Comparing and Contrasting the Views of Jhally and Lewis in The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air

By: Jennifer Gutierrez
November 2, 2011
Intro. to Mass Comm.

Enlightened Racism: The Cosby Show, Audiences, and the Myth of the American Dream was written by Sut Jhally and Justin Lewis in 1992. This book, Enlightened Racism, focused on the enlightened racism in The Cosby Show as well as discussed the opinions and ideologies of the white, black, and Hispanic focus groups. Enlightened racism, as defined from the context of the book, reinforces the myth that African Americans who are not successful only have themselves to blame. Cliff and Claire, a successful upper-class couple, display the “American dream” and ultimately imply that if we have all this house, family, jobs, and so much more you can have all of this too. The white viewers, on the other hand, describe the family as “successful and attractive black people with whom white people can respect, admire, and even identify with (Jhally & Lewis, p.5).”

The Cosby Show was the first sitcom that portrayed an African American family in the middle to upper economic class. The first episode aired September 20th, 1984 and continued for eight years until the year 1992 on the NBC television network. The show was set in Brooklyn, New York and focused on the Huxtable family. The show was created by Bill Cosby to be funny and educational, as well as closely relate to his own life. The family included Claire and Cliff, an attorney and an obstetrician/gynecologist, as well as their five children; Vanessa, Theo, Denise, Sandra, and Rudy.

The Fresh Prince of Bel Air debuted September 10th, 1990. The show focused around a young adult, Will Smith, who moved to California with the Banks family, his aunt, uncle, and cousins to get away from trouble in West Philadelphia. The show lasted for six seasons and faced many controversial issues in the early 90’s. Many episodes reflected the events going on in society at the time. Although the Banks family was economically upper class Will, while there, still faced some issues based on the color of his skin, how he carried himself, as well as just misfortune in a new place.

The two shows, The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, are similar and different in multiple ways. Both shows, based on their socioeconomic status, have stirred up controversy in the African American community.

Similarly, both, The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, contain an African American family in the upper class. The families live in very large homes, and both parents in the home have graduated from college. Education is a common theme in both shows, as well as educated parents, all of the children are active in school. Both are media representations of families that can be respected and identified by white viewers. Although The Cosby Show has more black celebrity guests, both series celebrate black artists. Lastly, both shows initiate the idea that anyone can make it and have all the things they have.

The two shows, although alike in obvious ways, differ in the most controversial ways. Jhally and Lewis stated that The Cosby Show, if they had confronted audiences with the uncomfortable realities of racism, would have committed commercial suicide while The Fresh Prince of Bel Air confronts the idea of racism in multiple ways. (For example, Carlton and Will get pulled over for no reason other than being black.) Other differences include the absence of sexism in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air although very large in The Cosby Show, as well as an absence of a harmonious utopia amongst the family.(i.e.: The barbeque that is split down the middle, girls versus guys.)Obvious differences include the exemption of vulgar language or lack of rules in the Huxtable household, lack of history of where Cliff and Claire came from, and an omission of serious family problem or any problems at all. Both of these television shows also debuted and ran during two different decades where different events were occurring.

Ironically, The Cosby Show is the controversial topic where people automatically choose a side. Many would agree that the show is realistic, accurate, and does not need racial stereotypes, struggles, or anything more than the harmony of a family. On the opposing side, many would agree that The Cosby Show is not realistic because there are no struggles, no black history, no black traditions, and no black stereotypes. What’s ironic is that more often than not, no one noticed that the Banks family, from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, has a black butler. The use of more comedic language makes these things acceptable. The Huxtable’s are argued to have set standards for the African American communities that are not sustainable without hard work, but what about the Banks family? The standards they have set are merely just a dream for most. The Banks’ house is far larger than that of the Huxtable’s including a butler, a daughter always asking for money, private schooling for their children, luxury cars, multiple extracurricular activities, and much more. Not only does the Banks family have a black butler, but the children have no idea they are black. The children recognize being a different skin color, but according to them they identify with the upper-class Caucasian culture they are surrounded by.
As a result of the large amount of comedy in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air many fans have developed and created para-social relationships with all of the characters. Out of all the characters Will Smith has the most fans with para-social relationships, because people cannot differentiate between the character he played and the person he really is mainly as a result of his name being the same in real life. Carlton, whose real name is Alfonso Ribiero, is viewed as his character because he is not known in too many other things. Also, because he does his dance, “The Carlton,” that makes him more personable and human. Similar to Carlton are Geoffrey and Hilary. The two of them are not known for too many other things and both of them crack jokes making the audience like and identify with them, therefore embracing their characters instead of them as actors and actresses.

In conclusion, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and The Cosby Show are alike and different in multiple ways. Both shows have both examples of Enlightened Racism. They both also differ in how they are discussed and viewed. Not only are they alike in many ways, but The Fresh Prince is much worse in it's form of racism. This also helps us conclude that comedy makes stereotypes more acceptable.

Baran, S. J. (2010). Introduction to Mass Communication: Media literacy and culture (#6.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Jhally, S., & Lewis, J. M., (1992). Enlightened Racism: The Cosby Show, audiences, and the myth of the American dream.
The Cosby Show: Show summary. (2011). November 2, 2011 from
The Fresh Prince of Bel Air Summary. (2011). November 2, 2011 from