A Different World was an American sitcom that aired for six seasons beginning in September 1987, making it 30 this year. The show focused on students attending a fictional historically black college in Virginia, Hillman, the alma mater of Clair and Cliff Huxtable of The Cosby Show.
While the show has been cited as a large motivation for many in the ’80s and ’90s who wanted to attend college, mainly HBCUs, it also played a major role in bringing difficult and contemporary topics to the fore, placing real historical, social, political and economic issues within the context of young black people’s lives, especially black women and femmes, and connecting to their gender, bodies, sexuality and community.
The sitcom explored pertinent reproductive-justice issues for black women, including stereotypical imagery like Mammy, intimate-partner violence, sexual harassment and assault, misogynoir, contraception and condom use, and young-adult pregnancy. A Different World was way ahead of its time in creating and shifting narratives about black college life specifically and black life in general.
A Different World was one of the first television shows in the U.S. to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Season 4’s episode “If I Should Die Before I Wake,” starring Tisha Campbell and Whoopi Goldberg, spotlights Josie Webb (Campbell), a Hillman College student who discloses her HIV-positive status in her public speaking class when given an assignment to write her own obituary. In the aftermath of her “sharing,” some of her classmates didn’t want to be served by her in the Pit, the campus dining spot, or wore handkerchiefs over their faces to avoid contact with her. The episode dealt with HIV and AIDS very deftly by depicting how the personal affected the public sphere, and the stigma surrounding AIDS.
First, the show made information available about how HIV was transmitted (folks weren’t quite sure if you could get HIV from kissing at that time) and dispelled outright myths about the disease. Second, A Different World portrayed how to treat folks through Mr. Gaines (Lou Myers), who was Josie’s boss at the Pit. When Josie thought that she needed to hide her status from Mr. Gaines out of fear that he would fire her if he knew, he showed her care and compassion. Though employment discrimination was and remains illegal, it is still a very real things for many folks living with HIV.
Josie’s disclosure not only caused her classmates to think about their sexual activity and consistent use of protection during sex, but also dispelled myths about what an HIV-positive person “looked” like. This episode was groundbreaking, not only because it was one of the first, but because the writers chose to tell the story through the experiences of a black woman, Josie, during a time when women’s groups, ACT UP and the HIV Law Project were fighting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to include women’s diseases in the definition of AIDS.
Season 2’s episode “No Means No” tackled date rape, consent and supporting survivors. The episode follows naive environmentalist and first-year student Winifred Brooks (Cree Summer), affectionately known as “Freddie,” who has a huge crush on a charming, and seemly friendly, star baseball player, Garth Parks. Dwayne (Freddie’s former crush, portrayed by Kadeem Hardison) soon learns that Garth isn’t the man everyone thinks he is, and that Garth has been sexually assaulting women at Hillman. Garth attempts to assault Freddie while on a date after the school dance.
ADW addressed several issues here: First, it dismantled the false belief that women “really” want sex, but because society tells them they’re not supposed to ask for it, it is a man’s job to “let them off the hook” so that it doesn’t look like their idea—so says Garth. Second, it illuminated the fact that survivors of rape and sexual assault do not always feel that they can report their assault, and sometimes believe that if they consented to other things, including the date itself, then the rape was also their fault. Third, it showed that it is critical for men to have conversations with one another about sex, masculinity and sexual violence. This is demonstrated through a powerful conversation between Dwayne and Walter Oaks (Sinbad), the male dorm director at Hillman, who is known for his jokes and making light of issues, but who deals very sternly with this issue when Dwayne approaches him.
A few seasons later, the series looked at sexual harassment in the workplace when Whitley Gilbert (Jasmine Guy), working as an assistant art buyer, is sexually harassed by her supervisor at E.H. Wright.
The episode aired one year after Senate confirmation hearings involving Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill. Hill accused Thomas, then a Supreme Court nominee, of sexual harassment when she was working for him at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This hearing struck up major controversies in the black community and raised questions about intersectionality, specifically whether a person could have allegiances as a black person and as a woman at the same time. In the episode, Whitley dreams of appearing before the Senate and is dressed in Hill’s memorable turquoise-blue suit.
In season 4, the “Time Keeps on Slipping” episode follows Hillman students as they prepare a time capsule for students 20 years later. Hillman students compile everything from a medicine pouch for the Earth to a sonogram of a “baby girl.” They also decide to create a video for the time capsule, but it’s Ron Johnson’s contribution that Whitley stops the production for. As Ron stands in front of the camera, Whitley asks, “Where’s your contribution?” and he says, “In my back pocket.” It’s a condom.
Ron is told that it wasn’t a sex education video or a joke, and he responds that neither is AIDS or unintended teenage pregnancy or anything else a condom helps prevent. “My message is responsibility,” Ron says. “You want to preserve the planet; I want to protect it.” Interestingly, while Ron was allowed to talk about condoms, he wasn’t allowed to show one on television.
The “protection” theme is a consistent thread throughout the series, whether it’s the reference to the “Letti Stay Ready Date Pack” and the “Walter Oaks Date Pack,” or Jaleesa Vinson (Dawnn Lewis) chasing Whitley around the living room trying to get her to take a condom for the first time she gets intimate with Dwayne. This frenzy around the room leads to Jaleesa (who was constantly breaking down gender norms and roles) talking about how it was everyone’s responsibility to make sure that a condom is always used.
Unfortunately, because of declining condom use in the U.S. (statistics show that in 2016, sexually transmitted infections in the U.S. were at an all-time high), we might need to bring these episodes back. There are way too many television shows that depict people having sex and never reaching for a condom, including HBO and Issa Rae’s Insecure, which came under fire this summer for the lack of condom use on the show.
