On May 9, 1985, John J. O’Connor wrote a story for The New York Times under the headline, “Bill Cosby’s Triumph.” It was the kind of accolade the comedian had become used to: “You look at ‘The Cosby Show’ and you feel, most of the time, just plain good. Television life on Thursdays at 8 P.M. on NBC suddenly displays signs of intelligence, insight and a clever sense of humor,” wrote O’Connor. “At a time when blacks were once again being considered ratings liabilities by benighted television executives, the middle-class Huxtables have become the most popular family in the United States.”
The Cosby Show on Trial
The Huxtables were a fictional family at the center of a sitcom that dominated television ratings in the 1980s. The show was credited to its creator, executive producer and lead character, Bill Cosby, then 48, and approaching the peak of his immense popularity. In 1987, Cosby was the world’s top-earning entertainer, worth $57 million. But in April 2018, the 80-year-old was convicted on three counts of aggravated indecent assault and sentenced to three to 10 years for drugging and sexually assaulting a woman in 2004. He vowed to serve the full sentence rather than express remorse.
Last week, a court dramatically overturned Cosby’s conviction. The judges’ decision referred to “the ‘vast’ violation of due process” the defendant faced during the legal proceedings. It did not, however, rule that the sex crime for which Cosby was convicted did not take place. But the man once described as “America’s dad” was free after just over two years behind bars. His prosecution was determined to be unconstitutional: He can never be tried for the same offense again.
From the vantage point of today, it’s almost impossible to understand how extraordinarily popular, influential and pioneering Cosby once was. His fall from grace was more spectacular than other abrupt descents, such as those of O.J. Simpson, Tiger Woods, Mike Tyson or Lance Armstrong. Cosby wasn’t so much an entertainer as a savior. Martin Luther King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, called his groundbreaking show “the most positive portrayal of black family life that has ever been broadcast.” The show could legitimately be said to have changed all subsequent programs featuring black artists.
Cosby’s cultural impact in the late 20th century can scarcely be exaggerated and, while it wasn’t limited to television, “The Cosby Show” was unquestionably a gamechanger. Before 1967, when Cosby appeared in the secret agent drama “I Spy,” blacks were not allowed on US network television in straight roles, only comedies — and even then as clownish characters.
Cosby’s opus was different: He stuck with the conventions of nuclear family-based sitcoms with the father (played by Cosby himself), an obstetrician. They were a “normal,” well-to-do family who just happened to be black. And that was the subversive element of Cosby’s project. The Huxtables were described by Ebony magazine as “a Black family that TV hadn’t seen before,” meaning they weren’t dysfunctional or cartoon-like.
The show wasn’t without its critics who considered Cosby’s depiction unrealistic and misleading — the vast majority of African American families were decidedly not affluent. The implication here was that those blacks who did not live up to the Huxtables’ standard considered themselves failures. Related criticisms were also made about Oprah Winfrey. But for all the criticism, in the late 1980s, Cosby’s worst (known) offense was his too-good-to-be-trueness. He was nominated for the Grammys 15 times, winning nine and, over the course of his life, won 74 awards for his various contributions.
But a different kind of criticism came after Cosby wound down the show in 1994. Instead of settling into a comfortable retirement interspersed with a few TV ads for which he’d become celebrated, he morphed from the lovable, avuncular fellow to a curmudgeon who continually griped about the condition of African Americans. Remember, Cosby was for many a kind of moral guide, so when the funny man who told clean jokes and respected family values told African Americans what they were doing wrong, people listened. To climb out of the depths of poverty and shrug off the effects of racism, blacks needed to study more and make their mark as individuals. But Cosby didn’t blame racism, the remnants of segregation or the diehard bigotry of many whites. He blamed blacks themselves.
“The Atlantic” journalist Adam Serwer called him a “prophet of black conservatism.” The description made sense: Cosby’s commitment to traditional values and his opposition to drastic changes made him a perfect proponent of conservatism, particularly as he had been a longtime advocate of civil rights. His image of a free-willed individual making their own way through the world was doctrinally spot on. But perhaps this is where his status as a popular entertainer actually worked against him.
