It’s June now. The election was eight months ago. It’s kind of a random time for Robin Givhan at The Washington Post to pen a heady thinkpiece about What Michelle Obama, As A Black Woman, Means.
But whatever. I feel like I’m back at the Gender Studies department again!
Givhan, herself a black woman, has written a thoughtful analysis of the precedent Clair Huxtable on “The Cosby Show” set for Michelle Obama, who was and continues to be the foremost black woman in a starring role on a major mainstream TV show.
America’s never had a black president or a black First Lady. But Givhan asks us not to forget about the boob tube, either: the last time Clair Huxtable was on TV was an astonishing 17 years ago.Last year, the NAACP published a report on diversity in TV, Givhan explains, which lamented all-white or nearly-all-white casts like “Friends,” “Seinfeld,” “Sex & The City,” “The Hills,” and “Gossip Girl.” “None of pop culture’s most enduring archetypes of funny, smart, professional, pretty women — from Mary Richards to Murphy Brown to Carrie Bradshaw — have been black,” Givhan explained. Sure, black women have been on television. But none were on shows as highly rated as “The Cosby Show” and no one got quite so wrapped up in the shows.
As a result, “every white woman is presumed to be Everywoman,” Givhan argues. (Just think of all the girls you know who have once referred to themselves as a “Samantha” or a “Charlotte”!) And whiteness being considered normal is detrimental to society as a whole. Finally, after all this time, a black woman has been normal again.
But, as Givhan points out, “All it took for [Michelle were] two Ivy League degrees, a six-figure boardroom salary, a Norman Rockwell family, soccer-mom bona fides and an ability to dress herself without the aid of an entourage.”
Good point. Michelle is far more accomplished than most women, regardless of skin color. Givhan spoke with Susan Fales-Hill, a writer for “The Cosby Show,” who said “There’s something that happens when you validate the existence of someone by visually representing them. What people see, they believe.”
So that has us wondering: wouldn’t a more authentic integration of, or acceptance of, black women mean mainstream America embraces a black woman (real or fictional) who doesn’t have a degree from Harvard law?
Pop culture could definitely use more diversity of faces, as well as ideas—could a knocked up teenaged girl puh-leeze terminate a pregnancy from an abortion instead of “falling down a flight of stairs”?— but we’re not holding our breath as long as advertising dollars control everything.
But we do think there is something to be said for the fact that there has been this “whiteout” in mainstream, primetime TV, and the majority of our country voted for a black man over a white man. Perhaps the TV/real life connection isn’t as important as some people think?
Or perhaps Robin Givhan is right: whites in America are accepting of upper-middle cl ass black people because of Clair Huxtable, one woman on television over 17 years ago.