Hey Mama: How Clair Huxtable Changed Motherhood on TV

The TV mothers of my childhood are ever-present. They too are part of the language I speak. Their stories are part of my memory: Lucy Ricardo (I Love Lucy, 1951), Carol Brady (The Brady Bunch, 1969), Olivia Walton (The Waltons, 1971), Edith Bunker (All in the Family, 1971), Florida Evans (Good Times, 1974), Louise Jefferson (The Jeffersons, 1975), and Clair Huxtable (The Cosby Show, 1984). I liked these mothers, but I was critical of them. They were not real. Their perfectly imagined lives were fun escapism. They were an extension of my schooling, my American indoctrination. The mothers in children’s stories and by extension TV, film, music and literature are idealized. They are nurtures, teachers, protectors. These TV mothers showed me what Wendy Darling told the Lost Boys in Peter Pan.  

Your Mother and Mine (English) from Peter Pan 1953

Well a mother, a real mother, is the most wonderful person in the world
She’s the angel voice that bids you goodnight
Kisses your cheek, whispers sleep tight
Your mother and mine
Your mother and mine

The helping hand that guides you along
Whether you’re right, whether you’re wrong

Your mother and mine
Your mother and mine

What makes mothers all that they are
Might as well ask what makes a star
Ask your heart to tell you her worth
Your heart will say, heaven on earth
Another word for divine
Your mother and mine

Television presents an image of a mother whose presence is a salve to her children like the mother in The Beatles’ “Let It Be“. This portrayal of mothers has always perplexed me. Stripped of personality, desires and even interests, their role is limited to care giver, nurturer. Yet, ask any adult and you will quickly hear anecdotes ad nauseum about their mothers. Funny, sad, horrific, surprising tales of mother-son and mother-daughter relationships litter our Twitter and Facebook feeds, especially Mothers Day Week. As a middle school teacher in NYC, I used poet Hal Sirowitz’s Mother Said poems as writing inspiration. The students’ writing was equal parts funny and horrific. Reading their work only rivaled listening to Eminem’s’ discourse on his mother. In four songs, he travels from pure rage (“My Name Is” 1999) to criticism (“Cleaning Out My Closet” 2002) then critical realization (“My Mom” 2009) and finally acceptance (“Headlights” 2013). Why didn’t the television of my childhood show me the many faces of motherhood?

We all have mother tales or yearn for them. It is the universal theme of humanity. On TV, this expansive truth is sanitized, white-washed. Television mothers have long adhered to the mother nurturer archetype (representative model) popularized postwar in the 1950’s by Harriet Nelson and June Cleaver. These white, stay-at-home wives only function was the care of their children, husbands and homes. This mother archetype persisted with little change until Clair Huxtable. Before her, TV mothers took small steps on the feminism walk. They were widowed or divorced, had taken part-time jobs outside the home, and rarely brazenly confronted or contradicted their husbands. Clair was the first to present a full though superhuman portrait of what womanhood could mean. She was as intelligent and successful as her husband, she had a clear sense of who she was and was not and she raised her children female and male children with the same values. She wasn’t only a sweet or brash, or zany or dependent. She did not shrink herself or acquiesce to a spouse to protect or worse inflate his ego.

Clair Huxtable is the line of demarcation on the TV mother timeline. Before her, mothers were primarily foils adhering to the mother nature archetype with little variety. Their characterizations were little more than quirks. Their journeys began and ended in the home regardless of their socioeconomic status. These mothers were zany (Lucy Ricardo), divorced (Carol Brady) selfless (Olivia Walton), naïve (Edith Bunker), downtrodden (Florida Evans).and kind-hearted (Louise Jefferson). However, they were largely subservient. Their journeys focused on the health and well-being of the family. Even Lucy Ricardo and Carol Brady, who were written as star obsessed and divorced, respectively, were stifled by societal expectation. Lucy cow-tailed to Ricardo and her obsession for the bright lights of fame was used for comedy fodder; though she had a goal outside the home, it was not, could not, be a serious endeavor. Similarly, though Carol is divorced her ex-husband is never seen or spoken of and though she is quite liberal she never gets serious about her role outside the home; she accumulated gigs like a hungry musician: freelance writer, sculptor, political activist, singer, and organizer of plays and PTA events. These mothers were in essence forced to stay in the home in order to fit into society’s collective unconscious in the 50’s-70’s. In the 1980’s Clair was married to a bigger than life persona, but she was confident, self-assured, knowledgeable, his equal. She did not have to defer to her husband. She was the wiser, more thoughtful and determined one who actively navigated the family’s life.

