From the moment the accusations of sexual assault by Bill Cosby gained new purchase late last autumn, commentators have been focused on two issues: Did he do it? And, what will the impact be on Bill Cosby’s legacy? The answer to the first, based on the evidence, is obvious. The answer to the second, is a more complicated one. The question becomes fraught with concerns around respectability politics, nostalgia, the loss of reputation, and the disproportionate criticism often faced by black public figures compared to their white counterparts. But still, it is the wrong question to ask.
To make sense of Cosby’s fall from grace requires distinguishing questions of legacy from questions of individual reputation. But does loss of reputation automatically lead to a destruction of legacy? More importantly, can or should fear of a legacy’s destruction lead to a defense of the person and his actions? Affection for the man audiences thought they knew, combined with nostalgia for The Cosby Show in particular, have led many to fret over the impact of these allegations on Cosby’s legacy. Such rear-guard actions have long proved popular defenses for famous men accused of violence, and in themselves reflect a minimization of that violence, as if to say that the abstract, ambiguous concept of Cosby’s legacy is more important than the lives he affected through his actions.
The impulse to see the person and the impact of their work as one and the same is, of course, a common one – and a defining characteristic of celebrity culture. Bill Cosby provides the archetype for that conflation. After all, three of his most popular shows, The Bill Cosby Show (in the 1960s and 1970s), Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids (in the 1970s and 1980s), and The Cosby Show (in the 1980s and 1990s), bore his name in their title. In my own research on the impact of The Cosby Show in South Africa, it was more common than not for people to refer to Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, the character played by Bill Cosby, by Cosby’s real name rather than the character’s name. Audiences have long mistaken Brand Bill Cosby for Bill Cosby the person. This allowed him to write Fatherhood as “America’s favorite Dad” based on the popularity of the Huxtable character, and to peddle Jell-O and Coca-Cola as a trusted parent figure. Indeed, much of his personal wealth stems from his ability to leverage Brand Cosby as if it were autobiographical.
So the fact that legacy has become the defining term of the Cosby debates should come as no surprise. It’s a legacy that Cosby himself has closely guarded through a variety of means. Both he and his close advisor, Alvin Poussaint, have been fond of making claims for The Cosby Show’s positive influence on dismantling racist attitudes in the United States, South Africa, and elsewhere. The Cosby family actually commissioned a book to examine the show’s impact on race by media scholars Sut Jhally and Justin Lewis, though the result (Enlightened Racism; Westview, 1992) was more critical than the Cosbys might have hoped.
To talk about someone’s legacy is to talk about their social impact rather than their personal character and intentions. As much as we may be drawn toward a narrative of social change driven by great ideas purposefully enacted, the reality tends to be far messier and more contingent on a volatile mix of cultural context, technology, and agency.
My own book, Starring Mandela & Cosby: Media and the End(s) of Apartheid (Chicago, 2010) is sometimes misinterpreted as claiming that The Cosby Show, through its content, changed racist attitudes among white South Africans. Rather, the power of The Cosby Show stemmed from its resonance with a political and cultural moment, generating immense popularity across social divisions that were enabled by contemporary communication technologies, more than the content of the program itself. Though the show broke new ground by centering on the lives of upper-middle class black Americans as never before, it also reflected a vision of separate development that fit quite comfortably within apartheid ideology. And while the show famously featured Miriam Makeba, a “Free Mandela” poster on Theo’s bedroom wall, and baby twins named Nelson and Winnie, Bill Cosby was simultaneously hired as the advertising face of Coca-Cola during the boycott against the company for its refusal to divest from apartheid South Africa.
The mistake, here, is to take The Cosby Show out of its specific social and political contexts. These contexts were local and global (as a worldwide popular phenomenon) as well as temporal. The power of The Cosby Show cannot be separated from the context of the 1980s in which it became immensely popular. In the United States, this meant Reagan, welfare queens, and the culmination of the Southern Strategy. In South Africa, it meant the States of Emergency, the failed attempts to regain legitimacy by the apartheid state, and the popular politics of the United Democratic Front. Audiences in both locations (and many others as well) therefore read the content and meaning of The Cosby Show in equally varied ways according to their own contexts. While the show allowed viewers to imagine – some for the first time – a political, cultural, and economic world in which someone like Dr. Huxtable could co-exist with white privilege and power, it did so within a distinctly neoliberal American worldview. Cosby’s intervention into the culture wars and respectability politics in the 2000s – scolding young black men and women for sagging pants, listening to hip-hop and having too much sex – was hardly inconsistent with his earlier stances.
Yet part of the desire to discuss and protect Cosby’s legacy seems to be driven by a powerful nostalgia for the feel-good portrayal of black family life in The Cosby Show. Whether this idealized version of talented-tenth success was mobilized for anti-apartheid or pro-Reagan arguments, for a hopeful or cynical politics of the time, it represents a remarkable social moment – when people of many different races and many different geographical locations derived similar pleasure from a single cultural product, and were aware that they shared that enjoyment across social differences. As such, the global phenomenon of The Cosby Show’s popularity marks both the peak and the last hurrah of broadcast television as a shared cultural experience – after television had become ubiquitous in almost every corner of the globe, but before the fracturing effects of cable, narrowcasting, and the internet. This legacy is secure, regardless of current revelations about Bill Cosby, because it is grounded in the experiences of the time period, and in the many resultant changes that have occurred in the ensuing 20 years.
The comedian Hannibal Buress’ desire “to just at least make it weird for you to watch Cosby Show reruns” need not be seen as contradictory to recognizing the (albeit ambiguous) historical impact of the show. That legacy does not require protection; it should certainly not be used as an excuse for wrongheaded defenses of Bill Cosby as an individual.
In the same way that The Cosby Show became one of the last widely-shared cultural passions of the broadcasting age, the exposure of Cosby’s violence toward women also marks a significant shift in cultural and media production. As has been noted by the accusers themselves, social media provided a platform through which they could respond to both the silencing of mainstream media and the personal attacks by Cosby’s agents and supporters – a platform that wasn’t available at earlier moments when accusers came forward. The accusers are also thinking about issues of legacy, both Cosby’s and their own. In the words of Joan Tarshis, one of Cosby’s accusers:
I think [Cosby’s] legacy is going to be similar to O.J.’s legacy. When you hear O.J. Simpson’s name, you don’t think, Oh, great football player. That doesn’t come to mind first. I’m thinking it’s not going to be, Oh, great comedian. It’s going to be, Oh, serial rapist. And that will be our legacy.
While Tarshis is using Cosby’s legacy and reputation interchangeably here, she is also importantly laying claim to her own legacy, her own impact – and that of her fellow accusers – in challenging the silence and complicity that has surrounded their sexual assault. Ironically, then, while the legacy of Bill Cosby’s work with Fat Albert, Jell-O, and as Cliff Huxtable remains – for better or worse – secure within the time periods in which they found their meaning, the final element of his legacy may indeed be moving the needle toward an increase in the seriousness given to accusations of sexual assault against famous men. That it comes at the expense of Bill Cosby’s reputation should be of little concern.