Antoine A. McDonald
Intro to Mass Communications
From the Perspective of the Modern African American Family

During a rise of cultural impact by means of media and mass communication, television has been able to help shape cultural norms, spark controversy while also changing and impacting the lives of millions. By the early 1980s, well over 90 percent of the families in the United States owned at least one television set. In that era two television sitcoms went on to be the topic of social significance as well as American classics. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and The Cosby Show; although very different both sitcoms have been criticized on the shows content and its message. Theories have developed comparing and contrasting the shows and analyzing them scene by scene. In an American society that just recently exited an era of civil rights an accurate portrayal of an African American family had yet to be solidified in popular American culture. Both sitcoms provided an insight into a reality or what some argue a mirage of perception, but what is agreeable is the fact that both proved to be influential in the development of stereotypes toward the modern African American family.

The Cosby Show
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The Cosby Show began on September 20, 1984 and at the time; the thought of a sitcom with an all black cast was unheard of and thought to be unmarketable. To the surprise of many, the show soon became the most-watched program in the country for four years running, 1985-86 through 1988-89, dropping to second place in 1989-90. The Huxtables were the quintessential embodiment of the American family; a hard working father with a good job, lovely wife and well behaved children living the American dream. The decision to place this African American family at a high social status was a statement in itself; by setting the family up to be financially wealthy automatically challenges preconceived notations of the African American family simply on economic terms alone. According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census at the time of the initial airing of the show, 3.1% of African American had in annual household income of $100,000 and over compared to Whites at 10.5%. This for example calls into question one major criticism of The Cobsy Show and that is the ability to be relatable, particularly towards African Americans. The Huxtables who were well above this income were in stark contrast with the economic realities of many of their Black viewers sending the message that this portrayal of blacks was only on television. Instead of being a part of a lower social class, which might have been more acceptable by viewers, the Cosby Show decided to highlight a minority of African Americans instead of the majority. This decision has been interpreted in two ways: the show is ignoring the realities of African Americans or expanding on the stereotypes already set into place. Many African American viewers seem to enjoy the show because, like members of any group, they take pleasure in seeing favorable representations of themselves on television. The Cosby show reinforced positive concepts and values to families of all races. The following two Cosby episodes highlights familiar concepts that can be applied to any race.

Similarities & Differences among The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

  • Portrayal of African American families
  • High economic status
  • Two Parent Household
  • Absence of strong religious presence
  • Focus on social issues
  • Family dynamics
  • Commercial ratings
  • Target audience
  • Depiction of the modern African American family
  • Methods of approaching social issues

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
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The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air originally aired September 10, 1990. The sitcom showed main character Will who was sent to live with his aunt and uncle in Beverly Hills clash lifestyles. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air had an all black cast that was obviously financially wealthy; one indication was their family butler who also happened to be black. The emphasis of economic status in the show equates wealth with success. The Fresh Prince of Bel Air is a comedy that has class conflict built directly into its foundation. The character Will who embodies a man of lower class is also in direct opposition in terms of mindset and actions of his uncle Phillip who represents the “establishment” with his occupation of as a judge. This rift between the two characters is highlighted in the premiere broadcast episode in the fall of 1990. Will the embodiment of an undereducated street person lectures his out of touch uncle. "I don't have the problem. You have the problem. I remind you of where you came from and what you used to be. Now I don't know, but somewhere between Princeton or the office you got soft, you forgot who you are and where you came from." This exchange approaches the topic of social mobility within the African American community and its negative connotation.

This clip shows the different point of views presented by Will and Calrton. Think about the differences in their upbringing on the show and how that effects their interpertations of the same sistutiom.

  • Cognitive dissonance- is the mental conflict that people experience when they are presented with evidence that their beliefs or assumptions are wrong

This concept can impact the veiwer in a postive or negitive way depending on how they react to the confrontation. A postive reaction sparked by either The Cosby Show or The Fresh Prince of Bel Air would result in a viewer adopting a new vantage point towards an issue based on the content observed in the show.

  • Para social Relationship- a term used by social scientist to describe a one sided "parasocial" relation in which one party knows a great deal about the other, but the other does not.

Many people deem these forms of relationships to be unhealthy but in terms of a veiwer and a sitcom like The Cosby show or The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, this relationship can be the only means of commincation for someone ignorent to the realites outside their own.

Critical Analysis

Ask yourself this question and feel free to discuss it among others: Must African Americans always be presented with a certain perception of middle-class assimilation, or can television portray the fullness of black social diversity, its strong points and weak points, without fueling white bigotry or undermining black accomplishment?

Works Citied

  • Jhally , Sut. Enlightened racism : the Cosby show, audiences, and the myth of the American dream / Sut Jhally and Justin Lewis. Boulder : Westview Press, 1992.
  • Fuller , Linda K. The Cosby show : audiences, impact, and implications / Linda K. Fuller. Westport, Conn. : Greenwood Press, 1992.
  • United States Census Bureau