The Cosby Show: The View from the Black Middle Class Author(s): Leslie B. Inniss and Joe R. Feagin Source: Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 25, No. 6 (Jul., 1995), pp. 692-711 Published by: Sage Publications, Inc. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2784760 . Accessed: 17/01/2011 16:54 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at . http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp. JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at . http://www.jstor.org/action/showPublisher?publisherCode=sage. . Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected] Sage Publications, Inc. is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Journal of Black Studies. http://www.jstor.org THE COSBYSHOW The ViewFromtheBlackMiddleClass LESLIE B. INNISS FloridaStateUniversity JOER. FEAGIN University ofFlorida Now that we have seen the finalApril30, 1992, episode the televisionseriesThe CosbyShow,"AndSo We Commence,"we can examinethe social and historicalimpacton its audiences. in themass mediahave assertedthatone of the Commentators racerelashow'sgreatest consequenceswas itshelpin improving universalvaluesthatbothWhitesand Blacks tionsby projecting situation couldidentify comedyforwith,usingthetried-and-true 1985; 1986;Norment, mat(Ehrenstein, 1988;Gray,1989;Johnson, mirrors societyandarticuStevens,1987).Believingthattelevision of thisperspective pointto theoverlatesitsvalues,proponents oftheshowamongWhiteviewersas wellas whelming popularity byWhiteanalystsand the itsalmostentirely positiveassessment ratedandhas Whitemedia.Formanyseasons,theshowwashighly withreviving thegenre beencredited, amongotherconsequences, of thesitcomand savingtheailingNBC network (Curry,1986; Frank& Zweig,1988;Poussaint,1988;Taylor,1989). have suggestedthat,to the However,a fewrecentresearchers has setbackracerelations because theshow'spopularity contrary, failstotakeintoaccountthecontext itsviewofBlackassimilation oftheworldoutsideofthefourwalls oftheHuxtablehousehold (Teachout,1986) and becauseit allowsWhitesto excuseinstitutoracialinequalandtobecomedesensitized tionaldiscrimination thatifBlackpeoplefail, ity(Gates,1992).Theydo thisbyasserting toblamebecauseanyWhitepersoncan theyonlyhavethemselves affluent Blackfamilyon TheCosbyShow pointoutthesuccessful, JOURNALOF BLACK STUDIES, Vol.25 No. 6, July1995 692-711 Inc. ()0 1995 Sage Publications, 692 Inniss,Feagin/MIDDLE-CLASS VIEW OF COSBY 693 actionis nolongerneeded theirbeliefsthataffirmative andconfirm as Whites(Gates, becauseBlacksnowenjoythesameopportunities 1992). Racism(1992),LewisandJhally In a recentbook,Enlightened onWhitefocusgroupsthatwatchedTheCosbyShowas part report inWhite project.Theyfounda contradiction oftherecentresearch responsesto theshow.On theone hand,theshowwas takenby thatanyonecanmakeitintheUnitedStatesand Whitesas proving aboutdiscriminathatBlackAmericansshouldstopcomplaining the view thattheCosbys articulated Whites the tion.On theother, Thiscontradiction is rationwerenotlikemostBlackAmericans. andlazinessofother alizedbytheWhitesinthestudybythefailure Blacks."TheHuxtablesprovedthatblackpeoplecan succeed;yet ofblackpeopleingeneral inso doingtheyalsoprovetheinferiority withwhites,failed)"(Lewis & Jhally, (who have,in comparison 1992,p. 95). withsome LewisandJhally (1992,pp. 113-117)alsodealbriefly other shows and The Show comedy reactions to Black Cosby Black comedians.Theyused a generalgroupof mixedstarring In thedata Massachusetts. in Springfield, statusBlackAmericans thatfollow,we go beyondtheirbriefanalysisto examinethe depth.Andwe examinethe toTheCosbyShowingreater reactions BlackAmericans ofmiddle-class anduppermiddle-class reactions whoseclasspositionis closetothatoftheHuxtablesin TheCosby BlackAmerianduppermiddle-class Show.How do middle-class cans view theshow?Is theirreactionpositive?Do middle-class and BlacksacceptTheCosbyShowversionofBlack assimilation color-blind where African the society intoAmerica: integration AsianAmericans, andHispanic Americans, EuropeanAmericans, anymention as humanbeingswithout Americans can all interact Can this beingproblematic? oforevena hintofracialdifferences relate a Black middle-class to lifestyle audience Blackmiddle-class northelawyer-mother norany thedoctor-father in whichneither racismordiscrimination everexperience oftheschool-age children lives? intheireveryday BlacksperceiveTheCosbyShowin a more Or do middle-class negativemanner?Do theybelievethattheshowdepictsa false 694 JOURNALOF BLACK STUDIES /JULY 1995 image of assimilationand helps to fosterthe backlashagainst positiveortotally thantotally affirmative action?Or,perhapsrather amongmiddlethereis moreofanambivalence negativereactions, class Blacks.Perhapstheyfeelthatitis goodtosee anyBlackson whoareshownina positivelightinsteadofas theusual television the"Sambo syndrome" and