Sunday, April 19, 2015

Bill Cosby: Himself...Or Is It?

When I was in fifth grade, I read an article about Bill Cosby and Keshia Knight Pulliam (aka Rudy Huxtable) in an issue of Jet magazine.  In it, Cosby described how he and Pulliam related to each other on the set of The Cosby Show, particularly when filming scenes together.  He told a cute story about how Pulliam would correct him on his lines if he didn't say them exactly as written and that her corrections would sometimes ruin takes.

I remember thinking what a funny, even adorable thing that was.  And, I think part of me, not being much older than Pulliam at the time, subconsciously appreciated Cosby's patience with her childish antics.

A few years later, when I was about seventeen, Cosby made an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show.  The Cosby Show by that time had been winding down for a season or two, Rudy was pretty much all grown up, and Cousin Oliver...uh, I mean... Olivia had been introduced on the show, played by Raven-Symone.  She was there to replace Pulliam as the young foil to Cosby's Dr. Huxtable.

Symone also appeared on that episode of Oprah.  She came out and did some cutesy schtick with Cosby which culminated in Cosby telling Oprah and her audience the exact same story about Symone that he had told Jet about Pulliam a few years earlier.  Now, I don't mean to say he mentioned an interaction between Symone and him that was similar to what he and Pulliam experienced years before.  No, what he said was nearly identical word for word as though he were retelling a joke but only changing a name and a few details.

Recalling what I read in Jet years before, I remember thinking in all my angsty, teenagery cynicism, "This guy is full of shit."

Of course, it didn't help that, unlike Pulliam, Symone was an "experienced" child actor and had all the affected mannerisms and reactions that term implies.  And, it also didn't help that, unlike the Jet article, this interaction was on video where I could see Symone mugging for the camera and Cosby gently coaching her on what to say and when.  So, yeah, I couldn't help but think: "Bullshit."

That was the thinking of my oh-so-opinionated seventeen year old self.  Subsequent years softened my opinion into an understanding that yes, that story is bullshit, but it was also Bill Cosby cultivating the image he wanted to project to the public to ensure the continued success of his show.  Deceptive?  Okay.  Dishonest?  Maybe.  But, I'll address that in a moment.  Either way, establishing and maintaining a certain image is the game played by celebrities and politicians alike, and it would be foolish to believe Cosby was ever an exception to this.  He just did it far more effectively than most.

The Allegations
What connection does this personal observation of mine have to do with the multitude of rape allegations Bill Cosby is currently facing?  Nothing, at least not directly.  Certainty on what is true and what isn't about these allegations may never be available to the public in any way that could be called satisfying (although I think an argument can be made that the public would never be satisfied regardless of what the truth actually is).  And, I feel anyone not personally involved in this matter who is able to have a feeling of absolute certainty one way or the other should seriously consider their own bias before examining the issue.

As it stands, several women have come forward and claimed that Cosby first drugged and then sexually assaulted them.  By and large, it appears these women have nothing to gain from making these claims.  And, given the statute of limitations on this sort of crime, Cosby will more then likely never face any criminal charges.  To date, aside from a reported joke made at a show in Canada, he has remained basically silent about the accusations.

Some say that the sheer number of women coming forward should be convincing enough in a where-there's-smoke-there's-fire logic.  And, yes, the fact that all these women are coming forward with essentially the same story and not backing down under scrutiny is very compelling.  However, that is the same logic that allowed for twenty people to be put to death in the Salem Witch Trials.  In that situation, there was also a group of women hurling accusations, not backing down under scrutiny, and stirring the public into a frenzy.  And, in the end, twenty people lost their lives.

Of course, nothing like that is happening to Bill Cosby.  He's in no apparent danger of losing his life.  I can't even say he is having his career destroyed by the allegations because, really, what career has he had in the last fifteen years or so?  The height of his fame was back in the 70s and 80s, and his career has been diminishing in bits and pieces ever since.  Regardless, he certainly isn't going to be hurting financially when all of this is said and done.

What has happened is that the carefully crafted public image of him as the quintessential father figure has been torn asunder with relish by the media and a public spurred on by the allegations.  It is an image (and the power it provided) that some say protected Cosby from the repercussions of his alleged actions for all these years.

The Image
If that is the case, the question we need to be asking ourselves is this: assuming these allegations are true, why would an image provide someone with enough power to escape the consequences of multiple heinous crimes?  After all, we aren't talking about an excess of extramarital affairs, like Tiger Woods or Bill Clinton, that, while being morally repugnant, at least involves willing participants.  Cosby, on the other hand, is being accused of serial rape, an act that demands great moral aberration as well as the objectification of another human being.  How could a celebrity, even one of Cosby's caliber, do something like that repeatedly for so long and not (at the very least) come under public fire for it in a more timely manner?

Some have said that it is the pervasive ideas and beliefs brought on by an endemic rape culture that objectifies, infantilizes, and finally victimizes women.  I would agree with that up to a point.  How women are perceived and treated in our society does in fact help someone with enough wealth and power side-step the consequences of sexual assault.

