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The Cosby Show: Race, Class, and Intersectionality

The Cosby Show: Race, Class, and Intersectionality

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Nkechi Ampah

Identity Matters 360

The Cosby Show: Race, Class, and Intersectionality

In the fall of 1984, The Cosby Show premiered on NBC. The show was an immediate hit, garnering 20 million viewers a night and racing to the number three spot in primetime television. What made The Cosby show different from its competition though, was the family it depicted. The Cosby Show featured a Black family of seven, two parents, and five children, four girls(Sondra, Denise, Vanessa, and Rudy) and a boy(Theo). The parents, Claire Huxtable, a Princeton educated bilingual lawyer, and Cliff Huxtable, a successful obstetrician gynecologist and veteran, raised their five children in their Brooklyn three story brownstone.  


"The Huxtable family projects universal values so appealing that viewers from a wide range of ethnic and social backgrounds can identify with the problems and triumphs of this lovable,...upper-middle class Black family" (Poussaint, 72). The Cosby Show has dramatically altered the image of Blacks as poor, downtrodden, yet happy-golucky clowns. The Huxtable family [has helped] to dispel old stereotypes and move its audience toward more realistic perceptions of Blacks. (Poussaint, 72)


This was not accidental. Cosby, and Alvin Poussaint, a professor of Psychiatry and Multicultural Affairs combed over the scripts to “screen out any humor or references that demean people or perpetuate stereotypes, prejudices, or racial antagonisms [and] deliberately create positive images of blacks and references that expand the cultural context represented by the show” The Cosby parents went to an HBCU for their undergraduate educations, and decorated their home exclusively with Black art. These things served to show the American audience, but more specifically, White audiences, that Black people were not limited to maids, butlers, or other characters that they had seen before.

Each episode’s plot was simple, a character would do something, hijinks would ensue, a lesson would be learned, and the episode would wrap up happily. Most times, the core issue would be a family values lesson. Theo learning to manage his money, Rudy learning to stand up to bullies, Vanessa dressing appropriately for her age. The Cosby show is credited with teaching many viewers, including myself lessons on telling the truth, fighting for what you believe in, and always trying your best. The show also consistently showed viewers messages of gender equality.

What the show lacked, however, was any real discussion about race. The Huxtable family, parents and children alike, moved through the world with no discussion of their race, or how their lives differed from other Black people. By the third season, The Cosby Show was solidly in the number one spot in television, reaching 30.5 million viewers each night. This provided the show a real opportunity to teach important lessons about race to audiences that may have otherwise not recieved those messages. 

"As co-creator and executive producer of the show, Cosby insisted that it never highlight racial conflict. He says if it had done so even once, every white viewer would have felt 'this was set up to make you feel like you're the villain'"

This too was intentional. The Huxtable family's income easily places them in the top 1%, a position not occupied by most Black families. 

US Census Bureau

For audiences without other representations of Black life, the lack of intersectionality presented by the Cosby Show solidifies that untrue thought that the problems of the Black community are the fault of the Black community. The Cosby show comes on the backs of the political propoganda of the 70s and 80s of the single black mother welfare queen and the criminally absent black father. The Cosby Show fails poor Black audiences by not tackling the hard race issues that prevent social mobility.


“‘Why can’t these young kids who grow up in poverty with no jobs just grow up to be a really famous comedian and actor like [Bill Cosby]?’ And it’s like well that’s a really hard path to make it.” -Jamie Kilstein co-host of Citizen Radio


However, one of the best things that came out of the Cosby Show was it's spinoff, A Different World. Where The Cosby Show fails to talk about intersections of class and race, the ensemble cast, and setting of a Historically Black College, Hillman University, provided the perfect background to address societal issues. A Different World reached fewer people each night, but told the stories of many, and tackled serious issues surrounding race, (Rodney King Trial, Use of the N word, Apartheid, among others), class, gender, and sexuality. 



The Cosby Show opened doors for many other shows to come. Without it, we miss Fresh Prince, Living Single, and many other important representations of Black life. But we can learn from the Cosby Show's failings for the representations of the future.


Works Cited:

  • Poussaint, Alvin. "The Huxtables: Fact or Fantasy". Ebony. Oct. 1988:72-74.

  • Crenshaw, Anthony. “The Cosby Show Changes the Way Blacks are Viewed”

Graham, Jefferson. "Family, Not Race, Is Focus." USA Today 26 Oct. 1989: 3D.

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