Sexual assault allegations against publicly beloved sitcom star and comedian Bill Cosby have come up many times in the past decade, only to disappear again and fade from cultural consciousness. But now they may be here to stay.
Of course, as we’ve learned in recent days, there’s always a backlash against the accuser when a public figure is accused of sexual assault. But it’s been particularly been hard, one imagines, for Americans to reconcile the public image of the avuncular sweater-wearing, Jell-O-hawking, rapper-lecturing guy we all know with the idea that he’s a roofie-slipping predator. Besides, with lawyers who managed to settle all the suits against him and a no-doubt ace PR team on his side, Cosby has managed to float above the accusations and even receive humanitarian awards in the ensuing years.
But this time, with the account of one alleged victim in multiple media outlets and a viral nugget about comedian Hannibal Buress calling Cosby out from stage, the troubling rumors might actually stick to the star.
Buress was apt when he called Cosby “teflon.” Even in 2006, People magazine interviewed five of the 13 women “who came forward voluntarily with strikingly similar claims of drugging and or abuse by Cosby” in a settled civil case:
But none of them stand to profit from suing Cosby for monetary damages; the statute of limitations on all their charges has expired. And their stories, which take place in several cities and span two decades, illustrate the same pattern of behavior, primarily the accusation that Cosby, then one of the most powerful entertainers alive, targeted them because they were vulnerable and gained their trust by promising to help their careers.
Reading this decade-old article now, one finds an incredibly damning case against the comedian. It’s just as chilling as the more recent full story from actress Barbara Bowman, who came forward to the Daily Mail with a disturbing tale of alleged drugging and assault by a man she hoped would be her mentor.
But because the Daily Mail story got picked up by the web’s fleet of aggregators, the impact has multiplied exponentially. It was good timing. A Cosby biography that didn’t mention the rape accusations, the news that he’s coming back to the small screen next year, and the Buress stand-up routine getting picked up by news sites have created something of a perfect storm.
Bowman has given Buress credit for not forgetting her story. “I thank Hannibal Buress for speaking out over and over again, despite the threats from the Industry that it could ruin his career,” she said. “He is standing up for me and the other women who are too afraid to speak out.”
One stand-up clip in the Internet era can go far, as this story proves. And that’s one good cultural change blogs and social media have wrought. A story like this no longer withers as it once did — furthermore, feminist ideas about rape and power have taken much stronger root in the media landscape.
Recent re-airing of old abuse allegations against stars like Woody Allen and R. Kelly, not to mention the new allegations against radio personality Jian Ghomeshi, are beginning to shift the way these cases are seen in isolation. We are starting to understand rape culture now, and how its mechanisms in society and our own brains close ranks around the accused.
And so the narrative, at last in some quarters, has become “Bill Cosby: another powerful man dodging rape accusations” rather than “Bill Cosby: he seems like such a nice guy.” It’s a miniscule step forward, but a step forward nonetheless.