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Daily, the number of women accusing comedian and actor Bill Cosby of rape increases. His accusers have captured the public’s rapt attention as they describe accounts of being drugged and raped by Cosby over the span of a few decades. Mature women now, most of them fell prey to these attacks in their blossoming youth when they were impressionable or vulnerable in one way or the other. Cosby then already an established comedian who was on his way to A-list celebrity status. To his accusers, he represented a trusted paternal figure or mentor. As is usual in sex crimes, predictably stale and repetitive debates rage about the veracity of the accusers’ accounts. Doubt, denial and counter accusations are unfortunately, par for the course when accusers face their own fears of retribution to report these crimes. But in the current climate of awareness of the prevalence of sexual harassment and rape in sport, institutions of learning and the work place, Cosby’s accusers can finally publicly recount the details of the crimes. Still, as he begins to pay a price for his alleged crimes with media appearances and tv projects being cancelled or postponed, a peculiar thing is happening: As his accusers’ voices are being raised against him, Cosby has opted to cloak himself in silence. However, it is a self-imposed silence that seeks to invert the power dynamic usually associated with crimes of rape and sexual harassment. Cosby, in his silence suggests his own victim hood. Consequently, in those quarters where doubt and denial live, Cosby’s silence acquires the power to re-victimize his accusers.
Cosby the Silenced Victim?
How is this so? You see, by ensconcing himself in silence, Cosby leaves open the door for his proxies to loudly voice doubts, denials and counter accusations. His sparse number of proxies at present is balanced out by the fact that they are in the main other celebrities with platforms and voices powerful enough to embed seeds of doubt and fear of the possibility that Cosby is being wrongfully accused or hounded by greedy accusers. (See Whoppi Goldberg; Tony Williams) Consider for instance the smears against Hannibal Buress, the African-American comedian who for some time, has included references to Cosby’s rape accusations as part of his stand-up routine. When the snippet of his performance went viral, some African-Americans accused him of trying to get a “come up” at the expense of Cosby. For Cosby’s staunchest supporters, Buress’ role in the resurgence of these rape accusations also confirmed that he was taking advantage of Cosby’s outsized celebrity status to draw much needed attention to his comparably minor status.
Contributing to this implicit idea of Cosby as victim are the photos and footage that accompany much of the coverage of the story. Days away from turning 77, Cosby visibly looks his age and nothing like what anyone would associate with a youthful virile man perhaps capable of such criminal, predatory acts. Society has always been more willing to ascribe to male elders the status of statesman or distinguished gentleman as opposed to predator predisposed to exploiting mainly teenaged girls on the cusp of womanhood.
Even so, the idea that Cosby (as any other celebrity) could fall victim to blackmail or be an easy target of an ambitious comedian is not implausible. But this is the same premise that preempted his accusers from getting a fair hearing at the time the alleged crimes were said to have occurred. So when Barbara Bowman asks: Why did it take 30 years for people to believe my story; she is really questioning why Cosby’s celebrity power clouded the public’s judgement and successfully silenced and intimidated his victims. Cosby’s groundbreaking and iconic role as Dr Heathcliff Huxtable on the 1980’s sitcom The Cosby Show had earned him powerful celebrity capital nationally and internationally. He had after all been cast as one of the earliest positive representations of African-American masculinity as the patriarch of a middle-class, successful family that espoused wholesome mainstream American values. In that Cosby period, Hollywood and America had advanced beyond stereotypical representations of African-American life on the small screen and were in self-congratulatory mood. In that heady mix, few were willing to separate the fiction from the fact of the failings of the man that were already in circulation. Bowman and other accusers were coming up against not Cosby the flawed man who was their predator; they were contending instead with a fictional character who embodied a potent concoction of celebrity, patriarchy and the symbolic advances made in American race history through The Cosby Show.But silence is new for Cosby . He used his voice and his expensive lawyers to dismiss his accusers earlier in his career. It’s the same strategy his lawyer Martin Singer tried this time too by cavalierly stating that he would not dignify the accusations with a response and further that not because the accusations were being repeated made them true.
Cosby also shunned silence when given the opportunity to castigate African-Americans for the various pathologies with which he diagnosed them – laziness, profligate use of ebonics and a reluctance to pull up their boot straps – all drawing on a well of stereotypes all too familiar to run-of-the mill bigots on the look out for confirmation of their misguided beliefs. Relishing his new found bully pulpit, Cosby’s admonishments provided that confirmation of such stereotypes because they were never situated in any historical or cultural context. Incurring the ire of many African-Americans, some celebrity or academic, Cosby remained undeterred and doubled-down on his harsh critiques. For Hannibal Buress, the irony and hypocrisy of Cosby’s sanctimonious rantings proved too much after discovering the rape charges that had been made against the star.
As recent revelations about the culture of sexual abuse and violence in the NFL, on college and university campuses, the workplace or the intimacy of homes highlight, these crimes continue to thrive in environments that adhere to an unspoken code of silence. In all of these spheres, many advertently (or inadvertently) become witnesses to these crimes. In choosing silence, however, witnesses become co-conspirators. Making that choice is often determined by the same imbalance in power relations that exists between victim and aggressor. But what a difference it could make to the credibility of the victims if witnesses would courageously come forward to support the accounts or offer any knowledge of the crimes being perpetrated? Wouldn’t the rate of successful prosecution of these crimes be increased exponentially should witnesses not opt for the expedience of silence that only helps the aggressor?
Cosby’s choice of silence as his avalanche of accusers are finally being allowed a voice should not be construed within the prism of his celebrity or his age. This must not be mistaken for the impotent silence of a victim. Neither are his accusers are trying to bully him into buying their silence. Rather, his silence should be recognized for what it is: Cosby expending a large chunk of his celebrity capital reserves in order to preserve his legacy and his place in American pop culture history.
But time is not on Cosby’s side. The corporate media has also taken the expedient decision to terminate associations with a now tainted star. His career has now been book-ended by rape accusations. He may have run out of time for a “come back” at this stage too. As concerned as he might be about his legacy being left in tatters, Cosby has one more chance for redemption. His redemption lies in abandoning his privileged silence and finding his voice again to honestly clear the air on the accusations being leveled by his increasing number of alleged victims. To merely deny the accusations is insufficient. He owes it to his alleged victims, his family and the public to clear the air once and for all.