maidsreflecting pimps,prostitutes, suggestthatTheCosby (Fife,1974).On theotherhand,theymight inthesameveinas the positiveportrayal Showis an exceptionally toa popular, motion picture well-made "Shaftsyndrome" (referring fromthe 1970switha Black cast).As such,theCosbyportrayal as thepreviously excessively negativeones, wouldbe as distorting in thesensethatBlacks are stillbeingshownin an exaggerated humanbeings,somegood, rather thanas ordinary, everyday fashion somebad,withothersall alongthegood-badspectrum. Given the pervasiveimpactof the mass media,particularly television(Asante,1976; Case & Greeley,1990; Goodlet,1974; 1986), Holz & Wright, 1979;Leckenby& Surlin,1976;Stroman, and especiallythe factthatBlacks watchmoretelevisionthan init(Bales, 1986;Comstock& Whitesandplacemoreconfidence Cobbey,1979; Kassarjian,1973; Stroman& Becker,1978),it is toexaminethewayinwhichBlackshavebeenportrayed. important thattheportrayal ofBlacksin hasdocumented Televisionresearch been and mass mediums has other inadequate always thatand Black Americansas and generallyhas portrayed stereotypical comediccharacters 1988;Fife,1974;Gates,1992;O'Kelly (Carter, hasshown research & Bloomquist, 1976;Seggar,1977).Moreover, inall positionsin theextenttowhichBlacksareunderrepresented underscore theneedfor Thesedatapatterns thetelevision industry. of Black middle-classresponsesto The a carefulexamination CosbyShow. THE DEBATE OVER THE COSBY SHOW 20, 1984.The TV public TheCosbyShowbeganon September married an obstetrician toDr.Heathcliff was introduced Huxtable, toanattorney, playedbyPhyliciaRashad.Thecoupleandtheirfive Inniss,Feagin/MIDDLE-CLASS VIEW OF COSBY 695 childrenlivedin a New YorkCitybrownstone and wereclearly "Blackmiddleclass" at a timewhenthatgroupwas beginning to be recognizedin themassmedia.Indeed,theywereuppermiddle class.The curtain-closing show,"AndSo We Commence"was on April30, 1992,andhadtheextendedHuxtablefamilyprepareto celebratethe onlyson's graduation fromNew YorkUniversity. Duringits8-year,198-episode run,TheCosbyShowwas laudedas a majormilestonein popularentertainment: the firstall-Black program thatavoidedracialstereotyping. Recordsrevealthatthe showwas thetop-rated showof the1980sandthemost-watched sitcomintelevision Bill Cosby,oneoftheshow'screators, history. to TV to save viewersfroma "vastwastesaid he was returning theshowin land."He wenton to explainhisreasonsforcreating withRobertJohnson(1992, p. 57), editorof Jet an interview thathe was tiredof whathe was magazine.CosbytoldJohnson ofthecarchases,thehookerswiththe seeingon television-tired Black pimps.Cosbybelievedthathe could send vitalmessages alongwiththepositiveimagesofa Blackfamily:Childrenarethe sameall over(Johnson, 1986,p. 29). Bill Cosbyhas responded to mostcriticisms lodgedagainsthis showduringits8-yearrun.Forexample,in answertocriticswho racialissues,Cosby'sresponse urgedhimtodealwithmorecritical write he would not critics hisshowandwouldnotallow was that let neoliberalsto affecttheimagethattheCosbycast projectsas a family(Johnson,1992, p. 60). Further, Cosby assertsthatthis is unfairandholdshimup toa different criticism standard because othersituation comediesarenotexpectedtoaddresspressing social such as racism: He stated that such othershows, as Three's problems arenotaskedtodealwithracism.Moreover, hefeelsthat Company, the showhas addressedsome toughsocial issues.For example, hasaddressedsexismas an Cosbystatedthattheshowconsistently in a creative humorous issue,showing and wayhow it shouldbe resistedanddebunked;at thesametime,theshowconfronted the issueofmachismoandpromoted a richerunderstanding offatherhood and a fullermeaningof manhood(Dyson, 1989, p. 28). Additionally,whetherthroughCosby's wearingof collegiate sweatshirts or in theformof his spin-off A Different program, 696 OF BLACKSTUDIES/JULY1995 JOURNAL sentoutmessagesabouttheimporWorld,theshowconsistently tanceofBlackacademicinstitutions andtheimportance ofBlacks theseinstitutions. supporting Thisreflects Cosby'sdeep commitmentto Black colleges survivingas an Americaninstitution (Cheers,1987,p. 28). Othercriticisms lodgedagainsttheshowwerethatit was not "Black" enoughbecause the familylife beingportrayed is not realisticand thattheshowminimizes Black issuesbecauseitis a thana dramatic series.Inanswertocriticswhoassert comedyrather is notrealistic thatthefamily beingportrayed enough,Cosbysaid, "I am notan experton blackness"(Stevens,1987,p. 80) andthat theshowis aboutparentslovingtheirchildrenand givingthem It is aboutpeoplerespecting each other(Johnson, understanding. He to 1992,p. 60). goeson proclaimthatalthough theshowuses a newgimmick ofcentering on theparents rather thanthechildren, withoutthechildrenin thecast,theshowjust wouldnot work (Davidson,1986,p. 32). In supportof theshow,one writerhas ofstereotyping arguedthata usefulaspectofCosby'sdismantling is thatitpermits Americato viewBlacksas andracialmythology humanbeings,andithas shownthatmanyconcernshumanbeings race(Dyson,1989,p. 29). AlvinPoussaint(1988, havetranscend andtheshow'spsychological consulp. 