This morning, New York Magazine hit newsstands with a stunning cover: 35 of Bill Cosby’s accusers — ranging over decades in age, thousands of miles in geography — sitting together, arrayed in rows. An empty chair on the bottom signaled those who hadn’t spoken, or the accused himself, perhaps.
The accompanying piece, written by Noreen Malone and augmented by more of Amanda Demme’s striking photo portraits, along with several videos, begins with an introduction that highlights the way the Cosby story has begun to circulate more and more widely over recent months. A decade ago, Malone writes, “The accusations quickly faded from the public’s memory, if they registered at all. No one wanted to believe the TV dad in a cardigan was capable of such things, and so they didn’t.”
But now, here we are, with this story: “There are now 46 women who have come forward publicly to accuse Cosby of rape or sexual assault; the 35 women here are the accusers who were willing to be photographed and interviewed by New York.”
The attack on the magazine by a New York City -hating hacker that temporarily prevented the story from circulating online (an archived version is available here in case it goes down again) was darkly ironic. “Whether the alleged DDoS attacker knew it, by taking the story offline he is following in a grand tradition of keeping women’s stories from being heard — a tradition the story itself is trying to break.” Emily Dreyfuss notes at WIRED. But eventually, the cover will stare at onlookers from newsstands and doctors’ office coffee table, while the story will re-circulate online.
In the last year or so, each accuser to step forward has inspired other accusers to do the same, creating what accuser Joan Tardis called a “sorrowful sisterhood.” Each new story and piece of evidence has served to make the accusers feel less alone; the stories continually echoed each other eerily and persuasively, and more and more women spoke up in support of those “sisterhood” members. As one accuser, Joyce Emmons, tells New York: “That’s why I know the stories of what [Cosby] did to the other women are true, because if he didn’t have the respect for me, [and I] was really a close friend, then he could do that to anybody he didn’t know very well.”
As Malone explains in the piece, this trajectory of solidarity also began to take route in pop-culture. The Cosby story has fast moved from a viral, out-of-the-box comedy moment from Hannibal Buress to an established joke at major awards shows and beyond. But that is secondary to what is happening on a national level for survivors.
Putting women on the cover of a major magazine — still a powerful platform — because they’re survivors, rather than because they are glamorous or talented, has powerful effect on erasing the stigma of “victimhood.” It says there’s no shame in this, which is the opposite of the message these women and women like them have received for decades, even centuries. “In 1975, it wasn’t an issue that was even discussed. Rape was being beaten up in a park,” said Marcella Tate, one accuser. “I understood at the time that it was wrong, but I just internalized it and dealt with it and pushed it down, and it resided in a very private place.”
In some ways, this magazine cover is a continuation of the work that’s been done by artists like Emma Sulkowicz and by the stories about rape that have begun to proliferate in personal essay spaces online. On the other hand, the shame around being a victim or an accuser has also begun to ebb away. The message becomes: it’s not your fault. It can happen to anyone. It can happen regardless of age, race, appearance, and what you’re wearing. It’s about power and control, not desire gone wrong. And most importantly: if you say something, people will now believe you.
This cover story doesn’t just reflect a broader culture change, then; it also further de-stigmatizes rape. And at the very least, it says that the mystique around powerful men has been mostly destroyed. After Cosby, I don’t think anyone will ever believe “he seems too nice to be a rapist” again, which of course brings up one major piece of social and cultural work that’s missing from a project like this: helping victims come forward doesn’t do enough teach men not to rape. As a few comments I saw on Twitter emphasized, let’s hope this magazine story, this whole sordid mess, provides an opportunity not only for parents to talk to their daughters, but for them to speak to all their children regardless of gender, sons included. It’s important to focus on women’s pain and strength, but not at the expense of taking on the problems of male entitlement, entrenched misogyny, and rape culture.