If you’re a woman, and you work, and you identify as a feminist, there’s a 90 percent chance you or someone you know has posted that clip of Clair Huxtable going off on Elvin Tibideaux (dubbed the epic “feminist rant”) on social media. Otherwise you’ve likely seen the one where she takes on Denise’s boyfriend, who audaciously asks her why she doesn’t stay home and tend to her children, since her husband clearly makes enough money for her to do so. And even if you don’t identify as a working, feminist woman, you likely recall these moments as one of the countless people to have experienced The Cosby Show, which appropriately landed the (SPOILER ALERT!) number three spot on our list of Top 80 Shows of the 1980s.
Even as many of us are rethinking (or completely dismantling) our emotional connections to The Cosby Show’s Bill Cosby, we love these clips because they remind us of all the reasons we love Phylicia Rash?d’s Clair Huxtable, feminist hero. But what we often neglect to admit is the fact that these clips are still getting passed around and shared because, unfortunately, the conversation about working women has only shifted slightly. Those two aforementioned scenes are from early episodes of the iconic series (the feminist rant in Season Two, and the other in Season One), episodes that aired in the ‘80s. And yet, nearly three decades later, we are still witnessing similar moments in the shows we’re watching today. Much has been written about how Clair Huxtable is a precursor to characters like Olivia Pope and Annalise Keating, both fierce,’ black women lawyers, attributed to fierce, black woman producer and TV writer, Shonda Rhimes. And it’s true, the protagonists of Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder stand on the shoulders of The Cosby Show’s Clair Huxtable. But I also see parallels between Clair Huxtable and another TV lawyer with whom she may have even more in common (partly because she has children, and Pope and Keating do not)—Alicia Florrick.
This season The Good Wife is offering up a compelling feminist narrative with just about every episode, and much of that narrative—Alicia’s specifically—must be attributed to the Clair Huxtable effect. In many ways, Mrs. Huxtable is composed, maternal—the exemplary good wife and mother. Some have even mistakenly labeled her “benign and reassuring,” but anyone who watched her series carefully knows that, in truth, she was anything but.
Mrs. Florrick has similar qualities. We see her cooking and cleaning for her children. She’s composed to the point where her true emotions are often veiled (after all, she’s a fantastic lawyer). This season she’s spending slightly less time in the court room, as she’s running for the position of State’s Attorney. And while campaigning, she finds herself in an interesting predicament. Mrs. Florrick thinks—like many of us sometimes do—that the Clair Huxtable days are over, and that she does not need to defend her desire to have a career and have a family. But she couldn’t be more wrong, and she learns this in an early interview about her decision to run for office.
When I first thought of this scene and Alicia’s strong words (“I disagree with your characterization of me as someone who spent the majority of her life raising kids”) in conjunction with those moments from The Cosby Show (you can almost hear Huxtable’s firm voice: “That is a sexist statement, young man”), I felt disappointed. Why is there such a strong parallel between Florrick and Huxtable? Why are they still answering the same ridiculous question?
The truth is, although the questions are basically the same (“Can women have it all?” “How can they do it—working, and baby-making, and getting those dirty dishes clean?”), the context is different—and context is everything. Although Mrs. Huxtable was a lawyer, we didn’t see much of her in the courtroom. We did see her mostly in the home—her feminism exists within the home (which is fine, and, like most things, where feminism is first learned and taught). We see her facing off against the spouses and boyfriends of her daughters—shutting them down like the brilliant lawyer that she is. And because someone like Clair Huxtable shared her feminism in the home, someone like Alicia Florrick can now share it in the courtrooms, and in her own interviews on TV. Florrick is not up against boys sitting at her dining room table, but men sitting across from her on Live TV, men who will be running against her in the upcoming State’s Attorney race (and men who are using these questions in an attempt to cut down a formidable opponent). So, although the questions are still offensive, and still seeped in misogyny, we can celebrate the fact that, in 2014, they are being asked of a woman like Alicia Florrick, who has an even greater platform upon which to shut them down.
And we can celebrate a 1980s Clair Huxtable who helped invent the feminist, TV lawyer shut down, so that characters like Alicia Florrick, Diane Lockhart, Olivia Pope, Abby Whelan, Annalise Keating, and many other fictionalized powerhouses could exist in 2014, and carry on this phenomenal tradition.