72), a Harvardpsychiatrist the to old asserts that Huxtables and tant, helped dispel stereotypes of tomovetheshow'saudiencetowarda morerealisticperception ontelevision ina Blacks.LikeWhites,Blacksshouldbe portrayed ofrolesandcultural fullspectrum stylesandsuchan arrayofstyles shouldnotbe challenged.Moreover,accordingto Poussaint,the in theirspeech, comes through Black cultureof the characters andnuances;Blackmusic,art,anddancearefrequently intonations, areoften mentioned displayedandBlackbooksandauthors (p. 74). in to who that the those show is a Finally, response complain thanbeingmoredramatic, thateach comedyrather Cosbymaintains eventhoughtheshow'sformat is a episodeeducatesand informs He statesthattheshowsarefunny, situation comedythatentertains. witha caring,loving,feelingstory line,andthattheaudiencesitting inthecharacters themselves athomewillrecognize (Johnson, 1986, oneauthoradmonishes Blackstostoplookingto p. 30). Moreover, Inniss,Feagin/MIDDLE-CLASS VIEW OF COSBY 697 TV forsocial liberation because"therevolution willnotbe televised"(Gates,1992,p. 317). OUR RESEARCHSTUDY To examinetheBlackmiddle-class toTheCosbyShow, response we drawprimarily on 100 in-depth interviews froma largerstudy in 16citiesacrosstheUnited of210 middle-class BlackAmericans States.Theinterviewing was donein 1988-1990;Blackinterviewerswereused.We beganwithrespondents knownas members of theBlackmiddleclasstoknowledgeable inkeycities. consultants fromthesemultiple Snowballsampling starting pointswasusedto maximizediversity. The questionsin theresearchinstrument wereprimarily deonthegeneralsituations ofthe signedtoelicitdetailedinformation andon thebarriers encountered andmanagedin emrespondents andhousing.The specificquestionused for ployment, education, ofBlacksinthemedia.There thisstudyaskedabouttheportrayal wereno specificquestionsaboutTheCosbyShow;thediscussion in response television was volunteered of thatparticular program ofBlackAmeritothegeneralquestionaboutthemedia'sportrayal cans. These volunteered of this responsessignaltheimportance show.Although we report belowmainlyontheresponses ofthe100 whodetailedspecificreactions to TheCosbyShow,in respondents theBlack middle-class interpreting responseto The CosbyShow we also draw on some discussionsin a largersampleof 117 interviews inwhichTheCosbyShowwas mentioned. Middleclasswasdefined a white-collar broadlyas thoseholding thoseinprofessional, and job (including managerial, clericaljobs), forwhite-collar college students preparing jobs, and ownersof successfulbusinesses.This definition is consistent withrecent analysesoftheBlackmiddleclass(Landry,1987).The subsample of100middle-class Blacksreporting toTheCosbyShow a response of thedemographic is fairlyrepresentative characteristics of the isbroadly distribution largersample.Thesubsample's occupational similarto the largersampleand includesuniversity professors, 698 JOURNAL OF BLACKSTUDIES/JULY1995 collegeadministrators, elementary andsecondary teachers, physicians,attorneys, dentists, entrepreneurs, businessmanagersand executives, doctoralstudents, andthreeretirees. Thereareroughly equal numbers ofmales(48) andfemales(52). The subsamplehas thantheage of35,63% between35 and50,and 14% 23% younger olderthantheage of50. All therespondents haveat leasta high schooldiploma,and96% havesomecollege,including 46% with advanceddegrees.Themodalincomelevelis $56,000ormore,with this income.Seventeenpercentreportincomes 51% reporting between$36,000 and $55,000; 27% have incomesless than to disclosetheirincomelevels. $35,000;andfiverefused VIEWING THE SHOW AS UNREALISTIC The Black middle-classresponsesto The CosbyShow were bothnegativeandpositiveaspects.Eventhe ambivalent, reflecting wereoftenmixedwitha positivepreface, such negativecomments as "I reallylikeTheCosbyShow,but..." or"I'm happytosee some positiveimagesofBlackson TV,but.. ." In manyoftheanswers, witha recognition ofboththe thereclearlyis a dialecticaltension, For example, positiveand thenegativefeaturesof theprogram. manynegativeresponsescenteredon the shownotprovidinga or of a Black middle-class of a Black family, realisticportrayal Yetmanyalso feltthattheshowaccurately reflected their family. andthatoftheirfriends. ownlifestyle of The Cosby one commoncriticism Amongourrespondents, Show was its lack of realism.As thefollowingset of negative theproblemlies withthestereotypical nature responsesillustrate, of an uppermiddle-classBlack familythatneverexperiences One respondent commented problems, especiallyracialproblems. thisway:"AndthenTheCosbyShow,well, on thelackoftragedy forme,it'sjusttoogood.Theyused theyjustgottoo love-happy to