Once over the initial shock of learning that Bill Cosby probably raped multiple women in a particularly disgusting manner, my analytical side took over and I began to wonder if it will ever be possible for Bill Cosby to rehabilitate his reputation.
He and his handlers have been trying to address the mounting negative publicity by denying the accusations and stating that Cosby dealt with them decades ago. Cosby’s aggressive protestations aren’t washing with the public, though, mainly because so many women are now announcing their own horror stories—and unfortunately, it’s all the same story: Cosby gives her something to drink and she wakes up with her clothes off or under Cosby’s mount. At this point Cosby is hurting himself by not coming clean, admitting he had (has) a problem, asking for everyone’s forgiveness and going into therapy. Of course, his denials may be keeping him out of jail.
Cosby’s behavior is totally reprehensible, in the category of a Jerry Sandusky, and for the same reason—the victims were helpless and unable to consent. What Cosby did strikes me as extremely bizarre. You would think that a successful comedian and television star could avail himself of any number of willing women of any shape, size, age, education level and color his heart desired. He must have liked having sex with the inert body of a passed out woman, someone totally passive and unresponsive. And he must have liked the trickery involved, the idea that he was getting something over on the woman. Totally sick and pathological! I am certain I’m not the only one who hopes that there is a way to prosecute Cosby for his repeated rapes.
But I’m not writing this column about Cosby the rapist, but about Cosby the brand.
First and foremost, he will not be able to rehabilitate himself with the public until he does a public “mea culpa” and goes through the motions of rehabilitating himself. In the age of social media and 24/7 news, the story has gotten so big now, that he can’t hope that it will blow over and that things will soon return to normal as far as his career and reputation go. To win back his public, Cosby must take action and that action must be to come clean.
Once “rehabilitated,” I would imagine that some network or production company would take the chance that the public will have gotten over their revulsion and would be willing to see Cosby in a TV special, movie or new show, especially if some of the profit went to a nonprofit organization involved in helping raped or abused women. Some contemporary Chuck Barris might even want to produce a reality show that tracks Cosby as he goes into deep psycho-therapy. It never pays to overestimate the intelligence and good taste of the American public, but I believe that drugging and raping multiple women over years is a particularly heinous set of acts, and I don’t imagine an attempt for a Cosby comeback would succeed. While we have seen the public accept Michael Vick, Bill Clinton and Mark Sanford, what Cosby did was much worse than killing dogs or having an affair. Thus, even if he underwent a picture perfect rehab, he would still be poison with the public for any new work.
But the old stuff—that’s a different story. Once Cosby “rehabilitated” himself through a public apology and therapy, I don’t think most people would have a problem watching old episodes of “I Spy” or “The Cosby Show” or listening to some of his best-selling records again.
If Cosby digs in and never admits his sins, he may die alone under a thunderstorm of rebukes from an angry public, but his past performances will still be around. The initial news of his death will likely spur TV stations to replay the reruns from decades back. After that, I believe the public’s perception of Cosby will soften again, just as it is starting to soften for Joe Paterno. I don’t see rehabilitation in death for Cosby, but rather the reconfiguration of the various parts of his story. The rapes will become a small dark footnote, exactly in the same way as Joe Paterno’s lack of action when he first heard about Jerry Sandusky’s perversions is becoming a small dark footnote to his larger story of football glory.
The public tends to render the lives of past heroes and villains into short symbolic statements, almost like branding statements. The Einstein brand is the absent-minded physicist whose discoveries changed the world. The Babe Ruth brand is the undisciplined but awe-inspiring slugger who loved kids. These quick descriptions conceal a multitude of both sins and good works—we get neither Ruth’s whoring nor his speed on the bases. We miss Einstein’s political stands and his personal life, which was tumultuous at times. None of this detail survives in the public eye.
The one-sentence brand biography of Cosby a decade after he dies will likely be “one of the most popular TV actors who was a trailblazer for Afro-American actors and produced and starred in one of the very best and most important TV shows of the 20th century, but he also had a dark side.”
In other words, the Cosby reputation will probably weather the storm and the owners of the Cosby reruns can rest easy that sooner or later, they will start minting money again.
But Cosby the living man? As the saying goes, he’ll never work in this town again. And if there’s justice in this world, he’ll be doing his next standup routine behind bars.