This week, the internet’s been discussing older allegations against America’s Dad, i.e. Bill Cosby. Tom Scocca at Gawker was the first to point out that Cosby has been accused of some pretty serious harassment in the past. After setting out the allegations as reported in the mid-2000s, Scocca notes that they had little impact on either Cosby’s standing in the culture or on his new development deal for a sitcom:
Basically nobody wanted to live in a world where Bill Cosby was a sexual predator. It was too much to handle…
Conceptually, it was the sensible way to deal with it. No one was talking about it anymore. The whole thing had been, and it remained, something walled off from our collective understanding of Bill Cosby.
Katie J.M. Baker, a reporter at Newsweek, responded by promptly interviewing two of the women who accused Cosby. They had similar tales to tell. They were young aspiring entertainers who Cosby offered to “mentor.” Little did they know, they both allege, that the mentoring would end up with them in states of extreme intoxication and undress. (Go ahead and read Baker’s interviews for the graphic detail if you need it.) For conducting these interviews, Baker has evidently earned the ire of Cosby’s publicist, who later complained to BuzzFeed that:
“You had the Gawker thing. And now there’s a gal at Newsweek that’s frisky, looking at some of these things,” the source continued. “I can’t see that that has anything to do with him going back to television.”
Slate’s Amanda Hess weighed in too, arguing that the main reason we might not care about Cosby is that, at the moment, he’s out of the public’s target sights. Whereas Woody Allen’s reputation, if not the man himself, will be splashed all over our screens at the Oscars. Hess also offers, after talking to Baker, that one reason these allegations haven’t caused the firestorm they could have is that they don’t involve “perfect victims.”
I agree with Hess, but I think there are other complicating factors. For example: in some sense the closer analogue for the Cosby allegations is not the Allen case, but Mike Tyson’s. Yes, I’m aware that the Tyson allegations were accepted in a court of law, whereas the Cosby allegations remain just that, allegations. I’m also aware that in Tyson, the aggressor is someone who has a reputation for, to put it bluntly, uncontrollable violence. There’s no analogy to the Cosby case in that respect.
But there is still something of the same flavor to them — both involve young women who could easily be characterized (and dismissed) as “groupies.” They were not, like Dylan Farrow, children entrusted to adult care. Instead, these women were the professional “inferiors” of their accused assaulters. Which put them both in the position of having to attack extremely powerful and respected men if they dared report what they say happened to them. They would be, I think, fully aware that they were the “kind of person” who be made to defend every single bad decision of her own — and that the men accused would be, repeatedly, positioned as entitled to the culture at large’s “presumption of innocence.”
That takes me to my own private explanation, offered from the camp of those who certainly are prepared to give such accusers the benefit of the doubt: I think a lot of women hear these stories, shrug, and know full well that hashing them out in public would just be inviting themselves to an enormous shitshow. Harassing behavior from men, perpetrated against adult women, is despicably common. And I don’t mean just by Hollywood figures, or politicians, or people with obvious power. I mean that professional men of relatively ordinary standing routinely behave in ways one could characterize as harassment. But mostly women don’t call it that, at least not publicly. We don’t because we don’t want to cause trouble, and also because we’re aware that it doesn’t get us anywhere to keep bringing it up.
Ann Friedman got at this in her piece for The Cut about Woody Allen, when she recounted how she and fellow female journalists used to joke about something they called “The Island”:
All of the editors we know to be sexual harassers or professional bullies are on a plane together, probably headed to an “ideas festival” or “un-conference,” when the plane goes down on a small island. There, they are forced to live out the rest of their days with only each other to harass. In their absence, the rest of us go on to remake the media industry into a creative, forward-thinking, gender-equitable paradise. Fin.
It was funny to picture this scenario, but also sort of a sad coping mechanism. We knew these men were too professionally powerful to really be held accountable for their behavior.
That last line there is the real kicker. The truth is, there’s not yet an upside to being the kind of person who routinely brings up old accusations like those against Cosby. It will earn you nothing but endless arguments, usually from people who have read less of the relevant material than you have. If the lesson of Woody Allen think-piece season was nothing else, it was that. It would be nice to live in another culture, yes, where it was at all possible to point out that powerful men have these checkered histories. But most of us live in this one, where the truth is that on the balance of probabilities, men will get away with it. In which case it’s better just to have a private “Island” joke. You have to laugh, if only to stave off the profound depression of thinking too much about it.