A sitcom takes a serious look at ‘spanking’

Looking at it in hindsight, ABC’s decision to move an episode — “Crime and Punishment” — of its sitcom, “Blackish”, because it was scheduled to run too soon after Adrian Peterson was charged with beating his son in the name of discipline seems misplaced.

It was impossible to watch last night’s episode without thinking of the Peterson case and rather than distancing art from reality, it seemed a better decision would have been to attach the two.

No matter now. That it got on the air at all and confronted the issue of proper “discipline” is refreshing.

In his review today, Time’s James Poniewozik calls the episode the most risky yet.

“Crime and Punishment” gets at the racial dynamics of spanking, which came up most recently in the Adrian Peterson child abuse case. The injuries that Peterson’s son received went well beyond “spanking,” of course, but the controversy also raised the charge that Peterson’s critics were imposing outside values on black parents who still favored corporal punishment.

[Note! I’m not trying to draw sweeping conclusions about how black or white parents discipline, but that’s the argument people were making. And for disclosure’s sake, I’m not a spanker nor was spanked–though I was told my parents spanked my older siblings, so maybe they were just worn out by the time I came around. In any case, I’m not trying to adjudicate the spanking issue here, but feel free to have at it in the comments.]

Unlike the pilot, which underlined its points about what is and isn’t “a black thing,” “Crime and Punishment” doesn’t directly identify spanking as a racial-cultural issue. It doesn’t have to–by bringing Pops into the conversation (“An ass is an ass is an ass is an ass“), it shows that André and Rainbow’s ambivalence has everything to do with the tension between how they were raised and where they are now.

But that tension isn’t simply about race–it’s about time passing and social mobility and the different boundaries of acceptable parenting in different social and economic classes. It’s not “White folks punish their kids like this, but black folks punish their kids like that!” here. With impressive concision, the episode makes the point that there isn’t one “white” or “black” position on discipline–when it comes to parenting, there are millions of opinions, each certain it’s right (and terrified it’s wrong).

In the end, the parents decided a good talk is better than a “good whipping.”