Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Will you still watch 'The Cosby Show'?

By Sally Kohn, CNN Political Commentator
updated 4:26 PM EST, Mon December 8, 2014
For more than 50 years, Bill Cosby has been one of America's leading entertainers: a noted comedian, an Emmy-winning actor and an innovative producer. However, his reputation has been tarnished by allegations of rape. Here's a look at how Cosby, shown here in 2013, has changed through the years: For more than 50 years, Bill Cosby has been one of America's leading entertainers: a noted comedian, an Emmy-winning actor and an innovative producer. However, his reputation has been tarnished by allegations of rape. Here's a look at how Cosby, shown here in 2013, has changed through the years:
HIDE CAPTION
Bill Cosby: Evolution of an icon
Bill Cosby: Evolution of an icon
Bill Cosby: Evolution of an icon
Bill Cosby: Evolution of an icon
Bill Cosby: Evolution of an icon
Bill Cosby: Evolution of an icon
Bill Cosby: Evolution of an icon
Bill Cosby: Evolution of an icon
Bill Cosby: Evolution of an icon
Bill Cosby: Evolution of an icon
Bill Cosby: Evolution of an icon
Bill Cosby: Evolution of an icon
Bill Cosby: Evolution of an icon
Bill Cosby: Evolution of an icon
Bill Cosby: Evolution of an icon
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sally Kohn: It's hard to reconcile Bill Cosby the man with Bill Cosby the talent
  • Kohn: Amid allegations of rape, can we still enjoy the Cosby show?
  • For example, Richard Wagner was an anti-Semite yet people still enjoy his music
  • Kohn: Sometimes it's better to separate the man from the art

Editor's note: Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn. Watch Don Lemon's special, "The Cosby Show: A Legend Under Fire," on CNN on Monday night at 9 p.m. ET. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Composer Richard Wagner was an anti-Semite whose music was used, after his death, as Nazi propaganda. He was also, as some say, "one of the most gifted, historically important composers to ever grace the planet." So fans of his music, including those in Israel, are willing to overlook his hideous views and embrace his art. This is what is generally considered separating the art from the artist. As writer Jay Parini put it, "Hideous people can make great art."

Since TV Land canceled syndication of "The Cosby Show" recently in reaction to multiple allegations that Bill Cosby is a rapist, I've been thinking more about whether we can separate the art from the artist.

Sally Kohn
Sally Kohn

For a certain generation, "The Cosby Show" had a huge impact. I was 7 years old when "The Cosby Show" premiered, and over the course of eight seasons, I grew up with Rudy, Vanessa, Theo and Denise, Sondra, Clair and, yes, Cliff, the father character played by Cosby.

Given the history and context of race in America, it was amazing for middle-class white kids growing up in Whiteville to see a middle-class black family that in many ways resembled their own. For black kids (let alone adults) growing up in America, it must have been transformative to see on TV a happy, successful, normal black family such as the Huxtables.

Black people had been poorly depicted on television for as long as the medium existed, and in mostly negative light. So when TV Guide called the Huxtables "the most atypical black family in television history," it implicitly contrasted them not only with fictional black TV characters, but also with the "welfare queens" and "crack addicts" whom conservative politicians criticized. In such a context, that the Huxtables were normal was actually radical.

Lemon welcomes five Cosby accusers
New Cosby accuser: 12 more were raped
Documents: Cosby tried to conceal claims

"It is hard to believe that Bill Cosby is a serial rapist because the belief doesn't just indict Cosby, it indicts us," wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic. "It damns us for drawing intimate conclusions about people based on pudding-pop commercials and popular TV shows." Cliff Huxtable may have been just a TV character, but he was also a symbol, and Cosby appeared to embody his positive virtues.

I think some of our collective reluctance to believe more than a dozen women who have accused Bill Cosby of rape stems from our desire to preserve the cultural significance of "The Cosby Show." We drew feel-good conclusions about Bill Cosby the man from pudding-pop commercials and TV shows not just because he wanted us to, but because we wanted to.

It's "difficult to believe something so sinister about a public figure as beloved as Bill Cosby. He gave us Fat Albert, The Cosby Show and A Different World," wrote Roxane Gay in The Guardian. "We ask ourselves, How could a talented comedian -- a family man, a philanthropist -- also be a serial rapist?"

In a way, "The Cosby Show" is like a surrealist work of art attacking our illusions of normalcy. The picture-perfect dad in the show may turn out to be a real-life serial rapist. Illusions are easy to believe, but reality is harsh. Yet the art often survives -- along with, by association, the artist.

Just look at Woody Allen. Earlier this year, Allen's daughter Dylan Farrow resurfaced allegations that Allen had molested her when she was a child. There's also the controversy surrounding Allen's affair with his ex-wife Mia Farrow's adopted daughter Soon-Yi, whom he later married. All of this has seemingly done little to tarnish Allen's career. He continued to enjoy commercial and artistic success with his films. He even received the Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes in 2014.

There's also the filmmaker Roman Polanski. In 1977, when he was 43 years old, he was arrested for sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl during a photo shoot. Polanski was indicted on six criminal charges and pleaded guilty, but fled America before sentencing. Since then, from exile, he has produced and directed several award-winning films. And a petition from Hollywood dignitaries calling for Polanski to be pardoned includes Martin Scorsese, Tilda Swinton, David Lynch and Woody Allen.

In 2009, singer Chris Brown pleaded guilty to felony assault after beating up his then-girlfriend Rihanna. His third studio album, "Graffiti," released later that year took a hit. But a few years late, his album "F.A.M.E." did great. The fans liked his music despite his previous bad behavior.

Of course, Cosby hasn't been convicted of anything. But given that over a dozen women have come forward with claims of a similar pattern of sexual assault, the allegations should be taken very seriously.

Will Bill Cosby's artistic legacy and reputation survive? We won't know until the dust has settled. But "The Cosby Show" seems undoubtedly tarnished. It's hard to watch it now, knowing what we've heard about Cosby, and not feel slimy and somehow complicit in his alleged crimes. But at the same time, turning off the show seems too easy -- it's not unlike the way we turn away from our discomfort with rape and rape victims. Maybe it's better if we squirm with the ugly picture for a while.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:51 AM EST, Wed December 31, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says the AirAsia flight had similarities to Air France 447, which also encountered bad weather
updated 8:29 AM EST, Wed December 31, 2014
Poverty isn't the only reason why so many parents are paying to have their child smuggled into the United States, says Carole Geithner
updated 11:49 AM EST, Wed December 31, 2014
Michael Rubin says it's a farce that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei posted tweets criticizing U.S. police
updated 1:40 PM EST, Wed December 31, 2014
Ron Friedman says your smartphone may be making you behave stupidly; resolve to resist distractions in 2015
updated 8:32 AM EST, Tue December 30, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT