The Cosby Show: A Nonreflective Reality of (Black) Life

Television’s portrayal of blacks has had its ups and downs, from stereotype-laden comedies like ”Amos ‘n’ Andy” to advances like the late-60’s series ”Julia,” starring Diahann Carroll. It seemed to have reached a new stage in 1984 with the premiere of ”The Cosby Show,” on NBC. The show, about a family of black professionals, the Huxtables, ran successfully for eight years, attracting a multiracial audience, often topping the ratings and spawning another successful show, ”A Different World,” about the Huxtables’ daughter, going to college and rooming with a white woman at a historically black college. The great thing about this show, of course, was that it “A Different World” painted a positive image of black colleges, one that brought about white curiosity towards schools like Hampton or Howard University.

”The Cosby Show” was criticized in some quarters for depicting a nonrepresentative upper-middle-class family, but others argued that it exhibited positive values widely held in the black community that were too often overlooked on television. It seems that the Cosby Show feared complex topics that denote a sense of realism, especially about matters important to the black community. This might have more to do with its high ratings and general popularity across both white and black audiences. Recent shows that touch on  issues reflective of black communities have not done as well. For the most part, just turn to the WB or CW, stations that portray black shows. I do recall making it a point to watch the Cosby Show every Thursday night as a young grade school student. At that time the element and complexities of race were absent from my understanding. The show seem perfectly normal to me in that it portrayed what I deemed comedy at the time; however, with age and education, one cannot help but reflect on the show, hence noting not so much of what they were doing, but rather the absence of topics that pin point the complexities of the 1980s. My most recent paper showcases an avenue of darkness that plagued black life in the 1980s as seen in the gangster lyrics of NWA and other rappers.

I started renting and borrowing old episodes of the show to see what topics were addressed and what topics were omitted. Thus far, here are a few general things noticed:

  1. There was a heightened sense of racial division during the 80s, however, that division did not seem to impact the black middle class.
  2. No conversations about the issue of sexuality and sexual identity with the rise of AIDS.
  3. The economic downturn that hurt many Americans, especially black Americans thus far did not exist.
  4. Though break dancing was a part of Theo’s culture, the complexity of artist that marked the period in a more realist genre was absent. There was talk of Michael Jackson, though.
  5. The show did define the significance of religion on a few episodes, but avoided its relevance in the black community altogether.
  6. Drugs thus far has not been an issue.
  7. Black on black crime was a non topic.
  8. Interracial dating was addressed in a positive fashion, though done so indirectly
  9. There was no Cold War. Also, the general topic of politics and civil rights so far has not been seen.
  10. There was no evidence of popular culture.

16 thoughts on “The Cosby Show: A Nonreflective Reality of (Black) Life

  1. i do remember at least one episode where all the grand parents sit around and talk about attending Dr. King’s speech and the march in Washington.

    And yes this show was a staple in our WASP household as well.

  2. I recall several episodes about pop culture. I also recall at least one episode where sexuality comes into play. Perhaps you haven’t watched enough. If you need someone to help with your research, I’m happy to watch hours of the Cosby Show.

  3. It was a ratings juggernaut *because* it skipped the social commentary and went right for the belly laughs. It found the humor inside the Huxtable home, not outside the doors.

    Much of Cosby’s humor is derived from his family experiences, either as a parent or as a child. (“I, uh…started out as a child…” Comedy gold.)

    I always felt that showing a family with a set of strong, but loving parents was good for everyone to watch.

  4. I will say that I do agree with all of you. I love this show. What I like most is that it painted a picture of a black family that dealt with many of the same issues as whites. And, it made fun of such matters.

    Kristi, I will take you up on this. If you are really interested, I will send you the years. I will also credit you in my footnotes.

  5. It is interesting that such topics were avoided when in reality they did exist during the era of “The Cosby Show”. Perhaps the lighthearted show about family values was not designed to be a platform to air controversial issues. The show presented a positive family role model to viewers regardless of their race.

  6. Not sure how much secondary material you are using, but I believe that Bill Cosby stated in a TV Land special about the show that he was just trying to make a good family show. Focus on things that happen in family, not deal with any issues or make any statements. If you could find that it would contextualize the intent of the producers and why some things never came up.

    I have also seen it stated that the social value of the show was that it didn’t deal with black issues. The Cosby’s presented a family that was just like any family, and it was coincidental they were black. Accepting and depicting that blacks could be successful professionals, and just like the rest of America was a challenge to many racial stereotypes. I tend to agree that the presentation of the anti stereotype was the greatest social contribution.

  7. I think the show possibly reflected some of these themes, although I cannot remember any specific instances from my memories of the episodes I have watched. I think that Ava is right, this show was about an escape from reality; set in the present but not full of the problems of the present. Another show I remember watching that was designed as an escape from reality is Hogan’s Heroes, set in WWII Germany, in a POW camp. It was a hilarious show, with the prisoners always outsmarting the Nazis’ and helping other prisoners escape. They did not touch on issues like the Jews or concentration camps. That would have made the show too dark and it was designed to be a funny, lighthearted show.

  8. I’m too tired for much arguing, but I do have to say a few things:

    1. The family discussed civil rights movements/leaders at least a handful of times, to my recollection.

    2. No discussion of sex? A girl wanting birth control, a girl getting pregnant, the scene where Cliff torments Vanessa’s boyfriend by having him use two apples to demonstrate how close he and Vanessa got to each other while parked…all pretty much about sex.

    3. As others have mentioned, Mr. Cosby himself has said that the point was to entertain, not to make a point. It hardly seems fair to criticize a show for failing to do something it never set out to do. Would you pay that much attention to a student evaluation that took you to task for being a poor tailor? 😉

  9. Denton, I had decided to not respond to any more of your comments on anything and then I read this gem: “I agree. I never bought that black people could be this successful.” Now I’m torn between listing successful black people, and asking how on earth you can espouse Christianity and also espouse this sentiment? So I think I’ll do the later. What on earth did you mean by this statement, and even if you can find some way to put a positive spin on it, why would you say it on an African-American’s blog and finally, why on earth would you believe this? The sentiment present in that statement is disgusting.

  10. i remember when a lot of my fellow african americans were saying that the cosby show was a fake portrayal of A.A life. i laughed at them because i knew plenty of affluent blacks and they were more or less like the huxtables. they were educated, responsible people who if they did have problems they certainly didnt broadcast them in the middle of the street like a pack of fools. their kids were taught manners, social skills and education was when i hear people even today talk down about the show 9 times out of 10 it is because these people think the world acts like everybody in their 10 block own parents(mother a nurse/ father a gunnery sargeant) were my own huxtables and my parents came up in a time of segregated resturaunts and racism. my father dropped out of the third grade to work full-time on a farm yet still educated himself and raised a family without welfare or any type of lame excuses heard today. so yes there are successfull A.A.’S who are just as or even more affluent than the huxtables out there. not every A.A. is an embracer of street culture which seems to be what a lot of the media and outside world assumes we are.

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