With all the insanity going on in the world at the moment, I wanted to reflect on two television episodes that I watched as child that covered the themes of discrimination and prejudice. Both of these episodes- one from a Disney Channel show and one from a Cartoon Network show- had a profound effect on me and I still look back at them when looking at the maddening injustice in our society. I wanted to share my thoughts on these episodes as it seems apt to remember them during this time.
That’s So Raven: “True Colours”
I am a child of the ’90s and early 00’s Disney Channel. Kim Possible, Hannah Montana, The Suite Life of Zack and Cody– these were some of the shows that I spent my formative years with. Probably explains a lot about me but I digress. One of my absolute favourites of these shows was That’s So Raven, a show about a girl who was a psychic and whose frequent out of context visions would lead to a series of wild and wacky adventures. As cheesy as it sounds- and was – the show was charming and popular. The show would sometimes cover controversial issues and one of the most memorable is the episode “True Colours”.
The episode takes place during Black History Month and focuses on two storylines: Raven’s little brother Cory having to write an essay in regards to his black heritage and Raven trying to expose a racist store manager after she experienced a vision in which the manager reveals that she does not hire black people. Both storylines are interesting in their own way, with Cory’s story being more informative about the heritage and history of African-Americans and Raven’s highlighting the discrimination of black people that is still rampant. I remember being intrigued by Cory’s story. I knew of famous African Americans such as Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, and Jesse Jackson but I found myself learning about pioneering black figures like Bessie Coleman, Scott Joplin, and Frederick Douglass.
I was about 13 years old when I watched the show and I was learning more about the history of the American black community than I ever had at school. Whilst Cory’s story was interesting and informative for me, Raven’s story was a shocking look at discrimination, ignorance, and intolerance to me. I come from a mixed family (my father is black and my mum is white though you’d be forgiven for being surprised as I myself am so pale I look as though I haven’t seen the sun in millennia) and hadn’t really seen this kind of attitude before. I was only young of course so I will blame naivety and inexperience for that. I think this episode was a great way to do a number of things. The first was to celebrate the achievements of prominent black figures throughout history whilst the second is to highlight the racism and ignorance in our society and how it can affect someone (Raven is visibly distraught by this experience as she says that whilst she knew of racism, she didn’t know how much it could hurt). This episode also manages to do all this whilst maintaining the general kid-friendly tone, with silly humour and jokes still aplenty despite the serious subject matter. It is not too far from the usual show but it is enlightening enough to educate about a social issue that is still very much plaguing our world.
Teen Titans: “Troq”
The original Teen Titans is a cartoon that I would get up at 6 am for. Anyone who knows me will know how much I must have enjoyed it to be willing to do that. It was one of the best superhero cartoons out there that has a large fan base even now. One episode was particularly memorable for its themes of racism and discrimination towards one of the central characters. In the episode “Troq“, an alien called Val-Yor is embroiled in a battle with a robotic species known as The Locrix. When he crash lands near the Teen Titan tower, the teenage heroes are in awe at his feats of bravery and skill and offer to help him take down The Locrix. However, it becomes very clear that Val-Yor has some kind of issue with Starfire. Starfire is also an alien from the planet Tamaran and she later explains that there are many races of aliens who look down upon Tamaraneans, viewing them as inferior beings. Val- Yor is immediately hostile to Starfire, hardly acknowledging her presence, accosting and mocking her and referring to her by a racial slur for Tamaraneans called “Troq”. When Cyborg calls Starfire “Troq”, unaware of the true meaning, Starfire breaks down and tells him that the word is a hateful slur that means nothing. Val –Yor is constantly calling Starfire this, proving that he sees her as less than insignificant. To him, she is absolutely nothing. The implications of this behaviour in regards to society today are palpable. Cyborg’s response is also full of thoughtful metaphors. Starfire asks him if he knows how it feels to be judged just by how you look. Cyborg tells her that of course he does as he is part robot. Whilst this is the case, this is a conversation where you can read between the lines. Cyborg is indeed a character who is part robot but he is also black.
I didn’t read much into that as a child, but watching this back as an adult showed me that Cyborg’s words are more poignant than I had thought. Starfire ends up saving Val-Yor’s life, following even more verbal abuse from him. Starfire’s response when Val- Yor tells her that there is no way she could save him is one of the most powerful parts of the episode. She responds with “You may not value my life, but I still value yours”. Earlier in the episode, Val-Yor had intentionally given Starfire an incredibly dangerous mission to move some mines, clearly having no problem putting her in harms way. Starfire not only successfully did that job but she also risked herself again to save him. At the end of the episode, the Titans confront Val- Yor and demand he thank Starfire. He finally calls her by her name but he can’t help but hold on to his prejudices against her race when he tells her “You’re not bad for a Tamaranean. You must be one of the good ones.” He even tells her that he is trying to pay her a compliment when Starfire tries to defend her people. Raven responds aptly with “then why does it still sound like an insult?” With the Titans turned against him due to his deplorable behaviour toward their friend and ally, Val-Yor leaves the planet condemning both Earthlings and Tamaraneans. His lack of understanding and empathy despite his pitiful attempts to compliment Starfire is an accurate portrayal of an ignorant person who cannot even see how prejudiced they are. Starfire’s final words are a perfect representation of the world we find ourselves in at the moment, “There will always be people who say mean words because you are different and sometimes their minds cannot be changed. But there are many more people who don’t judge others based on how they look, or where they are from. Those are the people whose words truly matter”. I don’t think anyone could have put it better than Starfire does here.
I remember being angry at this episode. I was furious at how Starfire was treated and I couldn’t understand why she would have such hatred thrown at her. Her closing words lingered in my head for a while afterwards. Unfortunately, there are bad people who will not change their minds and will continue to be bullies and racists. Lord knows there are enough of them around at the moment. The people who stand up and fight for these rights- the rights that should come to every human being no matter what colour, creed, or gender you are- that are worthy. It took a show about teenagers with special powers to portray it in such a way that appeals to a young audience whilst shying away from discussing important social issues. “Troq” first aired in 2005 and yet now- in 2020- Starfire’s words speak louder than ever before.
As I’ve said, I had a certain naivety when I was a child in regards to race and discrimination, as most children are. These two episodes changed me in that they made me think. Rather than being oblivious, I became more aware and educated myself on these matters more. Of course, there were other factors that made me more aware- for instance, my mum told me about some of my father’s experiences with racism- but these two episodes from beloved television shows that I watched religiously considerably affected me at a young age. There are often children’s films and television shows that attempt to teach their young audiences life lessons. Some of these are terribly cheesy or preachy, but these episodes did not speak down to the kids who would be watching. It was an important lesson to learn and I can honestly say that That’s So Raven and Teen Titans taught me in such a way that they stayed with me right through to adulthood. The upsetting thing about all this is, both of these episodes aired in the early ’00s. This should not be an issue still. It needs to stop.