Mothers on TV Timeline
Image Credit: Preceden.com

In many ways Clair Huxtable is an inversion of the Edith Bunker character. Presented less than fifteen years apart, they represent generational change. Clair is self-assured, where Edith is timid and thought to be dense by her irascible husband Archie. While Edith stayed at home, Clair worked out of the home as a lawyer, leaving her husband in his home office to wrangle their five kids before and after school. Both shows were political, but All in the Family was far more liberal and revolutionary. The Cosby Show reveled in black respectability, likability politics and feminism. In “Cliff in Love,” we see Clair at her best explaining the difference between serving in submission and compromise. This scene also beautifully illustrates her brisk but clearly articulated delivery, allegro e staccato, reminiscent of Shonda Rhimes’ now legendary monologues. Clair was essential in brokering the image of the black upper middle class family as real and relatable. Clair has become the poster person for womanhood. She even has an eponymous song by Louis York. She is the Huxtable Effect. It could be argued likely not successfully, that Cliff Huxtable was the show’s comic relief not its star and foundation.

Clearly Clair Huxtable’s importance to the TV mother landscape is far more than the racial or ethnic diversification she brought to TV. Before her, Florida Evans and Louise Jefferson represented African-American motherhood. They too were evolutionary and paved a path for the possibility of Clair. There is a direct line from Florida to Louise to Claire. Revisiting their stories is akin to a relay race. This relay race of black woman and motherhood began with the slowest runner who was hampered in the beginning of the race by centuries of disenfranchisement. In the second leg of the race Louise makes up some ground moving on up to the east side to a deluxe apartment in the sky, before she hands it off to Clair who triumphantly passed it on to Rainbow Johnson (Blackish 2014). There were no false starts or improper passes. These mothers could not afford to stumble. These runners represented the expansiveness of motherhood. Poor, middle class, upper-middle class, uneducated, educated, black, mixed, hourly worker, philanthropist, lawyer, doctor… They represent mothers who were not being shown on TV.  Claire paved the path for more complex and whole mothers on TV.

TV Mothers x.png

Audiences no longer blindly accept archetypal mothers. We expect complexity, uniqueness and a three dimensional character. We don’t want mothers as family figure heads or stand-ins for family pictures. These women have to encompass all that the woman’s rights movement has fought: agency, equal pay, reproductive choice, respect. The most prominent TV mothers are thoughtful characters choosing homemaking or a career or both as they see fit. Mothers on TV have gone from archetypal to individual, from stereotypical to identifiable, specific. Clair Huxtable broke TV’s glass ceiling making room for blue collar mothers Peggy Bundy (Married with Children 1987) and Roseann Barr (Roseanne 1988); addict mothers Bonnie Plunkett (Mom 2013) and Jackie Peyton (Nurse Jackie 2009) and even irreverent mothers Nancy Botwin (Weeds 2005) and Gemma Teller Morrow (Sons of Anarchy 2008). Mothers on TV in the twenty-first century have fewer kids, work outside the home and their happiness is not tied to their marital status. This is certainly true of Jane  Villanueva on Jane the Virgin (2014). Often classified as a dramedy, the show parodies Latin telenovelas with fierce social commentary to rival All the Family. Jane’s Venezuelan American motherhood is swath in Catholicism, feminism, and all the angst of  youth.

