The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Clair Huxtable.
Clair Huxtable, feminist icon.

Photo illustration by Slate

In the days and weeks following the 2008 election of Barack Obama, there was much discussion of what writer Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez dubbed “The Huxtable Effect.” The theory, in a nutshell, held that the tremendous popularity of The Cosby Show, which premiered 30 years ago this week, “normalized” the idea of the black family for white viewers, particularly the young voters who grew up watching Dr. Heathcliff and Clair Huxtable raise their five children on NBC every Thursday night. When the show debuted in 1984, its focus on an upper-middle-class black family—and general lack of interest in explicitly addressing issues of race—caused no shortage of second-guessing, particularly among black critics. But, ultimately, Bill Cosby’s decision to tell broad stories about a family that’s black—emphasizing the Huxtables’ similarities to viewers of all races, rather than their differences—may have been the key factor in the supposed Huxtable Effect.

Whether or not Valdes-Rodriguez was right about the show’s influence on racial attitudes, there was another Huxtable Effect, one that’s been less discussed—even though it concerns a topic more front and center on The Cosby Show itself. The program spent little time openly discussing the race of its protagonists, but it frequently returned to the experience of matriarch Clair as a woman who not only maintained a successful career while raising five children but who refused to suffer gladly any fools who questioned her ability to do so. If The Cosby Show’s racial politics were merely implied, its gender politics were clear, pointed, and decidedly progressive. Everyone was so busy making a fuss over the show’s blackness that relatively few noted, at the time, that Cosby had smuggled proud and vocal feminism into the country’s most popular family sitcom.

Feminism was not new to sitcoms, of course. The Mary Tyler Moore Show made history in 1970 by focusing on a liberated single woman who did not seek—and during the show’s seven-season run, did not find—a husband. Norman Lear’s Maude concerned an outspoken feminist and political activist, and his All in the Family gave us an increasingly feminist Gloria Stivic (Sally Struthers) who, along with husband Mike (Rob Reiner), served as liberal foil to the reactionary Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor). One Day at a Time, Kate & Allie, and, to a lesser degree, Alice took on the woes of working mothers while occasionally exploring relevant social issues. Family Ties, which debuted two years before The Cosby Show and would become its lead-out on the Thursday night schedule, turned All in the Family on its head by pitting Meredith Baxter-Birney’s baby-boomer feminist mother against her Reaganite son (Michael J. Fox as Alex P. Keaton).

But these characters were far from the norm in prime time circa 1984. Two days before the debut of The Cosby Show, ABC aired the final episode of Three’s Company, the notoriously jiggle-and-giggle-heavy sex-com; it immediately spun off a new series, Three’s a Crowd. The season’s other new offerings included the Loni Anderson/Lynda Carter detective drama Partners in Crime and the teenage model chronicle Paper Dolls. The most prominent women on television were the conniving dragon ladies and hapless victims of prime-time soaps like Dallas, Dynasty, Falcon Crest, and Knots Landing. The other shows rounding out the top 10, including The A-Team, Simon & Simon, and Magnum, P.I. , were barely concerned with women at all, except as occasional ornamentation.

Cosby wanted to change that. The Cosby Show was loosely autobiographical: His was an upper-class family with five children, four girls and a boy, and a mother who was not a housewife. Cosby had been married to his college sweetheart Camille Olivia Hanks since 1964; in addition to working as her husband’s business manager, she supervised a variety of philanthropic and educational interests. He initially pitched a detective show: “I would solve crimes with my wits, as Columbo once did, and my girlfriend would be a strong woman with her own career.” That show was turned down—he would resurrect the concept a decade later, for the short-lived The Cosby Mysteries—but when producers Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner proposed a Cosby sitcom, the “strong woman with her own career” idea made the transition. “If this was 1964,” he said at the time, “my wife could do the cooking and I could be the guy on the sofa who just says, ‘Let your mother handle this.’ But today a lot of things have changed and I want the show to reflect those changes. A family where the father cooks too, and pitches in with the kids, and where everyone has responsibilities.”

And this is what made the Huxtable household unique on American television in 1984. It wasn’t just that Clair Huxtable was a strong, liberated woman with a career. It was that she had a husband and family who supported and valued her endeavors. Cliff wasn’t just a passive husband who tolerated his wife’s independence: While Clair went from Brooklyn to her high-powered Manhattan law firm every day, he worked from home—as an OB/GYN, no less—equally responsible for such “traditionally” female responsibilities as cooking and child care. He sees their division of labors as no big deal; if anything, the Huxtable arrangement looks like simple common sense. And when their subversion of gender norms is brought to his attention, Cliff is mostly just amused.

But The Cosby Show addressed those norms head on, early and often. 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 doesn’t skip a beat. “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?”

Denise (Lisa Bonet) wisely manufactures a hasty exit for the pair, but the show’s writers evidently saw this as a warm-up for the kind of magic that Clair—and Phylicia Rashad, the majestic actress who played her—could perform if matched up against a properly clueless and chauvinistic foil. In the next season, they found him, in the form of eldest daughter Sondra’s on-again, off-again boyfriend Elvin Tibideaux.

