The Terrible Truth About Bill Cosby
Since the resurgence of conversation about the rape allegations against Bill Cosby, I have been thinking about what it means to honestly hold men in our society accountable for the varied forms of violence they do to women. On the heels of comedian Hannibal Burress’ skewering of Cosby over the allegations of 13 women who accuse him of drugging and raping them, we learned that Stephen Collins, who played the lovable dad Rev. Camden to seven children on the show “Seventh Heaven,” allegedly molested and exposed himself to several young girls many years ago.
At the Crunk Feminist Collective, where I blog, last week I wrote a piece in which I argued that perhaps in light of these allegations about Bill Cosby, it might be time to slay not only Cliff Huxtable, but also Clair Huxtable, as exemplars of a (black) American family ideal to which we should all aspire. That suggestion, of course, was not received well. The Huxtables are a beloved family to most Americans who watched the show in the 1980s and 1990s, and even to a newer generation of children born in the 22 years since it has been off the air.
We are not a society given to slaying our patriarchs, even when they have proved over and over again that they are unworthy of our devotion. Despite increasing acceptance of gay families, the two-parent, heterosexual, nuclear narrative still anchors our notions of proper family. But what does it mean that while these men played progressive, loving family men on television, they potentially and allegedly raped and terrorized women and children in their personal lives?
It feels particularly egregious, because these men had access to literal scripts that could demonstrate another way to live and relate to women and children. Instead, they have perhaps shown themselves to be so many wolves masquerading as proverbial sheep.
Frankly, I think it is high time that these violent crimes begin to cost men something. And that might mean that it has to cost those of us who love them something as well. I have shared in these pages before that I do not romanticize patriarchal families because I did not grow up in one. My father was a complicated, brilliant, hilarious and violent man, and my home life and childhood were infinitely better after he left our home. His leaving and his alcoholism cost me a father. But it saved me a mother.
Many friends and colleagues made it plain to me last week that they would not “give up” either Cliff or Clair, suggesting that those representations do important cultural work that exceed the bounds of Bill Cosby’s many faults.
Twenty years after the Moynihan Report lambasted the black family, “The Cosby Show” was “the black family” personified. What Bill Cosby gave to us, albeit in a loving, hilarious and groundbreaking mold, was a benevolent patriarchal model of family. That black women have managed to creatively negotiate and make space for themselves in these kinds of families, to shine brilliantly in spite of them, does not mean we should invest in these narratives any longer. Successful black heteropatriarchy was never the proper solution to Moynihan’s effed-up assessment of black families in the first place.
To be clear, I loved both “The Cosby Show” and “Seventh Heaven.” An only child, I made friends with the characters on those shows, various other ’90s sitcoms, and the characters in my Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley Twins books. I had serious emotional investments in television and storybook characters, which is why still today, on my off time I can be found reading romance novels that have recurring characters. When earlier this year, the Disney Channel debuted “Girl Meets World,” a spinoff of one of my favorite ’90s sitcoms “Boy Meets World,” I tuned in eager to see what had become of Cory and Topanga Matthews. I deeply understand what these characters have meant to our childhoods and to our own adult vision of the kinds of families and friendships we would like to have.
But part of the reason that systems of patriarchy, racism and heterosexism are so hard to dismantle is precisely because they compel our emotional investments. And it is within our families that our race, gender and sexual politics congeal most concretely. Middle-class black folks love the Cosbys for the same reason that working-class black folks love Tyler Perry’s Madea stories. In them, we feel seen and heard – recognized. But if that recognition comes through the creative vision of men who really don’t value women, do those representations not deserve our deepest skepticism?
I recognize Bill Cosby as a comedic genius, and black people — with good reason — don’t throw away our geniuses. Even when they beat and rape and kill women and abuse children. Far too often, racism becomes an excuse for us not to confront sexism. And internalized misogyny and victim-blaming keep Americans from ostracizing the Woody Allens and Charlie Sheens of the world.
Since 2004, in his infamous “Pound Cake” speech at Howard University, Bill Cosby has gone around the country lecturing to poor black people about our failure to uphold our end of “the bargain.” A Faustian bargain, if ever there was one, the idea that being respectable citizens, with “good” families, would pave the path to freedom has proved to be simply untrue.
Meanwhile, Cosby has lived a lie. He has asked us to invest not only in the lie of his own life, but in the larger lies of black respectability and patriarchy. His own crimes demonstrate in black-and-white the diseased, misogynistic, violent thinking at the heart of patriarchy. And as much as I might love “The Cosby Show,” we should perhaps consider it “fruit of the poisonous tree.”
So I argued that we ought to slay our patriarch and matriarch and make room for some new ideas about what black life and black family can be in the 21st century. I recognize the violence in my proposition. I recognize that it feels violent to those who looked at a television and for the first time saw a family that looked like themselves. I recognize that it feels extreme for those who saw a black family and felt like it was a family to which they could relate.
But while we watched the show, the man at the center of it, the man for whom it is named, allegedly victimized and terrorized more than a dozen women.
That has to matter. And it cannot matter simply in terms of criminal justice. This is a question about where our emotional and affective and representational investments lie.
The part of me that believes in notions of linear progress, the part of me that likes to believe that in knowing better, we do better, wants us to spend time in this 21st century solving the problems of the 20th century. And that means, on the one hand, not diminishing the representational value of “The Cosby Show,” not diminishing the heft of its artistic and cultural and political project. But it does mean rejecting its narrative as passÃ©. It does mean not dragging a 30-year-old show kicking and screaming into times that call for something different. It does mean recognizing that the we, black, overachieving professionals, are allowed to be different kinds of men and women than Cliff and Clair, to have different kinds of families than they had, to be messy and not quite together, to be imperfect.
Bill Cosby broke a trust with America, and in particular, with black America, if he became just one more (black) man, who aspired to patriarchy on the broken, bruised bodies of women. Our knowledge of these alleged crimes demands we do something, and demands not simply a rhetorical denunciation of him while we continue to laugh absentmindedly at “Cosby Show” reruns.
And it is my hope that in slaying this beloved black patriarch, often branded as America’s favorite dad, we open space for a calling to account of the harms that men do, and that in doing so, we stand up and say, we won’t take it anymore.