haverealproblemsthattheywerefacedwith,andnow,what's theproblem?Someonewearssomeoneelse's dress,whatis that?" The absenceofserioustragedy likethatfacedbyBlackAmericans intherealworldcausedmanytospeakofthelackofrealism Inniss, Feagin VIEWOF COSBY 699 /MIDDLE-CLASS in theprogram: "Cosbyis notreal.One ofthethingsthatdisturbs meisthishouseis alwaysimmaculate, there'snomaid,themother's whoworksall day,thefather's an attorney a doctorwhoworksall areoutofthehouseallday.Whodoesthelaundry? day,thechildren Whocleansup thehouse?Whoprepares themeals?You see them cook a specialty dishfromtimetotime,that'snotforreal." Oneaspectoftheunreality is thecastingofthefather andmother as uppermiddle-class professionals. One middle-class respondent focusedon thefamilycontext, the likelihood including ofdoctorlawyerheadsofhousehold:"My issuewithCosbyis, howrealis it? I mean,how manyBlack familiesdo you know wherethe father'sa doctorand themother'sa lawyer,and all thekidsare wellbehaved,andtheyall deal ata psychological wonderfully and Andso whileI personally emotional levelofunderstanding? love TheCosbyShow,I do questionhowrealitis." ofthedoctor-lawyer Thisquestioning teamcameup a number of timesand was connectedto otherissues.Anotherrespondent totheracialtrials:"I think ifchildren, if notedthelackofattention people,if anybodylookedat The CosbyShow,they'dthinkthat in theBlack community has arrivedlikethat,and it's everybody thattheyportray a doctorand justnottrue.I thinkit's wonderful andtheyliveina brownstone ona regular lawyertogether working, andtheyhavechildren and everybody's street, hunky-dory. They neverportray thetrialsand tribulations thatfamilieshave. Or,if themina humorous theydo portray them,theyportray light.ButI could be more realistic." thinkthatit Another wonderedaboutthestereotyped character respondent likeHuxtables, whodo notgrapplewithbarriers ofa Blackfamily "I thinkhe's a doctorandshe's a lawyer,so I likediscrimination: Andit'sjust stereotyped. thinkit's an uppermiddle-class family. Nothinglikethatgoes on in thefamilylifeeveryday.No family liferunssmoothlikethat.You know,whynotportray a familylife ifyou'regoingtouseBlacks,andmakeitshow storyontelevision thehardtimesthatBlacks do runinto?Whygive it like it's,all peachesandcreamwhenit'snot?" RatherthanviewingtheHuxtablesas rolemodels,one father thedifficulty ofexplaining tohischildren lamented whytheydon't 700 OF BLACKSTUDIES/JULY1995 JOURNAL liveliketheCosbys:"I do knowthatthisisjustentertainment. But it'sthewaywe shouldlive.Thatis unfair. mykidsthink It is unfair formetoexplaintomysonthat, no,momis nota lawyer, dadis not andthesethings don'tworkthatway.I think a doctor, it'sreallysad." BLACKSIN WHITEFACE? Theunreality oftheshowhasotherdimensions, including a too of Black culture. For male Whiteimage example,one respondent to Whitecultureas prethefalseimageof assimilation criticized sentedby The CosbyShow."A falseimage.Again,it seemlike ofpeoplelivingthegood life,acting outof a fantasy, something the so-called assimilated, new-generation typepeoplethatreally ofAmerica,yousee something don'texist.Ifyouwalkthestreets totallydifferent....The typeofBlackswhohavemadeit,everybody's happy,the don't-worry-be-happy typeof Black people, whattheBlack again,it's a totalfarce,and theydon'trepresent arereallylike." massesinthiscountry accused the Huxtablesof being "White Anotherrespondent ofBlackAmerpeopleinblackface"andnota truerepresentation ica. "Fromoneextreme, youhavethefamilyon TheCosbyShow. that'smadeit.To me,all you're Thehappy-go-lucky Negrofamily ontelevision. lookingatareWhitepeopleinblackfaceperforming thatmaybe goingon,butit's Thatmaybe truetoa certainextent, oftheBlackexperience inAmerica." nota truerepresentation thattheshowcouldbe a "littleless One femalecriticsuggested in the area of problem-solving White,"particularly techniques. withBillCosby,thateverybody "Thenyouhavetheotherextreme Andthat'strue,we havea lotofthat.Buttheway is professional. I thinkis a littleoffthewall.I thinkitcould problemsaretreated, be a littleless White.I thinkthatwe justtreatproblemsa littlebit we'reprofessional ornot, differently, because,let'sfaceit,whether Andwe stilldon'thavethattotally we allcamefromnothing. White about mentality problemsolving." addsanother dimension toourunderstanding Thiscommentary Thisrespondent ofthefearfostered by assimilation. maybe sugoftoday'sBlackswouldnotallowthemto gestingthatthehistory inthesamemannerthat Whiteswould.Thedecline workoutproblems Inniss,Feagin/MIDDLE-CLASS VIEW OF COSBY 701 of segregation has allowedBlack Americansto deal withtheir in waysdifferent children fromthedaysofsegregation, indeedin BlackyoungwayssimilartothoseofWhites.Undersegregation, sterswereusuallytaughtto be deferential and self-effacing, often harshchild-rearing a childnottospeak through practices admonishing unless spokento and not to