Explaining Bill Cosby to an eighteen-year-old.

Last month Micdotcom published a list of the thirty-nine women who had up to that point gone public with accusations about Bill Cosby.

I saw a thread about this post, and in it an eighteen-year-old asked, “Why do we paint him as perfect just because he’s famous?” Here’s what I wrote in response:

We saw Bill Cosby as perfect because he carefully cultivated his image. I’m 51–almost old enough to be your grandfather–and Cosby’s been a star nearly my entire life, first as a stand-up comedian, then with a series of hugely popular comedy albums, then as the first African-American in a leading role on the TV series “Eye Spy” (the first black TV character that wasn’t a servant or buffoon), then there was “The Bill Cosby Show,” “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids,” which I watched as a kid, the educational show “The Electric Company,” which I also watched, commercials for stuff we all bought because Cosby made them look so desirable, and then, the pinnacle of his career, “The Cosby Show,” which was the biggest TV show in the US in the 80s and which portrayed African-Americans who were non-threatening, attractive, normal, loving, and upper-middle-class. He gave lectures, set himself up as an expert on parenting and the family, not to mention morality, had a long and seemingly happy marriage, and was one of the first African-Americans that the majority of Americans–especially white Americans–genuinely loved.

Now we have learned that all that was bullshit, and that Cosby was a rapist who used drugs to take advantage of women. I don’t think there’s every been a celebrity this big who’s fucked up his career and legacy this much. (We have to wonder what other crimes other celebrities have gotten away with over the years.) It would be nice if these revelations served as a wake-up call to Americans about rape and about the deceptive and powerful nature of celebrity, but Americans have short attention spans and tend not to learn the big lessons.

I first read a story about one of the accusers in a supermarket tabloid, about two weeks before the story hit the mainstream press. My initial reaction was that the accuser was probably some Hollywood bottom-feeder who was never able to make it in show business, but had met Cosby a few times, and after failing to shake him down for a pay-off, decided to try and destroy his reputation.
Then more women came forth telling basically the same story as the first one. My thought then was, “This is fishy, but what does it prove? Anybody could latch on to this first woman’s story and say ‘Me too’ if they thought it would result in a multi-million dollar pay-day.”

But then I remembered Shawn Brown (one of the women listed above), who did manage to make it into the mainstream press in the 90s, I believe, when she successfully sued Cosby for support of a daughter he’d fathered with her. I remember being shocked at the revelation, because it was the first time I’d ever heard of him being unfaithful to his wife. (On the other hand, it was common knowledge that Cosby often went to parties at the Playboy Mansion–how many happily married men do that?)

But the Shawn Brown story barely registered on the public’s radar, because Cosby’s only son had been murdered shortly before the Brown story broke, and there was a lot of sympathy for Cosby’s loss.

My mistake, and the mistake so many other people have made, is that we let ourselves be fooled by the image Cosby had so carefully crafted for fifty years. We didn’t believe Cosby could do such terrible things because we didn’t want to believe it. We didn’t want a celebrity we loved and grew up with to be a rapist and a sleaze-ball, because we didn’t want to admit that the world is not the way it appears to be.

This power of illusion, this faith in the cult of celebrity, not only deceived us, it caused at least thirty-nine women to, by the accounts of some of them, trust a serial rapist because he seemed to be a such a wholesome, squeaky clean father figure.

Sadly, Cosby will not receive the punishment he deserves, but at least his days of committing rape are over.

I think we all need to re-evaluate why we trust celebrities so much and why our default judgments about them always presuppose innocence.


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