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The Cosby Show, Challenging Gender Ideals

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On September 20, 1984 a show aired that changed the way we view gender roles on television. Television still perpetuates traditional gender stereotypes and in reflecting them TV reinforces them by presenting them as the norm (Chandler, 1). The Cosby Show, challenged the typical gender stereotyping of television, daring to go against the dominant social values of its time period. In its challenge of the dominant social view, the show redefined the portrayal of male and female roles in television. It redefined the gender role in the work place, in social expectations, and in household responsibilities. The Cosby Show supported Freidan in her view of "castigating the phony happy housewife heroine of the women's magazines" (Douglas 136).

The Cosby Show is a wonderful sitcom about Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, commonly known as Cliff, and his family. The show revolved around the day-to-day situations faced by Cliff and Clair Huxtable and their five children. The show goes away from the one-liners that most sitcoms boasted and focused on the humor of real life situations that often occur in an average middle class family.

Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable was a successful OB/GYN (obstetrician/gynecologist), who was equally as involved in domestic tasks as his wife Clair. Cliff had a great part in raising his five children and dealing with their emotional and physical problems. Cliff's wife Clair Huxtable was a successful partner in a large law firm, who balanced her busy career with her family. She filled the role as the head of the household and always made sure to keep not only her kids but also her husband Cliff in line. The eldest daughter, Sondra Huxtable was a very serious, intelligent, and hard working young woman who had a plan for her life. Her hard studies in high school and goal-oriented mind landed her at the prestigious Princeton University.

The second oldest daughter Denise Huxtable had the gift of a good sense of humor. She liked to test her parents with her rather eccentric dress and viewpoints on life. The only son Theo Huxtable was an extroverted and witty young man. He played out the typical teenage boy role of putting friends, cars, and girls before school. Vanessa Huxtable, the second youngest daughter was an intelligent girl, who often came off very air-headed in the show. Her focus during the show was to give off a beautiful presence upon whomever she graced. The fifth and final child was Rudy Huxtable who was attention driven and always received the most attention from Cliff and Clair. She was very outgoing, comical, and always concerned herself with family problems and situations.

The characters of The Cosby Show had many gender-typed mannerisms that went against the typical stereotypes shown on television. Shows like Married with Children and The Wonder Years grossly portrayed the male role of a working man, who wasn't involved in household tasks. These shows also emphasized the female role of a housewife. The Cosby show defied these stereotypes. Cliff cared about what went on in the household and Clair cared about her career and advancing it tremendously. Sondra was very goal-oriented and had a future planned with a wonderful career like her mother. All these mannerisms went against the gender stereotype of the time. The women of this show were typically the powerful characters. Cliff and Clair's opinion were of equal value in all decision-making situations and more often than not Clair's opinion was of greater authority. Clair's power also showed when Cliff's habit of eating unhealthy foods was getting out of control and needed to end. She always made sure he ate right, and whenever Cliff had the chance of eating something unhealthy, he was always afraid of the wrath of Clair if he was caught. The women of the show also showed their sheer power just in numbers, outnumbering the men 5:2.

The Cosby Show did a good job of not getting the characters into a double bind. Gregory Bateson defines a double blind well in an essay by Susan Bordo. In the essay he defines it as, "a situation in which a person is subject to mutually incompatible instructions, in which they are directed to fulfill two contradictory requirements at the same time" (163). Cliff did not have the expectation of being a sensitive man in the house dealing with the family problems and a "masculine man" outside the house with his friends. He was a genuine sensitive person through out the show, who cared about everyone's feelings. Clair was a caring, enterprising person in all aspects of her life no matter what the situation and it was not looked down upon by anybody on the show. It was also shown well when the children were given the idea that they needed to learn to make it on their own. They were not encouraged to always depend on their parents and at the same time pushed to make it on their own, which is often a dilemma in today's society. In doing this, The Cosby Show continued to challenge typical television views.

When looking at The Cosby Show, it challenged the stereotypical representation of gender roles in television. As Daniel Chandler put it, "The majority of women are restricted to a few roles. Male roles are far more extensive and more exciting. Women are often shown on TV in 'traditional' roles such as housewives, mothers, secretaries, and nurses; men are shown as husbands and fathers, but also as athletes, celebrities and tycoons" (Chandler 3). Clair challenged the stereotypical role of a woman by



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