Black-ish Went To The Sunken Place Last Night For A Different Reason

Photo: Photo: ABC/Eric McCandless.
With Zoey (Yara Shahidi) away at college — and narrating her own life for grown-ish — life must continue in the Johnson home on black-ish. And it is. Season 4 is still going strong, and in episode 14, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” the eldest Johnson son, Junior (Marcus Scribner) has crossed an important milestone in his life: He has had sex for the first time. His father Dre (Anthony Anderson), often lost in the sauce of his own masculinity, is elated about this development and ready to celebrate his son’s “accomplishment.” But things change when Rainbow (Tracee Ellis-Ross) reveals that Zoey has had sex since heading off to college. Suddenly, both Dre and Bow are confronted with their own double standards about the differential treatment of their son and daughter. In classic black-ish fashion, the episode ends with a teachable moment that comes full circle. However, for all of the good that came out of “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” I still wanted more from a show that usually offers so much nuance.
There were a lot of things that this episode — written by show creator Kenya Barris, Doug Hall, and Stephen White — absolutely nailed. In particular, a scene in which knowledge of Zoey’s sexual activity sends Dre to the “sunken place” is television comedy gold and seamlessly blends the plotlines of black-ish and its spin-off grown-ish. It happens like this: Bow doesn’t think that Dre is taking Junior losing his virginity seriously enough. She has the perfect morsel of information to get her husband to reconsider his stance on the issue. Straight-faced and lightly stirring the contents of her teacup, Bow informs Dre that Zoey, too, has crossed the threshold into sexual activity. Suddenly, the room gets blurry, and Dre is falling into a dark abyss modeled after the one at the center of Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning film, Get Out. It was a hilarious representation of just how extra Dre can be in his overprotectiveness of his daughter.
More notably, though, is that the sunken place is a metaphor that does not uniquely apply to Dre. In this context, black-ish visualized what feels like a widespread disassociation between men and women’s sexuality. Confronted with the idea that his own daughter was developing a sexual identity sent Dre into indefinite darkness and confusion, but if the narratives circulated by men in politics and even pop culture are any indication, a lot of men seem to be having this problem. The fanciful way that black-ish was able to connect to a culture in which people struggle to see the humanity in women’s sexuality was perfect.
Nevertheless, I’m not sure that this wokeness was intentional from the three men who wrote the episode. Forced to grapple with the reality of Zoey getting some action — thanks in part to a woman at his office who is the only voice of reason amongst his coworkers —Dre is suddenly interested in the emotional seeds that Junior has planted with his new decision. Bow also makes some incorrect assumptions about Junior’s intentions. While the episode resolves itself around Bow and Dre wiping the proverbial egg off of their faces, I found myself wanting just a little more.
The truth is that “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” only scratched the surface on how pervasive virginity myths are in our culture. Yes, a gender imbalance suggests that there are different accounts for boys and girls when they have sex. But that is just the tip of a heteronormative iceberg that goes deeper and touches the core of sexism, and reverberates way beyond the first time someone has sex. Our cultural obsession with women being pure and men being “accomplished” in sex follows them well into adulthood. I expected some grand narrative about this at the beginning or end of the episode, and it never came. But black-ish hasn’t really failed me yet, and I think there is likely to be plenty more sex where that came from. They may get it right, still.