John Ostrander: Busted Icons
You’ve probably seen the news feeds – 77-year old comedian Bill Cosby is accused of being a serial rapist, of drugging women and then raping them. He neither confirms nor denies (however, his spokespeople deny); he simply looks sad and shakes his head. We are left to wonder and question but there are 20 women accusing him and where there’s that much smoke I’ve found there is usually a fire.
And, yes, I believe the accusations. Sadly, I think they are true.
You wonder why he would do it (assuming he did). He was Bill Cosby. He was famous; he was rich. He could probably get or buy as much sex as he wanted. Which underlines the fact that rape isn’t about sex, it’s about power. It’s an act of violence in which a penis is substituted for a club. It’s every bit as brutal.
Does it matter? Another celebrity caught in a sex scandal. The only thing less surprising is a politician caught in a sex scandal.
I think it does matter. When The Cosby Show debuted in 1984, it was a game changer and not just for television. It was a sitcom that showed an upper middle class family of African-Americans. I remember the Eighties (and the Seventies and the Sixties; I go back a ways). I lived in Chicago. Not every neighborhood was integrated. When I was growing up, I rarely saw a person of color. When you don’t know anyone of a certain color or ethnicity, it’s easy to make assumptions about them, to classify them as a group instead of individuals. Prejudice comes easy.
The Cosby Show changed that. They gave us people that we could know, that we could identify with. The Huxtables were relatable. Their problems and situations were like those in most families, black or white. We welcomed them into our homes, our living rooms. It changed things.
And Cosby himself was a wonderful father figure. Warm, funny, sometimes beset by his own family. The show was smart and it felt true. That was part of its success.
It wasn’t just the show. Cosby did stand-up, telling stories about his life and family. His Jello commercials were great because he knew how to react and talk with kids. Cosby was avuncular; he was good company.
How do we separate those images now from his image of a serial rapist?
I don’t think we can.
I believe in separating the artist from their work. Picasso was a son of a bitch but he was a great painter and the paintings exist in their own right. However, the image of Cosby as a comedian, as a TV star, cannot be separated from Cosby the person. His persona is based on his life. The work is not separate from the man.
Cosby isn’t the only one. Robin Williams’ suicide changes what we thought we knew about him. He was a zany, a madcap. He was brilliant; his mind moved like quicksilver. Didn’t like this joke? Never mind; here comes another.
He was also in pain that must have seemed inescapable to him. I don’t know if I can watch Mork and Mindy or his stand-up specials and not look to see the pain underlying the mask. He and Cosby were both icons and, in the end, both are broken. We didn’t know them as we thought we knew them.
Just like the rest of us.