stareanyonein the eye. Because conditions haveimproved somewhat, manyBlackparents nowencouragechildrenin thesame ways thatWhiteparentsdo, to be andcurious.Theremayalsobe a suggestion assertive, independent, herethattheBlackapproachtoproblemsolvinginsomematters is in unspecified stilldifferent waysfromthatofWhiteAmericans, perhapsthatthereis a Black cultureorAfricanbackground to be considered. Theseexamplesprovideinsightintothecharacter of thecriticismsthatsee theshowas unreal.Thegeneralcomplaint is notthat theshowis anunrealportrait ofa family, butofa Blackfamily. Cosby hasarguedthathe is trying toshowwhattrueassimilation wouldbe like,notwhatitalreadyis-all racialandethnicgroupsinteracting andfriends without as neighbors regardforphysicaldifferences. in ourinterviews Thereis a clearsuggestion thattheHuxtables do notreflect mostBlackAmericans. Formanyofourmiddle-class respondents, thisis problematic. Some had problemswiththe Blackmiddle-class illusionofperfect integration whereby families "live no longerexperience andwouldineffect anyracialproblems Itseemsthatanunderlying wishoftheseBlack happilyeverafter." criticsis thattelevisionshowsfeaturing Blacks shouldbe harder andmorerealistic. Thereis a callhereforgreater hitting seriousness anda rejectionof a happyin dealingwiththeBlack experience, ofBlackAmerica.Theyhavedifficulty witha go-lucky stereotype of None if mentioned that Black fantasy portrait Blackcharacters. lifeas a wholeis bitinganddifficult, thena showthatis an escapist mediumis useful.Onlyrecently does thereseemtobe a pushfor anddocumentaries seriousness dramas. depicting onlyreal-life THE POSITIVE VIEW: TV AS FANTASY thenegativeresponsesaremorethanequaled In ourinterviews, individualsseemto by positiveresponses.Sometimes, particular 702 JOURNALOF BLACK STUDIES /JULY 1995 be in a dialoguewiththemselves or theirfriends andrelativeson forthere isoften anambivalence thesematters, aboutTheCosbyShow. A numberofourmiddle-class echoedBill Cosby's respondents responseto someofhiscriticsinregardtodemanding toomuchin I have thewayofrealismfroma showontelevision: "Theproblem withCosbyis thecomments ourown peoplemake,in particular hasa doctoranda lawyerfora mom people,likewhatBlackfamily kids.Theycan'tbelieve and dad and threeor fourwell-behaved thatcouldhappen.AndsomeWhitepeopletoo.AndI sitandthink orBatman well,that'sjustas realas theBionicMan,orSuperman, with andRobin.I mean,youdon'tsee us walkingaroundintights bigSs on ourshirts." "The Cosbysortofthing. . . isn'tlikemostBlackfamilies.But thenI'm notsurethatyou oughtto expecttelevisionto portray I don'tthinktheyportray anything realistically. anyfamilyrealistheBlack familyrealistitically,so whywouldtheyeverportray cally,either?" elsethat "It'snothonest?Well,so what?So is almosteverything So can't we be on television yousee ontelevision. why beingfake? Orfromthatperspective, yeah,letus getsomebody beingfake,just else.It's an entertainment medium." likeeverybody underscore thecomplexity ofBlack Thesepositiveassessments toBlack-oriented shows.Explicitinthesepositivequotes responses butso is most is theideathatTheCosbyShowis indeedunrealistic ThepublicdoesnotaskotherTV showstobe accurate oftelevision. ofreallife.In theirview,becausethepublicenjoys representations as TheCosbyShow, oriented othershowsthatarejustas fantasy forexample,TheBionicWomanorTheSixMillionDollar Man,it is notfairto expectthatwhenBlacksareinvolvedthattheshows andgreatrealism. providebothentertainment EVERYDAY LIFE AND ROLE MODELS Someofthepositivecomments tooktheformofacknowledging thattheexperienceson the showparalleledtheirown: "I think that.. . Cosbyis an excellentexampleofourlifeandourfamily." "Cosbyparallelsquitesignificantly myfamilylifeandthatofmy Inniss,Feagin/MIDDLE-CLASS VIEW OF COSBY 703 ofa wide orchildren thosewhohaveteenagers particularly friends, a familyjoke with varietyof age ranges.And that'sparticularly becausewe lookatCosbytoseewhat'sgoing severalofourfriends, areselecting tohappenin ourlivesthatweek."Theserespondents commonfamily outoftheshow'saccountoftheBlackexperience Otherswhohada positiveviewoftheshowwerehappy problems. ofBlacksina positivelightinordertocounteract withtheportrayal of Black Americansin the mass the manynegativeportrayals "I think thatit'sabouttimethat in White mind: thus the media,and WhiteAmericasees BlackAmericaina positive,naturalenvironment.""I wishwe had moreshowslike ... Cosbyon TV, where becausetheydo andthewifeis a lawyer, youhavea Blackdoctor, buttheydo a small I on percentage-wise, scale, exist. meanthey're exist.AndI thinkwe taketoomanynegativesandblowthemup." couldseethat itwasgoodthatBlackpeople,andWhites, "I thought "There andprojectsandkilleachother." we all don'tliveinghettos and and stuff that have doctors lawyers families lot of Black area likethat,youjustdon'teverhearaboutthem,peopledon'twrite Black