Black, Brown, and Beige
Black, Brown, and Beige
By: Terry Teachout
Date: July 18, 1986
Source: Teachout, Terry. "Black, Brown, and Beige." National Review (July 18, 1986).
About the Author: Terry Teachout has written for several top journals, magazines and other publications such as the Wall Street Journal, National Review, and the New York Times. He was previously an editor of Harper's magazine and an editorial columnist for the New York Daily News. Also a music commentator and critic, he is a member of the National Council on the Arts based in Washington, D.C. Teachout has also written several books and biographical works, including his latest All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine.
The Cosby Show was a surprise hit of the late 1980s. The main cast featured comedian Bill Cosby as Heathcliff Huxtable, the father of five children along with his wife, Claire, portrayed by Phylicia Rashad. The children's characters were Sondra (Sabrina Le Beauf), Denise (Lisa Bonet), Theo (Malcolm Jamal Warner), Vanessa (Tempestt Bledsoe), and Rudy (Keisha Knight Pulliam). This African-American family was to represent an upper middle-class household; Cliff Huxtable was an obstetrician and gynecologist and Claire was an attorney, and they lived in a white neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.
There is some controversy as to how the show was portrayed. Some felt that racial attachments or lack thereof were an unrealistic depiction of African-American middle-class living. Terry Teachout also considers this puzzling since Bill Cosby's character continually appears more typically Black American than the other family members, including the two elder daughters, who attend schools such as Princeton and spend time traveling abroad. The son and younger daughters have been integrated into what is typically seen as traditional white middle class as they share similar dilemmas as other sitcom episodes of the time.
Teachout both critiques and praises this program, which brought NBC television to the top of the ratings for nearly eight years. The Cosby Show won numerous awards, including three Golden Globes, the NAACP Image Award, and six Emmy awards.
Though Teachout sees the family scenes to be inventive, entertaining, and masterfully developed by Cosby and the producers, they appear to lack plausibility. The decision to ignore mainstream issues of the times such as AIDS, sex, and poverty led white viewers to believe that black Americans were more like themselves, representing the adult baby-boomer generation. They can relate to successful parents rearing families and working mothers. Whereas, for the black viewers, the show appears to represent or advocate an ideal to which black middle-class families should conform.
Situation comedies are the stock exchange of American desire. When breadwinning and housewifery were up, television gave us Leave It to Beaver and My Three Sons. As Americans gradually abandoned the crumbling ideal of the nuclear family and began to look for emotional satisfaction in the surrogate womb of the workplace, new shows like Barney Miller and M*A*S*H began to dominate the sitcom scene. Even Mary Tyler Moore, who cheerfully kept house for Dick Van Dyke in the forgotten days of the New Frontier, worked for a Minneapolis TV station and discreetly slept with handsome young men throughout the reign of Richard Nixon. It wasn't Mary's fault. It wasn't even Nixon's fault. The Nielsens made her do it.
Now that the toddlers of the Eisenhower era have finally grasped the levers of demographic power, what are today's sitcoms telling us about their desires and priorities? Not quite what you'd expect. No one, for example, ever makes jokes about power breakfasts on television. (Ambition is no laughing matter for baby-boomers.) And Hometown, CBS's attempt to cash in on the Big Chill mystique, was a major disaster. Who cares about aging revolutionaries in search of an extended family? What people really want to see on television these days are attractive young couples who have figured out how to make two jobs and three kids a viable proposition. That's why the most successful program on television today is NBC's The Cosby Show, a traditional family sitcom whose plots are straight out of Father Knows Best by Julia.
For white middle-class viewers, The Cosby Show is an exercise in face value. The dilemmas are more or less universal ones, the emotional tone generally convincing. The appeal of the program derives in large part from the strong baby-boomer orientation of the scripts. Cliff is a doctor, Clair a lawyer. Parental authority is tactfully exercised with warmth and wit. Sexism is a dirty word. Regular viewers with an eye for the implausible, though, quickly begin to develop a long list of unanswered questions. One assumes that the Huxtables employ domestic help, but we never see a cleaning lady, just as we rarely see Clair at work. Who took care of the youngest daughter before she started kindergarten? What kind of sex lives do the older daughters have? And what kind of middle-class family can drop $10,000 on a painting at Sotheby's?
