Does Bill Cosby deserve to be expunged from the pop culture record?

Image provided by imdb/NBC

That’s the current debate. After a parade of allegations claiming that Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted numerous women, the once beloved comedian is rapidly becoming persona non grata. Re-runs of his seminal The Cosby Show have already disappeared from cable stations. His most recent comedy tour saw lots of cancellations (and the shows that went on were subject to protests). Now there’s a call to drop The Cosby Show and other Cosby projects from streaming services.

Does making it impossible for Bill Cosby’s work to be seen really redress his purported crimes? Is it no more than some kind of deserved retribution? And does it really accomplish anything for his alleged victims?

Those aren’t easy questions. Anyone claiming to have a definitive answer is most likely mistaken. But also going along with the impulse to essentially “erase” Bill Cosby from our shared cultural experience without even raising the question seems wrongheaded.

We should keep in mind that Cosby has not been found guilty of any crime. Those criminal allegations won’t be tried, since all of the alleged incidents didn’t surface until well after the statute of limitations on prosecution had expired. So we’re left with allegations against Cosby and his vehement, angry denials. Those denials have given rise to a defamation lawsuit, which may be as close to a courtroom as these charges ever get.

Put aside, for a moment, the legal issues. Assume for the sake of argument that Cosby has done everything his accusers claim. It would absolutely make him a horrible person. That many people would choose not to watch his television shows or movies or comedy specials or partake of any of his other numerous projects is entirely understandable and supportable.

Does that mean that no one should have the option of watching The Cosby Show if they were so inclined? Should Cosby’s books and old concert recordings be burned on the town square?

Bill Cosby may be a deeply flawed human being. But he’s also a very significant figure in the history of pop culture. He was the first African-American actor to land a starring role in a primetime network series, I Spy. His three Lead Actor Emmys for I Spy made him an awards pioneer. His ‘70s era cartoon series Fat Albert was both a cultural touchstone and the first multicultural influence for many white suburban kids. The Cosby Show defined ‘80s television and provided one of the few depictions of an upper middle-class family of color. Cosby holds numerous Grammy awards for his comedy albums and his books have sold millions.

No matter how understandable the impulse to punish Cosby, it’s difficult to just edit him out of the pop culture conversation. He’s not a minor figure. He was a prominent trailblazer, a force in American entertainment for decades. Banishing him leaves some major voids.

It also begs the question of who deserves punishment and who doesn’t? Roman Polanski fled the U.S. in 1977 rather than take his punishment for statutory rape charges. And yet was nominated for an Oscar two years later. He actually won the Best Director Oscar in 2002, for The Piano. Major stars have continued to work with and defend him. He had sex with a 13-year-old.

Her alleged “rage spiral” and insistence that people had mischaracterized her stories notwithstanding, Lena Dunham mostly got a pass for some anecdotes in her book Not That Kind of Girl that had some labeling her a child molester. Yet there was never even a hint that HBO would cancel Girls. A few months later and a cancelled book tour seems to be the only professional consequence Dunham has suffered.

Chris Brown beat Rihanna so badly that she had to be hospitalized. But after a few months in the celebrity dog house, the music industry re-embraced him. A few years down the road, his career is arguably bigger than ever.

There are numerous other examples of celebrities who have done some truly horrific things not really suffering much in the way of career consequences. What makes Cosby’s case so different? Is it the sheer number of accusers? The allegation of his abuse of his power over younger women? Or maybe that, after decades of presenting himself as a figure of moral authority, Cosby’s fall stings that much more?

This isn’t some kind of parity game. Just because other celebrities have done bad things without major consequence doesn’t mean that Cosby should get a pass for his sins.

But before indulging a knee-jerk response to wipe Bill Cosby off the map, there needs to be thought and discussion. Can “Bill Cosby” the pioneering pop culture figure be separated from Bill Cosby, accused citizen? Even if we accept that Cosby was some kind of monster behind the scenes, does that render his work irrelevant or devoid of value? Are we, as a society, comfortable that this case is so much worse than various other incidents as to deserve making Cosby a cultural pariah? Are we comfortable we can locate that line between “forgivable” and “irredeemable” with any kind of logic?

There are no easy answers. That doesn’t mean the questions don’t need to be asked.

Originally published at on July 29, 2015.

Author (Grievous Angels) and pop culture gadabout #amwriting

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