Opinion

opinion | Renee Graham

Bill Cosby losing in court of public opinion

Bill Cosby

Evan Vucci/AP

Bill Cosby

How long before Bill Cosby is exiled to the Island of Misfit Celebrities?

Last week, the once-adored actor and comedian had the temerity to invite Twitter users to “Go ahead. Meme me!” He might as well have affixed a “Kick me” sign to his gray hair-stubbled chin. What he received was a torrent of acerbic references to accusations that, through the years, he has sexually assaulted more than a dozen women. Before day’s end, the ill-conceived idea was scrubbed from Cosby’s website, as was the original tone-deaf tweet soliciting comments.

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Cosby settled a lawsuit in 2006 filed by a woman who claimed the comedian drugged and raped her in 2004, and he has never been charged with any crime connected to the allegations. Yet from comedian Hannibal Buress, who straight up called him “a rapist,” to countless slings and arrows on Twitter, there’s a sense that Cosby won’t emerge from this mess unscathed.

And if the social media firestorm is any indication, Cosby may not be allowed to recover. Though major media outlets recently interviewed Cosby and his wife Camille about their extensive private collection of African-American art loaned to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, none asked him about the accusations, though they have gained traction. Howard Bragman, a longtime celebrity public relations consultant, insisted on CNN that Cosby has “got to be willing to go on the air and go on the record, and say ‘These charges are not true, this is nothing I would do.’ ” So far, Cosby has done no such thing, perhaps already realizing his reputation is a lost cause.

How celebrities weather such disasters often depends on how they previously existed in the public’s consciousness. For many, news of R&B singer Chris Brown’s 2009 arrest for assaulting his then-girlfriend Rihanna was the first they’d ever heard of him. That initial impression continues to cloud everything else. His career has continued, but nothing he has done thus far has outweighed his image as the man who battered Rihanna.

On the other hand, former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson may be the hardest-working convicted rapist in show biz. He had cameos in the first two “Hangover” movies. In 2012, he starred in a one-man show on Broadway. Last year, he had appearances in “How I Met Your Mother” and “Law & Order: SVU,” and he’s now the animated star of the Adult Swim cartoon series, “Mike Tyson Mysteries.” Tyson’s criminal record seems irrelevant these days; it probably helped that Tyson, in his boxing heyday, was a violent man in a violent sport, and few seemed surprised when he was convicted in 1992 of raping a beauty pageant contestant. It matched the already accepted image of Tyson as scary and dangerous, and much of his post-prison, post-boxing career resurrection has cynically parodied and capitalized on that.

While celebrities crash-and-burn with tedious frequency, the gnawing possibility that Cosby may have committed horrific acts against women is working our culture’s nerves in a different way. After all, this is the man who was all but anointed “America’s dad” during the giddy years of “The Cosby Show.” On Saturday mornings, he entertained a generation and shared life lessons on “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.” He was the comedian who proved you could keep it clean and still sell out arenas.

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From his pudding commercials with kids to his ability to achieve wide mainstream success without whitewashing his blackness, we not only liked Cosby; we trusted him. What now feels like a stinging betrayal of that trust means that, going forward, Cosby’s soiled career will more closely resemble that of Brown than Tyson. There’s no longer a conversation to be had about him without the accusations peeking around every corner. Cosby likely knows this, and it may account for why he postponed a recent appearance on “The Queen Latifah Show,” an innocuous featherweight even by the depth-averse standards of daytime TV.

Though the once revered, now increasingly reviled icon may never have to answer for these allegations inside a courtroom, it seems the court of public opinion has already decided its case against him.

Related:

Thing tank: Cosby might want to log off for a while

Renee Graham is a writer in Boston.
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