Despite rising to TV fame in a far more seminal capacity (his shared top billing on 1965’s I Spy marked the first such role for an African-American), it is his no-nonsense, sweater-clad alter ego that has so confounded the minds of generations of loyal viewers. Yes, Cliff Huxtable is fictional, but his values and persona have become so deeply conflated with Cosby’s that it took him admitting his crimes in his own words to confirm the allegations of literal scores of women.
This is a shame for a great many reasons, but here’s one that gets overlooked: Another show created by Cosby (albeit one that he had a less hands-on role in producing), showed that the embattled 77-year old comedian knew the difference between right and wrong.
Developed as a spinoff of The Cosby Show to follow Huxtable’s college-aged daughter Denise to a historically black college, A Different World earned significant acclaim for tackling issues the more mainstream and family-friendly The Cosby Show wouldn’t. While the latter’s greatest conflicts centered around getting lost at the mall, sneaking out for a concert, or the perils of late-night hoagie eating (twice), the former pushed the envelope of the late eighties by presenting storylines about the Watts riots, HIV, race-based hate crimes...and, yes, date rape.
Season Two’s “No Means No” features a lovesick Freddie (Cree Summer) nearly succumbing to the ill intentions of a Hillman basketball player with no regard for a woman’s agency. Thankfully, Dwayne (Kadeem Hardison) manages to thwart the encounter before Freddie is overpowered, but the most effective moment of the episode is the conversation Dwayne has with his residence director Walter (Sinbad):
Dwayne: Now you know her mouth is saying “no,” but you’re sure there are parts of her saying “yes,” not to mention parts of you. What part do you listen to?
Walter: Her mouth! And then you go outside, take a swim in an unheated pool.
Dwayne: So it’s not my job to “get her off the hook” or to “help her give it up”?
Walter: Man, if you think that is your job, your next job will be pressing license plates!
Dwayne: Get out of here!
Walter: Man, what you’re talking about is rape!
While mainstream news outlets have been reluctant to assign the word “rape” to the intent of Cosby’s actions, work that bears his name (even if he had less direct involvement in its production), prophetically, is not. As AV Club said of this episode earlier this year, “by the end of the second season, [director Debbie] Allen had fully assumed creative control over A Different World, but that’s not enough alone to keep Cosby’s tarnished reputation from casting a shadow over the show’s episode addressing campus rape.”
Unlike other episodes of the program, the concerns and methodology behind sexual assault in “No Means No” have, for better or worse, remained evergreen. Its perennial utility as a conversation piece on the topic renders it timelessly useful for broaching these discussions with impressionable men. With that said, it remains dismaying that these conversations continue to be necessary. And if any TV father held the regard required to broach this topic, it’s Cliff Huxtable. But despite the fact that Cliff Huxtable is also a figure in the world of Hillman College, it’s not him we should be ashamed of. It’s Bill Cosby, who in his role as this show’s creator, proved to the world in 1989 that he did know better.
Amma Marfo is a writer, higher education administrator, and popular culture enthusiast dedicated to the idea that our leisure pursuits can inform and enrich the work we do. She writes often for her own blog ("The Dedicated Amateur") and is a contributing editor to the Niche Movement. Her first book, THE I'S HAVE IT: Reflections on Introversion in Student Affairs, was released in January 2014. Her other interests include running, yoga, surfing, trivia, comedy, and gluten-free cooking/baking. You can follow her on Twitter @ammamarfo.