Fault Lines
11 December 2017

Anybody Step Forward To Defend Bill Cosby Lately?

July 29, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — This week, New York Magazine published a story called “I’m No Longer Afraid’: 35 Women Tell Their Stories About Being Assaulted by Bill Cosby, and the Culture That Wouldn’t Listen.” Woman after woman, each of whom report that Cosby sexually assaulted them decades ago, appear in a powerful photograph on the magazine’s cover.

The allegations are not new. As the article reports, “In 2005, a former basketball star named Andrea Constand, who met Cosby when she was working in the athletic department at Temple University, where he served on the board of trustees, alleged to authorities that he had drugged her to a state of semi-consciousness and then groped and digitally penetrated her.” But suffice to say things have gotten much worse for Cosby since then.

Kill Bill

Cosby has been convicted of no crimes, which media reports mention, probably because they sort of have to.

But the dutiful disclaimers are pretty anemic when paired with poignant photographs like the cover image this week. The image leaves a big emotional impact and little room for questions. Do all of the women featured on the cover have equally strong cases against Cosby? Have all of them been deposed under oath? Are the facts alleged as mortifying in each instance? And what exactly was his conduct again?

It’s hard to ask a thousand words when the picture has already concluded that dozens of identical victims are lined up with identical facts to support their identical claims.

Bill Cosby maintains his innocence, but no one seems to care. After all, isn’t that what we expect a serial rapist to do when his victims finally, bravely come forward?

As the press cover emerging accusers, most of Cosby’s celebrity pals have dropped him. Phylicia Rashad and Whoopi Goldberg, for example, both defended him initially, before publicly recanting.

Recipients of Cosby’s past generosity would rather cut ties with the accused entertainer than keep hold of dollars with his name attached. In 1988, Cosby donated $20 million to Spelman College, the largest charitable gift to a historically black college. This week, Spelman announced that it would discontinue the professorship endowed by Cosby.

Contrast this response with the response to Jeffrey Epstein, for example. Billionaire financier Epstein was accused of trading cash for sexual contact with teenaged girls, and he pleaded guilty to one state charge. But Epstein still has friends.

Or how about former President Bill Clinton? Clinton enjoys tremendous popularity, despite multiple claims of sexual misconduct against him in the past.

How many organizations have rejected the Clinton Foundation’s charity? Whether they should or should not, I can’t help but wonder why the public is treating Bill Cosby so differently.

Perhaps judgment of Bill Cosby is so fierce and so binary because reconciling the public’s image of the characters Cosby has played and the acts of which he is accused is so damned vexing. Critics are upset about being forced to imagine Cliff Huxtable doing these things.

Guys like Epstein or even Clinton aren’t burdened with the public’s emotional freight. At worst, they are slimy. But even then they aren’t slimy iconic father figures.

The Huxtable Effect

No one likes to imagine Cosby’s iconic father figure from “The Cosby Show” as a rapist. I grew up just a bit older than the character of Rudy Huxtable, one of the daughters on “The Cosby Show.” For me, this picture induces as many cringes as picturing one of my friend’s dads in flagrante delicto.

No one wants to picture the dude from Picture Pages or Fat Albert forcing semi-conscious women to fellate him. (On second thought, I shouldn’t say ‘no one.’ The Internet is vast, friends.)

Doesn’t it feel icky to think of Dr. Huxtable, with a Jell-O pudding pop in one hand and a bottle of Quaaludes in the other, with his pants around his ankles, nothing below his brightly colored sweater other than what God gave him? Doesn’t it feel ickier than other dudes raping?

The allegations immediately forced the public to picture possibilities that the public didn’t want to picture. Never mind that someone’s guilt or innocence is not necessarily proportional to how icky we feel when contemplating the acts in question.

Bill Cosby is neither Cliff Huxtable, nor is Bill Cosby responsible for our personal associations or childhood memories.

Bill Cosby wouldn’t deserve the benefit of any doubts that we might want to give the fictional father figure, because Bill Cosby is in fact not a goofy but golden-hearted pediatrician who would never do terrible things. He is an actor and comic who probably behaved like a lot of actors and comics, and quite possibly worse. We wouldn’t cut Cosby slack because we like the characters he played.

Yet, the public is treating Cosby worse because we like the characters he played. The moral outrage matches the outrage we would feel if one of those characters was accused of rape, not the outrage we would feel if another entertainer hanging out at the Playboy Mansion in the 70’s were so accused. Bill Cosby suffers because Cliff Huxtable lingers in the public’s mind.

See also Paul Reubens, aka Pee-Wee Herman.

I have no interest in stopping the thirty-five women on the New York magazine from telling their stories, but there is another story that our culture needs to listen to as well: Heaping more scorn on Cosby for the roles he played is no fairer than cutting him more slack for the roles he played.

3 Comments on this post.

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  • Laura Holloway
    29 July 2015 at 12:38 pm - Reply

    Do you really think it’s because of his roles? Or because 35+ women are saying that he has raped with impunity for decades? I have no obligation to Bill Cosby and therefore no need to temper my outrage. His friends – his *true* friends – probably do need to consider whether to stand by a person they love and how to do that without giving (or appearing to give) some sort of tacit approval to his actions, but the public at large has no such need. For 10 years at least, women have been making these accusations against him, and they were ignored and sometimes called liars. Now that the accusations are piling up, people have started to suspect / believe that there is somethhing to them, but for years those women got “Dr. Huxtable woud *never* do such a thing.” I don’t think we’re harder on him now because he played a loveable characer. I think we were easier on him then for that reason.

    • TT
      29 July 2015 at 3:57 pm - Reply

      Maybe at first some people did go easier on Cosby than he deserved, because they couldn’t imagine Dr. Huxtable doing these things . . . until they started being harder on him than he deserved, because they hated imagining Dr. Huxtable doing these things. This is part of what I mean when I call the response ‘binary.’

      Either way, though, it’s plainly stupid and unfair. The fact that people’s initial response may have been stupid and unfair doesn’t make the latter response any less stupid or unfair, though.

      I propose that we neither go easier on Cosby because of the characters he played, nor be harder on Cosby because of the characters he played. I also propose that we not naively assume that all the facts are known when a sales-hungry magazine decides to put out a cover image that is conclusory at best and misleading at worst.

  • Lucas Beauchamp
    27 August 2015 at 9:08 pm - Reply

    Bill Cosby did as much as possible to make us think that he was Cliff Huxtable, and he is responsible for our personal associations and childhood memories.

    Bill Cosby did not just play Cliff Huxtaby like James Gandolfini played Tony Soprano. In 1986, just as The Cosby Show was the most popular television show in America, Cosby came out with his best-seller Fatherhood. Not only did he use the book to conflate himself and Huxtaby, he repeatedly criticized the lack of family values among African-Americans. So, yes, if the allegations against him are true, he brought everything he is getting on himself.

    Bill Clinton may have issues with women, but no one is accusing him, seriously at least, of giving women Quaaludes to take advantage of them. And Bill Clinton never grabbed the role of national scold.