Seen from this angle, The Cosby Show is a hip pipedream, a pristine vision of a successful nuclear family in the age of the working mother. But the black middle-class viewer, despite the fact that The Cosby Show systematically avoids racially oriented thematic material, is getting a very different message. For him The Cosby Show is surely a parable of ambition, a golden vision of upward mobility with a poorly hidden agenda. Each episode frankly advocates the kind of assimilation that Eldridge Cleaver and Stokely Carmichael were supposed to have put the torch to long ago. The Huxtables live in what is obviously a white neighborhood. Their children will go to Ivy League colleges. The two oldest daughters are deracinated to an astonishing, even eerie, degree. (Indeed, one is already going to Princeton and summering in Paris; the other is a beige Valley Girl.) Racist slurs are never heard, racist behavior never encountered, by the Huxtable family.
Bill Cosby's authentic "blackness" confuses the issue to some degree, but the point is that there is an issue to be confused. One sign of this confusion is the new credit sequence filmed for The Cosby Show's current season, in which all of the cast members are shown dancing. This sequence is obviously designed to provide conclusive evidence that Cliff, Clair, and the kids are really and truly black. Hugh Beaumont and Barbara Billingsley, we are surely meant to think, were never that cool.
One might explain all of this away were it not for the fact the producers of The Cosby Show are known to exercise deliberate and conscious control over every aspect of the program from the hairstyles worn by Clair and the girls to the posters on the wall of Theo's bedroom. Psychologist Alvin Poussaint is regularly consulted on how each new production wrinkle will be interpreted by the black community. Cosby himself has a doctorate (of sorts) in education, a fact that is announced to the world every week when the credits of The Cosby Show roll. The Cosby Show is, to use a hideously canting phrase, "politically correct." Is the long-repressed dream of black assimilation now politically correct as well? The New York Times tells us that a majority of American blacks approve of the way Ronald Reagan is doing his job. The Cosby Show is the hottest ticket on television among black professionals in New York. Something interesting is definitely going on here, but Bill Cosby is only telling us part of the story. Fans of The Cosby Show will find some of this criticism churlish, and they have a point. No one has any business complaining about the fact that The Cosby Show is not set in Harlem. That's as fatuous as it is racist. No, the real problem with The Cosby Show is that is fails to dramatize its vision of black assimilation in the context of the world outside the four walls of the Huxtable household. Not only are the answers too easy, the questions never even get asked.
Such candor, of course, may not be possible in a half-hour situation comedy, even one as charming and intelligent as The Cosby Show. Most television programs that attempt to deal with "problems" usually do so in a remorselessly schematic way, skipping from child abuse to marijuana to incest to AIDS with all the verve of a well-oiled metronome. The Cosby Show has consistently avoided this kind of childish treatment of "problems," but it has done so at the expense of authenticity. There was more social nuance in a single episode of The Honey-mooners than in the entire first season of The Cosby Show. One feels in the end that Bill Cosby and his writers are too gifted to be aiming so low, too smart to be telling us so little about the way we live now.
Television sitcoms or situation comedies represent the heart of American inclinations. In its early years, role models and daily living were represented by shows such as Leave It to Beaver. When the notion of family in America begin to fracture from this ideal, perceptibly it transformed its footing to the workplace, says Teachout. The job was where all expressions of gratification and self-worth were asserted. At that time, Barney Miller and M*A*S*H came to the forefront on television.
In 1986, what was popular for "white middle-class" viewers to watch were good-looking parents that know how to successfully juggle family life with two working adults, says Teachout. During this time The Cosby Show became hugely favorable as it fit this description perfectly. Airing on NBC, the show depicted the conventional family "whose plots are straight out of Father Knows Best."
According to Teachout, the lightly veiled message for other blacks was to rise to this social position and act like the Huxtables. Send your children to the best colleges, disregard your ethnicity, fit or "assimilate," says Teachout, into white society.
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