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Can Bill Cosby Save American Families on TV (Again)?

Is The Cosby Show Coming Back?When we were growing up, there was so much diversity on television within scenarios, people, and families. I was aware that my specific family wasn’t the norm, but I didn’t feel alienated by primetime plots. I could easily find parts of my family life reflected in several shows, from One Day at a Time to Our House to even Golden Girls.

We now live in an age where every family is a “normal family” because we’ve come to accept there truly is NO normal. However, if I had to point to a TV show that depicted my current family dynamics, I would struggle. Sure, there may be a few shows with a single mom, but when I really think about it, my family isn’t depicted on TV. My son wouldn’t be able to reference a show that mirrored back to him elements of his home life. He doesn’t just live with a single mom. We also share a home with my mom, and multigenerational life is, well, quirky.

I’m not the only one struggling to find themselves within the landscape of American televised families. Amiyrah from Four Hats and Frugal shares:

“We actually haven’t been able to find a show that either represents our whole family, or that is family-friendly enough where every member can watch and say, ‘Hey, that character is just like me.’ There are many shows where my husband and I are able to see similarities between the main characters and ourselves, ala New Girl. But these are not necessarily ‘family’ shows or shows that we feel represent each member of our family.”

She is looking forward to some of the new shows coming out this fall, in particular ABC’s Black-ish. Based on what she has seen so far, Amiryrah thinks it could actually be a perfect representation of what she considers her modern African-American family.

Over the years my friend Sandra of West Philly Mama has been able to find a few shows featuring an element of her family she identified with: large, tight-knit families. She felt a show like Brothers & Sisters captured the “dynamic of adult siblings [who] all have their own lives but manage to stay close.” Now that Sandra and her wife are moms, she has found elements of her family life within other shows. “I have two favorite shows that have echoes of both my extended family, and also my nuclear family. Modern Family and The Fosters both portray large families, with queer parents and racial/ethnic diversity.”

Interestingly, my friend Tabatha, who recently won a Photo of the Year award at BlogHer, is part of what many may consider a nuclear normal family: She is white, heterosexual, and has children of mixed genders. However, Tabatha identifies as a millennial mom with mental health issues, raising children with special needs. She has found that any issues she might resonate with are “dealt with by older parents, often in their late thirties to mid forties, so that’s a little alienating.” Regardless, she will tune in to shows with episodes covering themes that may parallel things her family is going through. If anything these episodes are invitations to “watch more intently to see if tropes are being reinforced or if they’re actually going to try and be real about it.”

Many in our generation saw parts of our family life reflected in elements and characters of The Cosby Show. In a People magazine spread from 2000, Phylicia Rashad (Clair Huxtable) discussed why the show was so popular with so many. “It demonstrated very clearly that we are willing and wanting to embrace our likenesses as human beings.”

Bill Cosby’s The Cosby Show resonated so well it was a number one show for five seasons, and for a moment in time it changed the way we all saw ourselves as a nation. Erica Voll from No Sleep Til College believes one of the reasons why The Cosby Show was so popular was because it honestly showed “parents reacting in a very real way and kids doing very real things — without being over the top situational or sensational.” She found the episodes about Theo’s dyslexia and Denise dropping out of college to be particularly powerful to watch. “What made it awesome was the way their parents handled each situation with sternness, humor, and grace.”

It is now a generation later and Bill Cosby is poised to return to the small screen in the summer or fall of 2015. According to Deadline, Bill Cosby will play “Jonathan Franklin, a patriarch of a multigenerational family who shares his many years of wit, wisdom, and experience to help his daughters, sons-in-law, and grandchildren navigate their complicated modern lives.” When I read about the news I rejoiced at the idea of a multigenerational show coming to network TV that doesn’t also seem to include an arc where the elder character is also making sure it’s known his virility is just fine (I’m looking at you, Modern Family).

So, why is it so important for our families to see our families in television and media? Kevin Clark, a media designer and professor of learning technologies, recently presented at the Fred Forward Conference (“Fred” being Fred Rogers of the “Would you like to be my neighbor” fame). He had a lot to say on the topic, especially that children’s programming is particularly suffering from a lack of diversity. Clark believes “diversity in children’s media can have a positive impact on a child’s identity development and academic achievement.” He feels “the situations that characters are in, what they say, and how they communicate, as well as what they do and what is done to them, are as important as how they look.”

This yearning to find yourself in media goes beyond television. Viviana Hurtado from The Wise Latina Club spoke to NPR about the lack of diversity she found in books:

“It’s important that Latino children see themselves represented in books, in media, in movies because, as I said earlier, that’s the power of identification and how far it can go to help a student realize their ambitions and dreams, spark imagination, want to go further with their professional and their academic goals. But it’s equally important for all children — white children, African-American, Asian and all of the mixed children that are out there — to see what other kids look like and their experiences.”

Can Bill Cosby’s new show bring back the diversity of characters and scenarios we grew up with in the 1980s? I know my family is hungry for it, as are other families out there. Our children may be depending on it.

Image Credit: Carsey Werner

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