What the Walking Dead and the Cosby Show Tell Us About the Perception of Black Men


American popular culture relays the most prevalent shared belief systems of America’s many separate communities, and the most highly-rated network television gives clear insight into the preferences and varied intricacies of popular culture here in the U.S. To oversimplify a complex idea, the shows that people watch expose what they believe. Since television has entrenched itself in American culture, and the constant themes of heroism, morality, and simple humor give viewers strong emotional attachments to the characters in network series and visceral reactions to the content of those shows, the content of these shows allow a transparent understanding of the common sentiments of its audience, and thus the preferred programming of any community indicates some of the cultural statutes that exist in that population. The more critically acclaimed the shows are, the more common beliefs reside in the shows. People respond to the comedies that make them laugh, the dramas that make them cry, and the people who either challenge their morals or fortify their ideals of integrity, and almost anyone who owns a television set watched network series like The Cosby Show of the 1980s and are currently viewing today’s The Walking Dead. Though these shows approach their audiences from two starkly different viewpoints, their stories are both widely followed in the United States because of the attention paid to character development and story development. The Cosby Show pushed classic American ideals of family while teaching responsibility to its younger viewers and changing social stereotypes for its older audience. It was a wholesome program intended to responsibly represent familial life in an affluent Black home. In complete contrast to The Cosby ShowThe Walking Dead challenges ideas of morality in almost every episode. The show depicts the lives of a specific group of people trying to survive the zombie apocalypse and keep their humanity. Each character of each show is well-defined and nuanced, and each show deals with some component of the human condition. These television series are filmed from completely different styles with separate plots, varying storylines, and disparate moral standards, however, both of them do a great job at one feat whether intentional or completely by accident. Both shows excel at marginalizing the character and the roles of Black men in their narratives. To be clear, neither show focuses specifically on degrading the image of Black men, in fact The Cosby Show decidedly attempts to cast a favorable light on Black people as a whole. But, there are no strong, positive impersonations of Black men in either show, and that sheds light on the social expectations of the American viewer. Whether consciously or subconsciously, writers create the types of characters that they personally believe exist or the type of people that they believe their audience would accept as real. And, the fact that none of the Black men in either show display all the qualities that are desirable in a male lead speaks to what the American public thinks of Black men.

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If you owned a television in the eighties – and everyone did – then you watched The Cosby Show. The show was so funny, modest, well-written, and incredibly well-received by all audiences that parents of this generation showed their children the same re-runs that they watched in their youth (prior to the allegations of sexual assault against America’s dad). The Cosby Show became a standard of TV viewing in both White and Black households breaking color barriers in rating systems and ushering in a time where Black actors regularly carried primetime television shows. Critics praised this television series as the first network show that featured Black Americans in affluent roles in society and audiences loved the diverse cast of family members. Heathcliff Huxtable, the character that was popularized by Cosby, was a talented obstetrician/gynecologist who was married to a powerful attorney, Claire. The Huxtables raised their five adorable children in Brooklyn, New York, and ushered in a newfound respect for both Black people and the Black family dynamic. But, a big reason that people were so receptive to the show was because Cosby himself played the foil of the show instead of casting a strong, father figure. He was completely non-threatening, his opinions were regularly discounted by those closest to him, and he was often the butt of jokes involving his family, immediate and extended. In the minds of American writers and their viewers, the idea that this Black father could not lead his family was completely acceptable. This show worked because Cosby knew on some level that Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of the strong, Black man. To the average American, fiercely opinionated and physically imposing Black men are seen as militant and dangerous, and the media reinforces this stereotype with negative imagery of Black men and a definitive lack of positive Black role models. So, despite The Cosby Show being written, produced by, and starred in by a Black man, Bill Cosby was regularly outshined by his brilliant wife and playfully ridiculed by his children.

