The Santa Clara
May 3, 2018
Comedian Hannibal Buress faced a Philadelphia audience in October 2014 and said, “You rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches.” Then the dam broke.
After decades of rumors and hushed-up deals, the media started picking up on the sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby. By November of that year, a flood of victims came forward with their stories. But it wasn’t until this past month—more than three years and an entire #MeToo movement later—that Cosby has officially been convicted on three counts of aggravated indecent assault.
All this from a man who once stood as an icon of American family values.
So how do we reconcile the image of Bill Huxtable with the reality of Bill Cosby? What do we do with the legacies of other tarnished figures like Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, George H. W. Bush and many, many more?
The easy answer is that we don’t deal with it. That’s why it took decades for Cosby’s past to catch up to him and why his original trial ended in a hung jury last year.
It’s hard to let go of our heroes, even when we know we should. It’s especially difficult for us Americans who love to lionize our public figures and make them into symbols of something more.
In Cosby’s case, he was beloved for so long because of the impact he had on the black community. He was the first African-American to star in a prime time TV drama and, when “The Cosby Show” premiered in 1984, he became a national father figure. He is a groundbreaking man, by all accounts. We can no more erase the legacy he built than we can erase the decades of trauma he inflicted.
That isn’t to say his accomplishments should excuse his behavior. He should have to deal with the consequences of his crimes. But all the positive impact he had—when he wasn’t blaming black Americans for causing their own mistreatment—also cannot be retroactively dismissed.
Cosby meant something to a lot of people and will always mean something to them because of the moment in time when he acted like the symbol we wanted him to be.
Now that we know what was happening behind closed doors, we may feel guilty about having liked him. Or guilty about laughing at Louis C.K.’s jokes. Or guilty for enjoying Kevin Spacey’s work. That nagging sense of discomfort is important. It means we empathize with the pain their victims feel. It means we don’t want to be complicit in that pain.
Some may be able to separate art from its creator. Others can’t stomach the thought of liking the product of a person they think is horrible. Either way, we can’t get angry at each other for where we draw our lines.
What we can do is refuse to live in binaries that only allow one version of a person to exist. The truth is, Bill Cosby can be both a monster and someone who others looked up to. Our opinions are informed by our individual interactions with others and, whenever allegations arise against someone we like or trust, we have to remember our insights are limited.
We need to recognize that our individual experiences are just that: individual. Those interactions do not negate each other but they can coexist. It’s what we do after we learn of other people’s experiences that matters. Reconsidering the instinct to forgive because they were good to us is more important.
Throughout all of this, I keep thinking about the legacies we can’t talk about because we never got to see them play out. I’m referring to all the people whose art and contributions to society we have lost as a result of people like him.
Cases like these are not just about mourning the tainted art of the people who’ve let us down; it’s also about mourning the art we could have had. The medical breakthroughs. The scholarship. The tech. Everywhere we lost great minds because of abuse and trauma allowed by a society that hasn’t cared all that much about sexual assault survivors.
“I guess I want to just at least make it weird for you to watch ‘Cosby Show’ reruns,” Buress added that night in October. And it is at least “weird” to think about not just our fallen idols, but our fallen victims too—as if what they lost somehow matters less than what their abuser lost.
Perla Luna is a junior English and sociology double major with a history minor. She is also Managing Editor for The Santa Clara.