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What We Talk About When We Talk About Cosby
And, even after the exemplary exploration of a new documentary, what we still don't
In a handful of recent posts, I’ve tackled the question of “the art and the artist” from a perspective that I’ve thought about for a while, but which continues to evolve. I’m not dogmatic about whether knowledge of authorial intentions or identity can be useful in interpreting a work—it is if it is, and it isn’t if it isn’t; it all depends on what you make of that knowledge—but I am clear about whether those intentions or identity necessarily govern your experience of a work, and in my view, they emphatically don’t. It’s important not to confuse your response with authorial intention, or to delude yourself about who the author was. But if you know the author’s intent differs from your response, even radically, or if you discover afterwards that the author isn’t who you thought they were, that doesn’t mean your response is “wrong,” whatever that might mean. Your response is a matter between you and the work itself; when the work is out of the author’s hands, your response to it is too.
What matters fundamentally about your response, then, is whether it is persuasive and whether it is generative. By “persuasive” I mean whether, when others encounter your reading of a work, their response is to feel that they understand the work differently and better than they did before. By “generative” I mean whether it opens up new avenues for creativity, either in criticism or in making new work. You can, of course, have a private reading of your own that is neither persuasive to others nor generative for you. If that’s the kind of reading you usually do, though, you really ought to ask yourself whether you’re getting everything you might out of the experience of art.
At the end of one of those posts, I mentioned that I was going to watch the Showtime documentary, We Need to Talk About Cosby, which tries to grasp a very thorny nettle right in the middle of this particular field. Now that I’ve done so, it behooves me to revisit this question in light of my experience of that doc, which I found very informative and moving but also somewhat unsatisfying.
Bill Cosby was a towering figure in American entertainment in the 20th century as well as a figure of historic importance for Black Americans. He didn’t mean to me what he meant to so many Black people, artists and non-artists alike, but Fat Albert is a part of my childhood too, and I cherish my memories of the show. (I was aware of The Cosby Show but I wasn’t a regular part of the audience for it.) In addition to that, of course, Cosby was credibly accused by dozens of women of drugging them and raping them while they were unconscious. For this he was convicted, then subsequently released after his conviction was overturned because crucial evidence was improperly obtained. It was the most dramatic destruction of a heroic image that I can think of since the sexual abuse revelations about the Catholic Church.
The documentary does an exemplary job of laying out both sides of the man. It showcases his incredible talent, and his profound influence on two generations of American comedy. It shows how he navigated the complicated racial politics of the early Civil Rights era to be welcomed on American screens in a way that few if any Black figures were before, how he subsequently transformed himself into a major educational figure promoting both Black historical consciousness and Black uplift, and how he conscientiously and directly advanced the careers of myriad Black artists and artisans through working on his productions.
At the same time, the documentary makes it clear that Cosby didn’t just get corrupted later in his life but was a predator from the beginning. Core to the documentary are extensive interviews with multiple accusers, along with multiple references to Cosby’s body of work that, in light of what we know, are very hard to interpret other than as winking references to his Mr. Hyde side. Many of the same people who are interviewed about Cosby’s incredible achievements and his importance to them as a figure also speak about his crimes, and about the complexity of their feelings about him in light of the reality of both aspects of his character. The documentarian himself, W. Kamau Bell, doesn’t hide his own investment in this question. He’s one of those struggling, which is clearly why he made the documentary in the first place.
There’s a lot of material there to chew on, and I would heartily recommend the documentary to anyone with the stomach for it. Nonetheless, when I came to the end, I felt I had learned a great deal, and yet that I had really learned nothing at all. Why is that?
I think the reason is that, at the end of the documentary I felt that I still didn’t know Bill Cosby himself, which is to say, I didn’t understand how the different aspects of his character fit together into a single whole. Indeed, while the doc was eager to ask, rhetorically, how someone could be both a pillar of the community and a serial predator, it shied away from any serious examination of possible answers. But those answers have very different implications for the questions that the documentary itself is deeply concerned with.
For example: a handful of the people interviewed suggest that the public persona was all part of an elaborate trick, a way of fooling the world into believing a self-constructed myth so that, in private, Cosby could continue to prey on vulnerable women—or, perhaps, because the trick itself was a large part of the fun. Is that plausible, though? Remember, Cosby wasn’t just a philanthropist; he was in the trenches. In the 1970s, the core of his work was fundamentally educational in nature. All the effort he put into getting Black artists and artisans jobs on his shows—is it remotely plausible that this was all part of some nefarious plan? It’s very hard to believe that he didn’t get some sense of satisfaction from the work he was doing, even if that satisfaction was primarily of being the big man who could provide. Sociopaths can be very successful, but can they be successful in this manner?
Granting that Cosby was a predator from the beginning, nonetheless, how did he begin? If he wasn’t a “bad seed” then where did his behavior come from? The documentary talks about Cosby’s milieu and the inherent pressures of the career he was trying to make, particularly in the early 1960s as a Black man breaking into a White world. It also does a great job of laying out the rampant sexism combined with a rising libertinism that characterized the era, the era that gave us the Hugh Hefner ethos. Sadly, I can imagine any number of reasons why a man performing a high-wire act like Cosby was early in his career—and predisposed to buy into horrible sexist notions about how to “get” women—might have done what Cosby did. And as his fame and power increased, a sense of impunity and entitlement might have more and more fully distorted his character, his behavior growing more compulsive and more brutal as he was able to avoid the kind of introspection necessary to confront what he had become.
