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The Proud Family Revival Makes Great Strides in Autism Representation

Season 2's “BeBe” upholds to the original's legacy of inclusivity and smart commentary.
  • Oscar and BeBe Proud (Image: The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder)
    Oscar and BeBe Proud (Image: The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder)

    22 years ago, Bruce W. Smith and Ralph Farquhar's The Proud Family broke new ground with its commitment to providing visibility to underrepresented topics in animated  television. The series, which ran from 2001 to 2005, focused on the lives of an African-American family, the Prouds: outspoken 14-year-old Penny (Kyla Pratt), her overbearing father Oscar (Tommy Davidson), caring mother Trudy (Paula Jai Parker), old-school grandmother Suga Mama (Jo Marie Payton), and twin toddler siblings BeBe and CeCe (Tara Strong). Penny and her family tackled various social issues, including classism, racism, and gender norms, while exploring African-American culture on the small screen. At a time when positive depictions of a Black family were virtually nonexistent in animation, The Proud Family fearlessly traversed unknown territory with resounding authenticity and care. 

    That legacy has carried over into the Disney+ revival The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder. The soft reboot gives the Prouds a new coat of paint, pivoting Penny from millennial to Gen Z. Season 1's Black openly queer characters brought queer inclusivity to the Prouds’ world, and now Season 2 — which dropped at the top of Black History Month, right alongside Black Panther: Wakanda Forever — overtly explores a range of topics from colorism to Juneteenth to autism. Instead of introducing a new character with autism, the show examines the topic through the central family, placing them in a novel and compelling dynamic. 

    In the Season 2 episode “BeBe,” Penny is asked to watch BeBe and Cece while visiting the museum with her friends. BeBe strays from the group, eventually climbing and then jumping from a hanging exhibit. Penny’s boyfriend Kareem catches BeBe, who responds with laughter instead of tears. Penny tells her parents of the incident back at home, and immediately, BeBe goes missing again, only to be found on the roof. Once again, he falls and is caught — but instead of crying, he giggles. 

    Agreeing that his behavior is alarming, the Prouds call upon their physician Dr. Payne (Kevin Michael Richardson). After running a few tests to gauge Bebe's unique responses, Dr. Payne sends them to a child psychologist named Dr. Lord (Holly Robinson Peete). She informs the Prouds that BeBe is on the autism spectrum. Each family member takes the news differently: Oscar with apprehension and dismissal, Trudy with understanding, and Penny with concern. 

    In recent years, the subject of autism has gained greater visibility in family-oriented programming. Back in 2015, Sesame Street introduced four-year-old Julia, the first character with autism on the show. She first appeared in Sesame Workshop’s autism awareness initiative called Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children, before making her TV debut in 2017. Many viewers, especially parents with kids on the spectrum, were heartened by the positive, non-stigmatizing depiction of autism. Julia’s arrival opened the door for more shows to introduce characters who are on the spectrum. Hero Elementary, Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood, and Dead End: Paranormal Park have all featured positive portrayals of characters who live autistically and befriend people who accept them for who they are. These series avoid the ableism that’s all too often manifested in popular media, on the big and small screens

    Louder and Prouder is unique in depicting how a family handles the conversation of autism, especially when it is diagnosed in a young family member. The show’s casting lends greater authenticity to the story: 7-year-old Aiden Dodson, who voices BeBe, also has autism. The writing team — including head writer Travis Andres and staff writers Kylee Evans, L.J Lawrence, Ashley Soto Paniagua, and Tiffany Thomas –– present a wide range of emotions from the Proud family, making sure not to sugarcoat the more kneejerk responses. Oscar’s initial apprehension echoes the once common public perception of the disability, which tended to stigmatize it. The scene in which the psychologist informs the Prouds of BeBe’s diagnosis showcases the smart writing, as. Dr. Lord tells the family the news without using any condescending language. 

    Dr. Lord stresses the importance of love, support, and attention while raising a kid on the spectrum. Oscar's dismissive responses — “Are you telling me my boy is stupid?” and “There’s nothing wrong with BeBe” — reflect the fears that families may have when first learning to care for a child with autism. Dr. Lord suggests the family enroll BeBe in a specialized school that she runs, where their son will be nurtured and educated. Throughout the episode, Oscar finds it difficult to accept BeBe's diagnosis. Eventually, he and Trudy place him in the school, knowing their son will get the proper care he deserves.

    Following the episode, BeBe was praised across social media platforms, as was the show’s honest discussion of autism — the diagnosis scene even went viral. In a Twitter thread responding to the positive reception, Andres wrote, “Initially, I was intimidated when I was assigned this episode. All of my experience with ASD has been secondhand but I knew I wanted to make sure folks like my cousin were seen. I hope I accomplished that.”

    Louder and Prouder’s “BeBe” is a moving portrait of how a family processes an autism diagnosis, making space for varying responses while retaining everyone’s humanity. It proves the show is still very much ahead of the curve in the family programming landscape, delivering nuance, topicality, and empathy. 

    The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder Seasons 1 and 2 are streaming on Disney+.

    Rendy Jones (they/he) is a Brooklyn-based film/television journalist whose work has been featured in Vulture, Vanity Fair, Paste, and Rotten Tomatoes.

    TOPICS: The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder, Disney+, The Proud Family, Bruce W. Smith, Ralph Farquhar