Bill Cosby and the Power and Purity of Parenting While Male on Television

This Father’s Day weekend, my mind keeps running back to the strong fictional images of fatherhood throughout my lifetime. The most prevalent of those being Bill Cosby’s role as Heathcliff Huxtable on 1984’s “Cosby Show.”

Many of my favorite moments on “The Cosby Show” are when Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet) is a part of the cast. Bonet and Cosby have a well-recorded, tumultuous history, as Bonet made decisions that didn’t fit into Cosby’s idea of a ‘Huxtable kid.’ (See: Marrying Lenny Kravitz and starring in a sexually explicit film.)

In season 4, Denise has a husband (Joseph C. Phillips) and a step-daughter (Raven-Symoné). In a scene shortly after Denise’s return to the show, Cliff sits at the kitchen table across from Denise’s husband and asks him if Denise was a virgin on their wedding night. Martin confirms that she was and Cosby’s onscreen persona is pleased.

In Denise’s absence from the conversation, her ‘good character’ is correlated to her (lack of) sexual experiences. A television father discussing their daughter’s sex life and claiming ownership of it isn’t a new act. Cosby’s lessons in respectability and sexuality on and off the screen helped shape a legacy of purity among television dads.

In the mode of Cosby’s strong arm as the All-American Dad, Danny Tanner (Bob Saget) was welcomed on our screens in 1987’s “Full House.”  Danny Tanner’s role on the original made him one of TV’s most memorable dads. Philip Banks (James Avery) from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” Paul Hennessy (John Ritter) from “8 Simple Rules” and Andre Johnson (Anthony Anderson) from “Black-ish” have joined the ranks since.

Their father knows best mentality has helped propel these television fathers into cultural icons. Like Cosby, their bond goes beyond dad jokes, advice over cheesy music and the love of food. Their greatest commonality is as gatekeepers of their daughters’ sexualities.

Television father’s’ role as ‘the boss of the household’ transcends mediums and becomes the model many coming-of-age viewers embody for their future families. Though it seems to be a harmless act to turn on the television and allow it to teach our families about sex and familial roles, that simple act is undoubtedly complex.

This clip from ABC’s 2002 sitcom, “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter” illustrates that point.

“8 Simple Rules” stands solely on the premise of the over protective father, Paul Hennessy, warding off the oversexed teenager. “8 Simple Rules” is based on a 2001 book that outlines the following rules:

  1. Use your hands on my daughter and you’ll lose them after.
  2. You make her cry, I make you cry.
  3. Safe sex is a myth. Anything you try will be hazardous to your health.
  4. Bring her home late, there’s no next date.
  5. If you pull into my driveway and honk, you better be dropping off a package because you’re sure not picking anything up (Alternative rule #5: Only delivery men honk. Dates ring the doorbell. Once.)
  6. No complaining while you’re waiting for her. If you’re bored, change my oil.
  7. If your pants hang off your hips, I’ll gladly secure them with my staple gun.
  8. Dates must be in crowded public places. You want romance? Read a book.

These are the unwritten rules that most patriarchal shows follow. The sexual experiences of Paul’s daughters, Bridget (Kaley Cuoco) and Kerry (Amy Davidson), are displayed through the lens of her father’s expectations and desires. The conflicts on “8 Simple Rules” often arise from the Hennessy daughters being ‘too young’ to know about sex but too ‘sexually driven’ to go out with men.

The thread that ties “Cosby”’s influence to “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” is clear: A show about a successful black family  could grab America’s attention.

In the clip above, Ashley (Tatyana Ali) is forced to go a double date with her cousin Will (Will Smith) after he father demands he looks after her for the evening. After the disastrous date she decides to sing Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” to reach the attention of the men in her family. Ashley wants control of her own sexual agency, and she demands her family respect that. Considering they reside in a household that rewards the males for doing the same, this request doesn’t seem unreasonable.

However, after this episode and throughout the remainder of the series, Phillip reaffirms his role as the overprotective warden of his daughter’s sexuality.

Though this ‘overprotective dad’ trope may seem like a thing of yesteryear, consider this clip from a February episode of “Black-ish.”

In the clip above, Andre (Anthony Anderson) buys Zoey (Yara Shahidi) a new car. After handing her the keys, Zoey proclaims she is meeting a male friend at the library to study. The very thought of his daughter having sex prompts Andre to give Zoey impossible tasks to ‘earn his trust.’

In the “Black-ish” universe Andre celebrates his oldest son’s (Marcus Scribner) pursuits for women. Like many television dads, Andre frames his son’s masculinity around these pursuits. In the 30 year gap in time that links “The Cosby Show” to “Black-ish,” television dads are still protecting their daughters from ‘one of those guys’ while allowing their sons to be one.

It is time we start questioning the cultural mentality of ‘nobody touches my princess.’ That concept isn’t only harmful to on-screen daughters; these same attitudes have real life consequences: virginity pledges, purity balls and the commodification of women. As long as we weigh a girl’s virginity as the highest moral standard, we fail our girls on and off the screen.

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