Television today guides our lives. We spend our days at work and our nights staring at a blue flickering light emanating from the specially treated screen that decodes cable signals to bring us stories about the world beyond our sometimes highly limited daily borders. Before we can understand how this might affect us, we must have an understanding of what these types of shows are portraying particularly as they relate to racial issues. Two shows worthy of comparison are “The Cosby Show” and “7th Heaven” because they each feature large American households living in contemporary times.
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“The Cosby Show” features a large African American family led by Cliff Huxtable (Bill Cosby) and his wife Claire. The couple has five children – Sondra, Denise, Theo, Vanessa and Rudy. In the show, Cliff is a doctor, an OB/GYN, and Claire is an attorney, both reasonably successful and well respected in their community. Little is shown of the two of them at work, although Cliff keeps an office in his home. Most of the show is focused on relatively universal issues typically affecting teenagers.
Through this portrayal, the series attempts to give the impression that the African American family is no different from any other middle class family in America. They do the same things, listen to the same music, dress the same way and deal with the same problems as the average white citizen. The family continued to be added onto as the children grew older, acquired spouses and had children, some of whom stayed with Cliff and Claire for long periods of time.
The family in “7th Heaven” is led by Eric Camden and his wife Annie who also have five children – Matt, Mary, Lucy, Simon and Ruthie. Like the Huxtables, the Camden family only continued to grow as the family grew older, through the same social devices, marriage and having children, added to by the late addition of twins born to Eric and Annie in the third season.
The show does show Eric in his working capacity, often allowing issues he’s dealing with at the church to be related in some form to the issues that are being faced at home. In doing this, the show again focuses on how we are all the same, regardless of skin color or geographic location. The show does deal with racism among the various issues it focuses on, but this is not the main slant of the show, which is to address issues faced commonly by America’s teens.
While both shows are relatively similar in the family’s overall makeup and series focus, they remain fundamentally different in what they have to say about the social roles of the ethnicities. While Cliff Huxtable is presented as a doctor and his wife is an attorney, two of the most sought-after professions in the country, the Camdens have reverted to a more traditional lifestyle with the husband working as a minister, thus having a great deal of time available to help tend to his children, and the wife remaining a stay at home mom through much of the program. Any jobs she does have are typically temporary and not mentioned to any great extent.
While the Huxtables typically experience pleasant relationships between themselves and any white characters that might come on the show, the Camdens don’t usually have to deal often with members of differing ethnicities. Both shows, though, tend to focus more upon universal issues in America, such as drug addiction, peer pressure, parent-child relationships and other teenage problems.