Monday, June 8, 2009

Watching Television in Black and White

I grew up watching quite a bit of television. I credit certain parts of my sense of humor on classic 1950s and 1960s sitcoms like I Love Lucy, I Dream of Jeannie, and Bewitched. These shows weren’t exactly the bastion of multi-cultural casts and didn’t expand my young views of the world. And growing up in a pretty white washed semi-suburban, semi-rural community didn’t add any real exposure to people of other races.

However, one cornerstone of family television in our house was The Cosby Show. The Huxtables were able to reach into the middle American family in a way that previous shows with predominantly African American casts had not. But that may have had less to do with America’s general acceptance of a black family on their television every week and more with how the family was constructed

The Huxtables were an upper middle class family living in a nice brownstone in Brooklyn Heights. The parents were a doctor and a lawyer and the children didn’t seem to have any concerns about how they would attend college. The show featured some African American themes, but in general they didn’t branch outside of their typical sitcom family situations. This wasn’t as accepted by everyone though. Sut Jhally and Justin Lewis wrote a book criticizing The Cosby Show claiming although well intentioned, it helped to create an “enlightened racism” through the non-discussion of race, class, and achieving the American dream.

Has television really changed that much since the Huxtables last came into our living rooms? Shows with African American families have existed on and off on various stations, but when it comes to other minorities, they have had much less screen time.

In 1994, ABC and Margaret Cho premiered the short-lived All-American Girl. Cho’s traditional Korean family tries to come to terms with the culture clash that is embodied by their daughter Margaret. Screen time for the mostly Asian American cast lasted for one season. ABC featured Hispanic American’s with George Lopez’s self-titled family based sitcom in 2002 and lasted for five seasons with an all Hispanic American cast.

Television dramas seem to be a bit different. Shows like Grey’s Anatomy have a culturally diverse cast and characters. The race of the characters never seems to be a direct issue, however moments of racial stereotyping do tend to pop up from time to time. Law and police drama shows also tend to have fairly diverse casting. The premium cable thriller Dexter features a storyline focusing on two of the characters Afro-Cubano heritage and the Hispanic community at large in Miami, where the show takes place.

It starts feeling like television is continually segregated, especially sitcoms. It can be hard to be diverse when filming a family sitcom, but other shows that are more ensemble based have the potential to be more diverse. The more diversity shows can bring in without making it an issue or relying heavily on stereotypes helps to break down barriers in the racial tensions that still exist in our society today.


  1. Growing up in Africa, The Cosby Show was prime time viewing on our local television station. Our family, like many others, would gather around grainy black-and-white television sets for this show. We were young then, we spoke and understood very little of English but the show was still a huge thrill.

    So popular was the show that they were still running it on national TV Tuesday nights in 2006! When Bill Cosby was in South Africa a few years ago to meet Nelson Mandela, he was treated like a rock star!

    We did not at all understand the dynamics and demographic composition of American society so we loved The Cosby Show as we loved Dallas, Neighbors, Falcon Crest and other American TV shows.

    So we laughed along with the Huxtables and were grateful for the comic relief. That the show was criticized for “creating enlightened racism through the non-discussion of race, class, and achieving the American dream” is something that was forever lost on us, watching from across the continents.

    Today, those who can afford it pay huge amounts of money each month to subscribe to DSTV to be able to watch MTV, BET, CNN, AETV, and other American shows. And the impact of that is almost phenomenal. You can almost tell who has DSTV in their house by watching the young people in my country—baggy pants that are almost falling off their bottoms, phony American accents, love of hip-hop, they call each other ‘nigger’, boys plait their hair and wear earrings, they move around in New York, 50-cent, G-Unit, Rocca-Wear cheap imitation gear.

    Only two years ago, our Parliament moved to ban MTV and other American shows because ‘they were corrupting our youth’. The African youth watching the hip-hop stars on BET or MTV does not at all understand the culture of the African-American, like we never understood the Cosby show.

    They just want to be left alone to live like 50 cent.

  2. Sut Jhally and Justin Lewis suggest what appears to be golden is not always the case.

    Not a fan of DSTV?