Can we reconcile Bill Cosby's alleged sex crimes with his wonderful entertainments?
The comedy legend's rape scandal keeps getting worse. But that doesn't mean you should stop watching reruns of The Cosby Show.
Here are some facts about Bill Cosby. His show debuted on NBC 30 years ago and became perhaps the perfect sitcom. He is consistently ranked as one of the greatest stand-up comedians of all time. He has been accused of drugging and sexually assaulting multiple women.
In the mid-2000s, 13 women accused Cosby of sexual assault in a civil suit. They spoke up on the Today show and to People magazine, leaving their stories out in the open domain of the web, where they have been mostly forgotten in the years since. But despite an absence of any new revelations, the charges were thrust back in the spotlight, thanks in part to a recent bit by comedian Hannibal Buress in which he called Cosby a rapist.
From there, the controversy snowballed. Queen Latifah canceled a previously scheduled interview with him. Twitter users showered him with criticism and rape memes when a social media stunt went awry. One woman detailed her alleged 1985 rape by Cosby in The Washington Post.
Cosby refused to talk about the allegations in a recent NPR interview, simply shaking his head when host Scott Simon asked him to comment. The Late Show with David Letterman quietly canceled Cosby's upcoming guest appearance. The next day, a 14th victim who was not part of the civil suit came forward and recounted her story to Hollywood Elsewhere. The lurid details are not pretty.
Now that the country seems to have taken renewed interest in Cosby's alleged crimes — all of which he has consistently denied — it raises an uncomfortable question: Can we still enjoy Bill Cosby's work?
Let's start with the sad fact that while we can never get enough Cosby Show re-runs or new stand-up specials, we seem to have a short attention span for accusations of sexual assault. Tellingly, author Mark Whitaker recently published Cosby, "the first major biography of an American icon," but declined to include any mention of the accusations against him in the book's 468 pages.
We can't say for sure if Bill Cosby is a rapist, but we effectively silence the voices of these 14 women if we consume his entertainments without acknowledging their accusations. Ignoring their claims only perpetuates rape culture.
But while commanding us to abandon Bill Cosby and his entire body of work may be the morally righteous response, it's a great deal to ask. You can't just tell people to hate The Cosby Show — it was full of love and laughter and was groundbreaking television that introduced a new archetype of the American family. Moreover, entertainment is rarely crafted alone, and in condemning a work due to the misdeeds of one of its participants, we fail to acknowledge the efforts of all the other contributors.
It is possible to dissociate the art from the artist: The Cosby Show the show as it exists outside of Bill Cosby the man.
The same can't be said of Bill Cosby the role model. Fatherhood, Bill Cosby's book of advice and anecdotes about parenting, was a bestseller and has a 4.4-star-rating on Amazon. Cosby has also emerged as a leading advocate of black conservatism, as unpacked by Ta-Nehisi Coates in a 2008 essay in The Atlantic. Coates writes, "I wished, then, that my 7-year-old son could have seen Cosby there, to take in the same basic message that I endeavor to serve him every day — that manhood means more than virility and strut, that it calls for discipline and dutiful stewardship."
Clearly, many people look to Cosby for inspiration and guidance. That has to stop. We cannot look to a man accused of sexual assault as the pinnacle of manhood, and we certainly cannot teach our sons to do so.
Look, no one wants to live in a world where Bill Cosby is an alleged rapist. That world is too dark, too crushing, and too disturbing to accept. Rapists don't wear rainbow cable-knit sweaters or use Monopoly money to explain the importance of an education. But these women have to matter. We have to push back against a culture too willing to dismiss uncomfortable truths about our favorite celebrities.
At the same time, that doesn't mean we should forget all the joy his work has given us.