There is rarely any middle ground when it comes to parenting and motherhood on sitcoms. The moms of adult children are either criminal-minded single mothers, like Benny from George Lopez, or married and angelic like Claire Huxtable on The Cosby Show. On Black-ish, Dre’s parents are divorced, and he has an obvious preference for his mother, Ruby. She’s firm and smart-mouthed, often chiding Rainbow about her parenting style, and introducing the Johnson children to strict, old-school discipline. But her sexuality — which viewers have always known to exist via her incessant flirting with other men — has always been a blindspot for her son Dre.
Last night Dre was compelled to face his own mother's sexuality in a really meaningful way. Dre’s sister, Rhonda, comes to town to spend time with their father in the guest house, making Dre feel left out. Through the tension, he and Rhonda get into a heated discussion about why they each have a favorite parent, hers being their father and Dre’s being their mom. Dre — who has been living under the impression that Ruby is the better parent since his father Earl was a bit of a rolling stone — gets his bubble burst when Rhonda reveals that Ruby had an affair with Dre’s elementary school gym teacher.
It’s not the revelation that Ruby has a sex life that’s important, it’s the unapologetic attitude that she takes when Dre confronts her about it. “I don’t need you to forgive me,” she tells her son before letting it slip that she was also cozy with his science teacher. She shatters his ideas about living asexually when she says, “Men look at me. They desire me. Their eyes roam my body.”
One of the dominant narratives about men and their moms is that they constantly feel at odds with her sexuality in a weirdly paternalistic way. They may sometimes choose to condemn that part of their mom’s humanity, in the same way they might with their daughter or another family member. This trope relies on the notion that any woman men love, but can’t sleep with, must be completely asexualized in order for him to engage with her. This is why campaigns for awareness and prevention of sexual assault and harassment so often rely on messaging like, “What if it were your daughter, sister, or mother?” — even if it is flawed.
Not only did Black-ish offer us a fuller look at middle-aged mothers, it addressed the paradigm shift that many men need to make in their minds about women’s sexuality.