Into the absence of an explanation, the public will provide their own. It’s a human compulsion to find a linking narrative when those strands are not available. When discussing a scandal, both criminal and unthinkable to the average person, the mind immediately attempts to grasp at answers to the question “why.” When that scandal involves a celebrity — and a beloved celebrity at that — it is often the accusers of the crime that are cast into doubt. There is rarely serious doubt about the celebrity him-or-herself added in the mix by the public. Funny what fame does. This kind of event is usually girded by a vigorous self-defense by the celebrity.
As was heard on NPR’s Weekend Edition, host Scott Simon interviewed comedian Bill Cosby regarding the donation of art pieces to a museum. Dutifully, Simon brought up the rape allegations, long simmering for well over a decade but now firing up again. It comes after many statements from women (both named and unnamed) that Cosby had been at the least inappropriate, and at the most had drugged them and had his way with them. The current flare up comes on the heels of a viral video where comedian Hannibal Burress calls out Cosby for the misdeeds.
The notoriety of the Scott Simon interview comes, now famously, from nothing. Throughout the awkward final quarter of the “conversation,” when asked questions about the events, Cosby says nothing, indicating “no” with the wave of his head. This is nearly pointless when it comes to radio, but has great value if one is not inclined to self-incriminate.
People want to believe Cosby. After becoming one of the most celebrated comedians through his comedy albums, he broke through television color barriers co-starring with Robert Culp in the series I, Spy. He would later assume the role of the Huxtable family patriarch on The Cosby Show. He was an avatar for blackness, cultural blackness, and successful blackness at that. Between those he was an integral force for education through the subtle Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, and more directly on The Electric Company. His storytelling prowess is well-known, and that was a key reason why kids gravitated to him and his records in the late-’60s and 1970s. He didn’t curse or go heavy into sexual content like contemporaries Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, and to a lesser extent Flip Wilson. He was PG.
That was why it was such a surprise when he would occasionally break that unbreakable exterior. An example: In the film of the concert that became Bill Cosby, Himself, the comedian talks about his aversion to drugs. He is told that the big draw people have to drugs is that it causes them to be less inhibited, allowing the real person inside to come out. To which he says, “Okay, but what if you’re an asshole?” The shock is that this just isn’t something Cosby, the genial educator, is known to say.
If the allegations are true, there’s a lot that Cosby has been hiding all these years, and more than a faint residue of his anti-drug stance adheres to the awful situation. And if the allegations are true, there are a lot of women who deserve a full and unqualified apology from those who refused to believe that Cliff Huxtable could ever do such a thing. The tendency to defend the celebrity and blame the victim holds. In a recent interview with CNN personality Don Lemon interviewed Joan Tarshis who claims that in 1969 Cosby raped her twice. Lemon countered by implying she could have avoided the advances to oral sex.
Another celebrity that garnered unwanted spotlight in previous weeks was Jian Ghomeshi, now-fired host of Canadian Broadcasting Company’s radio show Q, and prior to that the drummer for folk-pop band Moxy Fruvous. His ouster came after reports of a consistent pattern of sexual violence. From there, voices emerged speaking of Ghomeshi’s alleged behaviors, predatory inclinations, and the like. Ghomeshi, in a now-infamous response to his firing, mentioned his adventures: “I have always been interested in a variety of activities in the bedroom but I only participate in sexual practices that are mutually agreed upon, consensual, and exciting for both partners.” His accusers spoke of sucker-punches to the head and choke-outs; wholly unexpected and well beyond the parameters they had set. He claimed that the woman who set off the eventual firing was “a jilted ex-girlfriend.”It had, in his estimation, nothing to do with beatings.
This week, former supermodel Janice Dickinson came out and alleged that Cosby raped her as well. Almost as immediately, responses arrived calling Dickinson “crazy” and “opportunistic.” Past behaviors may give credence to those opinions, but does not discount the possibility she was raped. And at this stage, the controversy resides in the “he said/she said” territories, and Cosby has chosen to say nothing.
If the allegations are proved false and these events were either consensual, not coerced under drug-induced compromises; or non-existent, it won’t matter. Call it Richard Jewell Stigma: he who was accused of the Olympics bombing, later acquitted fully of the crime. Richard Jewell is innocent, but inexorably tied to bombing forever in memory. So too would it be with Cosby. Those comedy albums, the TV shows, the friendly persona will never be the same, even if he’s proven to be correct. They are, one and all, tainted. Yet, Richard Jewell was guilty until proven innocent in the eyes of the court of public opinion, which up to now is the same fate many in the media as well as on the street have given to Cosby’s accusers. We always give our celebrities the benefit of the doubt.
The statute of limitations has run out on these possible violations. Cosby refuses to confirm, deny, or even speak on the subject. The fact is that we will probably never truly know.