Why We All Ignored the Bill Cosby Rape Charges for 10 Years
By now you've probably heard that Bill Cosby has been accused of drugging and raping more than a dozen women over the course of his 50-year career as a stand-up comedian, sitcom father, pudding salesman, and model of terrible sweaters (he also made a cartoon about a terrifyingly obese child with a debilitating speech impediment somewhere in there, presumably to complete some kind of career bingo card).
In response to the allegations, NBC canceled its plans to produce a new sitcom with Cosby, and Netflix has indefinitely postponed Cosby's new stand-up special, which was originally scheduled to debut later this month. TV Land is even pulling all reruns of The Cosby Show from its lineup, despite the fact that it probably accounts for around half of their programming. If that weren't enough, here's a super uncomfortable video of Cosby vaguely gibber-stuttering his way out of answering any questions about the allegations, as if haunting accusations of rape will simply disappear like the boogeyman if you deny that they exist. Things are looking pretty grim for Cliff Huxtable.
To be clear, I'm not here to talk about whether Cosby is guilty or innocent -- far more intelligent people are going to be arguing that point in the weeks and months to come, and history will just have to make what it will of Cosby's legacy. Hopefully.
I say hopefully because, while four of these women just made their stories public within the last week, 14 of these accusations first hit the news almost 10 years ago. A former protege of Cosby's filed a civil suit against him in 2005, alleging that he drugged and sexually assaulted her, and 13 other women stepped forward to offer their own stories of assault as anonymous testimony should the case go to trial. However, the suit was ultimately settled out of court, and then America just kind of forgot about the whole thing. Netflix didn't pull any Cosby specials or movies from their catalog. TV Land kept right on airing Cosby Show reruns. The Internet didn't explode with Cosby rape memes.
We live in a culture that loves tearing down celebrities for their criminal behavior, and 2005 isn't exactly a distant spot on the horizon of yesteryear. That was the same year Revenge of the Sith was released, so it's not as if the Internet just hadn't started shitting on people yet. We were more than happy to spread loose change around, but for whatever reason, we just didn't feel the need to stick it to the Coz back then. No, what happened instead was Cosby scuttled back to one of his two mansions to wait for the controversy to die down, and then, impossibly, it did. It may be too early to tell, but that's probably not going to happen this time.
So, what's changed? Why has the response to Cosby's rape allegations in 2014 been so swift and absolute, whereas in 2005 we were only too eager to pretend it never happened? To answer that question, I'm going to talk about Woody Allen, another famous comedian who was accused of sexual assault this year.
In an open letter published on The New York Times website, Dylan Farrow, Allen's adoptive daughter with former long-time partner Mia Farrow, provided a disturbing account of being sexually abused by Allen on numerous occasions when she was a child. The letter sparked an immediate, divided response -- an understandably large number of people were outraged, while an equally large number of Allen's fans, fellow comedians, and filmmakers came roaring to his defense. Meanwhile, a paradoxically large number of people (including Stephen King) sat firmly on the fence, hoping the accusations weren't true. Not for Dylan Farrow's sake, mind you. For Allen's.
Here's the thing -- that open letter was the first time Dylan Farrow has ever spoken publicly about her alleged abuse, but it was by no means a new story. Mia Farrow first attempted to file charges against Allen for allegedly molesting her daughter back in 1992, when Dylan was 7. (The prosecutor decided not to pursue the case because he felt it would be too traumatic for Dylan -- truly, a heroic man.)
Back then, just like they did earlier this year, several comedians and industry folk tripped over their expensively shoed feet to defend Allen, insisting that Mia was crazy (she might be) and that she had planted the story in her little girl's head (I suppose it's possible). Again, just like it was this year, their concern was for Allen, and not for the child who was unquestionably being abused by at least one of her parental figures. Allen received the same outpouring of disgust and support when he began dating (and eventually married) Mia Farrow's adopted daughter Soon-Yi. Incidentally, that's why they broke up -- Mia found nude photos of Soon-Yi in Allen's possession and confronted him with them. In a cosmic dose of life imitating art, his stumbling, awkward admission must have looked exactly like a scene from a Woody Allen movie.
