season, and the last five episodes of season two, really dared the viewer to confront their own ideas and prejudices. Huey Freeman as a character alone was a challenge, alone, in following his moving ideals and ethical values. The creator of the show, and majority writer of the episodes, Aaron McGruder, often used Huey as an alter-ego to represent his ideas and critiques.
The other main protagonists of the series were the eight year old Riley Freeman who represented the misguided direction of consumer-oriented and culturally controlled black youth. His arrogant admiration, near worshipping of mainstream popular Rap culture was a mainstay of the series. Riley’s penultimate dream is of one day becoming a real “Gangsta”, meaning a rich as hell, tough-guy criminal. McGruder uses Riley as a foil to talk about the pitfalls of a self-destructive and negating black culture for its young members, and is exactly the opposite of the Black Culture of Affirmation and Progression Huey typifies.
Robert Freeman is the somewhat neglecting Grandfather of the two young boys. He spends most of the show looking for a girlfriend, never really succeeding. He often is as misguided as Riley, even, at times, taking Riley’s bad advice instead of the sage admonishments of Huey. The boys, however, both express overt signs of affection towards Robert; even if it’s not quite clear, in turn, what he feels towards them.
“The Boondocks” plied a diverse field of themes from the Iraq War, to homophobia in Black culture, to mainstream capitalism. Sadly the final season lost the show’s original charm and political edge. Yet, even if the last bits were a letdown, there have been few gutsier attempts on TV.
Even if I love this show, I have to admit that one thing that always bothered me was its portrayal of women. To be fair, McGruders representation of women wasn’t always bothersome. Before the TV-show, “The Boondocks” was a comic strip McGruder solely penned. The comic strip (whose characters and themes were explored, also, in the animated show) often featured strong, independent, secure and rational women. To point out how this divergence takes place between the mediums – in the strip series, Riley had a female teacher called Mrs. Petterson. She was a smart no-nonsense lady who treated Riley as an equal and no differently than the others in her predominately white class. Mrs. Peterson never was want to put up with his bad behavior and responded to it always with reserve and fairness. She was shown as a reasonable white person working within the school staff; while the principle and Huey’s teacher Mr. Petto were shown as soft-racists who couldn’t handle the idea of community with, teaching as equals, or even justly interacting with black students. Mrs. Peterson, however, gives little thought to Riley’s ethnicity and is concerned only with his behavior in the teaching environment.
Another example is the neighbor Sara, a white woman who is married to a black man. The couple are both lawyers who have a single, biracial child, Jazmine. Within the marriage, McGruder positions Sara as the reasonable one and somewhat more open minded than her spouse. Even when Huey tells fairy tales to her daughter with alternative and exaggerated social commentary, and in confronting inappropriate behavior in the School staff (in regard to ethnicity), Sara is shown as fundamentally open while simultaneously being socially and ethically unfaltering. McGruder has Sara even go as far as to vote for a third party in the US elections, something Huey expresses as a brave and radical thing to do. In the Strip, then, Sara represents all the characteristics of female pure awesomeness and empowerment!
Sara shows up in the Television show too, and this is where the problem begins.
As Sara in the comic strip was intelligent and strong, Sara in the television show was a painful thing to behold. The first episode of the animated series to delve into her personality was, “Tom, Sarah and Usher” (Ep. 2, s. 2), and portrayed her as an immature, giggling spouse who continually embarrasses her husband in public. When she meets the singer Usher in a restaurant, while she and her husband Tom are celebrating their anniversary, Sara starts to go “Fan-girl” on Usher, leaving her husband to sit alone at their dinner table. Another horrid example of this behavior McGruder gives her, in the animated series. Is from “It’s a Black president, Huey Freeman” where Sara acts hysterically and is consumed whole in the Frenzied Idol Worship of Barack Obama. McGruder turns Sara from one of the most fully expressed mature grownups in the Comic strip to a simpering and vacuous gender pacesetter in the animated series.
Other examples of poorly portrayed women McGruder proliferates within the animated series are Luna, a young black woman Robert dates. Luna typifies the stereotypical bitter woman who takes her disappointment from past relationships and embeds it in all the other relationships around her. Not being complete in herself as well, Luna is propelled to take bad advice from her “girlfriend” and apply it to her world and relations.
And, lastly, a predominantly large and obvious number of female side characters who meandered across the Boondocks Universe either were to be women marked as prostitutes or (music) video vixens.
Yet, luckily and in the end, Boondocks was too deliver one episode that made up – well, almost! – For these near misogynistic portrayals.
The second season featured an episode titled “The Story of Catcher Freeman”. This episode features three stories about a man named Catcher Freeman, and legendary ancestor in the Freeman family tree. While Robert and a (self-hating) black man named Ruckus tell the tale of Catcher Freeman as one of a tough, strapping, and ultimate masculine Hero, Huey discovers that the true hero of the Catcher Freeman chronicle was a woman of no small skills and spontaneous bravery named Thelma. In this episode McGruder shows us that even when women are the historical and human motivators of Action and Belief they get no credit and, indeed, become invisible to the world. McGruder also makes this episode an insightful mockery of men’s daydreams of always, and continually, being the Center of the World and the Creators of History.
Given this, it is obvious McGruder’s way of portraying women is erratic and problematic. At times his Gender politics is right on, while at other times his view of the female borders on misogyny.
Why is this the Case in Boondocks? Perhaps McGruder often becomes seduced, trapped and contained by certain clichés and stereotypes of women that exist inside a specific ideological location in the Black community (or even American community in general). There will always, and often, be a dangerous interplay between culturally ingrained ideas about gender and those which are rationally confronted by the individual. How this plays out in the secondary field of ethnicity is the problematic which McGruder confronts in the Animated Series and where this gender vision comes out as lacking verses the Comic Strip which comes through with flying colors in regard to gender and the ethnicity of the characters.
“The Boondocks” as a whole is an extremely impressive and important show. The first season was totally unapologetic in its social commentary and the animation was brilliant and unique (highly informed by anime). The second season has its moments of flight and whimsy as well, with the highlight of “The Story of Catcher Freeman”. “The Boondocks” is historically important as it is one of the first (PJ’s by Eddie Murphy being the first) and undoubtedly the best televised animation centered on African-American experiences and has a critical and analytical view of this culture.