Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Representation of African-Americans in the 1980s 'The Cosby Show'.

‘The Cosby Show’ was an American situation comedy which aired on NBC from September 1894 to April 1992. The show – created by Ed. Weinberger and Michael Leeson – focussed on the affluent African-American Huxtable family of Brooklyn, New York, with actor and comedian Bill Cosby playing the lead of Doctor Cliff Huxtable.

The show was noticeably different from other sitcoms of the time in its representation of African-Americans and was praised for breaking traditional racial stereotypes, with Entertainment Weekly stating that the show “helped to make possible a larger variety of shows based on blacks”, including ‘In Living Colour’ and ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel Air’. However, the show also received wide criticism. While the cast and characters of the show were predominantly African-American, the show rarely explored the issue of race – especially in comparison to other, similar sitcoms aired at the time. Although there is the occasional celebration of African-American culture or reference to the Civil Rights Movement, the show as a whole does not appear to address any current issues surrounding race and the contemporary position of African-Americans in American society. For many ‘The Cosby Show’ represented only a small minority of the African-American population – a minority which may be seen to have assimilated more closely to a traditionally White Anglo-Saxton Protestant, all-American lifestyle (a lifestyle often viewed as ideal.) We may ask therefore, is it really an accurate representation of the African-American population as a whole or an idealised celebration of a lifestyle that should be desired?

When researching 'The Cosby Show' I came across a brief plot summary on the IMDb website, describing the show as “The goings-on in life of a successful African-American family.” My attention was immediately drawn to the word ‘successful’. What is it that makes the Huxtable family any more successful than the average African-American family – or the average American family for that matter? It suggests that those African-American families who aren’t affluent, well-educated and professional are not successful, in turn implying that it is this idealised lifestyle which should be aspired to and achieved in order to become successful. So while the show does indeed break the traditional, stereotypical representation of African-Americans, it also promotes an ideological and traditionally white lifestyle as a lifestyle which should be desired.

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