Cosby, Part II

"Huxtable" is not an "effect"

So we kind of knew it was coming. We had suggestions of it a while ago (hmm, the Obamas seem a lot like another family…), and it’s been tossed around here and there during the past week (you know, that other successful, upper-middle-class black family…). Then, on Friday, as Brent noted this morning, it got to The New York Times (Hux…). And then, soon after, to Politico (ta…). And finally, yesterday, to the LA Times (ble!). By which point it was, apparently—if for no other reason than simple saturation—Conventional Wisdom.

Yep: “the Huxtable effect” (or “the Huxtable factor,” if you prefer): the notion that one of the first families of fictionalized sitcomia has somehow cleared the path for America’s real-life first family. Because, apparently, The Cosby Show’s couple helped Americans “visualize” Barack Obama’s success. Because, apparently, Americans needed to “visualize” a black family in the White House before such a crazy phenomenon could actually occur. And because, apparently, we needed fictionalized role models of black stability because we lacked, you know, non-fictional versions of the same.

Now, sure, the idea that pop culture tangentially influences political culture is valid enough. So is the notion that The Cosby Show—the most popular sitcom of the 1980s—helped promote racial tolerance and acceptance among racially isolated whites, in particular, and thus, in that very broad sense, assisted the ascendancy of the Obamas.

But to go further than that—to argue for any kind of direct and causal connection between Cliff Huxtable and Barack Obama—is to deprive Obama of agency over his own success. It’s to imply that his electoral victory couldn’t be due to a combination of political talent and smart strategy and good luck alone, but that a fictional family from the ’80s must have, you know, “paved the way.” It’s also to imply that voters’ decisions last Tuesday weren’t just the result of their choosing the candidate that, by nearly all accounts, simply ran a better campaign than his opponent—but also the result of the fact that Bill Cosby made it somehow easier, or more acceptable, or more palatable for them to cast their votes for a black man. It’s insulting, all around.

And, more to the point, it’s simplistic. (Per the logic of “the Huxtable effect,” Queer Eye for the Straight Guy deserves credit for the burgeoning gay rights movement.) But that hasn’t stopped normally sane and cynical and self-critical media outlets from siphoning up all the sitcomic simplicity and repackaging it for cultural consumption. Take the lede from Friday’s Times piece, “Before Obama, There Was Bill Cosby”:

Some theorists argue that political and social change is preceded by shifts in popular culture. So it’s not surprising that the debate has heated up over who, or what, in arts and entertainment presaged Barack Obama’s election as president.

Many ideas have ricocheted around academia and the blogosphere — from Oprah Winfrey to Tiger Woods to Will Smith to “The West Wing,” to the many actors who have played black presidents, among them Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock (although not that many people actually saw Mr. Rock’s film “Head of State”).

But 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.

Again, in part, fair enough. But to fixate on The Cosby Show as somehow culturally—and, now, politically—transformative is to suggest that society itself has been deficient in this regard. Sure, there are some whites who simply don’t know upwardly mobile black families—just as there are some blacks who simply don’t know upwardly mobile white families—but to generalize so broadly about the fictional family’s impact is to not-so-subtly suggest that, overall, the Huxtables’ impact has been as great as it has been because their real-world counterparts haven’t exerted enough cultural influence.

It’s a dig made all the more insidious for its subtlety—and all the more biting for its implications. As Brent very rightly noted, inherent in the Bill-begets-Barack framework is the notion that upper-middle-class black families are the only ones with real influence over broadly held cultural perceptions. “The Huxtables represented ‘normal’ life only by the standards of the white middle and upper middle class,” he writes. “Meanwhile, many black communities around America in the eighties were being decimated by Reaganomics, AIDS, and the crack epidemic.” Twenty years later, to continue to attribute cultural agency to the Huxtables is to continue to endorse the idea that “normalcy” is defined by class—and by a white notion of class, at that. Again: pretty simplistic. Pretty insulting.

The “Huxtable effect,” and the Obama/Cosby comparison it implies, has been suggested many times before—but it reached a kind of solidification last Sunday, when the novelist and sometime cultural critic Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez coined the term, with no shortage of self-congratulation, in an Alternet article. The coinage was meant as an answer to “the Bradley effect”:

In all the talk about the supposed “Bradley effect” in this year’s presidential election, I think big media have missed the much bigger story, which is to say few of them are writing/broadcasting about “The Huxtable Effect.”

“The Huxtable Effect,” as I’ve coined it, speaks to the importance of images in popular culture — TV, movies, music, books, etc. — and formation of both a sense of self in viewers and, most importantly for our discussion now, a sense of others.
The origin of the author’s epiphany—and it’s a semantic epiphany alone: she’s certainly not the first one to dream up the general, post-hoc-y relationship between Cliff Huxtable and Barack Obama—is, it’s worth noting, completely random. (Valdes-Rodriguez thought of the Huxtable-Obama connection, she writes, while standing in line waiting to vote: “A couple of twenty-something college students, neither one African-American, stood in front of me chatting about how they both used to wish Cliff Huxtable was their dad when they were kids.”) The randomness continued when, during his Fox commentary on election night, Karl Rove happened to invoke the Huxtables: “We’ve had an African-American first family for many years in different forms,” Rove declared. “When The Cosby Show was on, that was America’s family. It wasn’t a black family. It was America’s family.” And the randomness continued when Bill Cosby himself, who was perhaps extra-excited to talk about his eponymous sitcom’s Cultural and Political Influence because yesterday marked—wait for it—the release of The Cosby Show’s 25th anniversary DVD box set, chatted with reporters about his show’s impact.

In other words: a perfect storm of randomness. Three isolated facts that converge in the Times story and similar narratives to suggest the existence of the “Huxtable effect”—on the basis that, you know, proximity on the page signals causality in life.

The Times, of both coasts, from their perches at the top of the media food chain, have the luxury of writing about media narratives from the detached perspective of the Cultural Observer. We’re not saying we agree with this whole “Huxtable effect” thing, they imply, we’re just telling you that people are talking about it. It’s a convenient posture to adopt, of course, one that positions the respective outlets as above the fray and, as such—it being unfair to shoot the messenger, and all—generally insulates them from criticism. But, just as there’s a fine line between analyzing rumors and spreading them, there’s also a fine line between repeating simplistic narratives and tacitly endorsing them. And it’s a line these outlets, in their choice of stenography over criticism, have crossed.

As a result, in the midst of celebrating the historic nature of Obama’s electoral victory—and, more important at this point, in this midst of his transition to the presidency, and of the vital work that he’ll be doing in the days and weeks ahead—we’re forced to endure glib, superficial, and insulting comparisons. Comparisons, incidentally, that even Cosby himself disputes: “This isn’t something that happened just because of a TV show,” Cosby told the Times of Obama’s win. The comedian’s protests made little difference, though, at that point. Politico’s headline for its excerpt of the Times piece? “How The Huxtables paved the way for The Obamas.”

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.