Americans thesemiddle-class storiesaboutthem."Clearly, ofthemedia,andWhiteAmericans, aboutthetendency areconcerned as criminals anddeviant. theimageofBlackAmericans toexaggerate of theshow'smeritssee Cosby'sportrayal Those who affirm "Cosbyis probably BlackmenandBlackfamiliesverypositively: thatportrays Blackmenin a positiverole." theonlyshow,I think, amount. "I think thatnoquestionBillCosbyhasdonea tremendous andprojectsa very,verypositiveimage, And I thinkhe portrays together, whatwe needtosee more.""BecauseI thinkitis a family yetat anditshowsthatBlackmencanbe leadersintheirfamilies, emphasizedthe One respondent thesame timebe responsible." ofthevaluesofallAmeriofstressing thecommonality importance "I think thatI am ofracialandethnicbackground: cans,regardless Blacks in middle-classroles,and glad to see themportraying people,havesome realizingthatBlackpeople,Blackmiddle-class of thesamevaluesas Whitemiddleclass,Hispanicmiddleclass, a racethatdetermines orOrientalmiddleclass.It'snotnecessarily havesimilarvalues.So peoplesometimes it,it'sjustmiddle-class Blacksokay.TheCosby I'm gladtoseethattheyarenowportraying 704 JOURNALOF BLACK STUDIES /JULY 1995 Showandtheseothershowsthatarecomingon TV,youknow,we bothhave someofthesamevalues."Thismeansthatthegeneral imageof Black Americansas beinglike otherAmericansis an contribution of TheCosbyShow. important THE BLACK COMMUNITY notedtheimportance of The CosbyShow Otherrespondents TheyenjoyedtheHuxtablefamily withintheBlack community. Blackrolemodels,positivevalues,and becauseitoffered portrayal messagesforBlack Americans:"I'm pleasedwiththe important itsetsa goodexampleforyounger becauseI think Cosbyportrayal notso muchin thestereotypical Black children, 'whenI growup butjustintheoverallquality I'm goingtobe a doctor'kindofthing, the oflifeandthevalues.""ButI didn'tsee thatbeingunrealistic, a doctorand a lawyer.I didn'tsee thatas being typeof family, There'squitea fewBlack doctorsandBlack lawyers, unrealistic. thatwas a goodimagebuilderforthekids.""I think so I thought ofAmericaforthenext youcouldlookaroundthisgreatcountry 708 years,andI don'tthinkyou'reevergoingto finda Huxtable But hey,youknow,to me itcreatesa dream.I've always family. believedthatifyoucan see itinyourmind,it'spossible.Andlike Blackkid,I want theCos, heplaysa doctor. Hey,a little5-year-old That'scool. I likethat."To be to be a doctorjustlikeHeathcliff. able to see a Black femalelawyer,a Black doctor,and Black forinneryoungsters goingto collegeis a verypositiveincentive whomaynotsee thosesametypesintheirown cityBlackchildren Heretheaccentis onpositiverolemodelsforBlack neighborhoods. ina generalvein:"It'sideal.It'sfamily Others commented children. basic.It has goodmoral... everything It's something structured. youwantto lookforis in thatshow.""I do likeTheCosbyShow Ameribecause[it]deliversa wholebunchofmessages,toAfrican You knowif you watchit, there'salwaysa cans in particular. it'strue message.""Bill Cosby,I loveBill Cosby.It'snota put-on, butyoudo have You've gota doctoranda lawyer, familysetting. that.Buttheydealwithdown-to-earth issues,realisticissues.So, I ofpositiverole thinkthat'sa pretty goodimage."The importance Inniss,Feagin/MIDDLE-CLASS VIEW OF COSBY 705 modelsforallBlackAmericans, notjustforchildren, is a significant themehereandintherestoftheinterviews. THE FAILURETO ADDRESS SOCIAL ISSUES Anothermajorcategoryof criticismis relatedto thosejust discussed,thatThe CosbyShowdoes notaddressanyimportant racialorothersocialissues,particularly thosefacingBlackAmericanstoday.Thefollowing thiscriticism. quoteillustrates "They're notfullyrepresentative, that'sforsure.Yes,we see thesuccessful butthat'sonlya sliceoftheaverageAmerican Black Cosbyfamily, family.The familyis completelyadvantaged.They have both parents, they'retogether. They'rebothfullyemployed.And they havea happyenvironment. Thatfamily from appearstobe insulated racism.Everything's on theirblock.Well, alwaysso wonderful It leaves you shoot,thatdoesn'thappen.... So, it's misleading. witha flicker ofhopethat'snotrealistic anddoesn'tgiveus enough information aboutwhatto do if yourfamilyisn'tlike that,isn't orisn'treallyhealthy. No oneevergetssick ideal,isn'ttwoparent, on The CosbyShow.No one has a debilitating illness.Cosbyhas not chosento addresssexual abuse. He's minimally addressed substanceabuseon there,andhe's rarelytalkedaboutsex. That's not realityat all. None of thosedaughters have had unwanted Thisrespondent thattheshowhasnotdealt pregnancies." suggests withanyofthemajorproblems facingBlackAmericans, including racism or unwedpregnancies. Thereis a toughcall for questionsof theprogram tobe morethana situation comedy.Otherrespondents expandedon thethemeofthefailureto deal withracialdiscrimination:"I havea problemwiththefactthatTheCosbyShowwill builda 30-minute Huxtablebuildinga episodearoundHeathcliff