Phylicia Rashad as Clair Huxtable, underrated feminist hero.
This September 20 will mark 30 years since The Cosby Show first hit our screens. Watching the show as a kid in the '80s, I was of course ignorant of America’s racial politics. I took it for granted that there was nothing remarkable about a black, upper-middle class family, with a gynaecologist father and a lawyer mother, living in what would have then been considered suburbia (Brooklyn Heights).
I was clueless that Bill Cosby’s deliberate avoidance of overtly political story-lines was to prove a masterstroke, because just having a black family on prime TV in which both parents were successful professionals was a political act in itself.
These days, my feelings about The Cosby Show are mixed. I’ve recently become aware of the sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby, which, to put it mildly, cast a serious pall over the show. And, as is often the case when revisiting treasures from our childhood, it just isn’t as funny as I remember.
But regardless of my feelings towards Cosby himself and the quality of the comedy, there is one thing about the show that is as good now as it was then, and that is Clair Huxtable (played with relish by the wonderful Phylicia Rashad).
1984 was barely 20 years after The Feminist Mystique and 10 after The Female Eunuch. It was also the year when Australia finally thought to change the first line of our anthem, from “Australia’s sons let us rejoice” to “Australians all let us rejoice”.
And yet, here was Clair Huxtable, a professional mother of five children, who shared all the responsibilities of parenthood equally with her husband. To the best of my knowledge, the 'f-word' was never used on the show and she never referred to herself as such, but there is no doubt that Clair was a bona fide feminist warrior. Not that I think feminists should shy away from the label. I proudly refer to myself as a feminist at any opportunity I get. Rather, what I’m getting at is that to a young girl from a non-white background, watching the show in the late '80s and early '90s, she made equality in the workplace and in the home seem so effortlessly normal, so natural and so achievable, it would be years before I would discover that that simply wasn’t the case.
In a world where, 30 years later, we are still wondering whether women can “have it all”, I want to take a little time out to celebrate a fictional woman who taught me that a woman is no less of a woman, a mother and a wife for working. Here are some of Clair Huxtable’s most feminist moments.
Schooling Denise’s new boyfriend on “women’s work”
In an episode early in the show’s run, rebellious daughter Denise brings her arrogant new boyfriend home for the first time.
When the young man has nothing nice to say about the medical profession, Clair tries to stay calm only to snap when the opinionated young man asks her, “What I really don't understand is, why do you divide your time between pursuing your career and raising your family? Your husband makes a tremendous amount of money - why don't you stay home with the kids?"
Without missing a beat, Clair shoots back, “That is a sexist statement, young man. Why don’t you ask Mr Huxtable that question?”
Keep in mind, this episode screened 30 years ago, in the show’s very first season. 30 years on and still one of the questions dogging the modern feminist movement is the ever-present and eye-roll inducing, “Can women have it all?” Ladies, Clair had the answer three decades ago.
Serving is “the kind of thing that goes on in a restaurant”
In this brief encounter with Elvin, the hapless boyfriend of eldest daughter Sondra, Clair rebukes him for suggesting she is “serving” her husband by offering to bring him a cup of coffee.
In many ways, Elvin was the show’s resident sexist jerk. Although, in keeping with the show’s non-controversial sensibilities, he was depicted more as a bumbling fool who just needed to be shown the light, rather than a deliberate misogynist.
Watch Clair succinctly school Elvin on sexism, marriage, and how serving only belongs in restaurants.
Not the token black woman
This one is about as political as The Cosby Show got. Clair, a high-profile attorney, gets asked to appear on a talk show discussing the Great Depression and naturally jumps at the chance. But no sooner do the cameras start rolling when her three white male co-panellists talk over her. It doesn’t take us long to figure out that she was only invited on to play the token minority.
When the host asks her, "How did the Depression affects the blacks?”, Clair objects to only being there to give the perspective of a black person. When he makes things worse by adding, “No, you’re also here to speak for women...”, Clair issues one of her classic smack-downs.
“Oh, that’s nice. I am a woman, who is black, but I am also a human being, who is an attorney, a mother of five, and somewhat knowledgeable about history, which is why I thought I was invited here. But when you look at me, this is all you see in me, a black woman?"
And with that mini-rant Clair Huxtable hit on what would years later form much of Kimberle Krenshaw’s theory of intersectionality, or the way various oppressions connect and overlap.
She still looks good
As a kid, I was weirdly fascinated with nostalgia and the concept of growing old. My favourite song was 'Veronica', Elvis Costello’s ode to his dementia-afflicted grandmother, so it’s not surprising that the episode of The Cosby Show that was one of my all-time favourites - and the one which most lives on in my memory - happens to be the one in which Clair has mixed feelings about her 46th birthday.
The recurring theme is Clair’s family and friends telling her she “still looks good”, a “compliment” she takes in her stride, until finally blurting out, “What do you mean still?”
The issue of how society regards ageing was still many decades away from affecting me, but I was struck by the way Clair spelled out the added pressures of ageing for women. In pointing out that the qualifier “still” indicates that people expect her not to look good at her age and effectively tells her that her days of looking good are numbered, Clair rejects the notion that a woman’s prize asset is her youth. “Why can’t you just say I look good?”, she says.
Why indeed. Here’s to Mrs Huxtable. She may not be as irreverently cool as Elaine Benes or as sharply witty as Carrie Bradshaw, but 30 years on she remains as relevant as ever.