Is that Cosby’s story, though? We can’t ever know for sure, but the documentary isn’t fundamentally interested in that question. Its primary interest is in what Cosby meant to other people, which explains why it was hard for them to see him for who he really was, to accept that he could do such terrible things. It is interested in Cosby as a figure and a phenomenon. It’s much less concerned with unraveling the mystery of who Cosby himself was and is. Indeed, I only remember one gesture in the direction of that mystery, when a sex therapist talks about how when people are ashamed of their kink they can become abusive in pursuit of satisfaction. Cosby, she says, should have admitted to himself that he liked sex with unconscious women, and paid a sex worker to allow herself to be made unconscious to satisfy that urge. I found that suggestion rather pat; your mileage may vary.
Even if the fundamental question of the documentary is “how could we have missed this about Cosby for so long?” though, it seems to me that only part of the answer relates to how important the good things were that he did for so many people. The other part, the missing part, is that people didn’t have a clear picture of the possibility of a Cosby at the level of personality. The binary of either he’s this or he’s that forces the mind to categorize and judge rather than assess the totality.
The reason I’m perseverating on this is that while the documentary admirably avoids a “rise and fall” story that would be false to the facts, it slips into another simplifying habit of dividing Cosby in two, suggesting that there was a “good” Cosby who did all the things he was admired for, and a “bad” Cosby who raped dozens of women, and who used his power to get easier access to them and to cover up his crimes. Indeed, the documentary ends on of saying that, perhaps, if we all really internalized the good messages that Cosby delivered in so many different forums, a bad character like Cosby would never have been able to put one over on so many people. I don’t think this will fly, though. Here’s why.
The division of a man into Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a metaphor, but even in terms of the metaphor the two cannot be severed. The most disturbing possibility, from my perspective, about Cosby is that both the achievements and the crimes may have been inextricably intertwined at the level of character. Cosby, after all, was able to achieve both his extraordinary success and his predation because of his phenomenal charisma and self-possession. Those are qualities we associate with greatness generally, but they are also part of what make at least some great people fundamentally unapproachable and unknowable.
I was struck that the documentary didn’t seem to have had access to anyone who knew Cosby deeply, anyone in whom he truly confided. I’m not surprised by that—Cosby still has a close circle of fervent defenders who argue that the accusations against him are all part of a racist plot to bring down a powerful Black man, and those most likely to have known him deeply are surely in that circle. But it’s also possible that there were no such people, nobody who really knew him. Even his children, even his wife, Camille, about whose experiences the documentary barely ventures to speculate—perhaps even they only knew a carefully-crafted persona, not because Cosby was trying to trick them so he could prey on young women but because that’s who he was, all the way down, and being that person was essential to him becoming the superstar he became.
If that’s true, though, then can you ever trust someone that unknowable? And if you can’t, how could you ever allow a Cosby to become a Cosby—to become, that is to say, influential enough to spread his good message and to open so many doors for so many people?
Then there’s this. The persona Cosby crafted over the course of decades was the persona of a father. He was strong, protective, caring, but also demanding and authoritative. He was in your corner, he knew what you were capable of, and he wouldn’t let you off the hook for falling short. I understand why that persona was so powerful, meant so much to so many people—particularly given that he deployed it to do so much good. But the fact that it was so powerful speaks to something else: that so many people needed something external to perform that function. They weren’t prepared to perform it for themselves.
I’m not faulting people for that—we all need help, we all need heroes, we all need father figures. But part of growing up is coming to realize that our fathers were only human. Hopefully we don’t have to learn that they were serial rapists, but even if they were massively successful and had no horrible crimes on the other side of the ledger, they were still only human. If they presented a fatherly persona like Cosby’s, that’s what it was: a persona. Part of growing up is coming to realize that this is a universal fact, and not something horrible about certain heroes who are also hypocrites.
I want to be clear: I’m not saying that personae or heroes have no value. I’m saying that coming to recognize them as personae is part of the transition to full maturity, part of the awareness that there are no grownups in charge, just us. Nor am I saying that Cosby’s work has no value, or can’t be enjoyed. I thought Fat Albert was wonderful—and I suspect I would still think so, for all the reasons that the documentary highlights. I laughed myself to tears listening to Bill Cosby: Himself. I am smiling now thinking about some of its best bits. But a completely ingenuous appreciation of the Cosby persona puts us in a childlike position vis a vis the persona that he himself constructed. We can enjoy that, even value it, but we have to be critical about it, as adults, and recognize what we’re doing when we do it. And we’d have to do that even if Cosby wasn’t guilty of anything.
That’s the final step I wished the documentary had been willing to take. The revelations about Cosby were profoundly traumatic, but that trauma is a more painful variation on a universal trauma. We need fathers—and mothers, of course; I don’t mean to exclude anyone by focusing specifically on Cosby’s persona and the archetype he represented. We need them, but we need, as well, to outgrow them. We need to recognize the difference between their personae and their selves because we need to recognize that same difference in us, and that the difference is normal.
Recognizing the dangerously abnormal requires that we recognize the normal. And I’m not sure that is something you would learn from Bill Cosby’s own corpus of work.
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