Bill Cosby's real "legacy": His latest vile joke is a reminder that rape culture is bigger than one man

Cosby's joke and Phylicia Rashad's denials are part of a cultural legacy of violence ignored and victims silenced

Published January 9, 2015 6:54PM (EST)

Bill Cosby                        (AP/Victoria Will)
Bill Cosby (AP/Victoria Will)

Bill Cosby may have retired his “Spanish Fly” routine, but the alleged serial rapist isn’t done making jokes about drugging and assaulting women. During an appearance Thursday night in Ontario, according to reports from the show, Cosby told a woman in the crowd, "You have to be careful about drinking around me." The audience gasped -- and then erupted into laughter and applause.

And why wouldn’t they? At this point, a person who is buying a ticket to see Cosby perform is obviously comfortable with the allegations that he drugged and raped more than 20 women over a span of decades. Unlike in previous years, the names and stories of the women who say they were assaulted by Cosby are part of the news cycle, impossible to ignore. Giving Cosby your money in spite of the mounting allegations means something. It’s taking a position.

News of Cosby’s joke, and the audience’s laughter, reminded me again of the comments that former “Cosby Show” actress Phylicia Rashad made earlier this week. On the topic of the allegations against her television husband, Rashad said, “Forget these women.”

"What you're seeing is the destruction of a legacy,” she continued. ”And I think it's orchestrated. I don't know why or who's doing it, but it's the legacy. And it's a legacy that is so important to the culture."

Rashad would later claim that she was misquoted, but the substance of her statement remained intact.

Here’s her clarification: "That was a misquote. That is not what I said. What I said is, 'this is not about the women. This is about something else. This is about the obliteration of legacy."

Roger Friedman, the columnist who wrote the Showbiz 411 article that quoted Rashad as saying “forget these women,” denied he misquoted her, but also came to her defense. "She didn't mean for it to be taken the way it was, and I should have punctuated. There was NEVER the meaning in 'Forget those women' that she was saying to actually forget or dismiss them."

Frankly, there is absolutely nothing to be gained from her distinction. “Forget these women” and “this is not about the women” amount to the same erasure of their voices and experiences, but I will give Rashad this: She’s right that this is about a legacy. But it’s not Cosby’s that’s at stake, or at least it isn’t Cosby’s legacy alone that's at issue here.

What we’re seeing right now is the latest expression of a cultural legacy -- of violence ignored and victims silenced. But rather than being “obliterated,” that legacy is alive and well. Precisely because so many keep looking away, keep forgetting “these women.”

But not everyone will forget these women. Last night, another member of the Ontario show’s audience was reportedly escorted out after calling Cosby a rapist. The comedian addressed the protest in a statement after the performance. “One outburst but over 2600 loyal, patient and courageous fans enjoyed the most wonderful medicine that exist for human-kind. Laughter,” he said. “I thank you … for your continued honor and support. I’m Far From Finished.”

Cosby's right. He may have lost a sitcom deal and some syndication money in the last few months, but he’s still onstage, getting a laugh about rape, upholding a legacy that is much older, much bigger than him.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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Bill Cosby Comedy Phylicia Rashad Rape Rape Culture Rape Jokes Violence Against Women