Without a deeper examination of the social consequence of their behavior, all the actions of the Cosby family seem completely innocuous. Each character fits into social norms for common family dynamics. The Cosby Show looks like a simple, funny show about a Black family. Bill Cosby played Heathcliff Huxtable, the silly and affable father. Sandra was the oldest child, and she had already left the nest to begin her own life. Their next born was Denise, a bohemian child, who defied convention in style and thought. Theo, their only son, was lazy and possibly the least intelligent of the Huxtable kids, and Vanessa may have been the smartest of the Huxtable children because she graduated a year early from high school. Rudy, the youngest child, is often the most poignant voice in the room. And finally, Claire is the matriarch of the family. This series is balanced with different personality types, different age groups, and multiple storylines in varying episodes that catered to each character, but every Black man on the show registers somewhere between passive yes-man and opinionated fool. The two omnipresent men in the show were Heathcliff, a father who received a fair amount disrespect and derision, and Theo, the poster boy for apathy and badinage. Theo was a consistent underachiever with no real desire to excel. He had a lackadaisical attitude about school until he was found to have a learning disorder in the later seasons. However, even after he became a good student in his college years, he displayed the same unconcerned attitude about life that fueled his apathetic scholastic career. All of the supporting characters in The Cosby Show who are Black males fit somewhere on the sad, aforementioned spectrum. Cockroach, Theo’s best friend, had an even poorer attitude about school, and horrible grades to match. Elvin, the husband of Sandra, constantly spouted ignorant, misogynistic statements to both his wife and mother-in-law, and was reminded regularly of his erroneous ideology by the strong women. Denise’s husband, Martin, rarely had any opinion other than the opinion of his wife. Heathcliff’s father Russell, is the only Black man who was never upstaged by the women of the show, but he helped deride Heathcliff, displacing more of the power dynamic from the main character of the show. The Cosby Show carelessly depredated the image of Black men by failing to show tangible examples of a substantial Black male presence in a series based on Black life. The Huxtables seem like a loving family who occasionally took lighthearted shots at the dad, however, when you observe the daily politics of their family, you realize that Bill Cosby was not respected in his home despite being both educated and successful. In his profession, he seemed competent, intuitive, and well-esteemed, but in his home life, Heathcilff Huxtable came off as clueless and irresponsible. Claire took care of the children, handled the finances in the home, and decided the direction in which the family would move. She disciplined the children and she managed her husband chastising and deriding him. And, though her character was brilliant, dynamic, and she operated with a certain regality, the fact that her successful husband is torn down by her constantly gives perspective into what is thought of Black men, maybe even what Black men think of themselves. The Cosby Show subtly suggests that Black men are not capable of leading their families regardless of how talented and successful they are in their professional lives. It casts Black men as smiling dullards who are submissive to their wives and take a backseat in raising their children. The men in The Cosby Show are present only to deliver punchlines or be the punchlines themselves, and the lack of strong Black male role models is detrimental to image of Black men everywhere.

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The Walking Dead series takes the same tone with the Black men in their storylines. Though this sitcom is completely different from The Cosby Show, and The Walking Dead is one of the most popular television shows of this generation, their treatment of Black men is a complete misrepresentation of Black males morally and ideologically. This show has accrued a cult-like following during its short time on the air, and has even spawned a spin-off series because of its success, but unfortunately, the same underlying message is hidden in the dialogue and in other modes of character development. The idea that Black men are either buffoons or cowards is repeated throughout the series using a cast of different characters. The Walking Dead series casts Black men as gross caricatures of real men of color, but still represent the American perception of Black males. When the essence of every Black male in the show is broken down, each person has some glaring deficiency of character.

