Lessons from the Cosby Case

I read this fascinating (and very, very long – it has 15 chapters) article by Max S. Gordon about Bill Cosby and I couldn’t stop thinking about it because the author poses so many interesting questions, not only about Cosby but also about our society. It is interesting how we deal with guilt in our society, how we use double standards depending on gender, race, class, “even today” or more precisely, just like we always did. Things are changing because more and more people write about these issues, but it still happens all the time, everywhere. Gordon has many compelling things to say and I really urge anyone to read his essay, even if I will quote from it.

At the time of this writing, over twenty women have come out publicly with stories about Bill Cosby - ranging from sexual impropriety to sexual assault. Still there are those who feel, and may always feel, that Bill Cosby is being framed. Maybe a mob of women could come forward and say Bill Cosby raped their whole town and still we wouldn’t believe it because, much like the black codes of the Antebellum South that once prohibited a black man from testifying against a white man in court, a woman’s accusations against a man don’t matter. A man’s denial and silence is more powerful than a woman’s assertion, no matter how many women come forward because, in the public’s eye, each of those women stands alone.
— Bill Cosby, Himself: Fame, Narcissism and Sexual Violence By Max S. Gordon

We have seen countless women accuse men of sexual harassment in recent years and while there is some outrage at times, very often there is a backlash against them, all those questions of “Why didn’t they defend themselves?” and “Why are they saying it now?” There is so much mistrust and sure, there are cases of false accusations but it is disconcerting that especially when it comes to famous or popular people, we tend to buy the mistrust more than the accusation. Women somehow often end up on the defense, even if they are the victims. All of this comes from our strict categorization of men and women and the way we attribute power more to men. 

And because we are addicted to violence against women in this culture; because you can’t turn on a episode of CSI, or Stalker, or Cold Case or Criminal Minds and not see a woman burned, stabbed, cut, beaten, or raped; because we are addicted to pornography as a society, and hope that the woman we are watching in the video is there consensually, and hasn’t been enslaved, kidnapped, or coerced; because rape is so endemic in our culture it is almost a rite of passage and a form of social control, we are numb as a culture to women’s pain (except when it entertains us.) We watch, letting our myth about Cosby stand, and respond to the accusers with venom: angry that they are offering us the ultimate downer about someone who is generally perceived now as a flawed, but nice old man.
— Bill Cosby, Himself: Fame, Narcissism and Sexual Violence By Max S. Gordon

I’m a man, so I can’t legitimately discuss rape, but it is fascinating that most people don’t react to the Cosby story with “Oh dear, those poor women!” but rather with “Oh no, not him!” And with many of my observations on this blog, I see this portrayal of women as victims more than I ever had before. And I also start to question the use of rape more than before. Still, I think it shouldn’t be silenced but how often do we actually see the consequences of it and how often is it the inciting incident for the male hero to take revenge? Just thinking about rape in movies, I immediately think of vigilante where either men go out and kill everyone or where women turn “tough” and take revenge on their rapists, not rarely with detailed torture. None of this is about dealing with the effects and consequences of rape. I don’t think every criticism of using rape in fiction is justified but for every Mark Millar, who says that rape is no big deal, I feel sick more and more about it. Especially when the depiction then has such real-life consequences where we don’t take it so seriously any more either (similar to torture, which also has become “just one of these things”).

Creativity is an act of the divine and human. And while the human may be deeply flawed, we can still continue to appreciate the creative work on its own terms.
— Bill Cosby, Himself: Fame, Narcissism and Sexual Violence By Max S. Gordon

Now this has been troubling me for years. I find it really difficult to separate the two. If an artist I really like says some bullshit and turns herself into a prick, I find it harder to enjoy her (or his) art. I cannot read Mark Millar or Frank Miller comics with an open mind. I stopped reading Ender’s Game when I realized who the author was. On the other hand, it becomes easier the more time has passed. It also depends on what they’re doing “wrong.” Jackson Pollock obviously was not a nice guy, but I can still appreciate his paintings a lot. Let’s not even start with all the Scientologists because I really used to like Tom Cruise a lot as an actor. The problem of course is, where do you start and stop? My problem with Cosby is something that I always felt about the Cosby Show (like the author of the article), which I never really liked that much because everything just seemed too perfect and nice. There wasn’t much time between me watching it and me listening to hip-hop, so I was aware that this was not what African-Americans experienced every day. As Ice-T simply said (while explicitly referencing The Cosby Show): “Shit ain’t like that.” And assuming that this man, who wanted to show us this perfect family (with him as a clear authority), liked to drug and rape women… I don’t see how I could even appreciate The Cosby Show with some sense of nostalgia.

There is a movement happening in this country. A new direction. This is the movement that tried to come together after the devastation of 9/11 but was thwarted by a war in Iraq, that believed that president Obama could transform the nation, that fueled Operation Wall Street, and that stands together now protesting the death of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, insisting all over the country and the world that Black Lives Matter. It is a time of overpowering grief, but also a time to be hopeful. We are being forced to acknowledge that the system that we live in doesn’t work, or doesn’t work for enough of us.
— Bill Cosby, Himself: Fame, Narcissism and Sexual Violence By Max S. Gordon

This is what brought the essay to a tipping point for me. Being a system and culture critic every day, all day, I know how rare it is for anyone, even for people who are very critical thinkers, to admit that our system doesn’t work. And yes, the Cosby case shows that just like anything else. It is after all a story about power (men and rich people have it, sex is abused for power), authority (rape as the ultimate “I decide what is done here") and ignorance (he couldn’t have done it, he’s my hero). This essay brings a lot of that to light and all my comments here aren’t suffice to that well-written piece (which is only natural in a piece reacting to another piece), but I find it really important (and believe me, there’s much more in it than the few quotes here). And we have to talk about these things and overcome our inner barriers and struggles, have to listen to ourselves instead of Mother Culture who tells “Don’t change, everything is fine the way it is.” It’s not, and more and more people realize it. We cannot change what Cosby might have done or decide his guilt, but we can decide how we deal with those issues, how we react to them, if we strengthen power abuse and gender inequality or if we say ”Enough!” Anyone who feels the same must realize that they’re not alone anymore.