'The Huxtable Effect' and Obama
Posted by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, Brave New Films at 1:22 PM on November 2, 2008.
With all the talk of the supposed 'Bradley Effect,' the media have missed the bigger story.
I voted early at the University of New Mexico today. As I stood in line (for 35 minutes) I tried to read a book and tried not to listen to other people's conversations. I managed the first okay, but the second? Failed.
Sometimes eavesdropping has its reward. A couple of twenty-something college students, neither one African-American, stood in front of me chatting about how they both used to wish Cliff Huxtable was their dad when they were kids. Cliff was tough, but cool. He wore ugly sweaters -- a plus ever since Mr. Rogers made it fatherly chic.
In all the talk about the supposed "Bradley effect" in this year's presidential election, I think big media have missed the much bigger story, which is to say few of them are writing/broadcasting about "The Huxtable Effect."
"The Huxtable Effect," as I've coined it, speaks to the importance of images in popular culture -- TV, movies, music, books, etc. -- and formation of both a sense of self in viewers and, most importantly for our discussion now, a sense of others.
Social scientists have long shown the link between what children see in popular media and how they view the society those images purport to represent. (A good source list here.)
In fact, it has been theorized that every major political movement in the United States has followed, by about two decades, a matching movement in the arts and pop culture.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s onward was predated by the Harlem Renaissance in literature and art, and the hyper-intellectual bebop movement in jazz, by about 20 years.
The women's rights movement that peaked in the 1960s and 1970s followed by about 30 years the Rosie the Riveter movement in American popular culture, which aimed to show strong women in movies and in music, spurring 6 million women to replace men at war in factory jobs.
There are no accidents of public consciousness, and there is no better tool for changing perceptions of social roles than popular culture.
So it is, I believe, that Barack Obama's successful candidacy and likely presidency were heralded with the arrival of The Cosby Show in 1984. On the air for eight seasons, The Cosby Show featured Bill Cosby as Cliff Huxtable, an all-American father, medical doctor, and love husband, in the lead role. Never before in American TV had there been such a character. But the impact of Cosby's weekly presence in America's family rooms, as the fair-minded, fun, quirky Dr. Huxtable, cannot be underestimated in its affect upon the consciousness of Americans who were children and young adults at the time.
Cosby was not alone in what I have come to think of as the Bel Air Renaissance for African-Americans in popular culture, begun in the mid-1980s. Oprah Winfrey's show got its start in 1986, and is still on the air. The 1980s saw: the rise of Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes as America's favorite leading men, in mainstream, good-guy roles. It marked the mainstream entry of rap and hip-hop into the musical lexicon, and we saw Whitney Houston become the all-American girl-next-door vocalist (well, at least until she married Bobby.)
The incredible explosion of positive African-American role models in American popular culture, which started in the mid-1980s and has continued in force to the present day, has been profound and unprecedented in our history.
Barack Obama is reaping the political benefits of that now.
Unfortunately, the mainstream US media rarely connect political coverage to coverage of arts and culture. In newspapers, they are given separate sections, with politics regarded as masculine and important, and culture relegated to the "women's" pages. This disconnect is unfortunate, and has led to coverage of Obama's rise that is, in cultural context, laughably "surprised" by his ascent. For those of us paying attention to shifts in popular culture and public consciousness, Obama came as no surprise; he was as predictable as a happy ending to a Cosby Show rerun.
Part of the reason so many stories in the mainstream media have expressed astonishment at the rise of "a black man" to presidential candidate (and likely president) have to do with the simple fact that many of the older people in charge of those institutions owe their own worldviews to 1950s entertainment; to them, it is Ward Cleaver, not Cliff Huxtable, whom all kids wished were their own dad. America's editors and producers are living in a Ward Cleaver reality, unaware of The Huxtable Effect, or its many tentacles.
That having been said, it is important to note that the subsequent stories -- about the supposed "end of race" in America that today's mainstream editors believe Obama's candidacy represents -- are also incorrect.
Obama's success reflects the glass ceiling in American popular culture having been broken down by a single group among its many oppressed minority groups: African-Americans.
Latinos have had no such breakthrough.
In fact, according to some analysis, portrayals of Hispanics/Latinos in American popular culture are worse now than ever before. A UCLA study found that even though we represent 15 percent of the nation's population, we get less than 4 percent of all movie or TV roles; most of these are negative roles, such as gang member, criminal, maid or slut.
We have yet to see our own Huxtable family on TV. Yes, we had George Lopez, but between the drunk, abusive granny and the low-paying job, his TV family was hardly the astute, successful, happy, upper-middle class bunch we all might wish to belong to. Not since Desi Arnaz graced the small screen alongside wife Lucille Ball have we seen a middle-class Latino father who wasn't screwed up, and even so, Desi's character was cartoonish.
To make matters worse for Latinos, the drumbeat of hatred and fear-mongering on the immigration issue, on cable news programs -- especially Lou Dobbs -- and talk radio and in newspapers and magazines, has further sullied the image of all Latinos (most of whom are not immigrants, legal or otherwise, but this distinction is rarely made in US popular culture).
While hate crimes overall are down for all other groups, Latinos have seen hate crimes against us in the US increase dramatically during the past 8 years -- just as positive popular culture images of ourselves have declined, and hateful immigrant-bashing has increased. While the media jumped to protest cries of "kill him" about Obama by racists at republican rallies, the very same outlets had no problem promoting Dobbs and his ilk.
Yes, Obama is the political expression of a racial barrier knocked down in America, a movement begun in the arts and pop culture. But it does not mean the end of "race" or "ethnic" discrimination in our country. In many ways, it marks merely a beginning. I, for one, am hard at work writing TV pilots and movie scripts that I hope will start the New Uptown Renaissance -- for Hispanics/Latinos. If I succeed within the next few years, I can guarantee you that round about 2030, we will see the first viable Latino presidential candidate, and, hopefully, the first Latino/a US president.
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