Monday 18 December 2017

Cosby and the legacy hanging in the balance

After a number of rape allegations, Bill Cosby has gone from being a paragon of Regan-era moralism to the most hated man in America.

New York magazine cover featuring 35 women who accuse Bill Cosby of rape
New York magazine cover featuring 35 women who accuse Bill Cosby of rape
Empty chair: Bill Cosby

Tanya Sweeney

By now, and by dint of investigations like Operation Yewtree, we're used to the spectacular, ignominious falls from grace of our one-time idols.

If you're of a certain age, convictions of men like Jimmy Savile on sexual abuse charges has meant the irrevocable altering of childhood's landscape.

Yet just when the world thought it has finally become inured to shock and got used to the altered view of childhood in the rear-view mirror, recent allegations involving Bill Cosby have created chaos anew. As the New York Daily News have put it not too delicately, 'America's dad' has become 'America's rapist'.

Little could have prepared the world for this week's cover of New York magazine, featuring 35 women who have accused American comedian Bill Cosby of rape. It's a startling image, made all the more chilling for its lack of screechy sensationalism. The stark, black and white image of 35 women, some aged up to 80 years old, rather speaks for itself.

Beside them there lies an empty chair, signifying the dozens of women who have allegedly stayed silent on their experiences with Cosby. A Twitter hashtag, #emptychair, followed in quick succession.

Cosby has stayed largely silent on the accusations, save for thanking those women, among them Whoopi Goldberg, for their support.

In the Cosby case, many of the accusations date back to the 1970s and 1980s - too long ago in the eyes of the law. Statutes of limitation mean there is little danger of Cosby being charged or facing trial.

It isn't the first time these allegations have surfaced: in a 2005 interview, the comedian addressed an accusation of assault on Andrea Constand, saying: "I am not going to give in to people who try to exploit me because of my celebrity status. Looking back on it, I realise that words and actions can be misinterpreted by another person... I'm not saying that what I did was wrong, but I apologise to my loving wife, who has stood by my side for all these years, for any pain I have caused her. These allegations have caused my family great emotional stress."

Cosby has yet to be charged with any crimes, but the stories of drugging and sexual assault, each more disturbing than the last, still spill forth. Actress Lili Bernard added: "In the early 1990s, in my mid-20s, Bill Cosby mentored me. He gained my total trust and then he drugged me without my knowledge.

"He raped me. I wouldn't call him crazy… I felt that he was very much in control of his behaviour."

Barbara Bowman told the magazine: "I felt like a prisoner; I felt like I was kidnapped and hiding in plain sight.

"I could have walked down any street in Manhattan at any time and said: 'I'm being raped and drugged by Bill Cosby,' but who the hell would have believed me? Nobody, nobody."

Bowman has a point: in the 1970s and 1980s, Cosby was a cuddly, emotionally indulgent father figure across the world, thanks to The Cosby Show. Running from 1984 to 1992, the show reversed the fortunes of its network, NBC, almost single-handedly, beaming into 30 million American households and earning over $100m in international syndication revenue.

In the series, Cosby played Dr Cliff Huxtable, the benevolent and slightly fuddy-duddy patriarch of an upper-middle-class American family. That they were an African-American family added another layer of charm and novelty. With a clatter of amenable, ambitious children and an elegant and stoic wife Clair (Phylicia Rashad), Bill Cosby became a national treasure; the dad we all wanted. The 'Cosby sweater' - the zany knitwear favoured by Huxtable - soon became synonymous with Regan-era, cuddly family values. Touching on issues like dyslexia and rape, Huxtable soon became a figurehead telling America how to live the good and decent life. Picking up the moralistic, All-American baton passed down by shows like The Brady Bunch or The Partridge Family, Cosby earned an exalted position in the affections of TV audiences. Not for nothing did the head of Coca-Cola's public relations once put it: "The three most believable personalities are God, Walter Cronkite and Bill Cosby." Given how untouchable Cosby seemed, it stands to reason that the women now accusing him of wrongdoing stayed silent.

Off-screen, Cosby had been married for over 50 years to his wife, Camille, a relationship that further fuelled Cosby's reputation as a gentle and avuncular man. And somewhat crucially, rendered him somewhat impervious to claims of rape. Camille, for her part, has remained steadfastly loyal amid rumours, lawsuits and reported private payments.

The Cosby Show was the skyscraping zenith in a career that had up to that point been diverse and trailblazing.

In Cosby: His Life and Times, journalist Mark Whitaker detailed the comedian's Philadelphia childhood, his groundbreaking early stand-up and his part in the 1960s TV series I Spy, which made him the first major black star on US television. Growing up in a tough neighbourhood, Cosby dropped out of school and joined the navy, eventually winning an athletics scholarship to Philadelphia's Temple University. All the while, he was crafting his observational comedy, and it wasn't long before he landed spots on The Tonight Show.

Cosby's early stand-up paved the way for other African-American comics like Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy (although given that Cosby would call them out for swearing or being racy, theirs was often an uneasy relationship). As most groundbreakers are, it was fresh and audacious. However, the Village Voice recently unearthed an ominous clip in which Cosby details slipping the aphrodisiac Spanish Fly into women's drinks. It was to become a grim moment of foreshadowing.

For now, Cosby's millions of fans have been questioning his reputation, and his formidable legacy also hangs in the balance. Perhaps not surprisingly the industry is backing off, too: Netflix has suspended a special entitled Bill Cosby 77, while NBC, the one-time home of The Cosby Show, has ditched a planned new sitcom. Several networks worldwide, no doubt cognizant that it will never be seen quite the same way again, has cancelled repeats of The Cosby Show. Perhaps keeping counsel, Cosby also cancelled a number of talk-show appearances.

While Cosby's career appears to have reached the end of the line, the women who have accused Cosby of rape and assault aren't likely to have their day in court. Yet there's some­thing about that stark New York magazine cover that speaks volumes, seemingly saying all we need to know.

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