We first meet Elvin in the second season’s fourth episode, “Cliff in Love,” which finds Sondra (Sabrina Le Beauf) and Elvin (Geoffrey Owens) on the outs. He comes to the Huxtable brownstone bearing flowers and an apology; while he’s waiting, Clair passes through and tells Cliff she’s going to her office, and so Cliff offers to make dinner. After Clair leaves, Elvin asks Cliff, “Doesn’t it ever bother you that you get home from work and there’s not a hot meal waiting for you?” Cliff’s response: “Sometimes my wife comes home and there’s not a hot meal waiting for her. What’s your point?” “Well, I just feel that it confuses things when a woman works,” Elvin confesses. “My mother works, and I don’t like it. Sometimes when I come home, there’s nothing to eat.” Cliff has a good-natured laugh. “Well,” he asks, “are your hands broken?”

At the episode’s conclusion, Elvin returns to pick Sondra up, and Clair offers him and Cliff coffee while he waits. Elvin is surprised. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Huxtable, I didn’t think you did that kind of thing,” he says. By that “kind of thing,” he means “serving,” and once the notion of “serving your man” has been floated, Clair shuts it down but quick in what might be Rashad’s finest moment on the show.

“Let me tell you something, Elvin,” she tells him, not really suppressing her anger. “You see, I am not ‘serving’ Dr. Huxtable, OK? That’s the kind of thing that goes on in a restaurant. Now I am going to bring him a cup of coffee just like he brought me a cup of coffee this morning. And that, young man, is what marriage is made of. It is give-and-take, 50-50. And if you don’t get it together, and drop these macho attitudes, you are never gonna have anybody bringing you anything, anywhere, any place, any time, ever.”

It’s an electrifying mini-rant, delivered by Rashad with full force, and it is frequently quoted and embedded online. The speech carries more force than those moments when, say, Gloria Stivic would argue feminist politics with Archie Bunker. Archie was ultimately All in the Family’s protagonist—or antihero, if you prefer—and at least a portion of the audience was sympathetic to his side in the argument. Elvin and David are antagonists, obviously chauvinist buffoons.

That episode’s most important, and telling, moment comes earlier, though. The primary tension in the main storyline is provided by Daryl (Joseph C. Phillips), a handsome med student who is a viable option for Sondra, one that Cliff greatly prefers—due, in no small part, to his considerably more advanced opinions on women. Yet Clair warns Cliff that Daryl could be a “bushwhacker” with a hidden “where is my dinner and my 12 babies” agenda, and she tells Cliff something truly insightful about Elvin, and himself: “There is a little bit of a Daryl and Elvin in every man. See, you started out an Elvin and changed to a Daryl. Now honey, if you can change, anybody can change.”

She repeats that assertion in the Season 3 episode “I Know That You Know,” in which Elvin proposes to Sondra. As part of an elaborate prank on Cliff, who is the last to hear the news, Clair pretends that she won’t approve of the marriage. But in conversation with her husband, a hint of Cliff’s earlier tendencies resurfaces. In defense of Elvin’s “downright primitive” views toward women, he says, “The boy’s changed considerably since those times, and look at what you did, how you changed me?” Clair snaps back: “I do not want Sondra to go through what I went through with you!”

Throughout The Cosby Show’s run, this idea is consistent: Whether young or old, married or single, these clueless men will, at some point, have to be set straight. Their views aren’t necessarily held with malice; they often just don’t know better. And even our elders aren’t above reproach. In the Season 7 episode “Last Barbecue,” the question of a bachelor-party stripper leads to a lengthy discussion of sex roles and objectification at a family barbecue. After Grandpa Russell (Earle Hyman) and Grandma Anna (Clarice Taylor) show up, Grandpa tells the family about the fan dancer at his own bachelor party. Anna shrugs it off. “Times were different,” she tells her granddaughters. “People didn’t make a big deal out of everything.” But behind closed doors, she lets him have it. “I hated that you had that woman at your bachelor party!” she snaps. “And while we’re at it, I hate that fan dance story. Every time I hear it, it sickens me!”

To his credit, Russell takes the message to heart. “I will never tell that story again,” he promises, before saying to the rest of the family, “I had no idea she felt this way! Why didn’t she tell me?” But she was right, of course: Times were different, and now times have, in fact, changed. It seems possible that Clair serves as a role model to her mother-in-law just as she does to her daughters. Sondra doesn’t tolerate Elvin’s “traditional” values, Denise ends her relationship with David soon after that unfortunate dinner (and after they see a movie whose bigamist storyline he seems to endorse), and Rudy never misses an opportunity to shoot down the sexist views neighbor friend Kenny acquires from his older brother. (“A woman can do what a man says,” Kenny tells her. “Not me,” she replies.)

Thanks to the giant reach of The Cosby Show—it was the No. 1 show in the country for five straight seasons, with its most-watched episode garnering a now-unfathomable 65 million viewers—Clair influenced a culture as well. In the years since The Cosby Show’s 1992 signoff, Bill Cosby’s feminist bona fides have been called into question due to the shrewish characterization of his wife in his current standup act and the multiple accusations of sexual assault that have now trailed him for years. But there’s no denying the impact of that character, on that show, at that moment. For those of us whose views of gender and family were formed in front of the television on Thursday nights, Clair Huxtable was an ideal to strive for. Why would you not want to be—or be with—a proud, brilliant woman who was both a mother and a professional? Why would you want to be one of those babbling idiots who didn’t understand how she could be both?