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Deconstructing the Bill Cosby Rape Narrative

Whether or not the Bill Cosby rape allegations are true, there has been a disturbing lack of investigative reporting within the gleeful media frenzy. The public has been bombarded with lewd, attention-getting headlines like, “Cosby Forced My Hand on His Genitals” that have clearly shaped this story in a certain light. It seems that anyone raising questions is considered to be politically incorrect or a denialist. While a national discussion about supporting rape victims is long overdue, those who believe in due process also have a responsibility to resist condemning Cosby without a fair trial – even if only in the court of public opinion.

The only person to raise questions about the resurfaced rape allegations within either the mainstream or alternative media has been controversial radio host Alex Jones, who many associate with the lunatic fringe, but in this case seemed to hit the nail on the head, “Everything in this country is about power….Bill Cosby is being politically assassinated right now. And he may be guilty….It’s the fact that the media is jumping on this and piling on him….When they want to cover up for somebody, they cover up….And Bill Cosby has criticized gang thug culture… He’s come out and criticized Obama….And so he’s not with the program folks. So bye-bye Bill.

Comedian Hannibal Buress who catapulted this story into the national spotlight through his comedy routine is one of many whom Cosby angered through criticisms of the African American community. Buress lambasted Cosby in his act saying, “Bill Cosby has the f*ckin smuggest, old black man public persona that I hate….’Pull your pants up black people. I was on TV in the 80s. I can talk down to you cause I had a successful sitcom….I don’t curse on stage.’ Well yah, you’re a rapist so…….” Buress went beyond satire by urging audience members to google the Cosby rape accusations.

Despite being so intent on bringing the story to light, Buress is refusing interviews about the Cosby fallout. His only public statement about the issue was through an interview with Howard Stern in which he denied having any intent to bring the story into the public discourse, “I’ve been doing the bit on and off for six months. It was unexpected. It wasn’t my intention to make it part of a big discussion….So for someone to put it to the media, it’s crazy.”

Female hip hop artist MC Lyte has questioned Buress’s motives, “Was he just trying to enlighten us? Because there’s a lot of things that people can point out in terms of ‘illegal activity’, so for him to point this out – and he drove it home. Like he wasn’t lettin it go. And people weren’t laughing. And he kept drillin it, like, you guys are gonna understand this by the end of the day, really what we’re facing. So it just makes me want to look a little deeper.”

Buress isn’t the only one with an ax to grind. Professor Michael Eric Dyson has been another ardent critic of Bill Cosby. Dyson wrote a scathing book entitled, “Holler if You Hear Me, Is Bill Cosby Right?”, deconstructing Cosby’s now infamous “Pound Cake speech” at the 2004 NAACP awards in which Cosby lectured the African American community on their lack of parenting, poor academic performance, and criminal behavior. Dyson asserts that the retaliation now is coming from Cosby’s treatment of the African American community,  “I challenged him on the fact that he was going around the country giving moral lessons of condescending elements to young African American people and they were nasty and vicious….He’s throwing rocks and he’s living in a glass house. So that contradiction will always get you sunk.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Cosby has shaken up the old boys network in ways that have rarely been done by other African American men. The Cosby Show ran for 8 seasons and was #1 in the Nielson ratings for 5 consecutive years, causing a rating resurgence in the flailing NBC network. The show’s portrayal of an upper middle-class African American family changed the way the world viewed blacks and black culture. People like Oprah have recognized that this shift in perception played an instrumental role in the election of our first African American president.

When The Cosby Show ended in 1992, Cosby further pushed the envelope by attempting to buy NBC from General Electric with other investors. He would have been the first African American man to own a significant share of one of the big three networks. There had been a backlash after “The Cosby Show”, as noted by actress Felisha Rashad, who has said that when the show ended the industry was determined to present the antithesis of it in everything that they did. Cosby wanted to change all of that. He made no secret about his desire to create more diverse, quality programs promoting family values. Despite several attempts to buy the network, G.E. refused to sell.

The post-Cosby Show deficit of well-to-do African American family shows has continued to this day. Cosby was just about to launch a new sitcom about a multi-generational African American family along with a revamping of the Fat Albert And The Cosby Kids animated series in an attempt to continue shaping cultural views about African Americans in a more positive light. The shows would have come on the heels of Obama’s second term and a particularly hostile environment in certain conservative quarters towards black men in power. The consequence of the Cosby media frenzy has led to a cancellation of both projects. While the timing of the resurfaced allegations may be sheer coincidence, it certainly raises questions.

Despite what factors may have contributed to the escalation of the story onto the world stage, the race card is undoubtedly playing a role in its portrayal by the media and public response. There is a clear discrepancy in how Cosby is being treated compared to prominent white men faced with similar allegations like Bill Clinton. When Woody Allen was accused of child molestation, his movies weren’t pulled from the shelves; after Sean Penn was arrested for assaulting Madonna, he went on to win 2 Academy Awards; and despite Charlie Sheen’s extensive history of domestic violence, he was rewarded by becoming the highest paid actor in television in 2010. Whoopi Goldberg has been one of the only high profile public figures to defend the need to reserve judgment and raise questions about the accusations.

As the press continues to demonize Cosby in the coming weeks, perpetuating the stereotype of the “black sexual predator“, we need to step back from the media hype to insist on balanced reporting. Then we need to have a multifaceted conversation about Cosby in which we look at  these allegations within the larger context of a culture that condones rape. While Playboy mansion frequenter Bill Maher points his finger at the way Muslims treat women and TIME magazine asserts that the word, “feminist” should be banned, a woman is raped every 2 minutes in the United States. Meanwhile, rampant sexual abuse in Hollywood has been reported by actors like Corey Feldman who has said that, “The number one problem in Hollywood was, and is, and always will be pedophilia”.

Although the “guilty until proven innocent” stance may be unavoidable given the number of women who have come forward, there’s too many racial and political factors surrounding Cosby not to raise questions. And even if the Cosby rape allegations are true, we must recognize that he is part of a systemic problem. The Cosby rape narrative should be seen as a metaphor for our culture rather than just another isolated “saint” fallen from grace.

Jessica Bernstein, Psy.D., is a doctor of psychology who advocates for healthcare reform.

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