We think we know celebrities. We don’t. What we know is a carefully crafted persona, an image, meticulously buffed and refurbished. And sometimes those personae are edgy and tough and sometimes they’re pleasant and kind and family-friendly. And then we hear something about a celebrity that seems at odds with what we’ve imagined we know about them. And it takes awhile to process.
On Saturday, a 2005 deposition given by actor and comedian Bill Cosby surfaced. Forty-eight women had, in recent years, come forward and accused Cosby of various degrees of sexual misconduct, including many who said that he had drugged and raped them. Those accusations had been greeted with varying degrees of incredulity. This was, after all, Bill Cosby, one of the most beloved entertainers in America, winner of a 2002 Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. And, of course, our perceptions of Cosby were largely shaped by The Cosby Show, which ran on NBC from 1984 to 1992. Bill Cosby was, for most of us, Dr. Cliff Huxtable, the genial, kind-hearted and wise patriarch of that sit-com family.
It wasn’t just that Bill Cosby played a beloved TV Dad. He was black, and he was a pioneer. From 1965-1968, he played Alexander Scott on the comedy-spy TV series, I Spy. He was therefore the first black actor to play a leading role in an American TV drama. The premise of the show was that of two putative tennis bums who actually are working for the CIA. It was a buddy-cop-comedy, with Robert Culp as tennis star Kelly Robinson, who partners with Scott/Cosby. It was the kind of show that commented on race without ever commenting on race; Scott was just a character on a show, smarter and more sophisticated than Robinson, but not as intuitive. It was a fun show, witty and clever. During the time of that show, and for years thereafter, Cosby’s comedy albums were massive best-sellers; I remember memorizing entire bits. “It’s The Lord, Noah.” “Right.” “I want you to build an ark.” “Right. What’s an ark?” Listen to those old routines today, and they’re just remarkable; exquisite comic timing, beautifully shaped comedic narratives.
Also this: he wasn’t ‘a Hollywood type.’ Or so we thought; he was a good guy. Happily married, a college graduate, a happy family man, with four daughters. And–more sympathy– a son who was the victim of a terrible tragedy; murdered, senselessly while changing his car tire. Later on, Cosby became the spokesperson for black self-empowerment. He came out against rap music, against hip hop culture. A pull-your-pants-up, go-to-school, get-a-job cultural warrior. (But even this was expressed genially). That was also the point of The Cosby Show; the Huxtable home was beautiful; they were well-off people. He represented black aspiration, black achievement. African American gentrification. The Huxtables were an American ideal.
So this was the point: nobody wanted Bill Cosby, of all people, to be revealed as anything less than what he seemed to be, a good and decent man, an extraordinary talent, and a spokesperson for middle-class values. A sexual predator? No way!
Except there were always those accusations, all those women, saying they had been assaulted by him. Initially, when we thought about Cosby, those allegations were an annoying buzz we tried to swat away. It couldn’t be true. Bill Cosby, of all people. Get real.
But yes. On the deposition, Bill Cosby, under oath, admits to drugging young women with the intention of having sexual relations with them. He admits to paying women off with money from his personal account, so that his wife wouldn’t learn of it. These activities all took place years ago, and so his crimes are past the statute of limitations. He will, in all likelihood, never be criminally prosecuted. But he is, by his own admission, someone who used drugs on women, so that he could engage in what he called ‘romantic, sexual things, whatever you call them.’ As it happens, our society has a word for ‘romantic, sexual things’ that are non-consensual. That word is ‘rape.’ Bill Cosby is a serial rapist.
After defendant testified that he obtained seven prescriptions for Quaaludes, the following testimony was elicited:
Q. You gave them to other people?
Q. When you got the Quaaludes, was it in your mind that you were going to use these Quaaludes for young women that you wanted to have sex with?
So how do we process this? Lots of commentators have expressed amazement over the cognitive dissonance of combining the persona of ‘genial paterfamilias Bill Cosby’ and ‘serial rapist.’ But I think there’s a valuable lesson here, if we can disassociate the word ‘rapist’ from our usual understanding of it, a depraved and vicious lunatic leaping out from behind a tree and holding a knife to a woman’s throat. That kind of stranger-rape can happen, of course, but it’s also misleading. The ‘Cosby persona’ who was also a rapist was Cliff Huxtable. Daddy Huxtable is the rapist here.
Read the transcripts. Time and time again, Cosby would talk to young women, kindly and sympathetically, asking about their education, their families, their hopes and dreams. One young woman told him, tearfully, about coping with the death of her father. That’s the basic premise of most episodes of The Cosby Show. One of the Huxtable kids would be struggling with a personal problem of some kind. Daddy Huxtable would listen, with great kindness and sympathy. And then he’d propose a solution, and off they’d go, problem solved. That’s what Cosby did with the various women who have accused him of attacking them. He would go into full Huxtable mode. He would listen, and he would sympathize. And then he would slip them a roofie and have non-consensual sex with them. And when they approached him later, he would cut them a check. From his personal account, so his wife wouldn’t know about it.
We need to learn from this; in fact, we need to internalize it. This is how rapists behave. Not all rapists, of course, but often enough. Most rape victims were attacked by someone they knew and trusted. Kindly old Dr. Huxtable was the rapist here. That was the persona Bill Cosby adopted when he wanted to have a ‘romantic, sexual thing’ with a young woman he met somewhere. It was a role he was good at playing.
Often enough, the place where he met them was the Playboy mansion. That’s another notion we need to get our heads around: Cosby was a welcome and frequent guest of Hugh Hefner. The women who have accused Cosby of rape included former Playmates Victoria Valentino, Sarita Butterfield, Charlotte Laws and Michelle Hurd. Another woman, Judy Huth, has said she was also attacked at the Playboy mansion. Hugh Hefner and Bill Cosby; Hef and Cos? Yes, indeed. Old friends, and quite literally, apparently, partners in crime. It now appears likely that Hef learned about the affective properties of Quaaludes, and that he instructed old pal Cosby in their use. Kindly old Hugh Hefner.
So there’s something else that we need to process. Playmates are women who have posed nude in Playboy magazine. That is to say that they are attractive young women whose images have appeared, neatly airbrushed and photoshopped (one presumes), naked, in the pages of a particularly famous men’s magazine. They are also guests at the mansion, welcome anytime, to enjoy the world’s longest running party, hosted by a really old guy in his pajamas.
And here’s the point; the fact that these women consented to have their photos in that magazine does not suggest sexual availability, and should not imply consent to subsequent sexual activity. It is absolutely possible to rape a Bunny. Consent is consent, and a woman who has been drugged is not capable of consent.
Somehow, Hugh Hefner has managed to sell the image of the Playboy mansion as somehow, I don’t know, innocent. A fun place for young women hoping to advance modeling/acting/show biz careers. Sort of a partying job fair. I’m not going to link to it, but check out Weezer’s Beverly Hills video. It does an effective job of selling this notion: ‘ain’t nothin’ goin’ on here but good clean fun.’ We now know that that is not the case. The Playboy mansion is a hunting ground for sexual predators. Elderly sexual predators, apparently. Like Hef, and Cos.
Bill Cosby’s career is over. His reputation is destroyed. Civil suits could wipe out his fortune–I certainly hope so. It’s not likely that he will ever go to jail, more’s the pity, but his actions may result in a bill, currently before Congress, to extend the statute of limitations for rapists. The best we can do now, is learn from his case. Two lessons: rapists can look like and act like Dr. Huxtable, and also, posing for a men’s magazine does not imply consent to sexual intercourse. That will have to be enough.