All evidence to the contrary, I don’t enjoy writing about sexual violence and the cultural systems that nurture and defend it.
I really, really don’t.
I keep a file of topics I might wanna blog about sometime — and it’s FULL of ideas that have nil, zip, zilch, nada to do with rape. Honest. In fact, here’s a sampling of items on that list right now, none of which have the slightest rape-y thing going on:
- A Dyke By Any Other Name Would Smell As Sweet
- I Was a Martian Princess with Big Tits (memoir) [I am definitely writing this story at some point. The final title definitely will — or will not — be this.]
- Squigged Out by an Old Woman Who Held My Hands in the Cold Meats Aisle
- Let’s Talk About Nathan. Who Lives in My Bathroom.
- Something about “Claiming a Dragon.” Because dragon. [I’ll be honest: I have no idea what I was thinking when I added this to the list. But I’m keeping it on there. BECAUSE DRAGON.]
So when I tell you I’d rather be writing today about anything other than how, at a performance Thursday night, Bill Cosby made a rape joke when a woman in the audience stood up to get a drink and the crowd gave him a standing ovation — how I’d rather be writing about dragons or deli meat or dyke solidarity or ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING AT ALL THAT IS NOT RAPE — I want to be sure you understand.
I know Nathan does.
And he’s rooting for dragons.
Just in general, this has not been a great week in the ongoing “Bill Cosby, rapist” docu-drama. Phylicia Rashad gave an interview that wasn’t an official interview in which she said “forget these women” accusing Cosby of drugging and raping them, because the real issue is the orchestrated destruction of Cosby’s legacy, though she can’t say exactly who’s doing all this orchestrating or why. Then she came out with an official clarification (which is why the original reporting no longer includes the phrase “forget these women”), though her attempt to make her position sound better just sounded like more disrespect and dismissal.
For you viewers at home trying to keep tabs on exactly how many women we are — or hopefully are not — going to forget: three more women came forward with allegations this week, putting us solidly in the area of twice-times a baker’s dozen. Please direct any remaining questions you may have about why so many of his victims are only speaking out now to this NY Times examination of how Cosby’s phalanx of lawyers has strategically silenced people over the past 20 years.
Before I get to my central point — which is less Cosby-specific and more “if comedians could find something other than the most horrific trauma of many people’s lives to use as a punchline, that would be great” — I want to point you towards some folks reflecting insightfully on the particular racial and cultural dynamics involved when the latest celebrity-rapist-reveal involves, not just a preeminently successful black man, but Dr. Cliff Huxtable himself, listed as FURTHER READING at the end of this post.
SIDEBAR: On the little matter of “media we enjoy(ed), made by people whose actions we abhor”
I deeply appreciate the analysis of those who experienced Bill Cosby’s tv work as personally transformative and grapple openly with that legacy, while still absolutely believing the women’s stories.
It is quite a different thing for me to say, “I choose to avoid any work produced by Bill Cosby” — when I didn’t even watch “The Cosby Show” in the ’80s. TV shows reflecting my own white, upper-middle-class family and experiences have always been plentiful, and I was fully preoccupied in that decade with sitcom crushes on Jo Polniaczek (“The Facts of Life”) and Ellen Reed (Michael P. Keaton’s girlfriend on “Family Ties”).
Similarly, it is an act of nothing for me to decide not to watch another movie by Woody Allen or Roman Polanski, given how little I enjoy their work. When Brian Singer comes out with his next movie, I will know what I know — and it will be my turn to say, “Squads of mutant superheroes are nothing compared to humanity, nothing at all.”
Now, where were we…? Ah, yes. Rape jokes!
Or rather: Rape “jokes”!
You ready for this, Nathan?
Uh, Nathan? I’m talking to you.
HEY, LOOK! DRAGON!
Okay, that’s better.
Here’s how it went down (according to Twitterers active at the show): a woman sitting in the front row at one of Cosby’s shows in Ontario, stood up during his performance. He asked where she was going; she said she was going to get a drink, and did he want one too? To which Cosby replied, “You have to be careful about drinking around me.”
The audience gasps, then cheers and claps. And at the end of it all, Cosby gets a standing ovation.
