Theater & art

Ty Burr | Commentary

Why did we ignore Bill Cosby allegations for so long?

Behind the sad, sorry saga of Bill Cosby’s career meltdown is something possibly scarier: Our own long-delayed response to allegations that have been out there, much reported yet never gaining cultural traction, for a decade.

The question has surged into the popular consciousness: Is — or was — the beloved comedian, sitcom star, and commercial pitchman a serial rapist? Numerous women have come forward with queasily similar tales of being drugged and waking up with hazy memories and telltale signs of sexual assault. Some of the alleged incidents happened decades ago, while others are as recent as 2004. There are no legal charges pending; Cosby is being tried in the court of public opinion.

Why now? Why not when People magazine published an article in 2006 that discussed the comedian’s civil settlement with Andrea Costand and shared interviews with three other women accusing Cosby of drugging and raping them? Is it because our social media have reached such a critical mass that water-cooler conversations are, by default, national? Is it because it took another man — comedian Hannibal Buress, whose stand-up rant against Cosby went viral last month — to finally get our attention?

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Or is it because we just don’t want to hear it when the person accused is powerful and famous and — most of all — loved? That Cosby is black matters in part because, for many white viewers who came of age with his comedy records in the 1960s or watched him as Dr. Cliff Huxtable on “The Cosby Show” in the 1980s, he was the rare African-American cultural figure who didn’t make them feel uncomfortable about their whiteness. There’s that.

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But this is also about men, persona, and power, and a cultural industry that’s very good at making evidence disappear. There are a lot of things we don’t want to know until we’re forced to look at them, and there are profits and careers to be maintained by keeping us from looking.

Did he do it? Certainly the comedian did himself no favors with his head-shaking silence during an NPR interview last week. On radio, there may be no greater admission of guilt than dead air.

In the past, the Cosby camp has denied such accusations as “utterly preposterous” and “plainly bizarre.” Cosby’s lawyer, John P. Schmitt, released a statement last week that “Mr. Cosby does not intend to dignify these allegations with any comment.”

But in the absence of hard proof, the edifice is still crumbling. Appearances on talk shows have been canceled, as has a Netflix special honoring Cosby’s 77th birthday and a planned NBC sitcom. TV Land has even scuttled reruns of “The Cosby Show.” Now that public unease has reached a certain peak, no one wants anything to do with Bill Cosby. Would you buy Jell-O from this man anymore? Or anything else?

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Still — why now? Why not earlier? Some of it is cultural change, long range and short term. Cosby had an entire stand-up routine about drugging women’s drinks with “Spanish fly” back in 1969; that it got laughs then says a lot about how views can shift in 45 years. The current national conversations about campus rape and domestic abuse in pro football and other sports have contributed to the mood of public discussion, as has the warfare over the meaning of the word “feminism” and related gender issues in all corners of our electronic landscape.

That landscape itself may be the crucial difference: The Web and Twitter and YouTube have coalesced into a 24-7 free-for-all of chatter, conjecture, audio/video evidence, links to articles (which link to further articles), and a Babel of opinion, some condemning alleged perpetrators, others blaming apparent victims, and everyone hiding behind the safety of anonymous screen names. It may be that Bill Cosby is finally being held to account — along with all the rest — because there simply is no more hiding.

Maybe. But bad things that powerful people do still get hidden in plain sight all the time. Allegations of sexual abuse pop up in Hollywood frequently, get settled out of court, and disappear once more beneath the waves.

“An Open Secret,” a new documentary by Amy Berg (“Deliver Us From Evil”) about allegations of the sexual abuse and exploitation of young male actors in Hollywood, has had trouble finding theatrical distribution and may be self-released by the filmmaker. No one wants to hear about things like this until, it seems, everyone does.

Then more witnesses step forward, as did model Janice Dickinson with her own recent allegations against Cosby, and we have to have an opinion, like it or not.

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By now, what you think of Bill Cosby probably says more about you than it does about him. In the absence of concrete evidence, we project, and what we project is an amalgam of personal beliefs, biases, judgment calls, and emotional knee-jerks. You can find all that and more in the comments beneath any recent online article on the subject of Cosby. You will certainly find them below the electronic version of this article in due time. There you will hear from all sides: The people condemning the comedian, yes, but also those who believe his accusers are trying to shake him down, are bitter over being dumped, or are fame-seekers or star-stalkers or just plain crazy.

Why didn’t the women go to the police back then? Why didn’t they come forward sooner? These and other variations on killing the messengers at times dominate online arguments. As usual, they say more about the commenters than the commented-upon, because the answers are fairly obvious. Because he was powerful, adored, and no one would have believed them? Because the drugs they say they were given rendered their memories of the encounters uncertain? Because — and anyone who works with sexual assault victims will back this up — many women bury their shame and trauma down where no one can see it, least of all a justice system that can be profoundly unsympathetic even in cases where the perpetrator isn’t a national icon?

We may never know the truth — not the way we like it, with confessions and justice appropriately served. You may not think it’s fair that Bill Cosby’s persona is taking the hit while the man will probably remain free. But when we judge our celebrities by the amount of public affection they inspire — and that affection colludes in protecting them — the death of reputation and the upending of a legacy may be the cruelest punishment of all. The only remaining question is why we looked away for so long.

Related coverage:

Bill Cosby to AP: ‘We don’t answer that’

TV Land will stop airing episodes of ‘Cosby Show’

Janice Dickinson accuses Bill Cosby of assault

Netflix postponing Bill Cosby’s upcoming standup special

Audio of Bill Cosby 1969 stand-up act about drugging women resurfaces

Bill Cosby’s attorney makes statement

Bill Cosby won’t address abuse allegations, lawyer says

Cosby stays silent about assault allegations in NPR interview

Renee Graham: Bill Cosby losing in court of public opinion

Thing Tank: Bill Cosby might want to log off for a while

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.