When, in the course of watching a film, the words “Directed by Roman Polanski” arrive on-screen, I always mentally finish the sentence with, “…who raped that girl.”
Roman Polanski — the acclaimed filmmaker who raped 13-year-old Samantha Gailey in 1977 — is also the man who gave cinema the gifts of Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown. And when I watch those movies, I forget about his crime for a while. And then, afterward — and sometimes during — the thought returns. As long as I continue to voluntarily watch Polanski’s films, I’ll probably always feel the discomfort, the unease, that comes with remembering.
Then it makes me think about my friends. Off the top of my head, I can think of six friends who’ve been raped at some point in their lives, sometimes more than once. I think about them, even though Roman Polanski had nothing to do with their situations.
None of the six rapists involved in these acts went on to write hit songs, star in beloved sitcoms or direct films. If they did, I’d flatly reject consuming whatever they created. They hurt people I care about. Fuck them. Maybe I should say “Fuck Roman Polanski,” too. Sometimes I do.
But Polanski was a brilliant filmmaker before he raped. He courted the public with his talent and his cultural output. That’s also how Bill Cosby did it. Or at least that’s how he did it before we all knew better. These guys make us love their work, and in time, by extension, their personalities. We become invested in that work, and that’s when it gets more complicated.
Phil Spector, convicted murderer of actress Lana Clarkson, produced the greatest modern pop masterpieces ever recorded, among them, even more upsettingly, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” which is one of my favorite holiday songs. T.S. Eliot wrote some of the 20th century’s most important poems, and was an unrepentant anti-Semite. So was Charlie and The Chocolate Factory author Roald Dahl. There’s a very long list of problems associated with Ted Nugent and Mel Gibson, but “Cat Scratch Fever” and The Road Warrior aren’t among them. I could probably sit down right now and watch an old episode of The Cosby Show and start laughing. It remains funny, and sweet, creepy barbecue sauce memes notwithstanding. But I’d still feel very weird about it, just the way Hannibal Burress said we all should.
Part of the problem: you are in an odd sort of love with famous people. That’s abolutely an element in this equation. And you’re going to have to break up with all of them, even the ones who haven’t done anything wrong. It’s kind of for your own good. It might even be for their own good.
You probably don’t like to think about it like that, but you do fall in love with them. They give you pleasure of some sort. Or they make you laugh. Or they excite you. Or you need something from them you haven’t even figured out yet. Maybe it’s sublimated sex or it’s because they remind you of the parent who didn’t love you enough. Something. But you do it. It happens very easily. A few charismatic star turns, a few favorite movies, just enough well-positioned incidences of public charm, and blammo, you’re pining to be best pals with Jennifer Lawrence. Or you start to think of a comedian-turned-sitcom-star as your substitute father.
Cosby’s reach into American culture extends very, very deeply. He was the TV viewing public’s favorite Dad, the creative force and star of a groundbreaking series. And now, after months of allegations and denials, there are those documents, the ones in which he confesses to drugging women “for sex.” Except it wasn’t that sex where everyone’s awake and saying, “Yes. Let’s do this.”
And suddenly, as if it couldn’t get any weirder or crazier or more gross, it got weirder and crazier and more gross. Cosby’s wife, Camille, is now claiming that the drugged women consented to this. Right now, only Whoopi Goldberg is keeping the faith in Dr. Cliff Huxtable not being a serial rapist.
That’s who he is to you, I know, because that’s who he is to me. He’s not actually “Bill Cosby.” Neither you nor I know “Bill Cosby.” We know Cliff Huxtable, the wise, gentle, funny father he played on a show. We know the warm, enveloping fantasy of material wealth, cozy home-comfort, not-divorced parents, cake for breakfast and Ray Charles lipsync jams. We know the fiction we consumed before returning to our actual lives where nothing was quite that nice. That Bill Cosby crafted Cliff Huxtable in his own image still doesn’t make him Bill Cosby. Cliff Huxtable was not real, and Bill Cosby is not part of your family. He never was. He is not a person in your life.
There’s a lot of fallout to come, to be sure, and the most important consideration in that process will be his victims’ need for justice. After that, there’ll be the question of his cultural legacy, career as a legendary funny person, position as an authority figure in Black culture, and his self-appointed status as a moral arbiter. All of it will be sorted out in one way or another, and almost certainly with a lot of pain for a lot of people.
But it’s almost 100 percent guaranteed that you will not be a part of any of it. Remember, you don’t actually know this person. Your (and my) level of engagement will consist of two activities: listening to the victims and being concerned that their needs for justice are met in whatever way the courts can make that happen; and deciding what to do, on a private level, with the cultural production of the formerly beloved, now extremely problematic, person in question.
What do you do with the song you fell in love to, now that the man who wrote it is a murderer? How do you re-purpose that family-oriented TV show that made you feel safe, or that film that helped define your ideas about art, now that the men involved in them are known to be rapists? These cultural products may have preceded the bad news, they may have nothing whatsoever to do with that bad news, but now they’re stained. And the answer is that there is no good answer.
If you can’t stomach the associations, it may be easier just to abandon the book, song, film, or show to history and never touch it again. The pleasure it brought you may not be worth the ugly ideas or feelings it now provokes. It might even make you feel like the person you liked robbed you somehow. On some level, possibly even a minute financial one, by engaging with that cultural product, you may feel you’re supporting the person who did the horrible thing.
A relevant aside: as a writer whose focus is often entertainment, I’ve made a personal project of emancipating myself from celebrity infatuation (except for my ongoing daydream of hanging out at Baskin-Robbins with Amy Poehler, which will never happen because she’s very busy and has no idea I exist, and that’s fine, really). If you can do that, it’ll help you with the kind of compartmentalizing all pop-culture fans could stand to work on. I suggest reading the following book to assist you on your own divorce from that sort of thing: Cintra Wilson’s A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-examined as A Grotesque, Crippling Disease. It’s scathing and true, brutal words from a writer who knows very well how the culture of celebrity worship hurts all of us.
Anyway, for now, at least, it’s easy to abstain from Cosby Show reruns. The networks are doing the divorcing for you. I can’t find any episodes anywhere on my TV. But someday, someone may start airing them again. I don’t know if I’ll sit through one. I might. But if I don’t, it won’t be because I feel anything for Cosby, the man.
It’ll only be because I don’t want to sour whatever good memories I have left by having to reflexively complete his “starring Bill Cosby” with, “…who raped all those women.”
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