The guilty verdict against Bill Cosby represents a moment of vindication for a legal system that has often seemed to tip the scales in favor of celebrities – including a previous hung jury in this case, despite a mountain of testimonials against the star.
Yet the man known as “America’s dad” during the heyday of his sitcom had already become, for many, a pariah. And if the power of his fame and image surely played a role in previously escaping such a verdict, the damage to his image and legacy had been done.
Cosby’s celebrity had made the prospect of a conviction seem uncertain, even with the heightened awareness that has come from the #MeToo movement. Celebrities have weathered such cases time and again.
But the hallowed status that Cosby occupied as one of the world’s most beloved entertainers – an icon who parlayed the universality of his stand-up comedy into several successful TV series, none bigger than “The Cosby Show” in the 1980s – had been irrevocably tarnished. While some fans clung to the notion of his innocence, the weight of the allegations against him has been too much for many to ignore.
That tension has been put on public display, such as the discussion between Jerry Seinfeld and Stephen Colbert last September on the latter’s CBS late-night show. Colbert said he could no longer listen to Cosby’s albums, which he once loved. After initially saying it was possible to separate the work from the person, Seinfeld reconsidered that position and concurred.
As comedian Larry Wilmore noted last year, Cosby’s legacy is “forever going to be tarnished,” in a manner that will “overshadow his career.”
Such cultural judgments are never perfectly applied in terms of doling out indignation equally. But Cosby’s associated with family-oriented material – from his commercials to Fat Albert – only magnifies the temptation to recoil from him now.
Moreover, Cosby has used his stardom to convey a message of personal responsibility to young people, an outspokenness that many have seized on as a sign of his hypocrisy. Indeed, it was those comments – aimed specifically at African-American youths – that prompted comic Hannibal Buress to raise the issue of Cosby’s behavior toward women in a 2014 comedy routine that revived allegations that had been long dormant, challenging Cosby’s ability to serve as any kind of moral authority.
A lot has happened since then, including the swirl of sexual misconduct attributed to famous and powerful men triggered by the revelations regarding producer Harvey Weinstein that surfaced in October.
Cosby, however, occupies a different tier from many of those accused. He was a trailblazer, the recipient of countless honors, an inductee into the TV Academy’s Hall of Fame, and one of the most successful – and thanks to that, wealthiest – performers that television has ever produced.
And yet, as NPR’s Scott Simon – who conducted an uncomfortable interview with Cosby in 2014 – noted a few years ago, the sexual-assault charges will almost inevitably be “the first line of his biography and obituary.”