All rape is reprehensible, and yet there's something about the element of hypocrisy in the Cosby story that adds to the indignity -- and the problem is two-fold. First. there is the toxicity of our depraved celebrity culture; and second, the unfortunate damage cast upon fatherhood, which cannot avoid taking the hit in this unfolding saga, because the story involves one of the few television shows that highlighted a strong, dedicated, and likeable dad.
First, we must remember that we're at the stage of allegations:
Comedian Bill Cosby spoke out against a wave of sexual assault allegations but told a Florida publication he does not have to "answer to innuendos." Cosby, 77, spoke to the newspaper Florida Today on Friday, before performing his comedy routine at a theater in Melbourne, Florida. The comedian has refused to address questions about allegations made by a number of women who said he forced himself on them sexually, with some accusing him of drugging them first.
Cosby received a standing ovation at the start of his 90-minute show in Melbourne.
True enough, his point is valid, but the fact that presently the number of women stands at sixteen gives one pause, and the consistency in their various accounts underscores the plausibility of the charges. That said, let's consider the setting in which such a thing was able to unfold:
Long before there was a Dr. Cliff Huxtable, before rumpled sweaters and a collective anointing as America’s dad, Bill Cosby was magnified a hundredfold in the eyes of the young models and actresses he pulled into his orbit. For them, he embodied the hippest of the 1960s and ’70s Hollywood scene, a mega-star with the power to make somebodies out of nobodies.
He partied with Hugh Hefner and was a regular at the magazine mogul’s Playboy Mansion bacchanals. He co-owned a restaurant and hit the hottest clubs. He sizzled.
Those wild, largely forgotten days clash with the avuncular image that has been Cosby’s most enduring impression on American culture. And they have been jarringly cast in a wholly different light as a torrent of women have told — and in some cases retold — graphic, highly detailed stories of alleged abuse by Cosby.
So there is a particular culture that surrounds a "mega-star," which has a way of short-circuiting prudence and common sense. People lose their heads in these situations because we make our entertainers larger than life. The last 30 years have also seen an unraveling of virtue and an increase in promiscuity -- so that not only do girls and women find it nearly impossible to draw a conventional line concerning chastity (that line all but disappeared decades ago) but they are loathe even to complain in these situations: "Sex with Bill Cosby -- what's the problem!?"
The confusion on the personal level is exacerbated by the popular culture, which bows to the ridiculous demands of such stars, undermines the dignity of the human person, dismisses chastity as a good, and loves a manufactured image (even knowing deep down that they are probably not accurate).
Ross Douthat hit the nail on the head this column:
Show me what a culture values, prizes, puts on a pedestal, and I’ll tell you who is likely to get away with rape. In Catholic Boston or Catholic Ireland, that meant men robed in the vestments of the church. In Hollywood and the wider culture industry, it has often meant the famous and talented, from Roman Polanski to the BBC’s Jimmy Savile, robed in the authority of their celebrity and art. And in Rotherham, it meant men whose ethnic and religious background made them seem politically untouchable, and whose victims belonged to a class that liberal and conservative elements in British society regard with condescension or contempt.
The point is that as a society changes, so do the paths through which evil enters in, the prejudices and blind spots it exploits.
In all of his examples (and we could add the sports culture with its own demons), we find abuse victims that couldn't get a hearing -- many times for years on end -- until the prevailing myth was either untenable or ready to be ditched. So here we are, and the alleged victims of Cosby are being heard, and yet that means that one of the entertainment industry's few voices for fatherhood is forever tarnished. Cliff Huxtable is already gone from the list of reruns on television. And those who do sit through the old shows wherever they are found will have a nagging voice in their heads: He's a fraud! He's a bully!
This is where the feminists and the deconstructionists will gain the most traction. Marriage and fatherhood, in their view, are constructs predicated on a foundational "lie" (that men and women were created to collaborate on a healthy, shared project called the Traditional Family). From Archie Bunker forward, they have tried to poison the well, showing that marriage is degrading to women and fatherhood a masque for sexism and misogyny. The Cosby Show was a breath fresh air, with the emotional health of all its characters, and particularly the virtues exhibited by Dr Cliff Huxtable -- as hardworking doctor, faithful husband (and son), and devoted dad.
As one of the founders of feminist theology notes, "Conversion from sexism means both freeing oneself from the ideologies and roles of patriarchy and also struggling to liberate social structures from these patterns" (p. 201). And one of her modern-day disciples reminds us:
I grew up in traditional black patriarchal culture and there is no doubt that I’m going to take a great many unconscious, but present, patriarchal complicities to the grave because it so deeply ensconced in how I look at the world. Therefore, very much like alcoholism, drug addiction, or racism patriarchy is a disease and we are in perennial recovery and relapse. So you have to get up every morning and struggle against it (Cornel West).
And lest one give in to confusion, there is a difference between patriarchy (which is simply a culture founded on fatherhood) and misogyny (which is the abuse of male power). No matter, it is all the same in the post-modern world, and the demise of role model Cliff Huxtable only accelerates the moral chaos.
While I would like to think that justice is finally being served, there may be a darker element at work. Whether or not the suffering of these women really matters, it may be that Cosby is now considered dispensable because Dr Huxtable-as-role-model is seen as an abiding irritant* that must be purged from the popular culture. Bill Cosby's behaviour has provided the means, although he probably never imagined how his personal demons would smear the face of fatherhood itself.
* another similar irritant was eradicated with this unfortunate disclosure earlier this year.