The Proud Family is the representation we needed—then and now
“I’m Penny Proud, I’m cute and I’m loud and I got it going on.”—a phrase I can never forget, belted out by none other than Penny Proud, while wearing her signature look: a wine-colored skirt and cardigan, white button-down, white socks, and classic black Mary Janes (and eventually burgundy sneakers).
Disney’s animated show The Proud Family is set to come back via The Proud Family Movie after 14 years, on the network’s new streaming service Disney+, giving us a blast from the past and fresh content from our childhood favorites. The Proud Family made its debut in 2001, centering around the lives of the Prouds, a Black family, as they navigate everything from entrepreneurship and relationships to cultural and racial differences. The show follows not only the Prouds, but also their immediate and extended family, as well as their close friends.
Penny, the 14-year-old protagonist, journeys through junior high school, tackling self-discovery, love and relationships, maintaining friendships, cultural differences, politics, and the ashy blue bullies—all topics that kids (and even adults) today can relate to. With her friends Dijonay, Sticky, Zoey, and even her frenemy LaCienega at her side, Penny navigates teenage woes. Aside from the positive depiction of the Black family dynamic, the show brought much-needed representation of a variety of issues to the screen, representation that is still needed 14 years later.
LGBTQ Rights & Toxic Masculinity
While in 2019, we’re still speaking out about discrimination against the LGBTQ community, The Proud Family was early to the party. In the episode “Who You Calling Sissy,” Penny’s friend Michael, a flamboyant designer and fashionisto, is called a “sissy,” after surprising everyone with his athletic abilities during a pick-up game of basketball and ultimately making the game-winning shot. The word “sissy” is typically used in regards to an effeminate man and carries connotations of being homosexual and heavily used in the Black community.
While Penny and her friends are shocked at the use of the word, Michael appears unfazed, leading Penny to dig deeper into his feelings about how others treat him and encouraging him to defend himself. Following the derogatory remark, LaCienega, who was initially attending the Willy T. Ribbs’ Dance with Michael just so he would design her dress, ditches him and the already completed dress. She states that the dress was great, but he was not. Yet again Michael lets it roll off his back, but his peers’ behavior only escalates. A group of boys lock Michael in the girls’ restroom and the ashy blue trio The Gross Sisters spray paint the word “sissy” on his locker.
Not one person apologizes, until they feel Michael’s wrath, but it shouldn’t take this much to simply respect others. This episode addressed issues including bullying, women accessorizing gay men, respecting gender identity and sexual orientation, and also the toxic masculity that doesn’t allow men to feel liberated without judgement.
Women’s (and Girls’) Empowerment
There’s continuous empowerment and want for equality for women throughout the series. In the episode ‘She’s Got Game,” Penny joins the boys’ football team after her crush mocks her and insists that girls can’t play. Penny’s dad, Oscar, is very reluctant to the idea, especially the part about his teenage daughter being surrounded by boys. But Zoey, her mother Trudy, and grandmother Suga Mama back Penny 100%. Comments from the football coach and other members of the team show they’re still holding ideals of the 1950s, that women belonged in the kitchen, suggesting Penny go home and bake instead. Penny proves herself in crunch time, when the coach is forced to put her in the game after a slew of injuries plagues the team.
Much like Penny, women today are still fighting for equality (specifically in the realm of equal pay). And while Penny encounters stereotyping in high school sports, today’s media climate questions the fairness of trans women competing against cisgender women in sports.
The show also reminds us to be comfortable in our own skin and not fat-shame others. Society continues to try to confine us to body image norms and subscribe to fatphobic ideals, often erasing plus-sized women and men from their mainstream body-positivity campaigns. In the episode titled “Forbidden Date,” Oscar Proud, like many fathers, is not excited for his daughter to start dating. And once Penny is stuck on a date with Carlos, a sweet and funny plus-sized teen, she is not too happy about it either. Over the course of the day Penny learns more about Carlos and just how confident he is in his skin, realizing that she shouldn’t judge him based on his appearance.
Racial Stereotyping & Prejudice
Several episodes address the stereotypes, discrimination, mistreatment, and flat-out racism of marginalized groups. In “Culture Shock,” students at Willy T. Ribbs voluntarily swap households for a week to learn about another culture. Dijonay switches with the Chang triplets, Zoey with Little Wiz, LaCienega with the Gross sisters, and Penny with Radika Zamin. All are unhappy with their assignments, Penny especially, as she pretends to be sick the next day in order to avoid going to the home of the Zamins, a Pakistani Muslim American family.
The episode showcases many stereotypes of Muslims, portraying the father as angry and sexist and the mother as a servant of the family, while daughter Radika feels displaced in the Proud Family house, not having to serve a male authority figure. Penny’s xenophobic and islamphobic feelings are evident for the majority of the episode, as she continuously calls the Zamins weird, disrespects Ramadan and their belief in fasting, and chooses not to wear the hijab Mrs. Zamin makes for her, explaining that she wears hers “because I would rather be judged for who I am, not necessarily by how I look.”
Toward the end of the episode, Penny shows more appreciation for the Zamins, wearing her hijab, getting to know her host family, attending Eid, and delivering a speech about how the Zamins are just like any other family, after their home was vandalized with the hateful words “Go back to your country,” words and ideology ever-present in our country and administration today, with travel bans, walls, and the inhumane caging of children.
While the stereotypes of so many groups were heavily visible in The Proud Family, that may very well have been the point. To not only show underrepresented and marginalized groups, but to dig into their true being, feelings, thoughts, and obstacles and the people who oppress them. After 14 years, I wonder if the show will hold true to making people uncomfortable, addressing the hard conversations, and the plight of so many people—because we still need it.