Thursday, July 9, 2015

What the Reaction to Bill Cosby Reveals About Society's Construction of Men Who Rape

I have not said much on Cosby and the numerous rape allegations against him. I think the last time I mentioned him was after Beverly Johnson made her accusation. I found it powerful and, given her position with respect to black art and film, highly credible. She is not someone who would go against an understandably protective and suspicious black community without good cause.

Currently, I am struck by the different ways in which people are trying to "sanitize" the country by de-Cosbying it. No more Cosby show episodes, memorials, or even awards. Some group has petitioned the White House to retract a presidential medal that Cosby once received.

I suppose one could say that these actions seek to punish his sexual crimes. I believe that something deeper is occurring. And what is taking place reveals a lot about how our society views rapists.

Throughout his long career, Cosby's work has entertained and impressed millions of people. He was once viewed as a heroic figure. He was a great actor and comedian. He contributed generously to colleges and universities. He advocated educational achievement. He helped black actors and artists attain greater visibility on television. He helped shatter racist stereotypes about black families. These are all very wonderful things.

But these images strongly conflict with the standard depiction of rapists. Rapists are evil strangers who lurk on isolated street corners or parking lots waiting to attack vulnerable women. Statistics, however, tell us that this pervasive view of rapists is false. Men who rape likely know the victims. The victims trust these men. They are ministers, partners, uncles, fathers, brothers, cops, firefighters, school teachers, mom's boyfriend, or the nice guy who lives across the street.

Women do not want to see these men as potential rapists because doing so makes them perpetually vulnerable. Men insist upon separating the "monster" rapist from "normal" guys because no man wants to be accused of rape. If rapists are monsters, but Bill is a good guy, then Bill is not a rapist. When "good guys" face rape accusations, clearly the woman is lying.

Bill Cosby was the good guy. He made people feel safe and proud. Whites considered him a "credit to his race" (unlike "other" blacks who devalue hard work and education). Blacks were proud of and inspired by his accomplishments. But, now, he is tainted by rape. Because he raped, he is not good. If he is not good, he must be bad. Because he is bad, he is incapable of good. If he is incapable of good, then we must secret and destroy all of the memories of his prior goodness. Cosby's goodness died when he raped. If we do not banish these memories, then we will live in chaos -- good among evil in the same body. So, Cosby the rapist must supplant Cosby the artist and humanitarian. Recognition human complexity would make things messy.

I suspect that some people who were (or who still are) struggling to accept the fact that Cosby is a rapist did so because they could not embrace the many dimensions of his humanity -- of our humanity. He is either good or evil. Some people want to hold on to the goodness, which means barricading it from rape. Some want to accept that he is a rapist, which means casting out anything positive that he has ever accomplished. Another path could accept all sides of humanity. There are good people who do terrible things. There are many bad people who show deep humanity. But we want dichotomies. Without dichotomies, we might imprison someone who has a lot of potential for greatness. Or, we might marry someone who later abuses and exploits us.

Finally, although I believe that the tug of war between the dichotomous constructs of Cosby represent the unwillingness of Americans to accept the ordinariness of rape, I also believe that some of the indignation is theatrical. Although networks are canceling the reruns, retracting medals, awards, etc., I have not heard of any calls for entities that have profited from Cosby's work and charity to return those contributions. TV Land has canceled the reruns of the Cosby Show, but is holding on to the ad revenue. Temple is ridding the school of any reference to Cosby, but will keep his donations. So are other universities that have received money from him.

It took so long for me to respond to the allegations against Cosby because I was not surprised that he might be a rapist. I had already learned that the creepy monster rapist construct just that -- a construct. I am more surprised that his crimes have become public. Men of wealth can usually hide their misdeeds. He failed. Simply saying I cannot believe he was discovered, however, does not exhibit a proper amount of shame, shock, and dismay. So, I wrote about the shame, shock, and dismay instead.

PS: Why do you think I use a younger picture of Cosby?


Alessandro Machi said...

I'm disappointed you made no distinction between the everyday person and celebrities. To hold them to the same guidelines is naive in my opinion.

Alessandro Machi said...

I don't think its fair to judge celebrities as if they are regular people. Celebrities can be regular people at times, but to an adoring public celebrityhood also means opportunity to enhance one's own life or stature by interacting with a celebrity.
It is clear what Bill Cosby wanted, he wanted one night stands with women he found attractive and he didn't want to have any type of intimate relationship, did not want to lead them on that after his one night stand that he would then have an ongoing relationship with them, he probably did not want to mislead the people he slept with that he would help their careers. Bill Cosby did not want to have meaningful conversation with people who he just wanted to have sex with.
Bill Cosby is probably the poster child for legalizing some type of prostitution. Cosby probably feared being caught with a prostitute and suddenly you have a celebrity who can't have what he wants how he wants it. Kind of ironic in a way that he was unable to come up with a plan that would not endanger (the drugging) nor lead on his temporary one night stands.
I think its important for people to understand that celebrities are very lucky in some ways but also have ongoing unwinnable scenarios that result from being a celebrity.
Can anyone explain how a celebrity who probably was in big demand by an adoring public was supposed to interact with that public in a way that did not compromise him going forward, because I am not seeing it.

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