How Bill Cosby, America's dad, used TV to betray us

For decades Bill Cosby exploited TV to ensure that the public would believe him instead of the women he preyed upon

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published April 27, 2018 7:00PM (EDT)

Bill Cosby departs the courthouse after he was found guilty in his sexual assault retrial, April, 26, 2018. (AP//Matt Slocum)
Bill Cosby departs the courthouse after he was found guilty in his sexual assault retrial, April, 26, 2018. (AP//Matt Slocum)

Through the medium of television Bill Cosby has been intimately influencing American perspectives on race, class, how we think about ourselves and, most crucially, how we feel about him, for more than five decades.

Give that information a moment to sink in, to really scrabble its way inside the inkiest crannies of your gray matter. Only by processing how long the comedian, actor and self-styled moral police commander of the African-American community has been running his game on an entire nation of viewers — several generations' worth — can we begin to comprehend the significance of Thursday’s verdict.

Cosby’s conviction comes years after the diminishment of his power, long after Hollywood, and much of the populace, declared him persona non grata. As sacrifices go, Cosby is a sizable one but also hobbled, softened and ready for slaughter.

Nevertheless, Thursday's news that a jury in Norristown, Pennsylvania, found Cosby guilty on three counts of aggravated indecent assault against Andrea Constand, a former Temple University employee, came as a shock.

Constand is one of scores of accusers — 60, by USA Today's count — who have accused Cosby of sexual assault. Until now, however, these allegations rolled off of Cosby like raw eggs off Teflon. Stories about these rapes and assaults have circulated for decades; Constand first came forward in 2005, a year after her original assault took place. Police dropped her case then for lack of evidence, and with Cosby insisting the sex was consensual, it became a matter of his word against hers.

And who were they to believe: Bill Cosby, TV icon, philanthropist and national father figure, or a lowly office worker at his alma mater?

Constand’s ordeal and the many others resembling it tell a bigger and much more sinister story: that of Cosby malevolently capitalizing on an image carefully cultivated over decades spent in front of TV audiences. Television is a medium that is only effective when its products forge a sense of intimacy, trust and belief for its viewers. People don’t necessarily have to believe the characters we watch on television or even like the people who play them. But we do have to trust the programs and platforms on which they appear enough to invite those characters into our homes time and again.

The fact that Cosby was able to get away with his crimes against Constand for so long — in addition to allegedly assaulting and abusing a vast array of women in his orbit, even friends — speaks to the potency of that idea.

Cosby didn’t merely gamble on the notion that a culture hardwired to question the credibility of sexual assault victims would never support the claims of the women he targeted. He also spent years grooming millions to view him as a man who couldn’t possibly commit such acts. He convinced Americans that he was a safe paternal figure who sold Jell-O pudding to giggling youngsters, who instilled wholesome values in children via Saturday morning cartoons. He wasn’t content to play America’s best dad — he had to make us believe that he himself was an example of the wise and noble paterfamilias.

Such a man is incapable of plying women with drugs before raping them.

In fully accounting for every part of our relationship with Cosby’s many television personas, we only begin to get a sense of how extensively he hoodwinked millions of people. Indeed, the timeline of Cosby’s mass deceit by way of popular culture is almost as long as the modern history of the television medium itself.

In the mid-'60s, around the time Sunni Welles alleges she was raped (according to her statement at a news conference held on March 27, 2015), Cosby was a popular comedian who made television history in becoming the first black actor to star in a weekly drama series, 1965’s “I Spy.” He shared lead billing with Robert Culp, went on to win three Emmys for his performance in the role, and followed that successful run with a sitcom bearing his own name, “The Bill Cosby Show,” which ran from 1969 to 1971.

Cosby went on to become a staple figure of Saturday morning cartoons with “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids,” voicing the title role in addition to speaking directly to all the kids watching him. Anyone who watched television between 1972 and 1985 can imitate Fat Albert’s “hey, hey, hey!”  Even if you didn’t stick around to absorb the important moral lessons Albert, Rudy, Mushmouth and the rest of the gang were learning that day, you couldn’t avoid it.

Those of us who did watch also took in Cosby’s jovial live-action appearances bookending each episode. That goofy grin and friendly voice imprinted on the memory centers of Generation X, Constand’s cohort, from the time they were toddlers and elementary school kids.

Prior to her assault, Constand said she thought of Cosby as a mentor. Many people may have viewed him thusly, even those who never met him. “Fat Albert” is one reason why.

Another accuser who provided testimony in this second trial, Chelan Lasha, says Cosby invited her to his Las Vegas hotel suite in 1986, when she was 17 years old. She alleges that he handed her a blue pill and offered her a double shot of Amaretto to wash it down. The last thing she remembers, according to her account in the now-famous 2015 New York magazine story that features 35 of Cosby’s accusers, was him “humping her leg and grunting.”

By 1986 my mother had signed us up to be a Nielsen family. As part of that task, she believed it was our responsibility to strategically wield whatever infinitesimal power we had to help keep “The Cosby Show” on the air. Whenever it was on, even if the episode was a repeat, our main television had to be tuned in to NBC.

“The Cosby Show” represents massive, transformative success, not only to the sitcom genre itself and NBC’s prime-time fortunes, but in its capacity as a symbol of middle-class possibility. For most of the years between the comedy’s debut in 1984 through its 1992 cancellation, the upwardly mobile Huxtables shaped how white America viewed a specific segment of black America, for good or ill.

