The Cosby Show and Race: Yay or Nay?
The Cosby Show is a comedy TV series popular for its wholesomeness and relatable family situations. The series started airing in the US in 1984, a time when racism was on the rise. However, despite the surface portrayal of the series, which includes pure family driven plot lines, there are hints of conflicting ethnic patriotism. Seeing as The Cosby Show uses mise-en-scène to subtly introduce the African heritage and patriotism, I will argue against the common notion that scholar William Raspberry clearly states:
In the article “Cosby Show Helped Bring Americans Together” by William Raspberry in The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, the main argument is that despite the series being around an African American family, it made the top TV series in America. Raspberry, like other analyzers implies that the series did not take a stand against racism; instead it did not even mention the issue – again, a notion I will rebut through analyzing the following.
I will examine the link between mise-en-scène and ethnic patriotism. Mise-en-scéne, here, is defined as the visual elements found within the setting. The elements of mise-en-scène that will be looked at are: 1) Varnette Honeywood’s paintings 2) the posters in the son’s, Theo’s, room 3) the reoccurring presence of dark colored furniture against light colored furniture. Along with the mise-en-scéne elements, ethnic patriotism is also created through dialogue between characters.
The episode that will be looked at in specific is The Cosby Show- Season 1 Episode 1: “Pilot: Theo’s Economic Lesson”. For the sake of understanding the content, a brief summary of this episode is crucial. In this episode, the father, Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, returns home from work in the hospital. Once he arrives, he has household problems that he has to face. These problems consist of his son’s low grades and his daughter’s tasteless choice in dates. So, the conflicts in the episode are simple and appropriate for most families and do not include the aspect of race.
The mise-en-scène used in The Cosby Show implies a racial controversy radiated from the series. In the first episode, the Varnette Honeywood paintings are seen in the living room, the son’s room, and the hall. The shots are usually framed to show the paintings or at least a glimpse of them. The paintings aren’t only painted by a woman of African ethnicity, but also the paintings are of people of the same ethnicity. That being said, the constant décor of paintings from the same artists suggests an essence of patriotism. Honeywood’s paintings aren’t the only wall decors that are used. There are also posters in the son’s, Theo’s, room of African American athletes (basketball players and a famous boxer). The fact that the poster is hung on his wall signifies that they are people he looks up to. Since his role models are of the same ethnicity of himself, he may feel a sense of connection. That being said, it could be assumed that the African American viewers of the series also feel a sort of connection towards the show, explaining why it was a huge hit.
Another point about mise-en-scène is that a majority of the furniture is either a dark brown or off-white, contrasting the two colors. The whole house is actually furnished in this way. The house’s exterior is a dark brown color also whilst the neighbor’s house is white. The argument here is constructed through the reoccurrence of the contrast between the two colors. The choice of these two colors constantly near each other signifies that the two races (black and white) are different but are still alike, which is seen in the relatable situations presented in the episode. So, despite the fact that the series does not explicitly state its position in the controversy, the mise-en-scène very subtly creates a patriotic visual link between the characters and their roots.
The use of mise-en-scène was taken an extra step by media scholar, Christine Acham, in her analysis: “The Cosby Show – Representing Race”. Acham states that along with the posters in Theo’s room, there are framed pictures of Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglass, two African American historical figures. Also, jazz music often fills the household and African American musicians, such as Stevie Wonder, are usually implemented for guest roles. So, not only are there visual references to great African American figures but there are also references in dialogues. The characters refer back to African American writers like Richard Wright and James Baldwin. These references along with the visual representations of African American heritage are cleverly used to nudge an idea to the viewers, or at least motivate them to think about race and racism. These references also be seen as dual-actors: the episode also created a sense of ethnic pride. For the first time, in perhaps a long time, a series does not base its comedy and plot merely on the characters’ ethnicities. Instead, the ethnicities of the characters are just an element unrelated to the narrative – a refreshing change during the 1980s.
In The Cosby Show, the common notion that Cosby did not want to take a stance on racism and thus did not include it in the series is, put simply, incorrect. The subtle use of mise-en-scène that promotes the African American race is on its own a symbol of patriotism. This can be seen through the wall décor, décor color choices, placement, and the subtle dialogue references to African American figures. So, even though it was not shown explicitly, The Cosby Show indeed did have a stance on the issue of racism.
What do you think? Leave a comment.