‘The Cosby Show’: One of the Most Feminist Shows of All Time?

I’ve been overdosing on Cosby Show reruns (6-7 p.m. EST weekdays on Centric!), and watching the series as an adult, I’ve discovered something surprising: It’s feminist. Like way feminist. Like stridently feminist. The show overall is not an exercise in subtlety, of course — Bill Cosby meant to teach you all some things while making you laugh — but wow. Cosby carefully and famously avoided taking on most modern issues — namely racism, but also anything political or topical. Except, it seems, the issue of where women stood in Cosby’s vision of a perfect world. As a man who was preaching strong family, he wanted to make one thing clear: In his mind, “family” was not a euphemism for patriarchy like it is for so many others.

Countless plots and subplots involve Cosby’s character, Cliff, schooling his son-in-law, Elvin, in what amounts to feminism. Elvin arrives in the Cosbys’ lives as a blatant sexist and eldest daughter Sondra’s on-again, off-again boyfriend. This amounted to a clever plot device, since Sondra was a smarty pants going to Princeton. It made for funny, teachable conflict. And woman-power always won, though the show was careful not to get too aggressive toward the men. The men who were sexists simply didn’t know any better, and had to be taught. One episode I recently watched had Elvin trying to endear himself to mother-in-law Clair by learning to cook. After several verbal missteps — saying he was learning to do “women’s work,” for instance — he’s put in his place by nearly every Huxtable female. Then Cliff teaches him to cook a simple meal, and everyone wins.

Another fall guy for sexism in the Cosby Show world is Kenny, youngest daughter Rudy’s friend. He’s also known as “Bud,” simply because Rudy has decided to rename him. This recurring joke carries a lot of weight: The two are constantly fighting, and almost always about feminist issues, at the tender age of about 6. But the fact that Rudy can call him what she wants reminds us: She is in charge. A typical Rudy/Bud episode aired earlier this week: As they head out to play in the cold, Rudy loans Bud one of her brother’s hats, but then snatches it back in anger when Bud tries to open the door for her because, he says, “you’re a woman and I’m a man.” Cliff solves the problem by opening the door himself while emphasizing that he isn’t doing it because he is a man, but because he is a tired father kicking the kids out of the house.

And speaking of Dad, did you ever notice that he shares at least half the childcare burden, if not more, in the Huxtable household? A gynecologist (gynecologist!), he operates his office in the basement of their brownstone, so he picks the kids up from school and handles after-school chores and conflicts. We often see him heading to the hospital to deliver a baby, but that’s an off-hours thing. He also cooks a fair amount, though his culinary adventures don’t always turn out great. (The price of comedy.) That’s not to mention all of the amazing parenting he runs around doling out. Of course, to be this attentive and wonderful is unrealistic — but he did a hell of a job modeling great fathering behavior.

Clair pulls her share, too, of course, when it comes to feminism. She’s a lawyer (with an unlikely job that sends her home by about 6 most nights, from what I can tell). She delivers some quality rants — Phyllicia Rashad is a great ranter — against sexist behavior she encounters. And perhaps she knew something the rest of us didn’t. Nearly 30 years later, we’re all still looking to Sheryl Sandberg to tell us how we can do “it all,” but the answer is: Be Clair. Marry a Cliff.


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Author: Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong grew up deep in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, then escaped to New York to live in a succession of very small apartments and write about pop culture. In the process, she became a feminist, a Buddhist, and the singer/guitarist in an amateur rock band. She also spent a decade on staff at Entertainment Weekly, cofounded SexyFeminist.com, and now writes for several publications, including Women’s Health, Runner’s World, Writer’s Digest, Fast Company, and New York‘s Vulture. Her history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2013; her collaboration with Heather Wood Rudulph, Sexy Feminism, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2013. She is the author of the Why? Because We Still Like You, a history of the original Mickey Mouse Club published by Grand Central in 2010. She has provided pop culture commentary for CNN, VH1, A&E, and ABC, and teaches article writing and creative writing. Follow her on Twitter: @jmkarmstrong

Comments

  1. jcs says:

    Cliff Huxtable isn’t a gynecologist he is an obstetrician. Gynecologist’s specialize in the female reproductive system. Obstetrician’s specialize in delivering babies and the health of the woman and child during pregnancy.

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