herosandwich. Whyaren'twe dealingwith,andI'm notsayingdo thiseveryweek,buteverynowandthenwhyaren'twe dealingwith theBlackmiddleclass.Yeah, somerealissuesthatareconfronting who like thereare somepeople live that... whathappenedto me ifI'm an attorney, in thecourtroom, orwhatracistthinghappened ifI'm a surgeon. That'swhattheycomehome tomeinthehospital, 706 JOURNALOF BLACK STUDIES /JULY 1995 talkingabout,and yes theirkids go to NYU and othergreat likethat,butwhattheycome hometalkingaboutis universities whatthisracistprofessor saidanddid.AndI don'tseethatoccurring ofwhatBlacklifeis really onTheCosbyShow.""Itis notindicative like. You would thinkthatwhenTheo goes out he neverhas problemsexceptin dealingwithhis buddies.Or thatwhenhis mothergoes aboutherlegal dutiesas a lawyerthatshe never discrimination." On theair,theHuxtablefamilynever confronts facesorcopeswithdiscrimination. Although askinga comedyshow to deal seriouslywithsuchissuesas sexualabusemaybe asking do pointtotheseriousissueofracial toomuch,theserespondents at Black discriminationthemiddle-class level.Uppermiddle-class muchdiscrimination, anditis overt,recogAmericans experience Becausethisdiscrimination is commonand nizable,andeveryday. toexpectthata Blacklawyer daily,itdoes notseemunreasonable a Blackcollegestudent, wouldexperience ordoctor,andcertainly itanddeal withitindailylife. A SUBTLE TREATMENT OF RACISM Noneofourrespondents explicitly disagreedwiththecriticisms just noted.On theovertlevel,theyagreedthatThe CosbyShow doesnotdeal withracismanddiscrimination. However,at another noted levelthereis a battlegoingonagainstracism.Onerespondent ofracismina subtleway, thatCosbytendstoapproachtheproblem "Butat another leveltheydeal witha byallusionand indirection: lot of issuesin a rathersubtleway.Therewas an episodewhere MartinLutherKing's'I Have a Dream'speechwas beingwatched by thefamilyat theveryend oftheshow,afterI thinktherehad was exambeendifferent familysquabbles."Thissubtletreatment "In theshowyoucan see a kindof inedeloquently bya professor: ofa family thatis not intervention againstracism,bythedepiction that racism. have a life constructed They speakstoBlack totally by a traditionally Blackcollege.Buthaving art,Blackmusic,including ofrepresentations of racismmeans said all that,theveryscarcity thatonecanlookatTheCosbyShowanddecideonthebasisofjust is very thateverything thatrepresentation is OK, wheneverything Inniss,Feagin/MIDDLE-CLASS VIEW OF COSBY 707 underoneset harmless be itselffairly muchnotOK. So whatmight underanother endsup beinghideouslyharmful ofcircumstances, setofcircumstances." Whatcomes out as positivefroma Black pointof view,the abilitytoliveoutsideofracismfora time,becomesnegativewhen Whitestaketheabsenceofracismtomeanthatthingsarefinefor in the studyby Black Americans.This problemis underscored LewisandJhally (1992),wheretheyconcludethatformanyoftheir fortheAmerican "theHuxtables'achievement Whiterespondents This dreamleads themto a worldwhereraceno longermatters. enableswhiteviewersto combinean impeccableliberalattitude ofblackpeople"(p. 110). towardracewitha deep-rooted suspicion forWhitesin a waymuch In thisway,TheCosbyShowfunctions tothelimits forBlacks.Itpanders from thewayitfunctions different inthelate20thcentury. ofWhiteacceptanceofBlackAmericans BLACK LIFE ONLYAS COMEDY? to negaWe haveseenin thepreviousanalysessometendency judge theshow'scontent.The followingretivelyor positively sponsesare directedat thegenreof theshow.Similarto earlier thesecriticsfeelthatalwaysseeingBlacksin situation comments, comediesindicatesthatBlack lifeand Black issuesarenottaken "True,Cosbyhasa greatBlackimage,butbasically,it's seriously. It's still comedy.It's stillcomic.It's stilllaughter. stilla situation "In Black intense drama." terms of It's notreal, entertainment. intelevision, sadcommentary thatBlacksas it'sa rather portrayals clowns,or Blacks as thosewho laugh,continuesto be themain imagethat'sportrayed....It'sstillclearthatBlacksas humansthat have to deal witha varietyof seriousissuesdoesn'tseemto get across . . . ithasn't dealt seriouslyenoughwithtopics thatBlacks in generalhavetoface.""TheCosbyShowshowsa setofaffluent Thereareno showsthatcan comedy. Blacks,butstillit'sa situation as the Black deal with personseriously, a seriousperson.It seems like in orderto discussBlack issues,you have to laugh."One toCosby'sachievements tooka morepositiveapproach respondent 708 JOURNAL OF BLACKSTUDIES/JULY1995 in his comedyshow:"I'm a firmbelieverthatthestrength of the is alwaysin thefamily, Black community and they'restarting to I thinkTheCosbyShow showBlacksin a strong familysituation. started thatinsteadoftheslapstick comedytype.I thinkwe'restill nottakenseriously becauseall ofthosearestillinthesitcomtype I thinkit'sdifficult formostpeopletoacceptthatBlacks situation. havenormalfamily