The seminal TV show rode a wave of black achievement to challenge racial stereotypes. But Katie Couric's well-intentioned statements to the contrary, American Muslims will need more than a situation comedy to counter Islamophobia.
Last week on her Web-based show, Katie Couric highlighted the rise of Islamophobia as one of the more disturbing news stories of 2010. In a discussion that included The Root's Sheryl Huggins Salomon, Couric suggested that America needs a Muslim version of The Cosby Show to fight the fear and ignorance that exists about Islam and Muslims, very much the same way The Cosby Show challenged racial stereotypes about African Americans.
Couric's instincts are right when she draws parallels between Islamophobia and racism. And she is correct in focusing on the role of media and cultural production in that fight. But her Cosby Show proposal is misplaced, both historically and socially. Perhaps what is needed more than another Cosby Show are the lessons learned from the first one.
When the sitcom created by comedian Bill Cosby debuted in 1984, it rode a wave of black political awakening and cultural triumph in mainstream America. The year before, Harold Washington had been elected the first black mayor of Chicago, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson launched his historic bid for the presidency by organizing a multiethnic Rainbow Coalition of progressives. In 1984 Michael Jackson swept the Grammy Awards. Eddie Murphy emerged as a bona fide Hollywood lead in Beverly Hills Cop, Vanessa Williams was crowned the first black Miss America and the Chicago Bulls drafted Michael Jordan, who — with the help of Nike — would become the star athlete of the next decade.
The Cosby Show's portrayal of a successful, upper-class black family headed by a doctor and lawyer dominated prime-time television, long before cable became a force. Millions of households of all ethnicities invited the Huxtables into their homes, rescuing the ailing sitcom format and inaugurating NBC's long reign over Thursday night.
In many ways, The Cosby Show transcended race by showing but not telling about black life in America. The show featured witty dialogue, black art on the walls of the Huxtable home, and a stream of guest cameos by top black actors and jazz artists. But the story lines were notably depoliticized in favor of themes universal to all families, and the class divisions within the black community remained invisible. This led some critics, while praising the refreshing portrayal of African-American life, to question its authenticity. And therein lie the lessons and challenges for Muslims moving forward.
No matter how positive, any portrayal of a marginalized group will face the problem of exemplarity: how to strike the balance between being a representative example without being too exemplary and dismissed as an exception to the stereotype. Spike Lee illustrated this challenge well in a scene in his 1989 film, Do the Right Thing, when Spike's character Mookie confronts Pino, the Italian son of pizzeria owner Sal:
Mookie: Pino, who's your favorite basketball player?
Pino: Magic Johnson.
Mookie: Who's your favorite movie star?
Pino: Eddie Murphy.
Mookie: Who's your favorite rock star? Prince, you're a Prince fan.
Mookie: Pino, all you ever talk about is n - - - - - this and n - - - - - that, and all your favorite people are so-called n - - - - - s.
Pino: It's different. Magic, Eddie, Prince, are not n - - - - - s. I mean they're not black. I mean. Let me explain myself. They're not really black, I mean, they're black but they're not really black, they're more than black. It's different.
Mookie: It's different?
Pino: Yeah, to me it's different.
For many of The Cosby Show's viewers, the Huxtables were in a social space all their own, exceptions to the prevailing negative images of black America held by the mainstream. At the same time, the Reagan administration sought to defund many programs that had helped support working- and middle-class black families. Student-loan programs were cut by $2 billion, and by 1990, black students made up only 9 percent of the students enrolled in higher education — a decrease from 1980.
It seemed that America preferred its black professionals on TV rather than in real life. There was still a stark difference between the prime-time position of the Huxtables in television and the precarious political and social status of most blacks in the '80s. A television show does have its limits.
In 2011, television audiences are much more fractured, split into the hundreds of channels now available via cable, satellite and, increasingly, the Internet. The potential for a singularly impactful event television show to capture the entire nation's imagination is much lower today than when The Cosby Show did it in the '80s and early '90s.
Attempts to penetrate the fear and ignorance about Islam through television have had mixed results. In Canada, Little Mosque on the Prairie, about a diverse Muslim community that shares its prayer space with an Anglican church in small-town Canada, received strong reviews and is now in its fifth season. In the U.S., however, the CW sitcom Aliens in America, about a white family that hosts an exchange student from Pakistan, also received positive reviews but only lasted one season, after failing to build an audience.
There is no doubt that Muslims stand to benefit from a greater presence in mass media, and one that is not confined to discussions of 9/11 or terrorism, in very much the same way that The Cosby Show was not defined by race. Such a show would have to maintain the delicate balance between example and exception, and navigate the challenges posed by the proliferation of new-media outlets.
In addition, it would have to contend with an organized, well-funded campaign committed to demonizing Islam and Muslims. This is not a job that can be accomplished by the creative community alone. It requires responsible journalists willing to counter the misinformation of Fox News, and courageous politicians willing to stand up to the demagoguery of the likes of Rep. Peter King. And it will also take the continued work of Muslims within their own communities to challenge the extremists who feed into the misperceptions about Islam and Muslims.
Zaheer Ali is a doctoral student in history at Columbia University, researching 20th-century African-American history and religion.