By Justin Wier
As of this writing, 20 women have stepped forward to accuse Bill Cosby of sexually assaulting them. The stories they tell are remarkably similar. Cosby established a professional relationship with the women, eventually drugged and then violated them while they were intoxicated.
The allegations first arose in 2004, but after an out-of-court settlement in the following year, they were mostly forgotten. It wasn’t until a YouTube video of a bit by stand-up comedian Hannibal Burress went viral that people started paying attention.
“It’s even worse because Bill Cosby has the f—ing smuggest old black man public persona that I hate. He gets on TV, ‘Pull your pants up black people. I was on TV in the ‘80s. I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom.’ Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches,” Burress said in the video.
Why did it take 10 years for us as a culture to take these claims seriously? Perhaps it is the personal way in which we have related to Cosby’s art.
Amanda Taub laid this out in a piece written for Vox.com.
“Believing or even paying attention to the allegations against Cosby would have required us all to do work and make sacrifices, and we didn’t want to do that. Ignoring his accusers meant that we got to keep our happy childhood memories of the “Cosby Show” … but if we dismiss or disbelieve or even just ignore the allegations, then we don’t have to do that work, or make those sacrifices. It’s easier, even if it’s wrong,” she said.
You can see this present in those who suggest that Cosby’s accusers are lying in order to obtain publicity or wealth. They make these claims despite the fact that a list of people who have risen to fame by falsely accusing someone of rape can be represented by a blank sheet of paper; despite the fact that there aren’t 20 people lining up to accuse Tom Cruise of similar crimes; despite the fact that the statute of limitations has ran out on many of these crimes and there is no hope of the alleged victims receiving damages.
It’s an easy trap to fall into. Loathe as I am to admit it, when Woody Allen’s daughter published an open letter early last year accusing him of molesting her when she was seven, my initial stance was one of doubt.
“How reliable is a seven-year-old’s memory?” I found myself saying just so I didn’t have to re-evaluate the effect films like “Annie Hall” and “Hannah and Her Sisters” had had on me as a young adult. It makes me cringe in retrospect.
I wrestled with these feelings for a while before an interview with Lena Dunham on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast brought things into relief for me.
“People who really believe Woody Allen is guilty have not felt comfortable saying that because they’re so afraid to lose their connection to his work,” Dunham said, as if she were speaking directly to me. “And the thing is, I feel like people need to understand that you can hold two positions in your mind. You can know that someone’s made work that’s meaningful to you and also know that they have most likely molested their daughter.”
Can we do this with Bill Cosby? It’s certainly easier for us to do it with artists from the past. No one hesitates to admire a Caravaggio painting when visiting a museum despite the fact he was a murderer. No one refuses to attend a Wagner opera because he was an anti-Semite. With public figures like Cosby and Allen who exist in the present day media, though, the relationship is more difficult.
One thing is clear, if we are able to separate the artist from the art, we will be less likely to ignore the claims of people who are wronged by artists we admire. We will be less likely to grant them pardons because we don’t want to complicate the relationship we have with their work and deny their victims their humanity in the process.
We might be better off if we could privilege works of art without privileging their creators, but how easy will that be?