Jell-O Aside: The Cosby Thing

Like most people, I go about my life with a Reality Filter up and running. It sorts through the information coming at me constantly from every direction and does a pretty good job of letting in mainly what might be useful to me. Celebrity gossip often gets caught in the trap. That’s probably why I didn’t make the connection between this blog and the Bill Cosby rape allegations until a co-worker pointed it out to me last November.

I started writing this post shortly after that conversation, and got stuck. For one thing, I was reluctant (nay, chicken) to address the controversy amid all the uncertainty. Also, I won’t lie, I was conflicted. Like a lot of people around my age, I grew up with Coz, his standup routines and “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” and “The Cosby Show” – and, of course, the Jell-O commercials. Even after this week’s release of the 2005 deposition in which he admitted to a small portion of what he’s been accused of doing, it’s hard to square those allegations with this guy:

And yet, I do have firsthand knowledge of what it’s like when someone who “would never do something like that”, does something like that. So I could never say it was impossible, even though I wanted to give Cosby the benefit of the doubt.

While several organizations (TV Land, NBC, and UMass-Amherst, among others) have actively distanced themselves from Cosby, Kraft Food has had little to say on the issue. I did find this in an article in the Worcester Telegram, dated November 24, 2014:

Mr. Cosby notably served as a spokesman for Jell-O pudding in the 1970s. A representative for Kraft Food, the parent company of Jell-O, said Mr. Cosby started in 1974 speaking on behalf of the company and worked off and on with the brand until 2003. Spokeswoman Mary Anne McAndrew would not comment on what impact, if any, these recent allegations could have on Kraft’s product, but pointed out that Mr. Cosby has not been involved with the company “for many years.”

Colder than a frozen pudding pop.

The only other link I found associating Jell-O with the scandal was an article claiming that actor Malcolm Jamal-Warner (who played Theo Huxtable on “The Cosby Show”) had been tapped to be the new Jell-O spokesman. The source, the Nevada County Scooper, appears to be a satire site, but I don’t think they tried very hard to be funny there.

While I was doing my research for this post, I kept getting sidetracked into listening to Cosby’s old standup routines, and I’ll be damned if they aren’t still funny. Chocolate Cake for Breakfast is mostly as amusing as I remember it, though now that I’m a wife myself, Cosby’s comic depiction of his wife is less funny, and I think he has a lot to answer for among those who object to the portrayal of sitcom husbands/fathers as bumbling and inept. His Noah routine is still charming, though. And who could forget the Chicken Heart That Ate New York, in which Jell-O figures prominently? Throughout his career, Cosby’s persona has given us a positive (or, if you prefer, alternative) image of an African American man, and he has helped pave the way for the diversity that we see increasing (albeit too slowly) in the entertainment industry. His contributions to U.S. culture are not negligible.

Back in November, when I started working on this post, I was feeling more positively inclined towards Cosby. However, as the number of women coming forward continued to rise, and with it the denials from the Cosby camp, it became more difficult to rationalize that Chicken Heart could make up for a multitude of sins. Now that we know he’s admitted to drugging and assaulting at least one woman, it’s a real conundrum.

Meanwhile, much closer to home, there was the Walter Lewin scandal. Lewin was a popular physics professor at MIT who quite suddenly had his online teaching presence expunged from MIT’s servers and his Professor Emeritus title taken away. At that time, in early December, the public was only informed of a vague-sounding charge of harassment from an unnamed student in his edX course. He had been well-liked by MIT students who took his classes, and his instructional online videos had been viewed by millions, and there was widespread disbelief that what he’d done could have been so bad as to warrant the total takedown. Eventually, the complainant went public in an article in Inside Higher Ed. It does sound pretty bad.

When I first started writing this post, I was trying not to rush to judgement, while at the same time not letting myself get sucked into being a Cosby apologist, of which there were (and probably still are) quite a few. An unsavory lot, those guys seemed to be hanging out on sites like the Blaze and Breitbart, maintaining that the allegations must be false because actresses are gold diggers and whores, and anyway this has to be some sort of liberal conspiracy against a conservative black man (never mind that Cosby is also an Obama supporter) or a “Black” conspiracy in retaliation for his “call outs” in the mid-oughts that exhorted African American men to pull up their pants and get jobs. I thought we owed it to all the women who’ve come forward to take the allegations more seriously than that.

Now it seems that both Cosby and Lewin are probably guilty as charged. This leaves me pondering whether this is a good reason to toss away their respective bodies of work. While making strides in entertaining and teaching, both have been engaging in behaviors that some men have felt entitled to engage in for a very long time, and let’s face it, over the course of their careers society has not tried very hard to disabuse them of that notion. It’s only recently that there’s been a concerted and loud (thanks to social media) outcry against what some call “rape culture”. As Amanda Hess noted in a Slate article in February 2014, “[Gawker’s Tom] Scocca dredged up the allegations against Cosby not because Cosby is currently making news but because rape is.”

For pretty much all of the modern era, we’ve been compartmentalizing in this way. We accept countless performers, athletes and writers (men and women) despite their bad behavior. (Fun fact: New age musician Yanni was charged with domestic violence in 2006.) We don’t only do this with celebrities. Many of us have at least one friend or relative whom we love despite significant personality flaws. (Even Hitler had a girlfriend.) It’s valid to say, “I love you/your work, but…” Does Walter Lewin’s abusive behavior towards some students make his online lectures less valuable? Do the allegations against Bill Cosby make Chicken Heart less delightful? In both cases, I’m inclined to say no – while categorically not excusing their treatment of women, which is reprehensible. Their contributions don’t win them a pass for that. However, it’s not necessary to delete Lewin’s lectures, or to turn Cosby’s comedy albums into popcorn bowls, to state that we disapprove of their behavior away from the lecture hall or TV cameras.

People are complicated. That sounds pat, but it’s true. Bill Cosby is not and never was simply the jovial fellow from the Jell-O ads. What he is, is human – kind of a shitty one, to be sure, but as human as the rest of us.

What do you think?

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