For a Good “Cos”: “The Cosby Show”

Written by Andrew Sercombe February 08, 2012

On November 10th, 1988, The Huxtables welcomed both Winnie and Nelson Tibideaux, Cliff Huxtable’s first grandchildren. The two were named after Nelson and Winnie Mandela, and it is obvious race was an integral element surrounding “The Cosby Show”; however, this is one of the few times the theme of race was blatantly included in the show. For eight seasons, race was an unspoken theme that was rarely touched on.

By casting an all-black cast in 1984 for “The Cosby Show”, Bill Cosby took on the responsibility to recognize the social and political discourse of race. By not commenting on race to the extent many argue he should have, “The Cosby Show” projected an image of the status quo to white audiences, where racism was not a conflicting, integral friction in a black household in the 1980’s. Believed to be one of the biggest effects of “The Cosby Show” was its ability to portray universal values that both white and black audiences could identify with. However, despite educational elements of empowerment in “The Cosby Show”, Cosby’s failure to comment on racism to the extent he reflected views of sexism, class, adolescence, and the traditional, American family provided white audiences nothing more than a scopophilic gaze into the black family to further establish racial formation and the difference and objectification of black people from white people. Although not directly critical towards black people, “The Cosby Show” passed on the opportunity to develop a controversial, radical new insight for white audiences into the lives of a black family.

“The Cosby Show’s” absence of racial commentary can be attributed to the power white males had in television production while the show was on NBC. Cosby has always stated that his relationship with the network has been positive, but the restrictions NBC placed on the show have been widely documented.

"Have you heard what NBC is having me do now?"

 

Audience ratings determine whether a series lives or dies. ABC originally turned the series proposal down believing the focus on a black family did not make the series a candidate for prime time. The series would probably never have made it to the air on NBC without Bill Cosby’s track record in children’s advertising. Influenced by the network, “The Cosby Show” was dependent on its refusal to include racism among the show’s representations and themes in fear that it would loose its advertisers and audience of white viewers; a demographic that accounted for most of the show’s audience.

The Cosby Show was the highest rated television show from 1985-1989. Many shows such as In Living Color and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air were influenced by the Huxtables.

The show lacked realism. Because of the pressure to adhere to specific restrictions placed on the show by NBC, The Cosby Show sustained a harmful myth of social reality. The show never touched on the economic disadvantages or social discrimination black families experienced in the 1980’s. The distortion was not a naïve action on Cosby’s part, but a restrictive force placed on the production of the show. “The Cosby Show” both educated and informed, but still at its heart was a comedy, and could only do so much while still trying to make audiences laugh.

This missed opportunity to vocalize the black families’ racial struggles arguable had many lasting effect on America’s racial views. The show gave white audiences a false image of assimilation, and failed to take into account the context of the social realities many black families faced.

Dr. Huxtable will always be remembered for his memorable sweaters.

 

Despite the influence of television executives and a push to appeal to a broad audience, “The Cosby Show” was undeniably revolutionary. Before it, no other positive purpose of black characters existed. Through silly faces, childlike actions, and discipline with elements of humour, the show educated parents and children in a therapeutic escape. The show highlights empowerment of women, the importance of education for youth, and the successful, happy life of a black family; something never before seen on television. “The Cosby Show” was the first all-black American television program that avoided racial stereotyping, and permitted Americans to view black people as human beings on television.

“The Cosby Show’s” existence relied on its white audience, and the absence of racial commentary proved to allow the show to exist for eight seasons. It must be understood that the subject of race was consciously removed to allow the show to remain on the air. Cosby ultimately did change the TV landscape; that is indisputable. But to what extent could he have vocalized the issue of racism on television? We can only imagine. “The Cosby Show” had the ability to be more than just a situational comedy, but was inhibited to reflect a misconception to white audiences that managed racial anxiety, hid the material effects of racism, and promoted the status quo.

 

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