3. The Cosby Show

Bill Cosby Presents: The Culture shift of Race for African Americans: with his lovely leading lady Phylicia Rashad

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The Cosby Show aired from 1984-1992 and represented a well off, successful African American family, breaking stereotypes that had lasted for decades. The Cosby Show won awards including, the Golden Globe USA for Best Television Series, and Phylicia Rashad was nominated for a Primetime Emmy as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. Doctor Heathcliff Huxtable is a successful doctor raising five children with his wife Clair Huxtable, in Brooklyn, New York. Clair Huxtable is a independent, kind, classy,  business women, and a lawyer. She breaks all previous stereotypes of black women, she has a successful job, an education, she is thin, has beautiful hair and in some ways is the “perfect wife”. The Cosby Show is a turning point for black people and their portrayal in media, it gave them a new voice, and a new stereotype that changed race relationships in America. Historian Darnell M. Hunt stated the following “The Cosby Show is culturally significant because of the productive space it cleared and the aesthetic constructions of black cultural style it enabled.”

“Run down what you saw of black people on TV before the Huxtables. You had “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” one of the funniest shows ever, people say. But who ever went to college? Who tried for better things? In “Good Times,” J. J. Walker played a definite underachiever. In “Sanford & Son,” You have a junk dealer living a few thousand dollars about the welfare level. “The Jeffersons” move uptown. He owns a dry-cleaning store, lives in an integrated neighborhood. Where are the sociological writings about this?” -Billy Cosby

In the year The Cosby Show premiered 1984, Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter for President. This election represented a culture shift, where Reagan began a new movement for Americans. Hunt argued the following, “This movement blamed the racial policies of the civil rights era for the current problems plaguing America, particularly those that working-class and middle-class whites felt acutely.” The producers behind The Cosby Show wanted to show America how African American families actually were, and how they had been portrayed previously was incorrect.They wanted “to provide positive and uplifting images of blackness that would correct the distorted images circulated in years past, beginning with stereotypical shows like Amos ‘n’ Andy, Good times.” Phylicia Rashad was the perfect actress to portray a successful, beautiful, African American mother, and in time she was known as “The mother of the African American Community”, she was given this title at the NAACP Image Awards in 2010. The following clip demonstrates the character of Clair Huxtable and what she is all about. She is a mother, an educated attorney, and a young boy is surprised that she offered to get him and her husband coffee. He assumed that she didn’t do “things like that” such as “fetching coffee.” She represents breaking away from the Mammy figure, and Aunt Jemima, she is skinny, beautiful, dressed professional, has her hair down, speaks lightly but with authority, and can be a housewife and businesswomen. Hunt stated, “Clair, was written as a high-powered New York attorney who somehow managed to attend to the needs of her husband and five children with loving care and maternal concern.”

clair  mammy

Clair Huxtable

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“The Cosby Show reflects the increasing diversity of African American life, including continuous upward social mobility by blacks, which provides access to new employment opportunities and expands the black middle class. Such mobility and expansion insures the development of new styles for blacks that radically alter and impact African American culture. The Cosby Show is a legitimate expression of one aspect of that diversity. Another aspect is the intro-racial class divisions and differentiation introduced as a result of this diversification of African American life.”-Michael Dyson

Phylicia Rashad became the first Black American actress to win a Tony Award for best Performance by a Leading Actress in a play. Rashad studied at Howard University, and graduated with a degree in Fine Arts, and graduated with great honors. After The Cosby Show, Rashad went to a new comedy with Bill Cosby in 1996-2000. She also went to the animated show Little Bill. In each character she portrayed a loving mother and wife. Phylicia Rashad tore apart  traditional stereotypes of black women, and introduced America to a fun, intelligent, beautiful African American mother who was living a successful life.

“It may seem I’m an authority because my skin color gives me a mark of a victim. But that’s not a true label. I won’t deal with the foolishness of racial overtones on the show. I base an awful lot of what I’ve done simply on what people will enjoy. I want to show a family that has a good life, no people to be jealous of.”-Billy Cosby

The introduction theme songs for The Cosby Show, emphasize family relationships, jazz music, and dancing. The very first introduction for season 1 falls more into the stereotypical African American family, driving a van, and playing baseball. As the season continues, the family is shown wearing formal clothes, the men in tuxedos and the women in dresses. Towards the end of the show which was in the 90s, the family is portrayed more hipster, wearing loud colors, and hitting on new African American stereotypes such as graffiti. Phylicia Rashad is fit, dressed up, and shown to have moves in each opening introduction, she is always led in by Bill Cosby, and represents a happy wife with a happy life. (The clips below show each introduction)

 

Season 1 Introduction

Season 2 Introduction

Season 3 Introduction

Season 4 Introduction

Season 5 Introduction

Season 6&7 Introduction

Season 8 Introduction

 

 

 

Hunt, Darnell M. Channeling Blackness: Studies on Television and Race in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Jordan, John H. Black Americans 17th Century to 21st Century: Black Struggles and Successes. Place of Publication Not Identified: Trafford Publishing, 2013.

 

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One thought on “3. The Cosby Show

  1. I’ve always been in love with Phylicia so I have to comment. The Cosby Show became one of the most beloved American TV shows ever. Claire’s role in the show is almost a feminized June Cleaver. I mean that in the sense of her being such a “perfect wife and mother” that people couldn’t quite live up to who she was. Since the Cosby Show I have not seen a lot of TV shows with black mothers who carry themselves the way she did in the show. She created space for and improved the African-American family stereotype, but I’d be interested to see if anyone ever studies how the portrayal of her as a perfect mother had negative consequences.

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