Nightly television for a good portion of my childhood included re-runs of The Cosby Show. It is, no doubt, one of the funniest family sitcoms ever to air on American television, and what really made it important to me, my family and my upbringing was that Cosby introduced images of successful African Americans through the medium of television. Whether it be my first encounter with college through the love sagas of Dwayne Wayne and Whitley on the spin-off series, A Different World, or the nuclear Black family that had attained the American Dream we all long for, Cosby’s productions were essential to my experiences.
Phylicia Rashad, who played Clair Huxtable, the lawyer married to the OB/GYN with his own practice and with whom she had five beautiful children, was the best TV mother figure I have ever had – she was Black, she was successful, she had a family, and she had a rigorous and well-respected occupation. She was wise, beautiful, elegant, and educated. My heart took a major hit when I heard my feminist TV mother had made statements to disregard the stories of many of the victims of Bill Cosby’s sexual assaults. Phylicia Rashad claims that the allegations are an attack on Bill Cosby’s legacy, an attempt to tarnish his well-earned, good name. To her, I would like to say that I am deeply disappointed, especially being that it was her voice, as Clair Huxtable, that I remember was never reluctant to call out sexist and chauvinistic themes that made appearances in the show. I expected more from Phylicia Rashad, especially knowing of her commitment to uplift women.
What’s worse is that because of Rashad’s proximity to Bill Cosby, her voice was used as a support for claims of Cosby’s innocence in over twenty incidences of inappropriate and sexually abusive behavior. Bill Cosby used his celebrity and power as a man to take advantage and sexually violate women. A lot of Cosby’s supporters proclaim Cosby’s innocence due to a lack of physical evidence or witness accounts to corroborate the stories of the female victims. The problem with rape is that it is not a crime that can easily collect and incubate evidence for a prolonged period of time. It is often a case of the victim’s word against the word of the offender. The unwavering support for Cosby by both men and women and the discreditation of the accounts shared by the female victims indicates the current state of American rape culture. Cosby, who has not made it a point to deny the allegations, is receiving the benefit of the doubt over more than twenty women who all have similar accounts of their traumatizing sexual abuse. In the case of Cosby’s allegations, we have the word (or lack of word) of one against the words of many. Still, the voice of one continues to outweigh the voices of the twenty-and-counting female victims. The common threads within the stories establish Cosby’s M.O. He is a creature of habit, and I find that the word of all these women outweighs Cosby’s silence on the matter.
Many, including Phylicia, claim that the rape allegations are an effort to tarnish the legacy of Bill Cosby, but no one can point to any benefit received by the “conspirators” for carrying out such an elaborate ruse. How do these women benefit from making false allegations of rape against a man who is legendary within the arenas of comedy, television, and philanthropy. Most victims are not asking for checks. They are not signing on for book deals either, so that throws the financial gain theory out of the window. Could all of the victims have some sort of personal vendetta against Mr. Cosby? Are they jilted lovers? Cosby stalkers? Do these accusations satisfy some sort of vengeance? I highly doubt it. So then, why does the public court of opinion seek to deny the voices of the victims?
The issue here speaks to the sexist dynamic that still dominates American culture. The accusers are demonized because their claims attack the image of a man with power. What’s worse is the way we are choosing to handle the Cosby situation—the demonization of victims sends out a negative message to other victims of sexual assault. It is evidence that we still have not been able to create a safe space for victims of sexual assault to come forward. A common argument to discredit the victims’ stories has to do with the amount of time victims have waited before coming forward with their stories. If the rape culture of today still has not evolved to the point where victims do not have a safe space to share their accounts, imagine what the temperature of the rape culture would have been for victims whose sexual assault occurred in the 80’s. We also have to keep in mind that Cosby’s particular practice of sexual assault, date rape, was still a fairly new term. These women were not only sexually assaulted by a man whom they admired and trusted, but also by a man who holds a lot of power. Women have made rape allegations against Cosby during the 80’s and 90’s, but Cosby was able to use his money and power to quiet the victims. For Cosby’s current silence to have enough power to raise doubt in multiple, eerily similar accounts of sexual assault speaks to both society’s mistrust of women and the weight of a man’s word in the handlings of sexual assault allegations.
The Cosby scandal has reawakened the need to examine the way this country addresses sexual assault. We have to not only create spaces for victims to be able to come forward with their testimonies, but also make efforts to discuss sexual violence and what messages need to be instilled in future generations to prevent men from engaging in sexual violence against women. We can use the Cosby scandal to start the conversations that are necessary to improve rape culture. We can start by acknowledging the power in these victims’ accounts, for that will be a testament to other victims of sexual assault that sharing your story is empowering and you can testify about your sexual experience without being silenced by your rapist. We can use the Cosby scandal to discuss issues of consent and sexual behavior. We can even use it as a centerpiece for the discussion on rape and how it is used as a tool to exert power over women.
The Cosby scandal also presents the opportunities to discuss the separation of an individual from the body of work he or she produces. There are no historical figures that we honor and remember who are without flaw. I am not downplaying the fact that Bill Cosby is a serial rapist. However, I do feel that Cosby has made a positive contribution to the world of comedy and television that has opened the doors for many people of color within the entertainment industry. I cannot deny the good laughs that episodes of The Cosby Show brought me. I have to acknowledge Bills Cosby’s images of young African Americans in college gave me exposure to higher education in a way that sparked a serious interest in pursing my undergraduate degree. I understand Bill’s contribution to Black culture and American culture as a whole and how beneficial it has been for me. I value The Cosby Show and A Different World and view them as positive contributions to society, and I cannot say that in the future I will refrain from watching these Cosby productions because I know that the messages broadcasted in these works are positive and are positive images of Blackness I would like to share with my future family. If and whenever I decide to pass along episodes of Cosby’s productions to my family, I will make sure that I will not only use these Cosby works as an opportunity to share good images of Black people, but also as an opportunity to discuss Bill Cosby himself, and his acts of violence against women and connect it to a larger conversation of sexual assault overall. The Cosby Legacy that Phylicia Rashad is working hard to preserve is a legacy that encompasses both his accomplishments and his flaws.
Kayla Dawes is a recent graduate of The George Washington University in Washington, DC. She currently lives in LA where she works for a philanthropic organization. Kayla is committed to working in the field of public service.