I’m assuming everyone now reading this has passed Sexist Humor 101 and grasps the fundamental grotesqueness of a man accused of drugging the drinks of dozens of intended rape victims publicly joking about drugging the drink of the woman standing in front of him, yes? Okay, good. (If you feel the words “just a joke” bubbling towards your lips at any point, please go without delay to Shakesville’s handy reminder about “[rape] culture: how the fuck does it work?“)
This is about so much more than one man telling a defensive and poor-taste joke, though. According to reports, hundreds of audience members knowingly paid money to see the defiant Cosby, entered the theater through a gauntlet of between 100 and 200 protesters with signs, and were handed slips at the door warning against causing disruptions — all before the joke and the applause.
They wanted that joke.
They came to hear — and laugh at — that joke.
They came to vindicate Cosby, who certainly took their message to heart, commenting later through his publicist: “One outburst but over 2600 loyal, patient and courageous fans enjoyed the most wonderful medicine that exist for human-kind. Laughter. I thank you… I’m Far From Finished.”
The blogger Fugitivus raised a cogent point about rape “jokes” a few years back: “why are they funny? What is the punchline? What is the humor? What is the part that is supposed to make me laugh? And why is that supposed to make me laugh? As far as I can tell, the ‘joke’ is usually that it wasn’t really rape at all, or it wasn’t a ‘real’ rape, or it was a fun rape, or it was a deserved rape.”
(Lest you think I’m exaggerating to suggest that some members of the audience laughed because they do not believe drugging a person — and then having intercourse with her unconscious body — constitutes rape, two words: CeeLo Green.)
Whatever the intended humor, the punchline is clearly women. The women Cosby assaulted — and the women protesting on their behalf. Women who’ve been sexually assaulted, en masse. Cosby gets to take his medicinal laughter. The women get to take their lumps.
By which I don’t mean that only women are protesting Cosby, or to imply that only women are victims of rape. But women are the putative target of this punching-down humor. (“Down” for the audience. Cosby himself comes across much more as punching — or lashing — out.) To borrow Lindy West’s message to comedians who make or defend rape jokes, “If basic compassion is such anathema to you, but only when it comes to “women’s issues”—if you’re determined to go down with the Good Ship Rape—then you have issues with women. And that’s not women’s fault—it’s yours.”
If you’ll excuse me, just for a second. This is heavy stuff, and I want to check in on Nathan…
Yeah, Nath. It makes me feel all squinty-eyed too.
Cuz I don’t think this Cosby show is ending any time soon.
Kirsten West Savali, Bye, Phylicia Rashad. Your Romanticizing of Cosby—and Cosby—Is Wrong
Rape culture, particularly as it manifests in black America, demands that justice for sexual assault victims be positioned secondary to the reputations of “good” black men. And in a white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy that cares little for black men, and even less for black women, “good” black men are too often the only victims we collectively exert the energy to save.
The exposure of the utter fictiveness of the portrayal of Cliff Huxtable strikes me as really necessary in a moment, where because of Shonda Rhimes, Black women dominate the Cosby Show’s (and later A Different World’s) old primetime Thursday night slot. Rhimes brought Black Thursdays back.
But these new representations of Black women labor under the old expectations. That’s a problem for a lot of folks, one that won’t be solved because neither Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) nor Analise Keating (Viola Davis) aspires to Clair Huxtable status. That’s a good thing. A thing that those of us with all of our respectability feminism would do well to really grapple with.
Max Gordon, Bill Cosby, Himself: Fame, Narcissism and Sexual Violence (an incredible and moving piece, well worth the long-read)
Writers always fear that by the time they collect their thoughts on a subject and are finally able to write them down, the story will no longer be relevant. But this story isn’t going away, as women are still coming forward. This essay took time for me to write not because I was on the fence about the allegations: I believe the women. It took time because I realized that I couldn’t write about Bill Cosby without looking at the history of sexual violence in my family, my own experience with violation, and exploring whether I had at any time violated. Perhaps more than any other story in the media about rape, this one has the power to shake us to the core. And Bill Cosby isn’t the only one being accused of betrayal; for not believing these women decades ago when the allegations first surfaced, for not insisting on justice for them sooner, for desperately clinging to myths, when the truth is staring us in the face, to some extent we all stand accused.