My favorite episode of The Cosby Show begins innocently enough. Claire Huxtable walks in the house from a long day’s work, kicks off her shoes and falls into the arms of her doting husband, hoping to slumber. Rudy refuses to let her parents rest, though. She traipses down the stairs with a story to tell, a fairy tale she’s penned.
It’s a clumsy, but simple story. That’s why it resonated with me so much when it first aired. I was 8. My life was simple. There was good and bad. Right and wrong. Black and white. No gray area.
In the episode, there were good and evil people, including a henchman portrayed by Heathcliff Huxtable. The evil people show up in the good people’s town and take over. After some rancor in the good people’s land, Rudy’s character, The Flower Girl, tells the evil people to “stop.” This was her story.
The episode cuts to the Huxtables asking their daughter what happens next. Surely there had to be turmoil, they thought. Rudy says “they all stopped.” She explains that The Flower Girl told them to stop, so they stopped.
There are currently 17 women who have accused Bill Cosby of sexually assaulting them. That number is damning.
For argument’s sake, and to pacify people who believe Cosby is innocent of each of these crimes, let’s say that the likelihood of a woman lying about rape is 50 percent. This would also mean there’s a 50-percent chance that each woman is telling the truth. A coin flip.
Flip a coin 17 times and it will land all heads (all lies) roughly .0000076 percent of the time. That’s almost never. The probability it will land on tails at least once (at minimum, one truth) is 99.99999237 percent. DNA results are not this conclusive, and, remember, this projection is based on a coin flip. Not a collection of almost 20 women telling the exact same story.
In American terms: it’s like asking a baseball team down 7-4 in the bottom of the eighth inning to come back and win given the same situation…17 times in a row. It never happens.
Yet, a crowd exists that refuses to believe these women are telling the truth. Their narrative, and Cosby's, paints him as a victim of his celebrity, the women attempting to extort him for his hard-earned fortune. Their queries are common to rape culture:
Why not come forward when it happened?
Why not use a method to prevent your sexual assault?
Surely they just want his money.
Why has no court convicted him of any wrongdoing?
It’s a concoctive mix of irrational fear, branding and bullshit attempting to cloak Cosby in a Teflon coat because no one wants to believe that Bill Cosby, a deified figure in modern American culture, is a serial rapist.
When the allegations first came to light in 2005, I didn’t want to believe it. I refused to let the reported rumors linger in my thoughts. Not because I didn’t believe it, but because I didn’t want to believe it.
Thirteen women were willing to say in a courtroom that one man had raped them. But once Cosby settled out of court with the litigant, the story dissipated. Assuaged, most everyone seemed to look away. Cosby’s brand, America’s best father figure and a mythical pillar of our society, trumped all.
It trumped all until comedian Hannibal Buress told Cosby that he needed to stop in mid-October. More pointedly, Buress said that a rapist had no right to moralize to poor black people through the failing guise of respectability politics, including not cursing.
“But yeah, you’re a rapist so we’d take you saying lots of motherfuckers on Bill Cosby Himself if you weren’t a rapist” said Buress in a blunt punchline from a Philadelphia stage. It drew laughs, some of them clearly uncomfortable. But it was also a truth: No one wants an alleged serial rapist moralizing to anyone about anything. A concertgoer taped Buress’ bit and uploaded it to the Internet. It went viral. There had been other pieces and stories about the allegation's facing Cosby — years worth of them, actually — but Buress' act served as a bit of a tipping point.
Since then, some of the 13 accusers, who remained anonymous, have come forward with their stories.
Those of us who have long seen Cosby as an idyllic, transcendent figure and comedic savant, are forced to reconcile what we thought we knew with what is obvious:
Bill Cosby is not Heathcliff Huxtable. He never was. Huxtable’s only true transgression from 1984 to 1992 appeared to be his love of foods that might send him to an early grave.
Bill Cosby — a complex, talented and flawed man — happened to play the role of America’s most affable television father, so well that we thought Cosby was playing himself. He apparently is a much better actor than we've given him credit for.
Rudy Huxtable, the author, grows even more ambitious in those seconds after reading her story.
She tells her parents that she plans to be “president of the world,” continuing on a missive about achieving world peace. Rudy wants everyone to throw their bombs and guns in the ocean. Her plan is simple: She gonna tell them all to “stop.”
It worked in her story. Why not now?
A sated Rudy leaves her parents, who turn on the television to news of terrorist actions somewhere in the world. The message couldn’t have been clearer to me at 8 years old. There was no grey area. Just black and white.
For a long time, that’s how we saw Cosby — as a white knight, a pillar of good, the doting husband and father on the couch in that Brooklyn brownstone, his arms around his loving wife. Now we see him on the opposite end of a confounding spectrum of gray space.
How do you reconcile the idea of a person held in such esteem, a brand really, with…unfailing allegations of sexual assault? How do you watch his brilliant stand-up comedy without this in mind? Hell, how do you watch reruns of The Cosby Show or A Different World? Should you?
For me, these are complicated issues. I realize that Cosby made great contributions to our culture, but he also likely committed horrific crimes against women. I, personally, can still appreciate the art — evident in my favorite episode — for what it is. I can separate Cosby from it. But I can also understand anyone whose moral compass won’t allow them to do so.
It’s an individual’s choice, one nowhere near approximating the one Cosby, considering his alleged methods and actions through the years, took from so many women.
Damon Smith is a freelance writer based out of Kansas City