The lessons of Bill Cosby's dizzying downfall
I truly didn't expect Bill Cosby to be convicted of three counts of aggravated indecent assault against Andrea Constand. I wasn't alone. Many women have expressed shock at the fact that a man who spent decades drugging and assaulting women was experiencing a legal (rather than financial) consequence.
Seeing so many feminist-minded women (myself included) stunned at the Cosby verdict. I think we can be the slowest to realize the speed at which the ground has shifted underneath us, spending as much time as we do ruminating in so much deep, ugly, seemingly sedentary sexism. https://t.co/HfjIkY0Phn
— Jill Filipovic (@JillFilipovic) April 26, 2018
After all, the 80-year-old comedian has survived those allegations so many times that his Twitter profile even thematizes it — as does his new special, Far From Finished. Cosby was so relaxed about his prospects that he did his Fat Albert impression as he was leaving the courtroom last year as the jury failed yet again to reach a decision. He felt untouchable. With good reason.
That this jury did reach a decision means it's time to take stock of exactly how far we've come. What exactly changed since 2006, when Robert Huber wrote this account of the allegations against Cosby that absolutely failed to stick — despite the fact that Cosby himself admitted, in a 2005 deposition, to using Quaaludes three decades ago "when it was fashionable to do so with consenting women"? Bill Cosby's biographer Mark Whitaker didn't even mention the dozens of allegations for which the comedian was finally convicted yesterday in his book about the comic. But he did have this to say about Cosby in 2014: "He's paid a big price. … The show [a planned NBC sitcom] has been yanked. The reruns of The Cosby Show have been taken off the air. He's routinely called a rapist everywhere. That's a big price."
That's a remarkable thing to say. Whitaker admits — in that very interview — that not addressing the allegations was a mistake. But a mere four years ago, it was acceptable for a journalist who failed to address one of the biggest celebrity stories of the decade to seriously suggest that losing a sitcom deal was a "big price" to pay for drugging and raping dozens of women. If there's any doubt about the foul swamp America has been for women, that statement provides accidental proof.
Just a few years later, our will to see this behavior as something other than a minor indiscretion had changed — a little. Cosby was finally brought to trial. But in 2017, that resulted in a mistrial — perhaps in part because the judge only allowed one woman besides Andrea Constand to testify about Cosby's pattern of assault.
So why did that same judge allow five other women to testify in this retrial? He wouldn't say. We are left to guess. What changed?
Well … it might be that this ongoing discussion of how women are treated is finally paying off. We're learning not to look away from the hard stuff. Whitaker — the aforementioned negligent biographer — tried to explain his failure to look into the allegations in a way that perfectly captures our usual attitude toward stories of sexual assault: "If it happened, and it was a pattern, it's terrible and really creepy. ... I was just having a discussion with my son about this, and psychologically, if it happened … it's sort of compartmentalization." It's an apt description; we might finally be getting better at not covering our ears to stories we don't like in this particular, self-serving way.
That said, plenty of people were "compartmentalizing" like this as recently as last year. I wrote back in 2017 that while the list of reasons Cosby seemed immune to legal consequences was long, more curious than the system's inertia was the wave of disinterest that hit the public when the trial finally began. It was odd. This was (as everyone kept reminding us) a celebrity trial of "America's dad." It should have been a sensation. And yet no one, save for a few very dedicated reporters, seemed to be following it very closely.
Several factors contributed to this hand-wavy avoidance, but two of the more prominent were, first, that we're good at "not-seeing" or "compartmentalizing" celebrity behavior we don't like. (Kanye's recent outburst, for instance, is neither new or surprising, no matter how much his fans tried first to explain and then to overlook earlier iterations.) Secondly, though, and crucially: President Trump's election, despite over a dozen allegations of sexual misconduct, felt like a referendum. America didn't care. It voted for the pussy-grabber over the woman. For awhile, that produced a chilling deference: In 2017, everyone was trying to adjust to this new reality and understand the "economically anxious" voters.
Then — and no doubt as a reaction to the chauvinist perfidy of this feculent administration — #MeToo happened. And that, as Jill Filipovic explains in this remarkable thread, is finally starting to shift our public and legal understanding of what real "neutrality" might mean within the justice system.
The Cosby verdict, like so many other gains in treating sexual assault like any other crime, shows how crucial it is to shift cultural norms around sex and assault, and to not assume male experience is universal, neutral, or the only legitimate experience.
— Jill Filipovic (@JillFilipovic) April 26, 2018
That every day brings fresh examples of incompetence and malfeasance by this administration can blind us to the fact that a truly massive cultural shift seems to have taken place under its feet during this last year. Yes, the #MeToo conversations have been exhausting, and messy, and difficult. But they're effecting something that looks suspiciously like change. Maybe it took electing someone with no respect for women or their bodily autonomy to see just how well he reflects our national character — and start fixing the problems women have lived with for generations. But the real surprise is that it might be working. Maybe we won't be quite this stunned next time a man is convicted for drugging and raping people.
One thing's for sure: Change may be slow, but it's far from finished.