How to think about Clair Huxtable after Bill Cosby’s conviction
On Mother’s Day, re-examining a character who once personified Ideal Black Motherhood
Here’s a question for this #MeToo moment: What exactly are we supposed to do with great female characters who sprang from the minds of awful men?
Specifically, what are we to do with Clair Huxtable?
But now it would appear we’re going to need a lot more shovels, because Clair Huxtable is only one of many female characters created in part by ostensibly progressive men who have serious Woman Problems. There’s Pamela, the mother of Louis C.K.’s children from Louie. There’s Jasmine, the interesting, irritating, tragic lead of Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. There’s Beatrix Kiddo of Kill Bill and Viola de Lesseps of Shakespeare in Love, women we maybe wouldn’t have met were it not for Harvey Weinstein and Miramax.
Is it even possible to enjoy these women anymore without the nausea that comes from knowing that we’re contributing to a residual that’s getting direct-deposited into the bank accounts of their sleazy progenitors?
The #MeToo era has put everything up for the burdensome task of re-evaluation. It’s one thing to smugly say you always knew Junot Díaz had screwed-up attitudes toward women, because all you had to do was read his work. It’s another to say you divined the same from watching Clair.
After all, Clair used to occupy a different space entirely. When she first arrived in 1984, there was a limited spectrum of black on-screen mothers. Even now, she exists alongside Mary from Precious, Annie Johnson from Imitation of Life, Florida Evans from Good Times, Harriet Winslow from Family Matters, Dee Mitchell from Moesha, Nikki Parker from The Parkers, Rainbow Johnson from black-ish, Van from Atlanta, Cookie Lyon from Empire and many a black woman who wasn’t just mother to her own children but also Mammy to someone else’s white ones.
Next to them, she seemed suspended in untouchable perfection, a Damien Hirst installation of Ideal Black Motherhood.
Here was a woman with five children, a full-time job as a lawyer and an almost endless reserve of patience, kindness, wit and radiant energy, along with a healthy sex drive. And she was gorgeous and stylish too.
Part of what was special about Clair Huxtable was that she offered so singular and so rare a portrait of black women, and she was universally enjoyed and celebrated. For a generation of black people, she was The Prototype. Clair made it possible for our racially segregated country to see a black woman and not later be astounded that someone like Michelle Obama could exist.
But we also have to acknowledge that Clair benefited from a false sort of specialness. Scarcity is what makes these conversations of what to do with The Cosby Show and how to think about Clair after Cosby’s conviction so fraught.
The only way to ameliorate that anxiety is to keep pumping more interesting black women and mothers into the cultural atmosphere. It’s only in recent years that black on-screen mothers have occupied some middle area between the perfection of Clair and the monstrosity of Mary from Precious. That’s why images of Rainbow’s postpartum depression and Van harvesting her daughter’s urine to pass a drug test take on heightened value: They provide human, flawed contrasts to Clair’s effortless and perpetual role modeling.
Of course, both Van and Rainbow were created by men as well. If anything, what happened with Cosby has taught us to embrace our skepticism, to be leery of heralding any one artist as some sort of racial savior.
All of this is one massive, foggy, uncomfortable gray area. Actors have a significant hand in shaping their characters and making them memorable. At least part of the mental calculus that allows us to still enjoy these characters is that we could see the actresses behind them as victims of a sort. (Both Gwyneth Paltrow, who portrayed de Lesseps in Shakespeare in Love, and Uma Thurman, the martial arts assassin behind Kill Bill’s Kiddo, came forward with allegations against Weinstein.)
But even that doesn’t work with Clair. After all, no matter how much Phylicia Rashad poured into Clair, she’s also the person who dismissed Cosby’s victims as pawns in a game of tearing down an important black cultural legacy.
Rather than remaining quiet, Rashad went the Cate Blanchett route, defending Clair’s creator when the tide had turned against him. “Forget these women,” Rashad told Showbiz 411’s Roger Friedman about Cosby’s accusers in 2015. “What you’re seeing is the destruction of a legacy. And I think it’s orchestrated. I don’t know why or who’s doing it, but it’s the legacy. And it’s a legacy that is so important to the culture.”
Hell, maybe we don’t want to give Rashad that residuals direct deposit either.
But there were so many things to admire about Clair. We’d like to think that if she lived in the real world and knew what Bill Cosby was doing, she’d condemn him too. After all, one of the most popular clips of her on the internet is one that’s remembered as “Clair’s feminist rant.”
Before we had the black women writers of Feministing and the Crunk Feminist Collective, we had Clair. Before we had Beyoncé standing on a stage at the MTV Awards with the word “FEMINIST” behind her, before we had Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Melissa Harris-Perry, we had Clair. Before we had Michelle Obama telling a convention full of women that fathers don’t babysit their own children, we had Clair. She was a rare pop culture representation of a black feminist, someone who brought gender theory out of the ivory tower and into everyday life, with everyday words.
Clair was the woman who kindly but firmly informed her daughter’s boyfriend that she does not exist to “serve” Dr. Huxtable. Clair was the woman who said, “That … 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 anyplace anytime EV-AH.”
And then there’s Rashad, the person who said “forget those women.” Rashad later said she was “misquoted.” But even when she clarified her comments, Rashad did something that was extremely common before the #MeToo movement gained steam last year. She weighed the cultural impact of one man and made it more important than the harm he’d done to any one woman. And for most of human history, that’s been the status quo.
We’re finally acknowledging how screwed up it is to make one man too big to fail. When women come forward, we’re starting to see them as human beings just as deserving of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as the talented men who harmed them. Finally, maybe just a little bit, women are becoming people.
And perhaps we can appreciate Clair Huxtable for helping us get there, even as we turn our attention to new battles we can only hope she’d support.