Bill Cosby and the Toxic Power of Celebrity Apologists

The disgraced comedian has been forced to cling to the only halfway respectable figures willing to appear with him in public.

Jun 13 2017, 10:45am

Actor Bill Cosby arrives with actress Keshia Knight Pulliam for his trial on sexual assault charges at the Montgomery County Courthouse on June 5, 2017 in Norristown, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez-Pool/Getty Images)

This originally appeared on VICE US.

When Camille Cosby took her wedding vows in 1964, she could not have imagined the highs to which her husband would rise in his prime, nor the depths to which he would sink in his disgrace. Ultimately, she's stood by him, appearing in court Monday for Bill Cosby's six-minute defense against three felony sexual assault charges. But last week, as prosecutors laid out detailed evidence of their case against Cosby, neither his wife nor any of his children attended.

Not that Cosby was going it alone.

As CNN reported, "Each morning, as the once-beloved TV dad makes his way to the courtroom… he is clutching the hand or arm of someone new." Keshia Knight Pulliam—who played Cosby's youngest TV daughter Rudy—Joe Torry and Lewis Dix, Jr. (actors), and Sheila Frazier (a co-star from the 70s) have all joined him. Which makes sense: Ultimately, Cosby's entire saga hinges on issues of celebrity, even if he's now reduced to clinging to the only halfway respectable figures willing to appear with him in public.

Offscreen, Cosby once praised monogamy as an ideal way of life, and was a committed philanthropist. Onscreen, he played the paternal Cliff Huxtable in a series that was supposed to be loosely based on his real family life. This combination seems like a serial predator's PR dream, providing Cosby with a never-ending supply of young women who hoped he might help them in a variety of careers, while virtually guaranteeing that they felt safe to be alone with him as a potential gatekeeper or mentor.

I myself was convinced of the Cosby sexual assault allegations the way many Americans were: via Hannibal Buress's viral standup routine. In 2014, Buress famously started (or at least stoked) the fire that has since completely burned down Cosby's image.

As the LA Times reported, Buress began by mocking Cosby's penchant for lecturing the black community before going in:

"Pull your pants up black people, I was on TV in the '80s," Buress said during a show at a Philadelphia comedy club, mocking Bill Cosby. "Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby. So turn the crazy down a couple notches." From the stage, he implored audience members who didn't believe him to "Google 'Bill Cosby rape'" once they left the show...

So I tried it. I set my search engine to look for "Bill Cosby rape" online before January 1, 2014. It pulled up 117 items. They included a 2006 People Magazine article that mentions the sexual assault civil suit Cosby settled out of court with Andrea Constand, the woman he's now facing criminal charges for allegedly assaulting.

It's taken years for many Americans to begin to come to grips with what this man has (still just allegedly) done. Joseph C. Phillips, who played a recurring character on The Cosby Show, found the allegations hard to accept until a female friend who had been mentored by Cosby told him her story. She has not come forward publicly, but he found her credible enough that he went on record with CNN that he believes Bill Cosby is guilty.

Meanwhile, even if he's been accompanied by black women to court, it seems like like many of the holdout Cosby loyalists are African American men. As blogger Solomon Alexander put it last year, "Black men defend other black men to the end." In my most recent novel, I explored this dynamic: The Boss is a feminist heist story in which the African American female protagonist has fallen in love with a rap artist. But she dumps him in a rage when he collaborates with an aging R&B singer who is infamous for the statutory rape of young black girls.

In real life, R. Kelly has a history of similar accusations, yet was able to secure collaborations with many prominent artists on his 2013 album "Black Panties." Everyone from rappers like Migos and Future to pop stars like Kelly Rowland and Lady Gaga helped re-legitimize him in the public eye. (R. Kelly, like Cosby, has faced a slew of sexual misconduct allegations, including suits reportedly settled out of court for both disclosed—$250,000—and undisclosed amounts.)

R. Kelly, Cosby, and other alleged sexual abusers generally construct a narrative of victimization at the hands of the media. People in this position often cite the real history of racist victimization of black men for sexual crimes they did not commit, and expect the black community to stand by them. But such men betray these histories, as they are not innocent victims, but rather entitled misogynists who seek the same protection in rape culture as their white male counterparts.

The optics play especially badly if the accused can't even get his wife to be present for the meat of the prosecution's case. Though she did appear on Monday, as Joseph McGettigan, a former federal prosecutor who attended the Cosby trial, told the New York Times last week, her absence for much of the trial "could be interpreted by [the jury] as an unwillingness to sit and listen to very unpleasant truths." Instead, Cosby had to settle for a handful of D-list celebrity friends.

I'd love to live in a country where the shadow cast by the accusations of 60 women would keep any caliber of celebrity from joining Cosby in the spotlight, making the trek from his car to the courthouse a lonely one. But that would only happen if America were a place where morality and the law trumped the incredible power of celebrity.

Follow Aya de Leon on Twitter.

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