So, a man accused of molesting his adopted daughter went on to marry his other adopted daughter (he never officially adopted Soon-Yi, but he dated Mia Farrow from 1980 to 1992, and Mia adopted Soon-Yi in 1978, so he lived as Soon-Yi's surrogate father for 12 years). Sure, Soon-Yi was 20 when their relationship was discovered, and they've since been married for 17 years, but Allen met her when she was around 11 years old, adopted two of her siblings, and fathered her half-brother.
I don't care how much you like Annie Hall, that shit is fucking weird. There is some disturbing overlap in that timeline that is open to speculation, particularly when you consider that Allen stands accused of molesting a child.
But just like with Cosby in 2005, the Allen controversy of 1992 quietly faded into the background, to the point where most people who weren't alive back then have no idea that it ever even happened. And earlier this year, when Dylan had her open letter published in The New York Times, the discussion of whether or not Allen is a child molester was briefly resurrected, only to quickly die once again. Allen even had a new movie come out, starring Colin Firth and Emma Stone, just five months after the letter was published, and by then nobody seemed to want to hold it against him.
So, why did the court of public opinion convene so briefly for Allen, not once but twice? And why are we only now deciding to feel disgusted with Cosby, even though the allegations against him have been among the top Google search results for his name for the past nine years?
Maybe it's the number of alleged victims. Allen has been accused of molesting one person, whereas the allegations against Cosby portray him as a full-blown serial rapist. There have been less sinister villains on Law & Order: SVU. It's easier to pretend that a single allegation didn't happen or rationalize it as a case of cruel, vengeful slandering. But that doesn't explain why we let Cosby off the hook back in 2005 -- only one woman took any legal action against him, but 13 other alleged victims offered to back up her story, albeit anonymously.
No, the reason we let our collective amnesia cover for Cosby for the past decade is because of the position Cosby holds in our lives. Most of us grew up with Cosby, whether it be through his comedy albums, Fat Albert cartoons, or The Cosby Show (or, to a lesser extent, Ghost Dad). He's America's dad, a goofy, advice-dispensing patriarch that three generations of your family sat down together to watch. The thought that, this whole time, he might have secretly been one of the shittiest human beings to ever exist cuts us deep. When that first case was settled out of court, we seemed satisfied to treat the whole thing as a weird aberration and go on living our lives with our memories of him intact. After all, those 13 women were anonymous, and when you're talking about someone with as much public adoration as Cosby, "anonymous" might as well read "faceless liars." Now there are simply too many voices to ignore.
Conversely, the vast majority of us didn't find Allen until high school or college, which was a time when we thought we knew everything, and he was more than happy to validate that sentiment. So our revulsion to Cosby is a gut reaction, whereas our treatment of Allen is an intellectual reaction -- we feel betrayed by Cosby because we loved him as kids, but culpable with Allen because we supported him as adults. Cosby is our dad, an authoritative funnyman who specialized in shows that gave children morality lessons, but Allen is our friend, an awkwardly witty but hopelessly insecure melvin fumbling his way through sexual encounters. On a subconscious level, the idea that Allen might be a creepy weirdo fits perfectly with our image of him, since he's always played creepy weirdos. So we're angry at Cosby for discoloring our fond memories of him, but he's been more or less retired for years at this point. Allen is still making movies, and we want to be able to go see them without feeling guilty for putting money in the pocket of a possible sex offender.
Whether I'm right or wrong, let's all agree to try not to forget about it this time.
For more about our selective amnesia when it comes to celebrities, check out 5 Beloved Celebrities Everyone Forgets Did Terrible Things. And then check out 7 Beloved Celebrities And The Awful Shit You Forgot They Did.