In the season 5 episode “Mammy Dearest,” dorm director Whitley plans a dedication ceremony. In an attempt to celebrate black women throughout history and to highlight the ways that black women have struggled to survive in the U.S., Whitley presents portraits of powerful black women like Angela Davis, Marian Anderson, Maya Angelou, Leontyne Price and—to everyone’s surprise—Mammy. Mammy’s inclusion in this constellation of powerful women causes a stir among the women at Gilbert Hall. For many of the women, especially Kimberly Reese (Charnele Brown), Mammy represent stereotypical racial imagery. Whitley “instructs” her residents that in order to neutralize the stereotype, they have to reclaim it.
The Mammy caricature is a fat black woman who cared more about the white families she worked for than her own at home. While Mammy had children, she was often presented as asexual and less of a threat to the white women she worked for. Mammy was a representation of black female domestic workers who were constantly devalued and exploited for their labor.
By depicting a central image of the interlocking systems of race, class and gender oppression, the “Mammy Dearest” episode opened up conversations about black womanhood, colorism and anti-blackness. Kim, a darker-skinned woman, can’t take the Mammy imagery, but Whitley, a light-skinned woman, cannot begin to understand what Mammy represents. The episode presents new questions for us, including, what is the importance of these racial stereotypical images? And can they be reclaimed?
In season 4’s episode “Ms. Understanding,” sixth-year senior Shazza publishes his senior thesis (which was rejected by the thesis board) as a guide for Hillman women to use to understand Hillman men. Playing off the real-life book The Blackman’s Guide to Understanding the Blackwoman, by Shahrazad Ali, which was very popular at that time, it captures the bizarre, misogynist messaging presented in the original book. Shazza presents an ahistorical analysis of the black community, asserting that the black nuclear family has degenerated because “Adam and Eve no longer respect one another—especially Adam” and that “a woman is not a doormat until she lies down.”
According to Shazza, the Hillman woman (also read as “young black woman”) should be confident, know her self-worth and be treated like a “queen”—but only if she adheres to stereotypical and dated gender norms and roles. Of course, all of this is coming from a person who has been socialized as a man and has been reaping the benefits attached to male privilege his entire life. His “popular” text offered no real analysis of class, social systems or history’s influence on the lives of black people in the United States, while generating a great deal of controversy between the sexes on campus. In short, ADW was reading Hoteps and analyzing misogynoir long before we started calling them out on Twitter.
Of all the episodes of A Different World that I have watched—basically all 144 of them—“Love Taps” in season 5 had to be one of the hardest to watch. This episode follows outspoken sophomore Gina Deveaux as she navigates an abusive relationship with rapper Dion, who is quickly rising to fame on Hillman’s campus with his misogynist raps. Initially it appears that Gina and Dion have a cute ’90s relationship as she supports her man’s rap dreams, but we soon learn that this relationship is anything but aspirational.
In the episode, Freddie tells the women of Height Hall gathered around a table in the Pit that she saw a woman she did not recognize being beaten on the roof while she was doing her moon meditations the night before (a typical Freddie practice). She demands that Whitley, the co-dorm director, call an emergency meeting. At first Whitley hesitates, but is quickly reminded by Kim what happened when her employer, E.H. Wright, did not believe her sexual harassment claims earlier that year.
Meanwhile, Gina is coming up with excuses for the bruises on her body (she ran into a coffee table or her desk). She pushes her best friend, Lena (Jada Pinkett), away when she gives her an outlet to ask for help, and she tries to change the topic or make jokes whenever domestic violence is brought up. The episode highlights the textbook signifiers of an abusive relationship: jealousy, isolation from friends, and attempts by the abuser to “apologize” or make amends with expensive gifts. When Gina confronts Dion, asking him, “What do I do to make you so mad?” he promises not to hit her anymore. A few minutes into that same scene, she can be seen being thrown up against a wall.
An important talk with Mr. Gaines (Mr. Gaines for the win) encourages Gina to break it off with Dion. It takes a real community effort for Gina to be able to leave Dion. Gina decides to press charges against Dion, and he is shown being taken away by police. This episode attempted to demonstrate, in its 22-minute run time, how complicated ending an abusive relationship can be.
Although Bill Cosby would not let Denise Huxtable’s character be shown pregnant on A Different World when actress Lisa Bonet became pregnant (ultimately leading to Denise’s exit from the show, and her “yearlong trip to the Motherland”), A Different World did bring up pregnancy and young parenting through other characters.
For example, in season 2, “It happened One Night” follows freshman Kimberly Reese through a pregnancy scare with her then-boyfriend, Robert. In the episode, Kim’s roommate, Whitley, even offers to support Kim in paying for an abortion. She says, “If you need money for any reason, there is money.” And while Kim says that she does not want to have an abortion (she actually says the word “abortion”), she is not sure what she wants to do. Robert also suggests that Kim have an abortion, which causes Kim to ignore his calls.
In the same episode, Jaleesa also shares her experience of having a pregnancy that resulted in a miscarriage. Freddie proposes a “village care” scenario, suggesting that Jaleesa, Dwayne and she could be uncles and aunties if Kim decides to keep the baby. This episode demonstrated how nuanced reproductive decision-making can be, and the types of compassion and care that are needed for that to happen. It also shows the stress that comes with the precarious circumstances connected to becoming pregnant in college.
Season 3’s episode “Delusions of Daddyhood” shows Ron dating a young mom, Elizabeth James, who is balancing attending Hillman, dating and taking care of her son, Isaac. And while the episode focused on Ron’s attempts to play daddy, it also shed light on the fact that some people do parent while enrolled in college, even traditional four-year schools like Hillman.