Although Dre and Bow have been married for 17 years, sometimes it seems like they don’t know each other. Maybe it’s a good thing that they’re still learning so much. Or maybe they’re reminding each other who they’ve been all along. When you take on the roles associated with marriage and parenthood, it’s easy to lose track of your own identity. With “Johnson & Johnson,” Black-ish aims to reinforce who Dre and Bow are as individuals.
Dre’s sister Rhonda (Raven-Symoné) and her fiancée, Sharon (Elle Young), are visiting with Sharon’s parents, Frank and Donna Duckworth (Phil Morris and Valarie Pettiford). Mama Ruby has come to accept that Rhonda is a lesbian, but now she’s overcompensating — she wonders which type of crackers to serve to lesbians, and even announces the homosexuals are coming. Zoey and Junior vow to make sure Ruby doesn’t offend too much with her good intentions. Jack and Diane worry that they’ve outgrown the positions of ring bearer and flower girl, and Dre’s main concern is whose last name Rhonda and Sharon plan to take. When Bow reveals that she kept her maiden name, it sends Dre on a hunt for his manhood.
Yes, Bow’s maiden name is the same as her married surname. Although it makes little sense, Dre had assumed that she’d taken his last name when they were married. Dre points out that they discussed the name issue the night of their wedding, but Bow didn’t think he was serious. Plus, he’d once changed his name in college to Yusef Supreme Justice Allah, so Bow didn’t think it was a big deal.
The flashback scene of Dre approaching a group of fellow black classmates on campus is hilarious. In this age of shared access and cultural appropriation, it’s a rare inside joke. If you went to a black college in the 1990s, you definitely know a classmate who lost (or found) himself in the new wealth of black history and no longer wanted to go by his “slave name.” This is yet another one of the best parts of Black-ish. The show has to have a broad appeal, but from time to time, it nevertheless manages to include private jokes that a Google search or trending hashtag can’t explain fully to outsiders.
Even if Dre’s last name had been Ndegeocello, Bow explains, she still would not have changed hers. She’s an educated, career-minded feminist and wants to keep her identity. Dre claims he’s a feminist, too. He might even vote for Hillary Clinton. (Maybe.) At work, the only people who side with Bow are Lucy and Josh. Daphne took her ex-husband’s last name … along with his pride, his pizza stone, and his shoes. We learn that Josh’s last name is Oppenhol — yes, pronounced like “open hole” — and his family is so protective of it, there’s actually a history of inbreeding. Yikes. Dre reminds everyone that 153 percent of married women take their husband’s last name, including Kim Kardashian-West, “Amber Rose Khalifa,” and “Beyoncé-Z.”
It’s interesting to see Dre name such high-profile women whose feminist statuses are frequently contested, although Amber Rose apparently did not change her last name. Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian did choose to hyphenate, which perhaps highlights Dre’s implicit point that you can be a career-oriented feminist and still take your husband’s last name. Intern Curtis says that because he’s paid to respect Dre, he will, but Bow refusing to take his name makes him less of a man. Daphne sends a final dart to Dre’s pride: “Bow didn’t take your name, but she sure did take your balls.” Ouch.
Though that had to hurt, it’s also a really stupid measurement of manhood. Dre has been married 17 years, is raising four children, and still feels sensitive about his masculinity? You would think his family and marriage would be proof enough, but clearly, it’s still a problem for him.
At home, after overhearing Dre and Bow discuss feminism, Ruby calls Bow a hairy-legged man-hater, and Bow launches into Feminism 101. Feminists do not hate men. They want equal rights. She names several prominent feminists — Alice Paul, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem — who inspired her to become the woman she is today. Ruby dismisses them all. She couldn’t burn her bra because it was the only one she had. Rhonda clarifies that black feminists had to take different paths. It’s nice to see this defense of black feminists, but it would’ve been nice to hear the names of black feminist trailblazers in the same way Bow listed her heroes. This is not the first time Black-ish has overlooked the roles black women played in social-justice movements, either. As good as season two has been, this is a concerning trend.
All in all, Bow and Ruby’s scene about feminism is pretty heavy-handed. I kept expecting Keenen Ivory Wayans to pop out and yell “MESSAGE!” every time someone made a point.
Ruby feels it’s important that a family all share the same last name. Back in her day, being married was like receiving a trophy; it showed someone had chosen her. She kept her married name after her divorce, not to honor Pops, but as a symbol of her worth. (This seems kind of sad.) Bow continues to rant that no educated, career-focused woman should take her husband’s last name. Zoey and Diane overhear the discussion. Zoey asks if she would be less of a woman if she chose to change her name. Diane points out that shaming another woman for taking her husband’s last name doesn’t seem very feminist. Bow is stumped, and Dre smirks proudly. He says it’s important for a man’s name to carry on, and his two daughters ask why he doesn’t trust them to carry the Johnson name into the future. Does he really want to leave such a responsibility to Junior and Jack? And now Dre is backed into a corner. Can he tell his daughters that they’ll stop being the proud Johnsons he’s raised them to be? No, he can’t.
However, he does convince Rhonda to ask her fiancée to take the Johnson name. Sharon agrees, which upsets her parents. The families decide to stage a ping-pong battle. The winning team gets to see their surname live on through the marriage of Rhonda and Sharon. After Dre hurts himself — and acts like a bruise on his palm is the equivalent of giving birth — Rhonda tells Sharon she doesn’t care which name they choose. Not too long ago, they weren’t even allowed to get married. Now, all she wants is to call her wife. It’s very sweet. The two women realize they’ve had enough family shenanigans and will probably elope. Jack and Diane are disappointed they won’t get to participate in the wedding, but to everyone’s delight, they take the opportunity to show off a choreographed routine.
While everyone cheers them on, Dre tells Bow the real reason why the name issue is so important to him. He was a scrub when they met, so if a woman as put-together as Bow chose to take his name, it meant she really believed in him. He knows her name is important to her and he will move on. Bow appreciates that Dre can concede something so significant for her, so she agrees to take his name. It’s all very sweet — and very safe, since their last names are the same. No bureaucratic red tape to cut.
Black-ish is always careful to present many sides to a given issue without telling its audience what to believe. There is never a right or a wrong answer. Should a woman take a new name when she’s married? Well, that’s up to each individual person. Figure out what’s important, why it’s important, and then go from there.
Bow and Dre always manage to find a good compromise, too. This is partly because sitcoms tend to require neat resolutions, but it’s important to note how these compromises affirm their relationship. Bow always lets Dre know she hears what he’s saying to her, including the subtext. She understands how difficult it can be for him to be vulnerable. Dre always lets Bow know that he loves her drive, her accomplishments, and how she helps him push toward his own goals. They both say, “I see who you are, I love who you are, but I’m here too,” which serves to remind each other who they are, in good times and bad.