It’s impossible to not feel conflicted about Bill Cosby
It isn’t he said/she said (and she said and she said) anymore. It is legal fact. A jury found Bill Cosby guilty on Thursday of three counts of aggravated indecent assault against Andrea Constand in January 2004, and his crimes against women can no longer be dismissed as “allegations.” Pending his attorneys’ stated intention to appeal, Cosby, 80, is likely going to prison. It’s very possible he’ll end his days there. His career was already over. Now it’s over and out.
So what do we do with his legacy?
Forget about watching episodes of “The Cosby Show,” or listening to the comedy albums, or watching reruns of the old “Fat Albert” cartoons as anything approaching entertainment. Even Jell-O is looking a little sketchy at the moment, and don’t think about Pudding Pops. You cannot be entertained by what has been so profoundly tainted (or if you can, many of us don’t want to know you). But there’s a resume of social and cultural accomplishment that somehow has to be squared with the most profound personal evil.
We’re a species that likes to divide people into heroes and villains and we get extremely uncomfortable when the lines are blurred. Unfortunately, that is where life often happens — somewhere in the middle.
Or, in this case (and as we now know), pretty far over to one side but always in some relation to, some tension with, the other. What makes it difficult in the case of Cosby is that his career traded for so many decades on potent images of innocence and achievement. His stand-up comedy records in the 1960s celebrated childhood with goofy characters and funny noises; they sold like crazy because back then Cosby was pitched as a novelty — a nice, smart, unthreatening black guy — to a white audience made uneasy by the insistence and adamancy of the civil rights struggle.
There are celebrities who are cultural disruptors, who force dissension and discussion — think Muhammad Ali in the 1960s — and there are those who are cultural resolvers, bringing disparate audiences into one big tent of comity and comfort. Cosby was the latter. Or so it seemed.
He was the first African-American performer to star in a prime-time TV drama when “I Spy” debuted in 1965. His long-running cartoon series “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” (1972-1985) was a hip updated “Our Gang” that slipped in educational meanings and messages; Cosby used the show as the basis for a dissertation that earned him a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1976. (The university cut ties with the comedian in 2014 as allegations mounted.)
And when “The Cosby Show” launched on NBC in 1984, the comedian ascended a larger stage as beloved father figure to the nation as a whole — a genuine breakthrough at the time. The UMass doctorate was occasionally on display in the credits just as Cosby played Dr. Cliff Huxtable onscreen, loving husband, cranky dad, and unimpeachable moral guide. The show was a situation comedy whose emphasis was on strength, character, and achievement — an exhortation to black audiences and a pointed object lesson to whites.
These were no small things then and the memory of their importance shouldn’t be thrown away now. But how do you separate them from the man who brought them about while behaving in the worst way humanly possible in private? Do you even try? Or do you just walk away from the entire complicated mess?
It staggers the imagination now to realize that Cosby was seen as such a pleasant personality that a routine like “Spanish Fly” from the “It’s True! It’s True!” comedy album — in which he jokes about looking for date-rape drugs in Spain with his “I Spy” costar Robert Culp — slid right past everyone’s alarm system in 1969. To listen to the live audience of men and women laugh in delight is to get chills at the chasm between what was comedy then and what is criminal today. Well, it was the Playboy years, right? Times were different then, right? Women were expected to keep quiet when they were doped into unconscious nonconsensual sex. When they were raped.
And if they didn’t keep quiet, you had a choice of whom to believe, between the cherished star and his accusers. For most onlookers, it wasn’t much of a choice. Not when the accusations were coming piecemeal. Not even after they started to add up. The cultural wall of persona — hey, hey, hey — was too tall and too wide.
It bears repeating that many women had gone on the record about Cosby’s assaults, or tried to, without the allegations gaining traction in the public imagination. The assaults were reported, they were out there. Rumors circulated and stories were written and went unpublished from the 1960s through the 1990s, and by the 2000s there were criminal complaints and a civil case brought by Constand that was settled out of court. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on that case in 2005, and other stories surfaced in the press.
It took a man — comedian Hannibal Buress — to focus the spotlight during an October 2014 stand-up routine in which he responded to Cosby’s hypocritical scolding of young black males’ dress and behavior to unequivocally state “you raped women, Bill Cosby,” and urge audiences to go home and Google “Bill Cosby rape.” Suddenly, it stuck — the mainstream media, goosed by social media, finally gave the story sustained coverage. And because they did, the dam broke and dozens of women stepped forward.
And still too many onlookers thought they must all be making it up. Only one woman, Constand, was able to take Cosby to trial, twice, and only five — “only” five — backed up her story during the second trial with their own grim recitations of being drugged and assaulted by the comedian. The guilty verdict now strengthens the untried accusations of more than 60 other women.
We all agreed on Bill Cosby. We all pretty much agree on him now, for entirely different reasons. In disgrace, he has become a potent symbol of how the tables can turn, have turned, as cultures all too slowly evolve and victims start being heard. He will likely be the first of the #MeToo monsters to serve time in prison. It’s almost impossible to feel good about how good he once made us feel without also feeling complicit.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance. Maybe, someday, we’ll be able to hold the two Bill Cosbys comfortably and simultaneously in our heads — the angel and the devil, and what they each wrought. But it won’t be for a long, long time. And it somehow feels just that the man himself won’t be around to see it.