Bill Cosby and the Hard Truth About Our Heroes

Bill Cosby Private Acts Public Backlash
John W. Ferguson/Getty Images

Despite largely approving of his politics, my mother could never vote for Ted Kennedy, for reasons that boiled down to one word: Chappaquiddick. Her opinion of him as a politician collapsed under the weight of one tragic event that, she felt, defined him as a man.

While that’s an extreme example, it underscores a reality involving all manner of celebrities — politicians, yes, but also entertainers and athletes — raising the question of whether it’s possible to separate public accomplishments from private actions, or when distaste for the personal wholly invalidates the professional.

To those weaned on Bill Cosby’s standup albums and TV work, the sexual-assault allegations leveled against him follow a similar trajectory to those aimed at other luminaries of his era — from Woody Allen’s complicated personal life tainting enjoyment of his movies to reconciling Roman Polanski’s rape of an underage girl with appreciation for the director’s masterpiece “Chinatown.”

Not all these situations, obviously, are equal, nor are moral dilemmas confined to potentially criminal or unsavory behavior. In these polarized times, it’s become common for people to vow that they will shun a performer’s work because of his or her political leanings and affiliations. And while those who actually follow through on ideologically motivated boycotts represent the fringes, to borrow from the Dixie Chicks, there’s clearly a “Shut up and sing” mentality — whether that’s Alec Baldwin and Sean Penn on the left or Jon Voight and Kelsey Grammer on the right, saddling certain stars with extra baggage.

Activists have become especially adept at quickly mobilizing in response to outrageous statements or behavior, with social media not only providing a rallying point, but also serving as a new platform by which to alienate consumers by sticking one’s foot in one’s mouth. An arena in which one must seek to condense complex issues to 140 characters has come to contain especially fertile soil for missteps, as just evidenced by Fox mogul Rupert Murdoch’s observation about the racial composition of Egyptians, while defending the casting in “Exodus: Gods and Kings.”

Having erred in the past by ignoring or whitewashing the private lives of public figures, the media now have largely swung in the opposite direction, eagerly pouncing on transgressions large and small. The hunger for ratings and traffic provides a special incentive to play up media figures when they cross over into the political realm, from the biblical scholarship of “Duck Dynasty” patriarch Phil Robertson to ESPN baseball analyst Curt Schilling tweeting his skepticism about Darwin’s theory of evolution.

The latest “American Masters” documentary, “Bing Crosby Rediscovered,” would have thus felt incomplete had it not at least acknowledged accusations of abusiveness raised by some of his children, which has become a part of the multifaceted star’s legacy, along with “White Christmas” and “Going My Way.”

Determining at what point the drumbeat of scandal eclipses a lifetime of achievement remains a gray area, as I unexpectedly had to contemplate recently while writing a review of a children’s program. The tone and exaggerated childhood memories felt reminiscent of Cosby’s “Fat Albert” and related characters, but the comic has become so toxic, it was awkward to reference him without a disclaimer. Ultimately, the comparison didn’t make the cut.

A broader perspective, though, reveals an uncomfortable truth: that we have seldom relied on saints and choirboys to lead or entertain us. What’s often left, then, is personal bargaining and rationalization, such as (in Allen’s case) continuing to embrace “Sleeper” and “Annie Hall,” while deciding “Manhattan” strikes a little too closely to the filmmaker’s personal history, given the protagonist’s relationship with a 17-year-old girl.

Not that the routines aren’t funny, or the movies aren’t still great. But in this day and age, it sometimes seems the only thing more ill-advised than having childhood heroes is knowing too much about them.

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  1. Tiago says:

    Except that we don’t actually know anything about Woody Allen and Bill Cosby…

  2. Molly M. says:

    The Rich, The Powerful, & The Famous…They all have some sort of skeletons in their closets…It’s because of their status that they are able to get away with a lot…Where is the Justice System in America…Where only the poor gets jailed, while the Rich & Powerful just get a slap on the wrist…

  3. Winn says:

    How dare you equate people who are real victims with these obvious gold diggers! when something bad really happens to a person then they will be looked at in disbelief because of these money hungry gold diggers!!! They are exploiting the experiences of real victims for monetary gain and I am tired of people who believe them and don’t see thou their obvious lies!!!

