This author’s answer will blow your mind…but not for the reasons you think.
2014 will go down as the year in which your favorite celebrities either dropped dead or were exposed as, to paraphrase the post-Enlightenment thinker and moralist Piers Morgan, vile sex beasts. God help the internet if it ever comes out that Jeff Goldblum is a reptilian humanoid, Steve Buscemi is a waxwork brought to life by Ming the Merciless, or the fact that Jurassic World is going to be shit.
It is the week of Thanksgiving, a date upon which millions gather together to celebrate wholesome American values such as football, overeating, and spending quality time with family members you hate. And is there any family man in the country more despised right now than Dr. Cliff Huxtable?
Although the allegations of his sexual misconduct have been circulating for years, it seems like only yesterday that Bill Cosby was celebrated as one of our most beloved cultural icons. As of now, 18 women have come forward to share their similar harrowing stories, resulting in the collapse of his impending comeback. His career is a sinking vessel. Cosby himself hasn’t done his reputation any favors by largely refusing to address the charges at all. He has also demonstrated he isn’t above throwing money at his victims in attempts to shut them up or pressuring an AP news crew into editing out any references to the allegations, as seen in this revealing footage which is even more uncomfortable to watch than Ghost Dad.
Maybe he thinks if he does nothing, the story will simply vanish. Forget it, Bill, it’s the 21st century and Tumblr exists. You’re fucked.
The question running through my mind isn’t whether or not Bill Cosby is a creep. When you have so many women revealing one grim account of sexual abuse after another, it seems pretty clear to me that he is. The question is why has Cosby’s downfall, more than the accusations themselves, rattled so many people?
The answer boils down to a simple problem of iconography. “I’m never watching The Cosby Show again,” reads the average Facebook refrain while others keep dragging out that tired, “why are they coming forward now” argument, indicating they’ve never heard of the late Jimmy Savile, a notorious sex offender in the UK who used his connections with Mrs. Thatcher and the Royal Family among others to stifle the voices of his 500 victims – read that number again – until a year after his death. It appears those in the latter camp refuse to picture a world in which Cosby isn’t their patriarchal role model but may, in fact, be a monster.
Cosby’s image rests upon the notion that he is Mr. Family Values, which gives him the right to lecture people of color about the language they use and the way in which they raise their children. Woody Allen has never pretended to be a normal, upstanding member of society, nor does he have a reputation of calling up Jewish comedians to tell them off about their material setting a bad example—although that would make for a brilliant Curb Your Enthusiasm episode. Roman Polanski never appeared in JELL-O commercials, and as far as I’m aware, doesn’t have an axe to grind against any single mothers unless they were once members of the Manson family. It isn’t much of a stretch to look at Terry Richardson or the aforementioned Mr. Savile and think to yourself, “Yeah I bet he’s a pervert.” When you talk about Cosby as a rapist, you’re talking about the Man Behind the Curtain. You’ve always known Cliff Huxtable was a fantasy but you never wanted to believe it.
But the idea that a popular artist may secretly be a reprehensible human being is nothing new. Digging deep into the annals of history will bring you to classical composer Richard Wagner’s anti-Semitism and Baroque painter Caravaggio’s penchant for stabbing people to death over prostitutes. One can only imagine the clickbait headlines courtesy of The Huffington Post and Buzzfeeld or the ponderous, self-congratulatory editorials pouring out from The Guardian and Salon. What would the trending hashtags look like? #CancelCaravaggio has a nice ring to it.
Cards on the table: I could never get into The Cosby Show, and apart from a few of his admittedly hilarious comedy routines, I never had much reverence for Cosby at the best of times. On the other hand, both Woody Allen and Roman Polanski have made some of my favorite films of all-time. Moreover, much of Wagner’s music makes me well up as do Caravaggio’s paintings. So if you’re reading this and you’ve concluded I’m an apologist for child abuse, rape, anti-Semitism, murder and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, well, remember that the next time you break out into bad moonwalking when Michael Jackson comes on at a wedding reception. While we’re at it, don’t you love all those beautiful Beatles love songs? John Lennon beat up both of his wives, so I guess you’re an apologist for domestic violence by your own logic. So who is the hypocrite here? On some level, we all are, because there is not one of you who does not own at least one artwork made by a morally questionable person.
A couple years ago, a friend of mine went to a Penn State game after the dust had settled in the wake of the appalling revelations surrounding former football coach Jerry Sandusky. In between plays, what should blast through the speakers to rile the crowds but “Rock & Roll (Part II)” by Lord Gareth of Glitter—the “Hey” song for those of you who know nothing about glam rock. “Do they know the guy who wrote this is a convicted child rapist?” He asked me. But perhaps the more interesting question to ask is, “Do they care?”
Gary Glitter is currently awaiting trial as part of Britain’s Operation Yewtree, an ongoing criminal investigation into hundreds of sexual abuse claims made over the past few decades in the wake of the Savile scandal. I don’t think anyone would dispute the idea that he is a vile sex fiend who deserves to rot in a cell for the rest of his life, but that “Hey” song still gets the crowd going whenever I hear it played at sporting events. Go figure. For all I know, the man who built the chair I’m currently sitting on used a bazooka to take out a school bus full of nuns. While I do hope he’s in prison, I love the way this chair delivers the comfort and support I need for my ass.
So should you watch The Cosby Show ever again? It’s up to you. If your justified disgust over Cosby compels you to expunge the program from your DVR settings, that is your right as a consumer and I respect it. But I also respect the right of the consumer who decides to keep his/her copy of Annie Hall safe in the DVD collection while acknowledging that its maker is a creep. Ye Olde Separate The Arte From The Artiste adage is not an excuse for execrable behavior. It literally means “separate” the two as separate issues. Indicting the work and those who continue to enjoy it will accomplish nothing but promote a false sense of superiority within you. Perhaps if we stop putting celebrities on ridiculous pedestals, we can finally start seeing them as human beings so the guilty ones can no longer hide behind the stupid icons we bought into in the first place.
Tragically for his myriad victims, Cosby walks free and will likely remain so until his end. Will they ever receive the justice they deserve? I don’t know. But I do know that somewhere in a massive studio apartment in New York City sits Lena Dunham, wearing a twee cardigan and ironically calculating the royalties of her new memoir thinking, “Thank Christ for Bill Cosby.”