Bill Cosby and the power of a beloved franchise

Cosby was a longtime emcee of the Playboy Jazz Festival.
Cosby was a longtime emcee of the Playboy Jazz Festival.
Image: Reuters/Fred Prouser
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Men I admire have a nasty habit of turning out to be… not such great men. Sexual predators, to be frank: Allen, Salinger, and now Cosby.

Though statements like “and now Cosby,” are perhaps more indicative of a problem of my own. Allegations of Bill Cosby’s sexual misconduct have been part of the comedian’s public persona for years, despite a recent surge in media attention around them. And while the bravery of women like Barbara Bowman and Joan Tarshis, and now Janice Dickinson, in reigniting indubitably painful conversations is to be commended, I don’t believe the majority of Cosby’s fans are genuinely skeptical of the allegations.

For most, like me, the information was set aside, ignored; shoved away in a shadowy corner of the mind, packed into proverbial cardboard boxes labeled “Stuff I’d rather not deal with right now.” Or ever, really.

Writer Ezekiel Kweku, who uses the Twitter handle @ShrillCosby, put it best: “I wish I could say I’d had second thoughts about naming myself after an unrepentant, unpunished rapist, but I really didn’t, honestly,” he wrote in a series of tweets on the topic published November 15. “When conversations turned to Cosby, I might criticize his race views, or even possibility of his having a kid as a result of an affair. But I’d never bring up the multiple stories of Bill Cosby drugging and assaulting women. And nobody else brought it up either.”

Why? Because of The Cosby Show—a program cherished by generations of Americans; a touchstone work of American art populated by communally beloved characters and storylines that, for many, conjure memories of childhood and time spent with family. It is televisual comfort-food. And the emotions it evokes are perhaps responsible for differentiating the public reaction to Cosby’s transgressions from those of Allen, Salinger, et al.

People love The Cosby Show a little too much, myself included; and in allowing affinity for the show to cloud proper judgment, we—the fans—are complicit in the coverup. We are complicit in permitting yet another man of note to sweep his trespasses under a carpet of his art; and solidifying an idea that the bodies and safety of ordinary women are worth less than feelings of nostalgia. We are prioritizing sentiments inspired by a fictional family over the very real pain and suffering of living, breathing human beings.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates explains in an essay for The Atlantic, published yesterday, “Believing Bill Cosby does not require you to take one person’s word over another — it requires you take one person’s word over 15 others.”

Last month, when Salon’s Brittney Cooper wrote her essay, “We Must Abandon Bill Cosby,” calling for progressive Americans to reject the Huxtables wholesale, I was skeptical. As one such American whose relationship with The Cosby Show is heavily infused with nostalgia, I was reluctant to accept that idea that one could not simultaneously condemn Cosby’s treatment of women and still enjoy the reruns. After all, for me, and many others like me, The Cosby Show was only tangentially about Bill.

In honor of the show’s thirtieth anniversary, I wrote an essay for The New York Times praising Phylicia Rashād’s role as Huxtable matriarch, Clair—a game-changing, now iconic portrayal of black womanhood on television. It was especially relevant in the wake of Alessandra Stanley’s now infamous “angry black woman” review of Shonda Rhimes’s “How to Get Away With Murder.” It is from Clair that most of my Cosby Show nostalgia is derived. I saw a lot of my own mother in her—a highly educated career-woman who never let me get away with anything. The high-school me lived through several versions of this clip from Season Six, for example:

That wild-eyed, square-jawed “mom look” still sends shivers down my spine. She had this awesome ability to inspire by respect through strength and resoluteness—a combination often compromised in modern TV by intimidated male writers who frame female strength as shrillness or nagging.

And although I was unconscious of its significance at the time, I think it’s important that a middle-class, nine-year-old white boy from the suburbs of Chicago so fluidly identified with the dynamics of an African-American family. That may have had more to do with class similarities than racial ones, but this was Cosby’s mission: to put a show on American airwaves that changed the way people navigated racial differences. To cultivate interracial understanding through shared ideas of what makes a family work and fit into American society. And it worked! Kind of!

And therein lies the problem. The Cosby empire is built on a foundation of outward deception. “Cosby has lived a lie,” Brittney Cooper wrote. “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.” I have to agree. On top of flawed notions of black respectability, Bill Cosby sold us a narrative of family cohesion and moral comportment that was nothing more than that: a narrative. If the allegations of women like Bowman and Tarshis are to be believed (and, personally, I would rather believe a victim and be proven wrong than vice versa), it is a narrative Cosby has failed to practice.

But why should Cosby’s behavior off-screen diminish our affections for the Huxtable clan? Simply put: we cannot detach Bill Cosby from Cliff Huxtable, or the show in general, because it is called The Cosby Show. It is Bill Cosby’s show.

That may be a simplistic analysis, but it’s nevertheless true. The Cosby Show was first and foremost a product intended to make money off the name of Cosby, not Huxtable. Its morals and politics were secondary, if not wholly irrelevant to NBC executives. They were cashing in on Cosby’s cultural capital, giving him carte blanche to project his personal philosophies on family, race, and respectability through these beloved characters and storylines.

And viewers allow themselves to be hoodwinked, often knowingly, because we are not intellectually mature enough to throw away the security blanket; despite its darkening stains, its fraying edges.

There is representational value inherent to The Cosby Show, for sure. It was undeniably a necessary addition to the pop-cultural landscape in 1984. And in that vein, I will echo Cooper: it is time to reject its narrative and dogma as “passé.” Foundations need not become standards. Successful African-Americans “are allowed to be different kinds 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.”

If anything, this entire ordeal is a sad reminder of the power of franchise. Images of perfection—familial, moral, et cetera—engineered by a profoundly flawed man will inevitably fall apart. What matters is what we choose to build in their place.