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Janet Jackson, Good Times, and the Current Healthcare Debate

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Tuesday, Oct 6, 2009
As much as the mammy stereotype may persist alongside images of the domineering Black (southern) mother, Good Times could not deny the dignity of feminine leadership.
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Good Times: The Complete Fifth Season

Cast: Jimmie Walker, Ja'net DuBois, Bern Nadette Stanis, Ralph Carter, Johnny Brown, Janet Jackson

(CBS)

Do the right thing. Here’s one for your healthcare debate: “Our government can’t do sh*t!” This episode of Good Times (’74-’79), “The Evans Get Involved”, made the same statement, but didn’t stop there. Government should be able to stand up—must stand up—on behalf of the people, who will stand up regardless (because that’s who we are). But if we’re so capable as individuals, what makes us think that we hold no collective responsibility.


“The Evans Get Involved” is groundbreaking. This is just a nine-and-a-half-minute excerpt. The whole show runs over three, maybe four episodes. The infamous intro/outro of Good Times  is clipped, uploaded like a series of other Sit-Com intros from the late 70’s, early 80’s when we were settling into terms like urban decay and renewal.


Temporary lay offs. - Good Times!
Easy credit rip offs. - Good Times!
Scratchin’ and surviving. - Good Times!

Hangin’ in a chow line - Good Times!

Ain’t we lucky we got ‘em - Good Times!*


I can imagine that for the ‘70s crowd, the show was chock-full of ghetto fabulous stereotypes and archetypical characters. The comedic tension between Sis-Bro duo Thelma and J.J. closely mirrors that of Fred Sanford and his sanctified sister-in-law on the show Sanford and Son (’72-’77). Dear Ms. Rolle eventually quit the show in shock and resistance to those same clichés about poor people and Black people: single, domineering mother, sex-sillified P.I.M.P. sons, welfare hot mamas like that of Penny, and so on. I mean, it’s a family show where they killed off the father. Even Bobby (Patrick Duffy) and J.R. Ewing’s (Larry Hagman) dad made ethereal guest appearances after the actor had died in the evening soap opera drama Dallas (‘78-‘91).


Larry Hagman, of course, played a supreme patriarch in the hit show I Dream of Jeannie, where a scantily clad, Arab-wannabe, female slave bid his every wish, falling over herself to please her “master.” What kind of patriarchal wet dream is that? The same as shows like Dallas and the rest, where money reigns supreme—just like in the world of Bling!


Mmmmmm

Just lookin’ out of the window.
Watchin’ the asphalt grow.

Thinkin’ how it all looks hand-me-down.
Good Times, yeah, yeah
Good Times


In this one episode, the number of social messages transmitted is incredible. The episode centers around Janet Jackson’s character, Penny. Penny, barely reaching tall-actor Jimmie Walker’s chest, is a heavily abused and neglected child raised by a young ghetto mamma. Penny inappropriately transfers her need for love to J.J., even interrupting the man’s dates, hanging onto him like a—dare I say—moth to a flame. Actually, Penny was more attracted to her mother like a moth to a flame; her mother heavily bruises her and burns the child with an electric iron. It’s pitiful and difficult to watch, but whom else to speak on behalf of children if not popular culture. Indeed, this was prime time TV.


How good are these times? And to what end to we owe any responsibility to act collectively? The nosey neighbors stood up for the neglected child; they witnessed her beating up her doll after J.J. rejected her affections, claiming that if the dumb kid (the doll) were better, then the man would have stayed. The episode dug deep. Indeed, the entire series was as thoroughly dope.


Penny made up all sorts of lies, creating a fantasy life for herself far away from the living hell of the Chicago projects. No matter how good-spirited the folks remained, and no matter how many times the neighbor Willona calls the building handy-man, Bugger, the reality of the ghetto is never absent. The irony of the show, of course, is that they lead lives much happier than the wealthy soap opera characters. The Evans family, their neighbors, their friends, the love amongst them, was truly a picture of the ability to choose happiness in one’s life.


Unlike Alice in any wonderland, this was the ghetto—the asphalt grows. Poet Gwendowlyn Brooks, a Chi-town native, imagined an entire universe on that asphalt, and places like the Golden Shovel. Why sho’: We REAL cool. We…


Unlike any wonderland, it’s the people who have to pull ourselves out of fantasy, and create a reality well above ground. Higher than the sky! Indeed, who shot J.R.? One of his own damn relatives (not to be named—go Google it and learn about the season cliffhanger that made television history). That’s some shit, when family is killing one another. We’re supposed to stick up for one another. But the show, for all it’s glory, reflected the greed of the era—the Reaganomics that convinced many Americans that the best we should do is run off like cattle ranchers and make a buck (and screw the girl—any girl), by any means necessary. It’s a man’s world. And that’s something else that made Good Times different.


As much as the mammy stereotype may persist alongside images of the domineering Black (southern) mother, Good Times could not deny the dignity of feminine leadership. The mother Florida, the neighbor Willona, the sister Thelma, and even the little brother Michael, all resisted a typical sort of patriarchal power and leadership. Shows like The Honeymooners (’55-’56), All in the Family (’71-’79), or even The Flinstones (’60-’66) made direct puns at archetypical patriarchs like Archie Bunker—a decrepit, grouchy patriarch. Yet somehow he always got the last word. The only real critique was that the patriarch in those shows was crude.


