The Bill Cosby rape allegations expose Hollywood’s shameful open secret

Bill Cosby poses before receiving the Lone Sailor Award

Hollywood’s rape problems are a whole lot bigger than Bill Cosby.

In America’s current culture wars, one of the major battles is that of art versus artist. Does great work negate real transgressions? Or does an artist’s troubling personal life make it impossible to enjoy their output altogether? The latest icon to be thrown into the fray is Bill Cosby. Though troubling allegations of rape and sexual misconduct have plagued Cosby for years, these issues came to light once again this week when comedian Hannibal Buress reminded us of them once again. 

“Bill Cosby has the fucking smuggest old black man public persona that I hate,” Buress said during a set in Philadelphia this week. “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 raped women, Bill Cosby. So, brings you down a couple notches. I don’t curse on stage. Well, yeah, you’re a rapist, so, I’ll take you sayin’ lots of motherfuckers on Bill Cosby… I want to just at least make it weird for you to watch Cosby Show reruns. …I’ve done this bit on stage, and people don’t believe. People think I’m making it up. …That shit is upsetting. If you didn’t know about it, trust me. You leave here and google ‘Bill Cosby rape.’ It’s not funny. That shit has more results than Hannibal Buress.”

These statements are bold, but as Burres reminds you, not unwarranted. The fact that he, as a young, talented, up-and-coming comedian would think to mention them at all (much less onstage) is surprising, considering Bill Cosby’s legendary status in the stand-up world. Cosby is often regarded as, if not the greatest stand-up of all time, at least in the top 10.

Buress’ claim that he wants to “make it weird for you to watch Cosby Show reruns” is what really gets at the heart of the dilemma here. For anyone even remotely compassionate towards sexual assault survivors and aware of what they continue to go through in this country, liking Bill Cosby is a frustrating proposition. Ultimately, the answers, if there are any, lie in whether we should judge a creative person solely on their artistic contributions to this world, or whether we also factor in their more complicated standing in society.

As depressing as it is, Hollywood has a thoroughly poor history when it comes to respecting survivors of assault. The most notable example here is probably that of filmmaker Roman Polanski. Director of such classics as Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby, Polanski famously fled the country in in 1978, after drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl. Working out of America, however, Polanski’s career has continued to flourish. The Academy even rewarded him with the Best Director Oscar in 2002 for his work on The Pianist.

Things haven’t gotten much better since Polanski’s heyday. West of Memphis director Amy Berg actually found enough evidence of persisting sexual malfeasance in Hollywood that she just completed a documentary called An Open Secret, which explores rumored sex abuse rings in the industry. The film is said to investigate the same allegations that the X-Men franchise’s Bryan Singer was tied to this summer (the attention focusing on Singer’s part in the controversy has since died down, though there are still some unanswered questions).

The title of Berg’s film alone raises more suspicious questions about the nature of sexual abuse in Hollywood. Frequently, it’s almost as if these crimes are right there in the open, and nobody does anything about them until its too late. For instance, amidst the ongoing saga of Ke$ha and Dr. Luke, whom the singer has accused of sexual assault and battery, it was recently revealed that she recorded several unreleased tracks about a relationship with a producer, which later leaked online.

At the time, it’s unlikely that anybody would have paid much attention to the songs’ lyrics, or thought about why they weren’t included on an album. But as the ever more complicated battle between the pop star and her former producer unfolds, lines like “need a shot of your tranquilizer” take on a disturbing new light.

As the YouTube recordings of the aforementioned Ke$ha songs demonstrate, the Internet has made Hollywood’s relationship with sexual assault that much more complicated. Modern day predators’ ability to use the web as a resource is obvious, and as we’ve already seen, this has unfortunately applied to several Internet stars, looking to take advantage of their fans. But Hollywood can’t help itself when it sees there’s money to be made. In point of fact, it was announced this week that The Office’s Rainn Wilson will be producing a TV series with Vine star Curtis Lepore, who took a plea deal in February after his former girlfriend accused him of rape.