Morgan, the first Black man to enter the storyline, seems like a wholesome, reasonable man during his first stint with the show. He is presented to the audience simply as a good father who is surviving the zombie apocalypse with his young son. Morgan actually saves Rick Grimes, the main character of the series, and explains to him how the dead have arisen while caring for his wounds. But, when Morgan is reintroduced to The Walking Dead seasons later, he has gone insane. Because he could not shoot his wife who had become a zombie, he had to watch as she killed his son. And, after that tragedy, Morgan began killing both the living and the undead indiscriminately. He became a monster paralleling the mindless killers that took his family. The first Black man that was introduced to the story showed weak resolve in a difficult and then became a menace within the devolving society. In and of itself, this specific situation is totally congruent with human nature. Any person of any race might struggle to keep their sanity when everyone they love has died. However, when you dissect Morgan’s character in comparison to the other Black men on the show, a pattern of weakness is evident. Morgan was not emotionally resilient enough to resolve the one problem that posed a threat to him and his son, so his son was killed. And then, Morgan was not able to keep his mental faculties once his son died. That pattern of unstable or ineffectual men continues with each additional Black male in the series. Theodore Douglas, the next Black male who was introduced to the storyline, represents the typical preconception of Black American men. He calls himself T-Dog instead of Theodore, he is thuggish, incompetent, and though he gives off a tough persona, he shows cowardice in the face of crucial situations. Next comes Gabriel, a minister who could have saved the people of his congregation from imminent death at the hand of the undead, but hid behind the reinforced doors of his church forsaking the vows of his religion instead of rescuing his constituents. Tyrese, the most physically imposing man on the show, could not keep his loved ones alive despite being bigger and stronger than everyone else. When his girlfriend is killed, Tyrese acts foolishly, violently, and irrationally until he finally loses his appetite for bloodshed. But, once he finally stops taking unacceptable risks and putting those who love him in immediate danger while trying to protect him, he is unable to defend himself against anything including zombies which makes him even more of a detriment to his group. The Walking Dead writers find the next Black character, Oscar, in a prison. He and a collection of career criminals have been imprisoned throughout the zombie apocalypse. And, Bob is an alcoholic who survives despite being weaker than everyone in his former groups. Both of these characters ultimately become prominent members of the group, but they were written into the storyline as morally flawed people, one a felon who was literally found in a prison and the other an addict. Heath, the latest Black man on The Walking Dead, has no obvious personality flaws. He is responsible, he gathers supplies for his community with a search team, and he is fully capable of protecting his group. He shows no obvious signs that he lacks strength, loyalty, or integrity. However, Heath physically looks very effeminate. The only Black man in six seasons of a series who is not inherently violent, fearful, or feebleminded looks like a woman. Heath has no facial hair, and long, braided hair tied in high ponytail above his head. Why would a man in the zombie apocalypse spend the assumed hours that it takes to maintain that hairstyle on his appearance? What man wears a ponytail in the same place that Ariana Grande wears hers? Would a hairstyle that could be grabbed by a zombie or snagged on anything at eye level be the best choice for a survivor? And, why is an effeminate man the only representation of a productive Black man in the series?

Lack of inclusion is the way that the media generally discounts the Black viewer and drives home stereotypes about Black men. The absence of Black people in television damages the perception of them in the societal purview because audiences are forced to lean on their own prejudiced assumptions about Black people. However, these series marginalize Black men in one of the most destructive manners possible, with subtlety. Asserting faulty examples of Black culture is much worse than ignoring the existence of Black culture. Television series like The Cosby Show and The Walking Dead never clearly state that they do not respect Black men nor do they exclude these men from their shows. Black men are in plain sight in these shows. But, instead of verbally degrading the men in their episodes which would actually expose real problems with stereotypes and bring about a rational discussion between viewers or ignoring their presence by excluding Black characters from the shows, these television shows build characters that either reinforce stereotypes or build characters that are so flawed that they can not be respected. And, the American public accepts these poor standards of Blackness.

Television series simultaneously display the proclivities, the personalities, and the ethics of their characters while disclosing our existing biases about those characters. In recognizing the emotions that are evoked from the lifestyles and choices of these fictional people, we, the audience find out more about our prejudices and the consequent expectations that we place on real people in society. Though The Cosby Show and The Walking Dead series were created solely for our entertainment as consumers, the treatment of the Black men in those series expose an ugly truth about the American apperception of Black men. The American public still believes that Black men are less intelligent, prone to violence, cowardly in the face of tough decisions, and therefore unworthy of respect. Black men are not the fools and cowards that they are regularly portrayed to be in television and movies. They are not inherently violent and mindless thugs. And, until more shows are more careful with their characterizations of Black men the misrepresentation and stereotyping of Black men will continue unwarranted and unchecked.


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