I really hoped that by now I would know what to do with Bill Cosby. Not what to think about him—at this point it’s pretty impossible to dismiss the rape allegations of 17 women, all with similar stories of being drugged and sexually assaulted by Cosby, all with no obvious gain from going up against one of the most beloved men in entertainment after the statute of limitations on the alleged crimes has passed. What can I do with those parts of myself that have been shaped by his work? No amount of distance from Cosby today can undo what he taught me over the years.
Even in a country where a person is innocent until proven guilty, the claims against him force me to reconsider not only the man himself, but also my happy memories of The Cosby Show. The hours spent watching Cliff and Clair and Theo and Rudy and the resulting life lessons are tangled up in my disgust over the horrific ways people can abuse and be abused.
It’s been almost two months since Hannibal Buress’s standup routine went viral and vaulted the damning rape allegations against Bill Cosby into the news cycle—compelling the generations who had grown up on his stand-up, his sitcoms, his parenting books, his ethos and mythos, to take seriously the troubling claims that have existed since at least 2002.
More accusers emerged over the next few weeks, and TV Land pulled all reruns of The Cosby Show while Cosby’s new NBC sitcom was cancelled before it began. Just when it looked like it couldn’t get any worse, it did. On Tuesday, another woman stepped forward, claiming Cosby molested her when she was only 15 years old. (See a complete timeline of all the accusations against Cosby here).
This is not new territory for American celebrity. Woody Allen and R. Kelly are also pop culture giants who have been accused of pretty awful things by women over whom they had positions of power and privilege. Neither was convicted, and after a few weeks of public handwringing and “what can we do with their work?” thinkpieces, both were allowed to resume their successful careers. We don’t know how it will go this time. To this point Cosby has claimed innocence, and he will most likely settle with this new victim like he did with previous women. If it were to follow the script, his work would be back on TV in a few months.
But it’s different with Cosby. He’s truly a father figure, in everything but actual DNA. He set out to make the Huxtables an ideal American family, and he succeeded. The Cosby Show was the most popular show on television during the late ‘80s, and his character Heathcliff Huxtable consistently ranks at the top of lists of best TV dads.
We love our TV dads, and Cliff in particular, because they can be perfect. They allow us to hope for a world where people love us unconditionally, always have our best interest in mind, and never disappoint, at least not in ways that can’t be made up for in 22 minutes. Even the suggestion that Cosby could do such things feels like a deeper violation, striking out the possibility that life could be as it is in that fictional world he made us believe in, that the right words from someone who loved us could make any problem go away.
But life is not like that. Not every conversation ends with a hug and a lesson learned. Sometimes the people we trust most deeply betray that trust, in ways that change us forever. Deep pain exists beside deep joy. This is the way the world is, and will be, until Jesus returns to make things right, to wipe away every memory of that kind of pain and show us through his kingdom come how it was always meant to be. When we go back to The Cosby Show, if we decide we can go back to it at all, it will hold this deeper truth that points us not to the goodness of this world, but the brokenness that exists right alongside the good.
There is certainly a case for not going back. In a piece for Salon entitled “We Must Abandon Bill Cosby,” Brittney Cooper writes:
It is high time that we decide as a nation that the symbolic slaying (and perhaps the actual locking up) of some of our most beloved men is an entirely reasonable price to pay for creating a world safe for women and children, a world where we don’t accede to narratives that convince us yet again that predators are really “good guys.” … It is within our families that our race, gender, and sexual politics congeal most concretely. Middle-class black folks love the Cosbys for the same reason that working-class black folks love Tyler Perry’s Madea stories. In them, we feel seen and heard – recognized. But if that recognition comes through the creative vision of men who really don’t value women, do those representations not deserve our deepest skepticism?
But if we believe that we are not defined by our sin, then we can still hold onto the good things created by sinful people, offering us glimpses of a Creator who reveals himself through such people. If there were good things Cosby did, they are still good, or at least offer us a glimpse of goodness. Solomon’s words are still part of our Bible’s wisdom literature, even though he often failed to live them out and openly violated God’s law.
We should remain skeptical of Bill Cosby and think about how his values, those we like and especially those we don’t, shaped the characters and worlds he created and presented to us. If those characters and worlds are part of us now, too, we cannot cut them out or abandon the ways they changed us. The world is a messy place, and so are the people in it. Life doesn’t happen in 22-minute chunks, and its challenges rarely end with a romantic dance up the stairs to a world where everything is set right yet again. We still might not know what to do with him. But we can take that confusion and grief and turn it toward the only hope that will never disappoint.