However, the Internet also refuses to let people forget. With all this information at our fingertips, you’re almost certain to run into details about a favorite celebrity at some point that you might wish you’d never heard. Look at how fast Buress’ rant went viral. And even Polanski has been forced to reconcile with his past in recent years, following a 2009 arrest in Zurich, in which Swiss police took him into custody based on his 31-year-old outstanding warrant from the United States. Afterward, the ensuing uproar resulted in a whole new examination of Polanski’s crimes (Polanski ended up not being extradited, but it made a lot of people remember why he left the U.S. in the first place).

Then there’s Woody Allen, another one of the comedy world’s most iconic figures. All it took was one tweet from estranged (possible) son Ronan Farrow during this year’s Golden Globes to remind people of the accusations Allen’s daughter, Dylan Farrow, leveled against him years ago, when she was just a child. This, despite the fact that a Vanity Fair piece from the previous summer had already rehashed this incident, with Dylan Farrow herself chiming in. But it took Twitter for the ugly war of words between Allen, the Farrows, and everyone else to truly get off the ground.

The charges against Woody Allen are a lot like those against Bill Cosby, in that it’s incredibly hard not to let one’s opinion of their personal lives bleed into one’s opinion of their professional lives. Though Allen has notoriously downplayed the link between his films and himself, it’s virtually impossible not to see parallels, especially in relation to how often his male characters’ have relationships with younger women.

With Cosby, on the other hand, it’s impossible not to put his supposed crimes up against his image as a father and loving husband. After all, this is America’s number-one family man we’re talking about here. The guy literally wrote a book called Love and Marriage. He doesn’t even like bad words. He’s the poster child for the black middle class, for pete’s sake.

In this sense, Cosby and Allen are both polar opposites, and the exact same. With Allen, people find the accusations difficult to ignore because they see them as being in line with his larger body of work. With Cosby, people find the accusations difficult to ignore because they see them as being completely counterintuitive to his creative persona.

So how does a diehard fan of Bill Cosby proceed? Can you still enjoy or support him, while also being aware of the claims of his impropriety?

The simple answer is that you don’t need to stop watching The Cosby Show to be a good person. But you shouldn’t try to use your love of Cosby’s humor to justify the idea that he’s a good person either. It’s worth taking a cue from GirlsLena Dunham on this. While Dunham has not been shy at scorning Woody Allen over the Dylan Farrow controversy, she also said, “I’m not gonna indict the work.” Dunham argued, “For me, when people go through his work and comb through it for references to child molestation, that’s not the f—ing point.”

Buress is not necessarily wrong for wanting to “make it weird for you” to watch The Cosby Show. But Cosby’s contributions to pop culture are also too big to sweep under the rug. The Huxtables were America’s first family long before the Obamas, and yes, it matters that they were black. Just like it matters that Claire was a feminist. Just like it matters that the series continues to resonate around the world.

Bill Cosby’s stand-up career is also nothing short of miraculous. His ability as not only a joke writer, but as a storyteller, is nearly unparalleled. That he’s still doing it today is a gargantuan accomplishment in and of itself.

But that doesn’t change the truth, which is that plenty of evidence points to Bill Cosby being a serial rapist, and no matter how important he’s been to comedy, pop culture, or American art in general, nothing excuses him from that. On top of which, “forgive and forget” is not a suitable response when it comes to rape. Bill Cosby may be very old, and he may be very important, but being very old and very important doesn’t mean you can’t also be a very bad person.

So please, if you can reconcile all this, don’t feel weird about watching The Cosby Show. It’s really good. Just don’t try to say that Cosby, the man, is as great as Cosby, the show. Because the merit of a person, and the merit of their work, simply don’t have to be connected. And to suggest otherwise is bad for everybody.

Photo via Official U.S. Navy Imagery/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.