Our Cosby delusions, undone: We'll go to great lengths to see powerful men as they want to see themselves

Bill Cosby admitted to the behaviors, but couldn't call his actions "rape" — and he's not alone

Published July 7, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/Evan Vucci)
(AP/Evan Vucci)

If you needed “proof,” you now have it: In a 2005 deposition compelled to public release by the Associated Press, legendary comedian Bill Cosby admits to obtaining Quaaludes for the express purpose of forcing sex on nonconsenting women. This is in connection to just one case—a civil lawsuit filed by Andrea Constand in Philadelphia—but in the deposition, Cosby testifies he obtained the pills for other “people” as well. At this point, more than 25 women have come forward with their own stories about the comedian assaulting them, going back to the 1970s.

That deposition was not the only invocation of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s party drug—created by Maalox!—to crop up in the media this week. Former bunny and star of the peppy reality show "The Girls Next Door" Holly Madison just wrote a memoir on her time there, called “Down the Rabbit Hole,” which reveals perhaps what we have all always known to be true—it’s an exploitative, abusive hell, where Madison was ushered into a sexual initiation before being slotted into Hugh Hefner’s sex schedule of two nights a week. Shortly after moving in, she sunk into depression and contemplated suicide. This truth, in contrast to the constructed reality of "The Girls Next Door," which portrayed Madison's life as more of a PG-13 sorority with an off-kilter celebrity boyfriend situation. To quote from a BuzzFeed piece about the book:

As Madison learned her first night out with Hefner and the girlfriends, sex was a requirement of living there. Wednesdays and Fridays were “Club Nights,” and Hefner and his ladies would go out in Hollywood, getting VIP treatment at various clubs. (Hefner’s fame as a septuagenarian sexpot novelty was then at its peak.) Hefner offered Madison a Quaalude, telling her, she writes in Down the Rabbit Hole, that “in the ’70s they used to call these pills ‘thigh openers.’” She turned him down, but did get drunk, and by the time they all went back to the mansion, she was told that it was time to go to Hefner’s bedroom.

Cosby was a frequent guest at the Playboy mansion. Late last year, former Playboy bunny P.J. Masten came forward saying that she and 12 other bunnies were raped by Cosby at the Playboy Club. It appears the two old men may have shared some tricks of the trade.

I am not the first to note that what is so skin-crawling about the Cosby rape allegations is that the comedian was a children’s entertainer, respectability-politics conservative, and family sitcom-dad for his entire career. We identify irony in the outspoken tirades against homosexuality made by men who end up engaging in clandestine affairs with other men. We identify horror in the stories of men like Jimmy Savile and Jerry Sandusky, who used their positions as, respectively, a children’s entertainer and a youth football coach, to identify, groom and rape countless minors. With Cosby the irony and horror are not so easily available, because partly, the blame is on us. Despite a vanilla, audience-pleasing, white-safe demeanor, Bill Cosby has not been particularly subtle or particularly private about any of this—his notorious "Spanish Fly" comedy bit being the most public example. Despite whispers, it remained buried for decades. It took another black comedian, in 2014, to call Cosby out on it, and by then, the long litany of damage was over and done with.

Cosby’s titular shows were fictional, technically. But part of his charm, like many other comedians who have also gone into television, is that the line between the man Cosby and the comedian Cosby was blurred almost to the point of nonexistence. He took on different names in his shows—most famously, Cliff Huxtable in “The Cosby Show”—but he never really played different characters, and the titles of the shows attested to that. You were watching to see Cosby be Cosby. And perhaps because his career stretched a solid 35 years, from 1965, when he debuted as the co-lead of “I Spy,” to the last episode of “Cosby” in 2000, the man on-screen became the man in real life.

On- and off-screen, Cosby became “America’s Dad”—always clad in a loud, stripey sweater or a college sweat shirt, the original deliverer of hashtag dad jokes. He sold Jell-O, mostly to children. He sold Kodak film—particularly the “Colorwatch system”—as a way of subtly embracing the multiplicity of skin tones that make up the modern world. As a comic, Cosby mostly had the style and sex appeal of a muppet.

And as it happens, “America’s Dad” was also a rapist. It’s hard to hold what feels like two antithetical concepts in your head at the same time. Dads are not, should not, be rapists.

* * *

Before the rape allegations became a nationwide scandal, the most controversial thing about Bill Cosby was that he appeared to blame black people for structural inequalities they face. “The Pound Cake Speech,” in 2004, is the most famous example of Cosby’s worldview; he condemns his fellow black people for their “crap” names, their choice in fashion, conspicuous consumption, single parenting, rap music—oh, it’s a laundry list of offenses.

Implicitly throughout his career—and then explicitly, in the last decade—Cosby has preached a gospel of “respectable” and “decent” success by conformity. His upper-middle-class Cliff Huxtable is baffled by the concerns of younger and poorer black people; he seems to think the source of the problem with his people, as a whole, is that they do not wear pants the way white people do, or they give their children names with too many syllables. He practiced, always, a kind of conservatism, a blending-in, one that in its way became subtly revolutionary.

But perhaps it worked entirely too well. Maybe Cosby melted into, bought into, a status quo that then as now desperately needed to be disrupted. He bought into the standards and practices of Hugh Hefner, perhaps. The respectability Cosby practiced and preached is the same respectability that gave him a cover for the last five decades.

After all, the startling thing about the deposition is not so much that it proves Cosby is a repeat offender who drugged women until they could not consent—we knew that—but that Cosby can describe the act and identify its purpose but not name it as "rape." It’s horrifying, but it correlates with what we know about recidivist rapists. As this extensive report published in Feministe back in 2010 demonstrates, recidivist rapists, which make up 4 to 6 percent of the male population, freely admit to acts of rape—so long as they are not called rape. And just as he would not call it that, neither would we. It would not have been entirely polite.

By Sonia Saraiya

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