I just finished watching W. Kamau Bell’s documentary miniseries We Need to Talk About Cosby. In it, Bell sits down with multiple people to discuss the life, legacy, and impact of Bill Cosby, and how his status as a convicted rapist alters his image for the millions of people who have loved and admired him. Bell’s interviewees include several of Cosby’s survivors, including Victoria Valentino, Lili Bernard, and Lise Lotte-Lublin; public intellectuals, cultural commentators, educators, and experts in various fields such as Marc Lamont Hill, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Kliph Nesteroff, Barbara Ziv, and Sonalee Rashatwar.
At this point, after more than 60 women have come forward to credibly accuse Bill Cosby of rape and sexual assault, it would be intellectually dishonest, as well as morally reprehensible, for anyone to make attempts at character rehabilitation for Cosby. Like many people, I grew up watching The Cosby Show. I thought the Huxtables were funny, relatable, and cosmopolitan in a way that was accessible. Dr. and Mrs. Huxtable were people you wanted to know, whose approval you craved. Cliff was a reputable OB-GYN. Clair was a successful attorney. Their Brooklyn Heights brownstone was spacious yet cozy, with plenty of room for their boisterous and growing family. The Huxtables epitomized Black excellence for an entire generation of Americans. For Black people, they were a validation—they represented what was possible despite hundreds of years of systemic oppression and white supremacy.
They were sorely-needed representation on a screen that for too long had only shown one narrow-minded facet of Black existence. They weren’t telling a story of poverty or struggle or overcoming inequality. They weren’t caricatures or stereotypes. They were Black and proud, but Black and proud in a way that was safe and palatable for white audiences. For white people, the Huxtables provided a blueprint for connecting with Black people without having to contend directly with all of those messy racial feelings.
Now, I won’t pretend to have had the same feelings of admiration for Cosby that legions of Black folks had and that some may still have, because for people in the Black community he was more than just a symbol or an icon; he was someone who effected real change for Black people not just in the entertainment industry but in the wider public imagination, the collective consciousness of all Americans. His evocation of a Black family was one that resonated with audiences of all races, which is one of the reasons The Cosby Show was such a ratings success. It was so successful, in fact, that in addition to making Bill Cosby a household name, it also catapulted NBC from being the number three broadcasting network in America to being number one. Everyone wanted to watch the Huxtables, except of course for the women Bill Cosby was drugging and raping.
Throughout the four-part docuseries, Bell intermittently has his interviewees watch clips of bits from Cosby’s stand-up shows or from episodes of The Cosby Show and then focuses in on their reactions. There’s lots of cringing, yes, and more than the occasional grimace. But there’s also lots of laughter and guarded smiles, covered up by hands clamped quickly over mouths. The lingering laughter Cosby is still able to elicit is accompanied by a powerful feeling of complicity and shame. The laughter, breaking through uninvited, makes you feel like a coconspirator in Cosby’s violent pathology. I found myself laughing hysterically at one clip featuring a now-famous conversation between Dr. Cliff Huxtable (Cosby) and his teenage son, Theo (Malcolm-Jamal Warner). Theo is expressing his feelings of helplessness and agitation at not being able to measure up to the academic achievements of his doctor-father and lawyer-mother. On the surface, the scene is tender and heartwarming, because you think Theo’s plea to have his father’s unconditional love and acceptance will result in Cliff’s capitulation. Instead, Cliff tells Theo that’s the dumbest thing he’s ever heard and reiterates to Theo their expectations of him, which will never be anything short of excellence.
How do you separate the icon from the monster? And better yet, should you want to? It is easy to see how Bill Cosby was able to get away with his crimes for so long, and in a way he is still getting away with them. He is incredibly charismatic, naturally funny, and lovable. Unless you know. And now we all know. Part of what makes predators like Cosby so dangerous is their inherent likability. They draw you in with an image, that of someone who is eminently trustworthy: a person of impeccable character. Just below the surface, though, and sometimes closer than that, is their truth. Their image is a mirage, their likability the result of a series of clever parlor tricks. They seize on a narrative of their own virtue and repeat it long enough to believe it themselves.
Bill Cosby is just one man in a long line of powerful men throughout history who have wielded their power, status, and wealth to subjugate, violate, and silence women simply because they could. In that he is not unique. What is unique about Cosby is the fact that he was able to fool so many of us for so long that the vague whispers of his true nature went unheard by the vast majority of us. The clues are there, though. They’re in his comedy tapes and late-night talk show appearances. We were all too eager to believe his lies, and with them he damned us. The truths of these women, however, must supplant any warm feelings of nostalgia that might be conjured when reevaluating Cosby’s legacy. We owe that to them. The least we can do is listen and believe, but we should all do more. Every story we hear of sexual violence should embolden us to stop rape culture in its tracks, to hold our leaders and legislators accountable for the policies they enact. Any silence on our part, once we know the truth, makes us no better than the perpetrator.
One of the worst things about rapists, other than the fact that they exist at all, is that their victims inherit what they themselves rarely possess: shame. When they do feel shame, it is often for having been caught, called out, and held accountable for their behavior. The shame they experience is not tied to the suffering they have engendered but rather their failure in ensuring it never saw the light of day. You see, shame would be a powerful force for good if it were felt by the right people for the right reasons. Shame, if it manifested much differently than it so often does, would mitigate against humanity’s worst impulses. Murderers, rapists, colonizers, dictators, fascists—all of these people could do with a good dose of shame. But shame has no power as a preventative measure when the people who have these inclinations to do harm, to enact violence on other people, are without guilt. Guilt and shame are not the same thing. You can feel shame, which is a minimizing and ugly feeling, without feeling as if you have done anything wrong. Unfortunately, victims of sexual violence often feel guilt and shame, because our culture places the onus of violence on the shoulders of the victim. What was she wearing? How much had she had to drink? Doesn’t she have a reputation for being, well, slutty? Why was she out that late at night? She was asking for it. You know how she gets when she drinks. She’s so flirty, any man would think he had an open invitation. A couple of cocktails and she’s three sheets in the wind. And people wonder why women are afraid to speak out?
We Need to Talk About Cosby asks more questions than it answers. It rejects the simple conclusions characteristic of less complicated narratives and instead interrogates the story of Bill Cosby within the larger framework of American history, specifically Black American history, in the latter half of the twentieth century. It challenges us, the viewers, to look rape culture in the face and to hold abusers accountable. Even when they’re our heroes. Perhaps even especially then.
Many people have asked whether it is possible to separate the art from the artist. Is it possible to find beauty in the artistic creations of bad men and insist, as some would try to, that they (the works of art) sprang fully-formed (decontextualized and pure) from the head of the aggressor? I think that’s the wrong question to ask. Here are two things that we know to be true: one, Bill Cosby revolutionized the entertainment industry for Black performers and effected positive change for millions of Black Americans who watched and loved him on The Cosby Show; and two, he spent decades grooming, drugging, assaulting, raping, and silencing women who trusted and admired him. These facts exist in tandem. They are uncomfortable, to be sure, but it benefits no one, least of all his survivors, to try to mitigate his crimes based on the success of his career. We do not make it to Heaven based on our best moments. Perhaps the most succinct and pithy summary of Cosby’s life and career is given by Renée Graham, an associate editor and opinion columnist for The Boston Globe. In one part of her interview with W. Kamau Bell, she says that Cosby is “a rapist who had a successful TV show”. At the end of the day, it is as simple—and complicated—as that.
We Need to Talk About Cosby is currently airing on Showtime on Sunday nights at 10:00 PM EST. It is also available to stream on various platforms, including Hulu, YouTube TV, Sling TV, and Amazon Prime Video.
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