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.