Would Cosby have been emboldened to make his sometimes extreme pronouncements about the condition of black America had he not been as incomparably popular? For a period between 1984 and 1992, when his show ran, he had no peers. Everyone, save his academic critics, loved him and respected his colossal cultural contribution. He probably assumed he could say just about anything and get away with it, no matter how provocative and perhaps hurtful his comments seemed.
And there was something else. Dr. Martin Luther King, as well as presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy, were all subjects of scurrilous talk, much of it empty, about their sexual conduct. Allegations of sexual impropriety went with the territory, especially if the territory was the domain of clean-living family men with impeccable reputations. Cosby had previously dismissed or ignored them, although in one case, in 1997, it was discovered that he’d paid $100,000 over a period of two decades to a woman with whom he had a sexual relationship in 1975.
The woman claimed that she’d had his daughter, Autumn Jackson. When Jackson was 22, she threatened to sell her story to a tabloid unless Cosby paid her $40 million. She was convicted of extortion and sentenced to 26 years in prison. Jackson spent 14 months in prison, with two associates, before the decision was reversed and all three were released.
Cosby had been married since 1964. Would it have damaged his reputation were it known that Cosby had a brief extramarital relationship with a woman in the 1970s? Probably not much at the time: “The Cosby Show” didn’t air until 1984. Cosby disputed his paternity, but he may have thought it politic to support the child financially rather than risk any kind of publicity. A more charitable interpretation would be that he gladly funded the education of the daughter of a woman with whom had a relationship even if the child was not his own. Over the years, he was similarly benevolent to several hundred other young people. In 1997, the case had a different complexion: Cosby’s straight-living family man image took a hit, but he was probably due some forgiveness.
Had that been the only blemish on Cosby’s otherwise unspoiled reputation, he would have probably receded gradually in the popular imagination and been left to a peaceful retirement: a once popular and, in many ways, iconic entertainer who held strong views on how black people should progress and used his fame as leverage to promote them. Those views were out of sync with the approaches of most blacks, and he might have been quietly ignored had it not been for two people. The first was Andrea Constand, whom Cosby met in 2002 at Temple University where she managed the women’s basketball team. He was 64, she was 28.
Two years later, on Constand’s account, Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted her at his home in Philadelphia. She reported this to the police. Cosby maintained the sex was consensual and the police decided not to press charges. Constand then sued for sexual battery and defamation, prompting Cosby to settle for $3.4 million after four days of deposition in 2006. Some other women went public with descriptions of their own experiences of drug-induced sex with Cosby, but, like Constand’s claims, they were treated, at least initially, much like other accusations against celebrities. Cosby’s reputation was left intact, and he repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. Were it not for an unexpected denunciation from a second key person, the later years of Cosby’s life would have been different.
Hannibal Buress was a stand-up comic who criticized Cosby in his routine, urging his audience to google “Bill Cosby rape,” cautioning them that “It’s not funny.” Most of the claims fell outside the statute of limitations, though Constand’s did not. After this, nearly 60 women stepped forward to trigger a chain of events that led to a court case in which Cosby stood accused of sexual assault. The result of the trial in 2017 was a hung jury after six days of deliberation. The verdict was a mistrial: Cosby was then 79 and escaped a possible lengthy prison sentence. This was before the #MeToo movement arrived and relandscaped social culture. A retrial in April 2018 resulted in a guilty verdict and a prison sentence that has just been overturned.
Cosby is now a free octogenarian. He remains one of the most paradoxical public figures of the past half-century. Praised to high heaven by one generation, damned to hell by another. He can legitimately claim to have changed the way the world looked at black people — and not just black people on TV, either. Cosby forced everyone to refocus and see the kinds of racial stereotypes that had circulated for centuries as exactly what they were — crude distortions. Like every idol, he had feet part of iron, part of clay. In the 1980s, he was so revered, his rumored flaws were overlooked, but in the post-#MeToo world, Cosby’s wrongdoings were unforgivable. To them, his release will be a perversion of justice, yet others may see it as divine providence.
*[Ellis Cashmore is the author of “Kardashian Kulture.”]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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