  4. Carol says:

    Not factoring in on if I believe his innocence or guilt. I think he should be on suicide watch. The public image he portrayed was so opposite of this chapter. He has to be emotionally drained.

  5. Contessa46 says:

    Hey Joe,
    Get your head out of your behind. Thirty or forty years ago, when women were assaulted, they were shamed, not believed and traumatized beyond belief. Their backgrounds were investigated, They were scrutinized on what they wore, all to negate their complaints. It’s even still happening in colleges across America and in the military. Hollywood could break someone easily by threatening to ruin a career or a family in the business. Cosby had huge influence at the height of his popularity. Although he is a good actor and has contributed to society in a myriad or ways it does not mean he didn’t do what he’s been accused of. Most women agree that of “it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, well, it’s a duck!” Most of these women are believed. They don’t care about money or notoriety they just want to be validated and that happens when confronting their rapist. The climate is such that they now can, and without fear. I stand and applaud these women and hope now they can get a good nights sleep.

  6. JOE S HILL says:

    This scandal is the biggest piece of serious bullshit ever! let alone Brain Lowry’s stupid little article here,
    which shows beyond the doubt,how the man is distancing himself from Cosby-so unless any SOLID and
    hard evidence and PROOF is known here,,then all these women coming forward to say that they were sexually assaulted by Cosby some 30-40 years ago,is bullshit!! why NOW? why couldn’t these “victims” have taken action BACK THEN,when these sex crimes occured,,where’s the proof? this is a very ugly
    smear campaign,and whoever is behind this attack obviously hates Bill Cosby,for either personal,political,or maybe even racial reasons-whatever it is,this has done great damage to the actor’s
    reputation,,and i hope the lawyer representing Cosby,goes after the real source behind this ugly scandal,
    because it is absolutely disgusting beyond measure! to destroy an actor’s career with unfounded facts and lies,is nothing new in this business-he’s not the first actor to be charged with this kind of behavior,
    and he certainly won’t be the last!

  7. Bill says:

    Let’s not let the fact Cosby has been charged with NOTHING let alone arrested or convicted stop a good bandwagon.

  8. If Bill Cosby is guilty of the alleged offenses then he is a serial rapist. There is a substantive divide between that and a celebrity “bad boy” or “girl.” Gratuitous promiscuity, extra-marital affairs, recreational drug use, over indulgence in alcohol; even fisticuffs with another adult of the same gender might qualify you as such. But if you are intentionally and repeatly putting others at risk through drunk driving and or sexual predation for example, it has to stop and there have to be definitive criminal and economic consequences. Most important, strangely enough, it is may actually a chance to come clean, seek help and perhaps forgiveness of the wrong. I don’t think anyone expects the entertainment landscape to be uniquely populated with saints and choirboys but then again the lives of individuals like Ghandi and Ray Charles do make for great storytelling.

  9. Joy Sirott Hurwitz says:

    I believe it is unfair to place Woody Allen’s unproven sexual abuse allegations by the mere fact that his guilt or innocence could have easily been presented in Civil Court at the time and was not. Mr. Cosby’s behavior has continued throughout his career having been covered up by surrounding people who benefitted from it.
    What you do not address here Sir is that we, “the public” suffer from the inability to separate the Person from the beloved character(s) they portray.
    Mr. Cosby has never been a Pediatrician nor a particularly kind Man. He has, however, been over many years a serial Woman abuser.

    • Bill Ferguson says:

      Woody Allen’s unproven sexual abuse allegations? Bill Cosby’s unproven sexual abuse allegations!!
      Nothing has been proven, so where are your facts? You obviously know something nobody else does.
      I think all you are is one of many, Hater’s. You make NO sense.

    • Bill says:

      ALLEGED behavior. Cosby has been charged with NOTHING.

      Any of these women could have gone to law enforcement at any time and none did.

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