Television

TV’s Blackest Cartoon Loses What Made It Special

The Proud Family is back—but who is it for now?

A group of four people look confused as they stand behidn bleachers. One is a tall redhead; another is a short light-skinned Black girl; next to her is a tall Black boy with pink hair; next to him, a dark-skinned Black girl with blonde hair.
Disney+

It’s no secret that we’re in the age of Re: the age of the reboot, revival, and remake. It’s a reality that makes some viewers want to regurgitate (okay, I’m stopping, I swear). Cultural critics of all kinds over the years have been keen on pointing this out repeatedly. (I’m done! I’m done!) The problems cited with these frequent do-overs are usually one, or some combination, of the following: The characters look too different from their original counterparts; the overall tone has changed; and their beloved characters often take the wrong directions.

Advertisement

When it comes to the new Disney+ reboot of The Proud Family, the early 2000s Disney Channel cartoon about a pre-teen Black girl and her kooky family, not much appears to have changed on the surface. In this new version, protagonist Penny Proud is a 14-year old who appears mostly unchanged from the show’s original run. But there is one big change that does take place in Louder and Prouder’s first episode: puberty hits Penny and her friends overnight. While they all look a little bit older now, the entire cast remains pretty much the same as always. Penny’s mom Trudy is still the Proud family breadwinner, while her dad Oscar is still a hapless entrepreneur; Suga Mama is still obsessed with Papi from next door; and Penny’s crew—Dijonay, Zoey, LaCienega, and Sticky—is still in place except for one substitution: Michael, the queer-coded ancillary character of the original run, has replaced Sticky as a more permanent member of the group. Sticky’s voice actor, Orlando Brown, had an addiction-fueled public breakdown in recent years that also excluded him from the That’s So Raven reboot, Raven’s Home. Sticky’s (hilariously explained) absence ushers in the arrival of new characters: KG (A Boogie wit da Hoodie), Maya (culture’s booked and busy queen, Keke Palmer), and their dads, voiced by Billy Porter and Zachary Quinto.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

But the biggest change to The Proud Family has taken place both on-and off-screen: its audience. Those of us who grew up watching the original show are now in our mid-to-late twenties. We remember the days of TRL and 106 and Park, which were clear inspirations for the in-universe show Hip-Hop Helicopter. We got the joke behind the character 15 Cent, while also recognizing that his voice was that of Omarion. While The Proud Family aimed its humor at us, Louder and Prouder could care less about the OG fans. Instead, this seemingly nostalgia-baiting revamp is concerned with attracting today’s kids, their older siblings be damned.

It’s obvious from the moment that its iconic theme song, originally written by Solange and performed by her and Destiny’s Child, starts playing with a noticeable re-brand. Of course Beyoncé and crew are too big (and too broken up) to give the theme song its contemporary update—but it still stings that the Knowles Sisters and co. have been replaced with a new singer, Joyce Wrice. They could have just kept it the same! But this show is no longer set in a time where Destiny’s Child still exists, and its constant pop culture references make that clear. Gen-Z R&B group Chloe & Halle get a shout-out in the first few minutes of the show, and “Juice” by Lizzo can be heard in the background of one scene. Most jarring of all for the returning viewer is the dialogue—which sounds a lot like adult writers going overboard in trying to prove that they know how kids these days talk. KG’s catchphrase is “sheeeesh,” the phrase “bad and boujee” appears in regular conversation, and there’s a forced “what are thoooose?!” joke that feels not only contrived but also late to the party. Black Panther did it better, way back in 2018. Michael alone speaks almost entirely in catchy quips: “you two ratchets,” “throw shade,” and “give tea” are used with abandon, though he does throw in a much-appreciated Omorosa reference for us old folks.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Episode 2 is the biggest signal of this contemporary cultural shift, given that its central conflict revolves around internet influencers, the power of social media, and the troubles of cancel culture. It follows the rise and ultimate fall (by Penny’s hand) of Makeup Boy, a beauty influencer voiced by none other than the internet’s favorite glamboy, Bretman Rock. By the end of the episode, Penny learns the power of social media fame and, *sigh*, cancel culture, although that conversation doesn’t quite fit into a 20-minute episode. This is not to say that this story isn’t relevant to Millennials and Zillennials alike—we’re the ones who invented bad and boujee, after all. But it’s the context that differs: In that same episode, Penny and her friends reveal that they don’t know who Martha Stewart and Snoop Dog are, calling her old and him “Snoopy.”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Millennials who loved The Proud Family may be raising their pitchforks now. But here’s the thing: It’s all gonna be OK! Really! How often does content we’re all nostalgic for come back with the original viewers in mind and actually get it right without alienating anyone? Examples of that are few and far between. Not everything has to be for us, the people who have fond memories of watching these shows or movies as kids; we grew up, and now we get to watch shows made for people our age that are just as good, like Yellowjackets and Killing Eve. Give the kids the new Proud Family, just like how older generations allowed us the 2000s version of PBS’ Zoom and the film reboot of 21 Jump Street.

