What Bill Cosby Has Taught Us About Sexual Assault and Power
Bill Cosby, the Jello pudding man and one of America’s most beloved and successful comedians, may have raped and assaulted at least 20 women – women who have, starting in 2002, publicly come forward with their stories.
Their accounts are hauntingly similar: a young, maybe up-and-coming, model or actress meets Cosby, usually on the set of The Cosby Show or at an event, and he invites her to his home for a meal or a drink to discuss her career. He is connected, experienced, a celebrity; she is eager, hopeful, flattered. At some point during dinner, he drugs her and, once her defenses are low, he is forceful, abusive, and violent in his assault.
The women go home or back to their hotels, reminded that America’s favorite sweater-clad Dad holds the key to their about-to-blossom careers.
If these allegations are true, Bill Cosby is a monster. Furthermore, he is a monster at the top of an industry that offered every advantage to act as such.
Cosby had celebrity, power, fame, wealth, seemingly “good intentions,” and supposed trustworthiness at his disposal. He was beloved and had risen to success out of the ashes of an impoverished youth. He had come to his success honestly, through hard work and perseverance, and had charmed a nation by making them laugh. He traveled in the most talented of crowds and was a giant amongst both the public and his peers.
These weapons of mass destruction composed a cocktail even more potent than the drugs he slipped his targets. At the height of his career, Cosby systematically targeted women who were just beginning theirs. He took advantage of their aspirations and his fame in an industry with a dark history of inflating celebrity and preying on ambitious women.
But he was known as Cliff Huxtable: America's adored father, doling out advice and hugs in his living room. So the young women who guest starred on his show and met him at parties saw every reason to trust him and nothing to fear.
He told them he was mesmerized by their talents, that he’d seen something in them. He knew an agent or a co-star or a friend-of-a-friend who could help, or he wanted to hear about her dreams or talk more about the episode or offer advice.
They were hopeful, searching for a stepping stool on the way to success when Bill Cosby swooped in and offered them a ladder straight to the top. He made them feel noticed, discovered. He was impressed.
He presented these women with the very opportunities emerging artists are still trained to seek out and accept – the kind of game changer everyone hopes will jump-start their careers. Anybody at the beginning of their career is taught to work very hard for very little and wait patiently for the right someone to notice them and offer them help or contacts or recommendations. They know they must graciously accept an offer for drinks or coffee or dinner and should never let an opportunity pass them by. When this works, we call it networking. When it doesn’t, we call it naïveté.
Luckily for Cosby, it was, of course, unlikely that anyone would speak out. Most of his accusers recount being raped or assaulted in his dressing room or home, always with staffers just nearby, perhaps just out of earshot. They report production assistants and housekeepers who saw and heard and knew, but did not speak. How could they afford to?
The women, too, were silent. Cosby was a giant and dangerous giants can get away with just about anything when the people are afraid of being crushed. The trauma of assault was compounded by the complex politics of celebrity and industry hierarchy.
Besides, who would believe that Bill Cosby had done something like this? And who would believe the cries of a 20-something wannabe model of the eighties?
The allegations against Bill Cosby serve also as painful but important reminders to the rest of us. We feel betrayed by someone we thought we knew, and so we are reminded by Cosby and others, like Stephen Collins, that the characters we love on TV are not the same people as the actors; that it’s easy to play harmless on TV but we, the public, will never know who these actors truly are. We are reminded, too, that, more often than not, rapists are not strangers. They can be people with whom we share an apartment building or an alma mater or a boss, people we believe we know, believe “would never.”
20-some women kept quiet for 20-some years, and so we are reminded that we have hard work still to do in becoming a culture that encourages and allows for survivors of abuse and assault to come forward. Their articles and accounts are met with doubt and distrust, and we are reminded that we shame and hush survivors. They are asked if and what they were drinking, what they were wearing, why they thought it was safe, and so we are reminded that we blame survivors, too. We are reminded that saying something if we see something is always hard and that we should do it anyway. We are reminded that gross misconduct can never be condoned, no matter whom it involves and no matter their celebrity or status or reputation. We say this case is more complicated because it involves celebrities, and so we are reminded that power is an enormous factor, that, when there is a hierarchy, the fear of consequences and retaliation compounds trauma and pain.
We see – in gutwrenchingly high numbers – that young women on the brink of their careers can be taken advantage of. We see that, in many fields, men still hold positions of power and women have an inordinate amount to prove.
To me, this serves as a reminder that women must help other women and must take care of each other. Women who have “made it” must remember what it felt like to be starting out and look back and offer a hand to the person a few rungs below them on the ladder. When we decide “we had it hard and so should they,” we create an atmosphere of destruction and danger for one another. We are far from being done asking each other -- men and women, celebrities and not-so celebrities -- to be better and do better. There are hierarchies and politics at work in all of our fields and institutions. The film and TV industries are not the only ones that still have a long way to go.
Ultimately, we must become a culture in which the power dynamics that enable sexual assault to occur cease to exist. But while we continue to fight for that future, we must be cognizant of our actions in the present and support one another.