To black families like ours it represented progress and pride. Cliff Huxtable, a physician, and his wife Clair, an attorney, promoted an image of the black family that placed education and refinement at the center of its world. They shared similar problems to those of middle-class white America, rarely making race the focus of episodic plots.

They were, to put it bluntly, the right kind of black folks. Model minorities. Neither NBC, nor its viewers, nor the community heartened to see a positive portrayal of black life on a major network in the 1980s would have countenanced the notion that Cosby also was a sexual predator.

Only since Cosby’s divisive and insulting oratory given during a 2004 NAACP award ceremony, his infamous “Pound Cake” speech, did we come to understand the part “The Cosby Show” played in perpetuating its creator’s brand of respectability politics.

Rather than wandering further into the briar patch with that particular acre of his hypocrisy, let’s instead consider that Cosby used it, along with the rest of his work, to construct a heretofore impenetrable bulwark to delay justice for his victims.

The surprise revamp of the series’ third season opening credits in 1986, for example, was quite a thrill. Tweaking the theme song with the debut of each new season became part of the show’s identity, and that version incorporated a Latin jazz flair. I recall my family, along with tens of millions of other households, took delight in his purposely awful Dad Dancing.

I spent a lot of time thinking about that particular credits sequence since Thursday's news broke, setting its infectious percussion line and sparkling piano riff against my imaginings of Lasha’s trauma.

Lasha says in 1986 she wanted to be a model. Her stepmother sent a letter about her as well as her photo to Cosby, the nicest man in America, a champion of education and symbol of black success, a man who might be able to make her stepdaughter’s dream come true.

It’s very likely that in October 1985 or in some repeat airing of the episode thereafter that Lasha watched the man who would attack her join his character’s wife and kids in a lip-sync of Ray Charles’ “Night Time Is the Right Time.”

Remember tiny, 6-year-old Keshia Knight Pulliam, as Rudy, bringing down the house with her adorably exaggerated mimicry of “Bay-bay! Bayee-bay!...Hold me tight! Make everything alright!”? What you might not remember is the context. This performance was part of an anniversary gift to Cliff’s parents. Rudy’s grandparents.

Lasha said Cosby invited her and her grandmother to his comedy show. He met this teenager’s grandmother. Afterward, she said, Cosby assaulted that woman’s grandchild.

Lasha was in high school, not much older than I was when the incident would have taken place. “You remember, don’t you, Mr. Cosby?” she yelled across the courtroom. These contradictory images now battle and merge as part of our collective memory. They’re another kind of sickening transgression.

In the years following the end of “The Cosby Show,” the performer starred in “Cosby” for CBS, which ran between 1996 and 2000, and one season of “The Cosby Mysteries” on NBC in 1994. He also hosted a revival of “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” By then he’d established himself as America’s Dad.

None of this computes with the perception of, as model and TV personality Janice Dickinson testified, “'America’s Dad’ on top of me, a happily married man with five children, on top of me.”

Dickinson says Cosby assaulted her in 1982, which was around the time Cosby’s “Picture Pages” segments were running as part on CBS’ “Captain Kangaroo” and later on Nickelodeon’s “Pinwheel,” children’s programming starting in the late 1970s. He was teaching millions of kids how to draw and use their imaginations at the time Dickinson says he forced himself on her.

This is why even after multiple accusers came forward with the eerily similar stories of violation, Cosby not only remained free but had the juice to sell a comedy pilot in 2014 and even as recently as January of this year could attract people to his live stand-up appearances.

All of these assaults, those recounted in courtroom testimony and the dozens of others reconstructed in allegations made public and ignored for decades, took place behind the heavy curtain of a career that helped sustain and was sustained by important pillars of the entertainment industry. And the lifeblood of that industry is attention, affection and belief of the audience.

Wrapping our brains around that truth feels stunning, frankly. It explains why the 2017 proceedings ended in a mistrial. Despite all the evidence presented to the jury, including Cosby’s admission that he used to give Quaaludes to women he wanted to have sex with, two jurors simply refused to accept the possibility that Cliff Huxtable, TV’s Greatest Dad, attacked women.

But that mistrial occurred before the shocking revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s years of harassment and misconduct broke in October, before multiple sexual misconduct reports took down Matt Lauer. It came before the end of Louie C.K.’s TV career after he confessed to exposing himself to women and forcing them to watch him masturbate.

As such, this guilty verdict for Cosby is being considered as the first true legal victory of #MeToo. But in the longer, broader view it can and is likely to be seen as more than this. This moment represents many things to many different parties.

Cosby’s actions betray the community he claimed to represent, the one he admonished for being responsible for creating the social and economic woes that have befallen it. And he insisted that community stand by him even so.

Cosby’s reputation for education advocacy and his philanthropy played a role in enabling him to spend most of his life and career as a free man. It is now reasonable to believe he targeted and attacked women over the course of at least 50 of the 80 years he has spent on this Earth.

Let’s be careful before declaring it to be a sign of a beginning of something larger, or an end to women’s collective struggles to be heard, or a sign of lasting change in any respect. In the fullness of time it may prove to be any of those things or none of them. But as of Friday afternoon his works are still easily available to the public: reruns of "The Cosby Show" may have been pulled from Bounce TV, but the show remains available to be streamed via Amazon's Prime subscription service. Similarly, as of this writing "I Spy" episodes are still streaming on Hulu.

That matters less than knowing one of Cosby's victims has been seen, heard and believed, and has attained some level of vindication for herself and others.

But it's going to take a while for the rest of us to fully grasp the heinousness of the duplicity to which we were unwittingly subjected throughout many stages of our lives.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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