It’s been a slow death for the legend of Bill Cosby. As allegations of sexual assault — decades-old claims that are now being treated with appropriate gravity — envelop the 77-year-old Cosby, it’s easy to forget it’s been nearly 20 years since the Autumn Jackson trial showed us that America’s Dad might have been a lot more like a deadbeat than you realized. That was before social media, so her attempt to extort money from Cosby so she wouldn’t tell the world about his affair with her mother (and her claim that he was her father) vanished from mainstream memory.
Anyone who pretends to be incapable of believing he could do anything wrong is lying. Even if he wasn’t Jackson’s father, Cosby must’ve noticed the smoke from the fire that had been set to his pristine image. But the only person striking a match in public was a woman who seemed unhinged, and that was enough for many to ignore something few wished to consider: the possibility that Bill Cosby was a fraud.
It’s a lot harder to ignore 15 women, though, even if we don’t know very much about whether or not Cosby is a sexual predator. Sexual assault is a crime that few women claim falsely, but few isn’t none, and a certain presumption of innocence is responsible, even if it isn’t required. But the breadth and sheer volume of these allegations make it difficult to afford Cosby the benefit of the doubt for any reason other than obligation. Some of those women may be lying, but the likelihood that they all – 15 women and counting – are is asymptotically approaching zero. That small chance is enough to keep him out of jail, but not enough for reasonable people to dismiss.
But how in the world did it get to this point? Still in the shadow of a time when simply looking at a white woman could get a black man killed, Bill Cosby may have gotten away with raping dozens of them. Cosby has been worth a lot of money to a lot of people, but that doesn’t explain how he could get away with so much for so long. The Cosby Show was a success, but everything he touched on primetime television between that and I Spy failed. His films in the ‘70s, aside from those he did with Sidney Poitier, were unsuccessful. If the allegations about Cosby are true, he was able to get away with these crimes long before it would be too costly to expose and stop him.
Cosby wouldn’t be able to get away with these crimes simply because he was valuable. He could only do so because America sees women as being the exact opposite. Anonymous people, for a range of reasons, get away with rape every day. They, like Cosby is alleged to have done, treat woman as if they were disposable before and after sex, and like they were merely props for the act itself. Apparently, they can see why Cosby was enamored by “Spanish fly” for decades.
Why else would anyone defend a man who, as appearances are being cancelled and his comedy special is being pulled by Netflix, won’t defend himself? How else could Don Lemon, ostensibly a journalist, find it appropriate to ask one of Cosby’s alleged victims why she didn’t bite his dick off, as if that would end an encounter during which she was drugged?
That extreme benefit of the doubt isn’t simply reserved for television stars or athletes, so it’s dangerous to evaluate reactions to Cosby simply in the context of fame. It’s probably soothing, as it’s easier to consider capitalism protected Cosby rather than apathy. They look out for their bottom line, but it’s more likely that we just don’t give a fuck. You think the people close to Joan Tarshis were getting rich off Bill Cosby? If not, why wouldn’t she tell them for 20 years?
The balance sheet is not entirely to blame, and the current national outrage that was hard to find in 2004 is worth parsing. The society that was complicit in letting predators exist in comfort for so long decided now, after a Hannibal Buress routine that wasn’t even on television, was the time to force Cosby to answer for these allegations.
This didn’t happen as any project he worked on debuted, and it didn’t happen as he questioned the moral fiber of poor African-Americans. It would be foolish to attack those who finally got around to asking the right questions, but one must wonder what took so long.
Maybe, as more women tell their stories of sexual assault, we’re less apathetic on matters of sexual assault than we once were. The crime is heinous, but social media has shown us it isn’t distant. There are more victims than most of us realize, and lots of us are unwittingly friends with those who have violated them. To look past that in 2014 is to be willfully ignorant, just as it would be to assume anyone could never do such a thing. Lots of people do, and there is no “type.” Mike Tyson and Bill Cosby have been accused of the same crime, and neither looks more like a rapist than the other.
That reality’s hard to grasp in a country where we try to put a face to every crime. Knowing the folly of that makes it impossible to look at Bill Cosby as many used to. He was America’s introduction to black leading men on television, with his role on I Spy being the first for an African-American in a TV drama. He was hilarious and charming, better than any comedian has been at sounding like your friend, uncle or dad. He was also clean-shaven, non-threatening and focused most on what made him like mainstream audiences, in spite of one obvious, intractable difference.
In a way, he was O.J. Simpson before O.J. Simpson. They trafficked in the same rarefied air, “postracial” before that lie became vogue. They also appear to have spent years mistreating women while their fans and backers acted none the wiser. They were the guys America implored millions of men to model themselves after, only we later learned they’re the guys your mothers warned you about.
Many will forever remember him as Cliff Huxtable, but none of us will ever say we forgot about these allegations. They’ll be with him until he can explain why they shouldn’t be, something he probably can’t do. The only real question left is whether being an alleged serial rapist is enough to make America hate a man it once loved. Sadly, the answer to that is unclear.
Cliff Huxtable made it seem that loving his beautiful, elegant wife at the end of an episode was the real payoff for working hard, raising kids and getting rich. Bill Cosby seems to think he deserved more. Maybe because he was a star. Maybe because he was a man.
Or maybe because he knew he could get away with it, something that has as much to do with us as it does with him.
This article originally ran on November 19, 2014 on Playboy.com.