by Jen Selk
Our faves are problematic. I know that, but nonetheless, it's been a hard pill to swallow. Re-examining my love for The Cosby Show has been particularly difficult in recent years. For a long time (both during the original run, and in syndication) the Huxtables were my favorite family. They were always available when I needed to relax. I found them (I admit, I still find them) so comforting. And my favorite Huxtable of all is Clair. Power-house mama-bear, matriarch-to-the-max, Clair Huxtable is the TV mom that raised me best. And though all things "Cosby" are tainted by what we know now, and though actress Phylicia Rashad has said some questionable things in recent years, I try not to let that dim my love for the fictional-character she played so well.
So with the caveat that I am leaving everything but the fictional aside, here are five reasons Clair Huxtable was, and is, the best TV mom of all time.
She Was A Fierce Feminist
A lot of folks would deride Clair's '80s-era feminism as too-second-wave, and I admit to finding the show's use of the word "sexist" (so popular at the time) a bit grating, but despite some retro trappings, Clair was ahead of her time. Intersectional without even knowing it, she was also a working mother of five, who somehow managed to be a domestic goddess at the same time. That sort of "you can do/have it all" thing may not be realistic, but it was aspirational, and feminism made it possible. It was so delicious, the way Clair would tell off young misogynists brought home by her children. It happened for the first time very early on — one of Denise's dates asks Clair why she bothers working and doesn't devote herself to full-time motherhood ("How Ugly Is He?" S1, E9). "That is a sexist statement, young man," Clair replies. "Why don't you ask Dr. Huxtable that question?" GOOD FUCKING QUESTION, CLAIR. Better still are her later comments made outside the room: "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?" Oh, it was sweet, but it's Clair's now-iconic shut-down of Elvin (eldest daughter Sondra's eventual husband) that sticks in the public consciousness. To type it out does not do it justice, so here's a clip of her famous "rant."
Clair is the mom who taught her daughters, both fictional and virtual (me), not to take any shit. I for one, am grateful.
Read more: 11 Moments From 80's Movies That Taught Me Life Lessons
She Was A Loving Disciplinarian
As a kid who grew up in a pro-corporal-punishment environment, I found TV moments when parents were hard on the kids hard to take. Parental anger always scared me because I instinctively expected it would be followed by physical violence. But on The Cosby Show, though Clair didn't go easy on the kids, and though she was a disciplinarian, she always ruled with love. This was a great lesson. She got angry, yes. She told the kids off, yes. She was strict, and sometimes irrational, and sometimes very angry, but never truly frightening. If she needed to calm down, she'd count. This fascinated me. I was more used to surprise whacks from my mother's slipper. Most often, Clair's disciplinarian side came out in interactions with — Vanessa wearing makeup at 13 ("Mother May I?" S3, E4); breaking curfew to stay out late with Jeremy ("Truth or Consequences," S5, E11); getting drunk with her high school friends ("I'm In With The In Crowd," S6, E3); and my favorite, lying about driving to Baltimore to see a band ("Off to See the Wretched," S6, E23). In all of these moments, Clair is angry, but it is a controlled anger. Hers is the kind of parental guidance I craved as a kid, and the kind of disciplinarian parenting I am striving to emulate now.
She Was Fashionable (But Free)
I have a very strong memory of myself in attendance at a school Christmas concert in the late 1980s. I'd chosen to wear a black pencil skirt, an enormous sunflower-yellow sweater, and a massive black-beaded statement necklace. I don't know why. I thought it looked good. My classmates did not agree. Boys took to calling me "Clair Huxtable" (an insult, they thought). Fools. I was embarrassed at the time, but in retrospect, Clair's of-the-moment fashions were fantastic and I am proud of a my accidental-emulating efforts. There are several contemporary blogs devoted to cataloging her style (the silk pajamas! the shoulder pads! the enormous clip-on earrings that had to be torn off to make a phone call!), so to revisit that seems superfluous, but the sartorial lesson that really sticks for me is less about specifics and more about the fact that Clair wore what she wanted to. Never locked into one look, she donned a huge variety of different clothing, and had everything from power suits to lounge-wear, ball gowns to denim overalls in her closet.
She Was (And Wasn't) Fearless
Like so many of us, Clair carried around some irrational fears. Never was this more evident than in the episode with the snake ("Bring 'Em Back Alive," S3, E1). A garter snake is loose in the Huxtable abode and Clair is terrified, but she doesn't let it show. In front of her children, she is calm and collected, disdainful of the little creature. In private, she's losing her shit. I loved this. Clair knew that it was irrational to be afraid of a garter snake, and she didn't want her children to develop the same phobia, so she hid it, lest her fears infect those around her. At the same time, in private, she both owns her terror, and faces it, eventually capturing the snake in a pillowcase and celebrating with charming effusiveness. Clair wasn't fearless, and she taught me that I didn't have to be either.
She Didn't Suffer Fools and She Told It Like It Was
The Huxtable children did and thought many ridiculous things over the show's eight-year run, as kids are wont to do. From Theo declaring "I can get by on baloney and cereal" ("Pilot," S1, E1), to Denise thinking her D-paper deserves an A ("Denise Gets A D," S3, E9), the Huxtable littles didn't always get how the world worked (now this is called "being a millennial", but it's really more about being young) and Clair wasn't having it. Still, she was never mean. Rather, she firmly but gently adjusted her children's nonsensical ideas with aplomb. In one of my all-time favorite moments of the show, Denise declares that, like her husband Martin's first wife, Paula, she wants to return to college to become a teacher of children with learning disabilities. Clair, in classic style responds in a voice dripping with correction, "Of course, Paula's going back to school. You're raising Paula's child. You're married to Paula's husband." The subtext is clear. Denise, you are a fool, but fear not, sweet summer child, Clair is here to (slightly sarcastically, but always gently) disabuse you of your foolish notions.
Clair Huxtable, I still love you. You were and are the best.
Jen Selk is a former journalist, occasional editor, and current hag. You can find her on Twitter at @jenselk.