problems, andtheydealwiththemsimilarly as theydo." A clearadvantageis thatCosbyhas movedthesituation comedyto a level beyondthatof themoretypicalSambo-type Thisputstheearliercomments Blackcomedy. intogreater perspective.Theselasttworesponsesseemto be arguingthecase forthe ofclass positionoverracialidentity. Thesecomments importance raisetheimportant questionas to whyWhiteAmericanshave a "comfort zone,"whichmeansthatWhiteswill onlywatchthose Black showswithwhichtheyfeelcomfortable. Because White tomakeorbreaka showandinfluence viewershavethenumbers areusuallymet.Why itssponsors, theyaretheoneswhoseinterests is the Whitecomfortzone only able to encompassBlacks as Blacklifeandproblems comedians?One might saythattoWhites, unconsciousand are notseen as serious.Or itmaybe something less devious.It is doubtlesslinkedto theold stereotypes where andStepinFetchits. Blacksareseenas buffoons CONCLUSION We have examinedthe Black middle-classresponseto The CosbyShowandfounda mixedviewoftheshowanditsimpact. The responsesare bothpositiveand negativein tone.Yet the indicatea reluctance tobe totally interviews negativeaboutoneof ofBlackson TV. Middle-classBlacks thefewpositiveportrayals wantpositivedepictionsof theirlives. Many also wantmore Some feelthattheserealisticdepictionscan realisticportrayals. thancomedy. a genreother Forthem, onlybe accomplished through of as makes the Black Blacks comedians to alwaysportray light thatBlacklifewithall itsinherent andindicates situation problems two significant is not takenseriously.Our interviews highlight Inniss,Feagin/MIDDLE-CLASS VIEW OF COSBY 709 aspectsof theirresponses:(a) thefearthattheshowwill render Black problemsas irrelevant and (b) thehope and optimism that withcontinued work,theBlackcondition can improve. The negativeresponseshighlight boththeambivalenceof the respondents andthefearthattheshowfosters thefalseassumption thatBlackproblemshavebeensolvedandareno longerrelevant. By showinga Black familythatforall intents and purposeshas we areledtobelievethatwe areindeedlivingin fullyassimilated, an equal opportunity societyandwitha littlehardworkandlotsof perseverance, anyonecan makeit. Whenwe meettheHuxtable we are shownthattheyhad a difficult grandparents, life.The grandfather livedin a timeof segregated armedforcesand segregatedmusicclubswherehe was acceptedas a musicianbutnotas a person.Butheworkedhard,andnowhehasa doctorson,a lawyer incollege.The overallimpresandgrandchildren daughter-in-law, sionis thattheAmerican dreamis realforanyonewhois willingto playbytherules.Weareshownsubstantial inonly upwardmobility one generation willbe evenmore andled to believethatmobility fortheHuxtablechildren becausetheytooareplaying pronounced thattheywillnotface bytherules.We areleftwiththeimpression or obstaclesin theirquestforthegoodlife.Theyare anybarriers decidedlyuppermiddleclass andcan onlygo up-no discriminationor downwardmobility fortheHuxtablesor by extensionfor Blacks as a group.The positiveinterviews highlight anothersignificant aspectof theBlack middle-class responseto The Cosby Show:hopeoroptimism. itis truethatnotall Blacksare Although livingthegoodlife,withprestigious jobs,decenthousingandliving and college-bound one can alwayshopefor conditions, children, andworktowardthesethings. Justseeingwhatlifelikethiscould be likemaybe a tremendous motivator. It mayinspirehardwork and wardoffdiscouragement. One middle-age Black femalewas articulate on thispoint: Liketheaveragewomaninsocietyis notblondeandblue-eyed, the averageBlackfamily bynomeanscomesclosetotheCosbyfamily. ButI thinkwhatitdoes,on theotherhand,is suggestthatthereare someBlackpeopleandfamilies outtherethatdisplaythosecharacteristics andqualities.... I thinkthatitdisplaysthefactthatthere 710 OF BLACKSTUDIES/JULY1995 JOURNAL I in society, condition is hope,andevenifthat'snota predominant saystopeople thinkthatjustbythemerefactthatit'son television thatyoucan getthere. in thiscountry costof havingpositiveBlack Generally, then,theopportunity seemsto be a lesseningoftheconcernwith televisioncharacters cangetbetter. anda fostering ofhopethatthings theBlackcondition in Black theambivalence Thisis perhapsthedilemmathatfosters The to Cosby Show. responses middle-class REFERENCES Asante,M. K. [A. L. Smith].(1976). 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Feagin is a graduateresearchprofessorofsociologyat the University of Florida.His researchon racial and genderdiscrimination has beenpublishedin RacialandEthnicRelations(withClaireceFeagin,1993),LivingwithRacism:The BlackMiddleClass Experience(withMelvinSikes,1994),and WhiteRacism:The Basics (withHermanVera,inpress).He has servedas scholar-in-residence at the U.S. Commission on CivilRights.He is currently working on a bookaboutBlack students at Whitecollegesand a bookaboutBlackcapitalism.
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