Critic’s Notebook: In Bill Cosby saga, feelings of betrayal and vague complicity
Mere months after a heated public debate over an editorial in which Dylan Farrow once again accused her father, Woody Allen, with molestation, Americans find themselves embroiled in a similar but even more emotionally wrenching news cycle.
Earlier this week, several women publicly repeated long-standing assertions of rape and sexual assault against comedian Bill Cosby. Allen and Cosby have maintained their innocence. This time, the accusations against Cosby seem to be sticking.
Appearances on “Late Show With David Letterman” and “The Queen Latifah Show” were canceled. NBC dropped a possible Cosby-centered series, Netflix postponed a Thanksgiving comedy special and TV Land pulled reruns of “The Cosby Show. " Meanwhile, the media, mainstream and social, churned with shock, acrimony and questions about Cosby’s legacy.
Many have taken to Twitter and other outlets to share very strong opinions, parse old Cosby jokes or analyze his behavior in recent interviews. Others simply struggle with the disorienting, though increasingly familiar, fug of anger, sorrow, disgust and, in some cases, bitter glee that settles over conversations of any scandal involving a celebrity. These dynamics are only exacerbated this time around by the personal attachment many hold for Bill Cosby.
For at least two generations, he served as a national paterfamilias. He gave us the raggedy childhood insights of Fat Albert and later the benign patriarchy of Cliff Huxtable, who was the kind of the father many Americans, of any race, wished they’d had. His groundbreaking career made him a civil rights and social activist, a role he embraced.
The snowballing allegations, and the long-standing nature of them, clearly leave many feeling betrayed and vaguely complicit. And, indeed, the thought of Cosby committing despicable acts even as audiences lifted him from comedian/actor to role model/sage is upsetting.
The fact that some of these women have been telling their stories for years with no subsequent criminal proceedings, legal redress or public outrage is horrifying. All the more so since, at this point, there seems to be little hope for a real and just resolution.
Which is why, as with the Farrow-Allen case, we won’t be able to stop talking about it any time soon. With the possible exception of romantic love, nothing drives human narrative as often and as forcefully as the quest for justice.
In the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, the nature of the universe usually comes down to how a story answers one simple question: Even if they are rich and powerful or poor and disenfranchised, do people get what they deserve in the end?
Over and over, in literature, film and television, we tell ourselves that the answer is yes.
Mysteries are solved, often at the eleventh hour or decades later, through the miracles of technology or cleverly induced confession. The bubbles of money and privilege are burst revealing the craven humans within who are then punished. The wrongly imprisoned are freed, the wrongly accused exonerated. Either way the truth is known, order and faith restored.
None of which is likely to happen here. The women’s stories present a powerful argument in number and consistency — many of the women say they were drugged — but there does not appear to be any physical evidence or outside witnesses, which is precisely why at least one of the cases was dropped.
The accusations may effectively end his career, but the man is 77 after all, with a legacy so prolonged and solid — it seemed it was not that long ago we united to mourn the senseless killing of his son — that in the absence of damning photographs, videotapes or a confession, it’s difficult to imagine even this overwhelming it.
Conversely, if the allegations are false, Cosby will never be cleared — unless all of the women recant. And if none of the women goes on to file a civil lawsuit, Cosby will be tried solely in the court of public opinion. In all likelihood, no matter how many words are written or conversations had, even those currently reserving judgment will have to rely solely on whose story they believe. Thus far there seems no path to the irrefutable truth.
Or at least not in the case of what Bill Cosby did or did not do to this or that woman.
Many important truths have emerged from this story and the others like it. They can be seen if we stop looking so much for simple justice and embrace instead the real concerns behind our fascination.
This story reminds us once again that rape and sexual abuse are tragically common, widespread, underreported and often viewed, sometimes even by victims, as something other than a crime. That few are rushing to publicly defend Cosby is telling, that no one who accepts the women’s version of events is attempting to contextualize them even more so.
In the past, the rape and mistreatment of acolytes, fans or “groupies” by famous entertainers was often dismissed as “normal” behavior of the time and place. What did they think was going to happen when they accompanied the star to his trailer/apartment/hotel room? Fortunately, we finally seem to be aware that there is no context in which sexual assault is not a crime.
Once again, we are schooled in the danger of confusing persona with reality, of turning the talented and successful into saints or heroes. That Bill Cosby stands, or stood, for so much to so many despite being dogged by some of these accusations for decades proves that our contempt for the culture of celebrity is outstripped only by our continued dependence on it.
We protest and deride the bubble that surrounds the wealthy, famous and privileged, but only when we have a break from helping to inflate it.
It also explains why Cosby has been allowed to dodge these accusations for so long. Celebrity and status are not naturally occurring forces; they are things we, as a society, continue to grant certain individuals even as our stories, both fiction and nonfiction, grapple with the inevitable peril of doing so.
The bigger they are, the harder they fall — and the more damage they can do on the way up, and down.
Perhaps it’s time to stop building them so big.