November 8, 2008

Did Obama Get Help from "The Cosby Show?"

…one idea seems to be gaining traction, and improbably it has Bill Cosby and Karl Rove in agreement: “The Cosby Show,” which began on NBC in 1984 and depicted the Huxtables, an upwardly mobile black family — a departure from the dysfunction and bickering that had characterized some previous shows about black families — had succeeded in changing racial attitudes enough to make an Obama candidacy possible. – central paragraph in a New York Times story on Nov. 7.
I certainly remember fondly “The Cosby Show,” which ran on NBC at 8pm, the anchor comedy leading a string of four sitcoms on Thursday evenings through 1992. “Family Ties” and “Cheers” were two of the other sitcoms that appeared on NBC’s powerhouse-ratings night.

I don’t doubt the “The Cosby Show” helped a little with improving racial attitudes in this country, but I always found myself wincing a bit whenever I saw the show. Bill Cosby’s character, Cliff Huxtable, was always being teased and berated by his wife Claire, played by Phylicia Rashad, in the episodes I saw. A little troubling to me, looking back at it now – though I don’t think it has had any political significance – is that Barack and Michelle’s relationship seemed too much like Cliff and Claire’s when we first came to know Michelle, with the woman seeming too much the boss in the relationship.

In the sitcom, Cliff and Claire engaged in comedy banter where Cliff would typically act as straight man and Claire would deliver the mild-insult zinger. Almost always Cliff wasn’t wholly in the wrong -- Cliff wasn’t a milquetoast or straw man – but he seldom was allowed to be in the right as the script played out, or show the strength that Claire did.

Today, in the warm glow of the election result, Barack and Michelle are portrayed as a model couple, in articles like the San Francisco Examiner’s “Barack and Michelle Obama-A Family Business” and the Baltimore Sun’s “Barack and Michelle: A modern first marriage?” But from what I remember, in 2007 when Barack was first powering-up his effort to get into the presidential race, Barack was lavishly deferential to his wife, giving her bodacious credit for his good family life and career success and Michelle seemed blunt and curiously too much in command. She seemed to be a supercharged Hillary, which was perhaps the campaign plan. In retrospect, the introduction of Michelle to the nation was a dud. The nation wasn’t craving another Bill & Hill soap opera with all its attached psychodrama.

I don’t think I’m wrong in remembering that Michelle’s role in the campaign was curtailed after her misinterpreted – yet not politically savvy -- remark “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country.” It was only during and subsequent to the Democrat Convention that Michelle returned and was re-introduced to the country. After the convention, Michelle, usually making appearances without Barack, was used to great effect in a role ballyhooing the merits of her husband, the candidate.

I know it may not be politically correct to say so, but weak husbands with bossy wives is one of the stereotypes of African-Americans that still needs to be overcome. While the Cliff-Claire characters were not the weak & bossy stereotype, that stereotype was not challenged in “The Cosby Show” whereas a great many other stereotypes were.

Too, because the Huxtables were a very upper-middleclass black family, their civilized behavior – if that’s the right term – did not break with white-bigoted expectations as it would have had the family beeng poor or middleclass with the show’s strong family cohesion and the love expressed between family members. The show, as it was, did not swim against the stream of bigotry as much as it might have and is given credit for.

Still, the sitcom was funny and wildly successful in the United States and I have been delighted to hear of the impact “The Cosby Show” had worldwide in syndication. Due to the nature of their societies, the show probably has done much more to confront bigotry in the nation of South Africa than in the U.S.

So, was “The Cosby Show” a necessary precursor to the Obama victory? I doubt it. Obama is the unique, right person for the moment -- someone whose personal qualities and policy positions have been pitch-perfect. Like Lincoln, Obama was an unexpected, brilliant candidate who came from Illinois to win the job of American President. He did it on his own. Oh, all right: He did it on his own, with help from Michelle.


Pete Hoge said...

Thanks for your comments on my latest post.

I have struggled with my own
prejudices against black folks
here in Philly and I am hoping
that all of us start having some
more rational perceptions of
what it means to be a functioning
member of society regardless of

I get challenged all the time and
have to keep watch on my judgin Mind.


RC said...

interesting thoughts...if i were to name a tv show that helped Obama, I would name 24 which had Dennis Haysberth playing the very strong willed leader in the early episodes.