As black women try to shake off tired tropes like the angry black woman, which the New York Times raised from its shallow grave yesterday, let's focus on The Cosby Show's career-driven matriarch that kicked ass at home and at work, Clair Huxtable. The show and the icon that actress Phylicia Rashad brought to life has turned 30.
Over at Slate, Jason Bailey wrote an eloquent piece laying out that while the 1980s sitcom won by depicting a black family doing well for themselves, it was also a Trojan Horse for black feminism, and feminism in general. Clair had no time for fools who tried to limit what she as a woman with a husband, five children and a law degree should be able to do. The show's writers made this clear from the first season.
The ninth episode of the first season, "How Ugly Is He?," introduces us to Denise's boyfriend David (Kristoff St. John). She is reluctant to bring him home, since Cliff is always "too rough" on her suitors. Turns out, it is not Cliff whom David needs to worry about. Midway through dinner, the smug, scarf-wearing vegetarian turns the conversation to Clair. "What I really don't understand," he asks her, "is why do you divide your time between pursuing your career and raising your family?" "I don't think I understand your point," she replies, fully understanding his point but charitably willing to give him a way out. He doesn't take it. "The point is, your husband makes a tremendous amount of money. Shouldn't you just stay at home with the kids?"
Clair isn't having it though.
"That is a sexist statement, young man. Why don't you ask Dr. Huxtable that question?" Cliff quickly pulls her into the kitchen to cool down. "How dare he?" she fumes. "Little scraggly-legged punk, come in here and park his feet under my dining room table and tell me that I am not a good mother?"
Bailey notes that the Cosby writers found a gem in the friction between neanderthal men with archaic gender roles ideas and Clair's "Let me tell you something" impatience concerning fools. And I can agree, as a kid, watching Clair was, and is, gift that keeps on giving into adulthood. Denise's sexist boyfriend was eventually traded for Sondra's sexist husband Elvin, who was on the receiving end of this tirade my colleague Kara highlighted earlier.
As The Cosby Show continued, Theo learned lesson about gender role assumptions when he assumed that women couldn't fix cars and should just be lying across them like the posters in his room. Later, Rudy battled with her frenemy, next door neighbor Kenny/Bud and his sexist never-to-be-seen big brother's idiot wisdom.
"A woman can do what a man says," Kenny tells her. "Not me," she replies.
Even the assumption that Cliff Huxtable, played by Bill Cosby, naturally split the household duties with Clair and was active in raising their children between working as an OB/GYN was progressive. Ultimately, The Cosby Show was a feminist platform that taught and nurtured a whole generation of women and men and that's worth all 30 years of the seminal show's existence.
Image via The Cosby Show.