The world of Good Times was something different altogether. The clip here, for example, makes great mockery of the facts of the faults of government:


  • The doctor who failed to lobby on behalf of the abused child, in spite of the loud pleas of another citizens simply standing up.
  • The policeman, who, like the Dr.’s nurse who wanted to make Penny take her turn in line, just followed procedure.
  • The thirsty social worker who had to fill out the forms while Penny was probably being punched and ironed. “On the rocks,” she insisted for her beverage.
  • The unseen and unmentioned teachers and school staff who failed to notice Penny’s bruises, scars and loveless behavior.

The social worker was so caught up in her paper-work that she drank from a fishbowl, and suddenly she took an interest in Black vernacular. They missed Penny, her mother took her and scrammed.


This is business as usual in America, ‘cause our government can’t do nothin’. Least, that’s what people think, and seem to be saying about health care and well-fare (not to mention welfare) today. Our independence and individualism has been warped into some maddening excuse NOT to take any responsibility for ourselves, collectively.


N.I.M.B.Y. (not in my back-yard) was our motto by the end of the Reagan era, the period that Good Times predicted, mocked, and made fun of. Yet, one wonders if it indeed takes Swine Flu or some other virulent agent to convince us that the well-fare knows no borders. Gender, race, and class can divide us, but our selfishness will conquer us. Good Times’ message was things must change—lest things fall apart. And even in those times, there are Good Times.


Good Times.

Any time you meet a payment. – Good Times.
Any time you need a friend. - Good Times.
Any time you’re out from under.

Not getting hassled, not getting hustled.
Keepin’ your head above water,
Making a wave when you can.


People die in basic American procedures, even the policeman in this clip of Good Times showed that. The officer entered, demeaned the Black man, moaned about doing his duty, and virtually spat on the black man again. The officer administered justice, with the threat of an extended baton, over all the Black women wrestling around him. The child was just incidental. And all this was Black-on-Black crime. It was also groundbreaking to show that we can even hate ourselves, act as pariahs, even outside the purview of “Massa”. The oppressed, epitomized by this community in the midst of urban poverty, turned in on itself.


Of course, later on we get outright gang-banging flics like Colors (’88), starring Sean Penn, Robert Duval, and Don Cheadle. Shortly thereafter there’s John Singleton’s classic Boyz in the Hood (’91), with Cuba Gooding, Jr. Lawrence Fishburn, Angela Bassett, Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut, Nia Long, Regina King, Chris Tucker and Tyra Ferrell (of School Daze, Poetic Justice, and Jungle Fever). Gang-banging images and films, including gangsta rap, all depict and reiterate the even lower standards of how the decedents of slaves will treat one another—brother killing brother over a pair of shoes. Sisters knocking off sisters because she looked at her wrong.


The background of Good Times was this pension to destroy one another. But, inside the Evans’ home, the hate was only in the form of Thelma and J.J. constantly playing the dozens. But this was a slapstick, prime-time sit-Com, so everyone had mad jokes. Indeed, Good Times = ROFLMAO.


“Honey, you don’t own the rights or patent on scufflin’,” pins Willona when Penny’s mother barges into the Evans’ stiff brick walls trying to find her little, abused, run-away child. Chip Fields gave a stellar performance in this scene, lamenting over how hard it was to be a poor, teenage, single parent. And it’s hard, agrees Willona, who was raised by a young single mother, too. “All my life, I had to fight,” Miss Sophia says in The Color Purple—Penny’s mother mimicking the same rhetoric. But, different from Miss Sophia: “I can’t keep a man on ‘count o’ Penny,” Penny’s mother says as she breaks down from her rage to sob and cry, feeling sorry for herself. We had lost something over these generations.


Like the Bamabara versus the Fulani in Mali, two ethnic groups that are paired to play the dozens, or regional family names like Kone vs. Traore, which are paired similarly. When members of these disparate ethnic groups or families meet, they crack jokes. There are standard jokes like Sho dunna (bean-eater, which implies that the person farts a lot and stinks). Thelma and J.J. fill seasons of scenes with their arguing and insults. Yet, ultimately the wisecracking takes away all the tension, and they are therefore able to be civil to one another when it counts.


Civil, distinct from cordial, which is what we certainly still have in the South, implies much more than any loose definition of friendliness. If anything, ‘friendliness’ in the Evans’ sense could be better explained by the song “One”. Then, Mary and Bono sing: “We’re one but we’re not the same. We’ve get to carry each other. Carry each other”.


Willona eventually adopts Penny. The handy-man gets involved, and so does the Evans family—who now lives alone as three siblings while their mom and new step-father stay out west. The community will raise Penny, and we get to enjoy the major dramatics of this talented young actress ever more in re-runs.


*Good Times’ theme song lyrics, thanks to http://www.cfhf.net/lyrics/good-time.htm.


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12 Feb 2014
The truth is that Good Times is an excellent and remarkably funny show. The irony of the show and its title continues to resonate.
30 Jul 2006
Good Times quickly abandoned its original intent for easy laughs, leaving the house divided, but funny, nonetheless.
27 Feb 2003
In effect, J.J. became the comic relief from which there was no relief.
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