How to Get Away With Character Assassination
<![CDATA[It seems altogether coincidental that on that day that most of the blogosphere has been continuing to come to terms with the growing, controversial specter of truth behind the myriad rape allegations leveled against Bill Cosby — a day so full of bittersweet reverie that the term “throwback Thursday” seems so wonderfully appropriate despite such quaint understatement — that I ended it by watching the fall finale of the ABC hit drama, “How to Get Away With Murder.”
It seems that way because, well, it is, mostly, a coincidence.
I happen to like the show quite a bit, actually. I started watching mostly out of curiosity, and also because Viola Davis has been far and away the best thing in pretty much everything I’ve seen her in since The Help. And since I was also a fan of Shonda Rhimes’ second megahit “Scandal,” and because I try to support quality black entertainment with my clicks and views, I figured I’d give it a shot. It’s been kind of uneven, and there’s been too many tawdry sex scenes, but I am still enthralled with the central premise, which, like Snakes On A Plane, is neatly encapsulated in the title.
Fans of the show have followed the interwoven stories of Davis’ sharp defense attorney Annalise Keating and her impassioned team of young legal students as they learn the ins and outs of defending clients from all manner of criminal charges. That knowledge eventually comes in handy after the students end up — as told through a series of flash-forward scenes — disposing of an actual murdered body, which is revealed early on to be Annalise’s husband, Sam.
But there was a scene during last night’s fall finale that unexpectedly brought me back to this Cosby imbroglio, and this is the part that, in my mind at least, feels somewhat less than coincidental.
So if you’re a fan of the show and you haven’t seen last night’s fall finale, stop reading until you do, because this is a MAJOR SPOILER.
Late in the episode, Annalise is seen leaving a brokenhearted voice mail to her husband Sam, with whom she’d been engaged in bitter argument about an affair he had with one of his students. Earlier in the episode, we’d seen Annalise and Sam both say horrifically mean things to each other, after which she left the house. Though the audience knows that Sam is dead, we are led to believe that Annalise is plaintively sobbing into her cell phone voice mail, begging her husband to return, in the hopes that he’s off somewhere blowing off steam and will eventually reappear.
It’s only until we see the very last scene of the episode that reveals an alternate take — she’d been in the house during the night of his murder, and witnessed his body lying on the floor.
She knew he was dead the whole time.
With that one reveal, the audience is left to reinterpret her prior behavior. Instead of seeing that voicemail as the words of a frantic, worried spouse, we see them as the calculated attempt of a cold-blooded accomplice who wanted her husband dead, and left those words not out of genuine concern, but for the purpose of bolstering her alibi.
It was, as my brother Jomo likes to say, a cold piece.
And it reminded me of some of the responses I’ve seen from people as they try to make sense of this Bill Cosby-as-a-serial-rapist thing.
Most of the responses that I’ve seen to the Bill Cosby thing have fallen into one of three types.
Many people, at least initially anyway, responded in denial. These are just allegations, they don’t prove anything. Long before Hannibal Buress’ comedy routine that shone a fresh light on the rape allegations, Tom Scocca nailed it way back in February, writing in the hallowed hyperpages of Gawker, in response to the fresh outrage directed at Woody Allen for his alleged sexual abuse. Scocca correctly noted that many of the allegations had been on the public record, in national news outlets, since 2006. And then he said this, describing America’s collective response:
Basically nobody wanted to live in a world where Bill Cosby was a sexual predator. It was too much to handle. Conceptually, [denial] was the sensible way to deal with it. No one was talking about it anymore. The whole thing had been, and it remained, something walled off from our collective understanding of Bill Cosby.
The good news is that this denial has been, in my estimation, temporary and short-lived. One or two allegations are easy to write off as spurned women looking to ruin a good man’s name, but as the names and stories pile up, and the details all sound similar, denial is less and less viable as a long-term solution.
The second response, the place where I’ve seen most people living, is just a sense of shocked sadness. Not Dr. Huxtable! For many people, this torrid revelation exists on a continuum of sad-realization-as-rite of passage, not quite as bad as the Jerry Sandusky Penn State scandal, but much worse than the Jian Ghomeshi saga.
But the third response has been some variation of see?! I knew something was off with Bill Cosby all along.
A lot of the people with this response are liberals, many people of color, who have — starting with the infamous “pound cake” speech of 2004 — drawn a link between Bill Cosby’s more overt strain of conservative moralizing and the hypocrisy of his teflon image covering up decades of sexual misconduct.