However, that unfortunate fact has been true for a very long time.  And, it doesn't explain how so many women could have been abused over the course of several decades with it being kept a secret from the public.  After all, Cosby isn't some anonymous weird uncle whose creepiness is an open secret and who people say to avoid.  He's BILL COSBY, a beloved public figure, someone who has visited people's homes for decades through our televisions, and who has been a welcome presence there for as long as I can remember.

But, that might just be the answer.  Bill Cosby as the funny, lovable father figure is a modern-day icon.  And, in today's world, being an icon inevitably means money.  A lot of people stood to make a lot of money from Bill Cosby's popularity, particularly in the 80s.  And a lot of people stood to lose much had Cosby been exposed.

The Real Problem
So, what should be of real concern to the public?  We seem to want to tear Cosby down in some modern-day form of Old West justice where instead of a tree limb and rope, we're using social media and vitriolic language.  We do love our righteous indignation and relish every opportunity to point the finger at someone, but is Cosby really the one we as the general public should be tearing apart?

Certainly, the women he allegedly assaulted have cause to speak out against him.  Their loved ones would understandably be filled with anger and hatred.  But, the average person who has no personal involvement in the matter?  How does that individual figure into all this?

The fact is we should be angry, but not at Cosby.  Or, not just at Cosby.  Assuming the allegations are true, we should be angry at the Hollywood system that allowed this to happen by either turning a blind eye or aiding Cosby in his continued cover up.  Because, again assuming these allegations to be true, many people had to have known about it and did nothing to stop it.

This idea first started germinating in my thoughts when a theater friend of mine told me she had heard "fishy" things about Cosby while she was trying to make it as an actress in the 1980s.  Apparently, the general message being spread was that young, good-looking actresses should avoid Cosby whenever possible.

Then I saw an interview with Roseanne Barr in which she gave her input on the Cosby scandal.  In the interview, she implied that it was about time something like this was made public because most women in the entertainment industry knew someone who had been assaulted.  She stopped short of saying assaulted by Cosby, but when pressed by the reporter, she made it clear she meant Cosby.

The reporter also asked Barr a question to which she gave a very thought-provoking answer.  When asked why she thought these years-old allegations were just now coming to light, Barr said, "Because nobody gives a damn...until a man says it."

The man Barr referred to is Hannibal Buress, the comedian who made a joke about Cosby's rape history and is credited with causing the explosion of women coming out claiming to have been sexually assaulted by Cosby.  Although Barr was speaking about sexism in the industry and blaming it for silencing these women until a man took up their charge, her words do bring out another issue: Bill Cosby is no longer a major power player in Hollywood, so damaging his reputation, his legacy doesn't offer a substantial loss to corporate Hollywood.  As Barr says, "nobody gives a damn" now.  In other words, nobody stands to lose anything (particularly money) by these horrible things now becoming known.

Except us, that is.  Those of us who grew up watching Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.  Who remember Picture Pages as well as The Electric Company.  Who have fond memories of laughing with our families while watching The Cosby Show on Thursday nights.  We stand to lose a great deal.  If these allegations are true, what does that mean for those of us who grew up learning life lessons from Cosby's work?  Are those experiences invalidated?  Should they be?

What now?
I tried watching an episode of The Cosby Show recently on Hulu and couldn't get through it.  I just couldn't shake the feeling of how wrong it is to appreciate, much less enjoy, the work of someone who is probably a serial rapist.  Yes, I know Cosby has not been charged with anything.  Yes, I know that Cliff Huxtable is a work of fiction, separate and distinct from Cosby the man.  Yes, I understand that humans are multi-faceted beings, comprised of both noble and evil qualities, and so it is possible for one person to display both the best and worst of what humans are capable.

Ironically, that was going to be the original point of this blog post: that we the American public, in order to salvage our childhood memories, have to separate Cosby's work from Cosby himself, regardless of the truth.  The work itself is true and good if not the man himself.

As an adult, I've come to realize and accept the fact that the icons of my childhood were/are fallible human beings, subject to the same vices and failings to which the rest of us succumb.  I saw the first crack in Cosby's facade when I watched that episode of Oprah.  But, while I have been very successful at separating a person's work from the actual person (I can still appreciate Tiger Woods' golfing skills as well as the successes of Clinton's presidency), I simply cannot reconcile an appreciation of the work of a man who is a rapist.

So, yes, I suppose I do believe the allegations to be true and cannot get beyond that.  Although I wholeheartedly believe in "Innocent until proven guilty," that idea really only exists in the courtroom if at all and requires one to be devoid of passion and emotional connection.  And, I am emotionally connected to this.  I feel angry and betrayed because we were sold an image, and in accepting and buying into that image, we were made unwitting participants in the systematic cover-up of one man's brutal actions.  And, make no mistake about it, there was a cover-up, a code of silence - there HAD to be - in order to protect the money-making "legacy" of Cosby's work.

Right now, I don't have any answers on how to reconcile the experiences of my childhood with the ugly truths that are now being exposed.  I don't think any of us ever will, at least, not for a long, long time.  But, my belief in the phoniness of Hollywood has certainly been reinforced with the horrible knowledge that greed really can outweigh common decency.

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