In recent days, allegations of sexual assault targeted at Bill Cosby, America’s Father, have reemerged in the public consciousness. These allegations were not a secret, however. They have been public since at least 2005. The allegations have been ignored for while, but it has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with Cosby’s status as the elder statesman of the entertainment industry.
I am not here to neither condemn nor defend Cosby. I have read the accusations and the news reports. I have watched the interviews with the alleged victims. I have watched the Hannibal Buress set. The claims sound legitimate and the accusers at this point have no clear, discernible motive to discuss these purported crimes other than just to tell their stories. They will not benefit financially, and Cosby will not go to jail unless any additional allegations emerge and are proven to be accurate in a court of law.
In all likelihood, Cosby is guilty of these heinous crimes. However, he has never been convicted of any crime, nor has any civil suit ever been successful against him in relation to these incidents. He has only settled out of court with certain women, which is not an admission of guilt. We live in a society that has established a policy of innocence until proven otherwise and Cosby deserves the benefit of doubt. It is not out of the realm of possibility that these claims are false.
The allegations first emerged in 2005 when several women, led by a former employee of Temple University, Cosby’s alma mater, put together a lawsuit against Cosby after authorities decided there was not enough evidence to pursue a conviction. The lawsuit was ultimately settled out of court, but eleven women were involved in the lawsuit, and two more, Barbara Bowman and Tamara Green, emerged with their own accounts of assaults at the hand of Cosby. Bowman and Green’s assaults allegedly occurred at separate points during the 70s and 80s while under the tutelage of the TV star and Presidential Medal of Freedom Award winner.
The accusations gained some media and public attention back in 2005 and 2006, but they disappeared over time and Cosby’s reputation was not permanently affected. I certainly was not aware of Cosby’s legal troubles until they began to be covered again in the past week or so.
Until this month, I believe a majority of Americans would not be able to tell you anything about the alleged assaults and would more quickly associate the creator of “Fat Albert” and “The Cosby Show” with Pudding Pops and his longevity than with his supposed dark past. Bowman believes this too. She witnessed first hand how an individual’s celebrity can make bad publicity go away. This time, though, she believes that her story, and the stories of others like her, will stick. I believe they will too, but for entirely different reasons.
In the Washington Post last week, Bowman penned an editorial that chided the American public for only acknowledging and discussing the accusations because a man started talking about them, this man being comedian Buress. Buress, while performing a stand up set in Philadelphia, trailed off into an extended segment about Cosby’s hypocritical tendencies as both a cultural leader and an alleged rapist. He encouraged his audience to go Google “Bill Cosby rapist” after the show and many of them did, including Phillymag.com reporter Dan McQuade, who first reported Buress’s mini-rant and also filmed the segment. The story got national attention after the Philadelphia magazine ran the story on their website on Oct. 17.
While Bowman, who now is a volunteer spokeswoman for a national victim advocacy group known as PAVE (Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment), has many great points on the silencing of assault victims and the gender inequality gap that still exists in America, she is wrong about this one. She asks in her editorial, “Why didn’t our story go viral?”, referring of course to herself and the dozen or so others with similar claims and the juxtaposition with the viral video of Buress. Her answer was that Buress is a man and that none of Cosby’s alleged victims were. While so many things are related and correlated directly with gender equality, this is not one of them.
Buress’s claims got traction, for better or worse, because he is a public figure. Is he the most famous comedian in America? Not even close. Is he the most famous black comedian? Again, no, but he is still a recognizable name with an impressive career here so far and a sizable following. If a no-name male comedian, under similar conditions, performed the same act, I have no doubt their performance would garner similar laughs from the audience in front of them. The story, however, would not make it past a few Facebook posts and a blog entry or two. If Sarah Silverman, a female comedian of similar status to Buress, said the same things, they would gain just as much traction in the media and in the public mind, if not more.
Bowman’s claims, and the claims of other’s like hers, should have a voice and should not unfairly be silenced in the name of reputation. But to keep fighting the good fight, Bowman, and advocates like her, need to bring attention to the right issues for the right reasons. In her editorial, she distracts people from the real issue: the propping up of a celebrity at the cost of at least thirteen women’s safety and sanity, for an unrelated, albeit noble, cause.