Some of them, to their credit, have been saying it all along, but many of them have not. My sense is that, for most of Cosby’s most vocal critics in social media and around the blogosphere, their outrage was sparked pretty recently. Therefore, their harsh moral denunciations come across to me like retroactive Orwellian newspeak, where today’s villains who were yesterdays heroes are henceforth known as Those Who Were Always Villains.
This moralistic scrubbing of Cosby from our collective memory has extended past the op-ed pages and into the entertainment landscape. Not only has Netflix canceled the Bill Cosby comedy special they were planning to air after Thanksgiving, and not only has NBC scuttled its plans to cobble together another sitcom in Cosby’s image, but now in true Marty McFly style, threats to Cosby in the present affected both his future and his past.
The cable channel TVLand has pulled all reruns of The Cosby Show off the air.
Just like with the #HTGAWM finale, that one piece of news — Bill Cosby is alleged to be a serial rapist — has caused people everywhere to go in the direction of that third response, to go back and reinterpret everything that came before, but in an oppositely sinister direction.
But the problem is this …
“How to Get Away With Murder” is fictional.
In real life, people are never either “morally upright model citizen” types or “total degenerates whose continued existence is a threat to everything we value.” Rather, in real life, people are complicated, often carrying contradictory sets of values and practices that round out their identities with originality and nuance. Ironically, the place where we can see this most easily is through TV characters. People loved watching Tony Soprano because, at heart, he was a quiet guy who often eschewed confrontation – but he was also a vicious mob boss. People loved that Walter White was just trying to do right by his family, and in so doing, became a feared drug kingpin.
Today, I choose to see Bill Cosby as a brilliant performer and a proud man who built his comedic persona in an attempt to deal with pain and frustration, and who, over time, used it to exert control over audiences, over media members, and unfortunately, over women with whom he wanted to have sex.
Cosby’s reported sexual abuse is morally reprehensible and would’ve been more criminally or civilly liable if society wasn’t so hard on women who choose to report sex crimes. And I recognize that it was precisely his fame that prevented people from taking allegations of rape or sexual assault seriously. So if a few headlines and canceled TV specials can make it easier for women who are assaulted to speak up and report their crimes, if this season of moral outrage helps to in any way quell the misconceptions about rape and sexual assault, then by and large, I think it’s worth it.
But we don’t need to assassinate Bill Cosby’s character to accomplish this. Because of intersectionality, it’s possible for me to acknowledge the privilege I have as a male, juxtaposed against the privilege I don’t have as a black person. Both dimensions are real, it’s not an either/or. No matter what you think of his conservative political posturing, Bill Cosby brought a lot of joy to a lot of people over a long period of time. To suddenly pretend otherwise is both dishonest and silly, and smacks of selective liberal outrage.
Therefore, to the extent that it is possible to both A) appreciate his stories about growing up with his brother Russell and B) still hope to see Bill Cosby face another layer of societal accountability for his misdeeds — I am attempting to do both. I recognize that others may not be able to (for his accusers, I’m sure Cosby reruns lost their luster a long time ago), but failure even to attempt reconciling these two disparate sides is absurd, tantamount to denying that 2+2 ever equaled four.
So if you never enjoyed The Cosby Show, or laughed at one of his ubiquitous Jell-O commercials or episodes of Picture Pages or Fat Albert & The Cosby Kids, then go right ahead . Rip Bill Cosby a new one and don’t look back.
But if you did watch, and now pretend you didn’t, you won’t just be attacking his character, you’ll also be attacking your own.
(UPDATE — 12:30pm PST on Friday Nov 21 — I just made some edits to the last couple of paragraphs to strengthen my conclusion. Based on some of the comments saw I saw here and on social media, it’s possible folks might not have completely understood my point. These essays are often works in progress, so thanks for your understanding.)
Great article! Perhaps, the more accurate issue is our need to make leaders into moral idols that they don’t need or deserve. But it didn’t help with Bill waiting into the waters talking about black people as a Ph.D knowing full well the complexity of our issues. After Michael Eric Dyson’s critique, I just realize that Bill was bordering the Uncle Tom realm being the mouthpiece for the conservative establishment but I had resolved that opinion of him back in 2006.
Ugh – this makes it all real. Not that it wasn’t real for these women a long time ago. I’m grieving a little for my kids. Emma watches The Cosby Show and A Different World constantly. She’s seen every episode at least 3 times. How am I going to break this to her?
This makes my heart hurt. That those women had to suffer like this (allegedly) and that I wanted to ignore it. But his shows were still brilliant. I have to separate that from that. But still deal with the fact that this man who we loved did these things.