Saved by the Bell (1989-1993) was one of the best integrations of race, class and gender that I’ve seen on television and decades ahead of its time. Granted, children’s programs tend to integrate race effortlessly, because children will be children. However, after living in LA, I realize that it is not as simple as SBTB would lead one to believe.
The main cast is multi ethnic: of the 6 main characters, half are white (Zach, Kelly, Screech) while the other half are ‘of color’ (Slater, Jesse, Lisa). Although this may seem evident to the viewer, the narratives never highlighted their races or made that part of the discussion (despite living in southern California in the late 80s). The text tended to focus more on class and the trials and tribulations that come from teens dealing with these all-too-real differences: Lisa is a shop-aholic, which clashes with her best friend Kelly’s large family and spendthrift demands. For the other characters, class is less of an issue, although Zach never sees his father because he is working and it takes a car accident to bring them together.
The characters are intended to be a slice of the American high school system (a classic tool of TV and film): the cool guy, the geek, the jock, the American sweetheart, the spoiled daddy’s girl, and the nerd/smart chick. This last category is also what draws me to the program. The smart chick, Jesse Spano, is both of questionable ethnicity (which is also never mentioned in the program) and remarkably attractive. She even lands the jock! It gives hope to all of us sexy smart chicks who question our own attractiveness. As for the gender reading, Jesse was clearly a feminist, a label that many place on women who are too smart, too strong, or too driven. However, Jesse was all of these things AND feminine. She was a feminine feminist, an elusive moniker that I try to advocate.
In short, I think that I am better off for watching ’saved by the bell’ at a key point in my development, as compared to other programs that were popular at the time, like Baywatch, or Melrose Place.
UPDATE: saved by the bell hooks