The evolution from Harriet Nelson or June Clever to Jane Villanueva and Jessica Huang (Fresh Off the Boat 2015) was neither quick nor easy. Jessica is neither a foil for her husband, children or the show’s premise. Jane and Jessica are on their own journeys. Like Rochelle on “Everybody Hates Chris,” we view Jessica’s motherhood in a twenty year time capsule; the show is set in the 1980’s. However, Rochelle’s characterization is more like Florida Evans than Claire Huxtable. Rochelle’s chosen journey was motherhood, but Jessica’s is one of self-discovery and redefinition. Her unabashed adoption or more likely rejection of American culture is refreshing and anything but stereotypical; she is a new mother on the TV landscape. Shy of irreverency, she captures the duality of immigrant and womanhood. My appreciation of this character maybe rooted in nostalgia. Jessica’s antics are reminiscent of Lucy Ricardo’s. The show is as much about Jessica as it is about ethnicity and family. What does it mean to be a woman, of Chinese heritage, living in America, raising a family? Can we say intersectionality? And it is done well and it is funny. Watching it I see glimpses of the women in my immigrant family. I see myself trying to hold on to one thing while embracing another. This too is the power of TV mothers.

TV mother roles require actors with Ginger Roger’s skills. They have to dance backwards in high heels delivering impeccably timed zingers, offering solace to their mates, telling poignant and engaging stories to teach the kids life lessons, forging a career or interest, while remaining relatable/likable in thirty minutes to reach for television syndication. An aptitude for physical comedy and wickedly delivered monologues is not optional. Our favorite TV mothers were far mother than two steppers. They often led their husbands, even if it was quietly. They had it no easier than everyday mothers. Both deserve all the mother songs spanning musical genres: rap, rock, r&b, pop, reggae, folk, country, and blues. These songs focus on the lessons they teach, the sacrifices they make and the indelible memories they leave.

The comedy is home to varied descriptions of motherhood: the overbearing Marie Barone (Everybody Loves Raymond 1996), Claire Dunphy (The Modern Family 2009) and Beverly Goldberg (The Goldbergs 2013); the narcissist Christine Camphell (The New Adventures of Old Christine 2006) and Selina Meyer (Veep 2012); the sexy Latina Gloria Pritchett (Modern Family); the mentally ill Tara Gregson (United States of Tara 2009); the exasperated Dr Allison Park (Dr. Ken (2015)  While mothers are an essential part of television comedies it is still difficult to develop and sell stories about or showcasing mothers. Mothers still are not the focus; this trophy still goes to the father. It is the Olympic medal for which comedians train. Since Roseanne Barr and Julia Louis-Dreyfus we have been waiting for a female comedienne, especially a woman of color, to reach this height.

Only in the hands of gifted storytellers do comedies move beyond archetypes and well traversed tropes. The proliferation of mothers on comedies in the 1980’s and 1990’s is no longer. The comedy is not quite in hibernation, but this is the age of prestige TV. Mothers are shidu (Carol, The Walking Dead), psychopathic (Maya, Scandal), spies (Elizabeth Jennings, The Americans), political warriors (Claire Warren, The Family) and criminally protective (Cookie, Empire). Dramas are deliciously dark and an excellent vehicle for women and mothers. However, it is still the mothers on comedies that best capture the zeitgeist of a generation.

TV mothers today owe much to the pioneers, the early mothers of TV. June Cleaver cemented the mother nature archetype and Lucy Ricardo elevated it with a desire for something more than a family. The enormity of the impact Clair Huxtable made on TV is as immeasurable as the Obamas tenure as President and First Lady. Claire changed cultural politics. She ushered in the possibility of other types of mothers on TV. The expansiveness of motherhood on TV now spans race, ethnicity, age, marital status, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status… Clair Huxtable is personal and political, inspirational and aspirational, real and graceful, sexy and appropriate, liberal and conservative, listener and talker. She is the best of us, reminding us of our own mothers, grandmothers, and aunts. She has been named TVs favorite Mom, often tops the list on mother surveys and several TV mothers have shared her name since The Cosby Show has gone off the air. Blackish‘s Rainbow Johnson even reveals that she regularly asks herself “What Would Clair Huxtable Do?” There isn’t a better epitaph for her, though Clair Huxtable will live forever. She has migrated from the small screen to our collective unconscious. She is THE TV mother. Join me in acknowledging, Clair Huxtable brilliantly portrayed by Phylicia Rashād!

Originally Posted May 8, 2016
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