Advertisement
Advertisement

So Louder and Prouder is not for us—and that’s good! But the “us” that loved it doesn’t just include people of a certain age, but people steeped specifically in Black culture; Omarion’s guest spot wasn’t trying to please white Disney Channel viewers, and it’s why The Proud Family remains one of the best-remembered examples of modern Black media. Which is why my real fear with The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder is not that it aims at today’s current kids instead of us ex-youths from yesteryear. The bigger concern I have is that the show seems to abandon many things that made it special, no matter how old you are. The Proud Family is the rare TV show, animated or other, that stars a cast of Black teens of all different shades and family makeups in which their race is a crucial part of who they are, but not the entirety of their identity. That was true 20 years ago and remains true now, unfortunately. While the TV industry has diversified in many ways—the fact that Michael is now openly queer is one big example of how—Disney appears to have misunderstood The Proud Family’s innate Blackness to the detriment of its reboot .

Advertisement
Advertisement

One of the most telling moments is when the Gross Sisters, the blue-colored antagonists of Penny’s posse, show up for the first time; they are now in the music business, a too-common running joke about Black youth hustling for money with a mixtape and a dream that would have annoyed me if the show wasn’t so dedicated to the conceit. Michael sees them and immediately calls them ashy. You might be wondering why this is a problem, because that is the running joke, after all. But there were several recurring gags and references within the show that didn’t need to be explained to the Black audience its creators knew it had and aimed to please directly (akin to another staple of the Black film canon, A Goofy Movie). The Gross Sisters’ ashiness is an implicit joke that became an integral signifier of the show’s intentional and innate Blackness; calling attention to it makes the subtext gratingly explicit.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Since The Proud Family first ended in 2005, Black culture has become the zeitgeist of popular culture at large: consistently consumed and adopted by non-Black people who do so with differing degrees of awareness. Which, whatever—the big implications of that are for a different day. But the fact is that Black culture has become so embedded into the white mainstream that The Proud Family, which used to cater to Black culture at every level, might undermine its historical greatness by explaining the things we’ve managed to gatekeep, all in order to serve a wider audience.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Louder and Prouder, however, does manage to satisfy in some key ways. The animation is beautiful, vibrant, and still entirely in tune with the original while sporting a modern sheen. The returning voice cast keeps the show’s tone in place, especially when it comes to stand-outs like self-confident Dijonay and Penny’s funkadelic uncle Bobby. Best of all is that Michael, whose effete nature could sometimes be the butt of the joke in the initial run, has gotten a particularly beautiful tweak for Louder and Prouder. Described as gender non-conforming, Michael has fully blossomed into the sarcastic, stunning, and fashionable friend he was destined to be. As voiced by the similarly iconic EJ Johnson (child of Magic Johnson, inspiration for the show’s recurring character Wizard Kelly), he’s the flyest of the group, completely unapologetic in serving the realness the group needs to hear while giving them extreme makeovers—and always having their backs, too.

Advertisement

And there are moments that are, indeed, for those of us who might as well be considered ancient or geriatric at this point. There’s a wonderful ode to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in a flashback to when Oscar and Trudy were teens, as well as an entire musical interlude in which Oscar parodies Prince. (This is one of four musical interludes in the first two episodes, by the way—is this show also a musical now?) And the show’s long list of guest and recurring cast members to come boasts pinnacles of Black culture, including Gabrielle Union, Lil Nas X, Lizzo, and more. There are dark spots in this too, however, like the premiere’s guest appearance from CeeLo Green—who had all but disappeared from the limelight after sexual assault allegations against him emerged (but were never tried in court).

Where does that leave us? Simply with more to watch—more content to show the young ones in our life and remind us that “us” is constantly changing. Even if Louder and Prouder forgoes much of what I loved about The Proud Family 20 years ago, it’s a reboot I’m happy exists for the people that it exists for. Now, onto the next reboot—there’s always another one on the way.

Advertisement