You could say this is a point for the art impersonates life team. I’m sure many of you can walk and chew gum at the same time? Well, I bet Bill Cosby can, too. In fact, I bet he can think and talk at the same time. Indeed, I bet he can brilliantly act, write outstanding comedy, and be a sexual predator. It’s called the human condition and it’s inherent contradictions are a part of the complexities I study, but more on that later. So it’s not a character flaw if you liked The Cosby Show; if it was the staple in your household growing up. Nothing wrong with that.
Still, I was never a fan of the show. That doesn’t make me a better person, a psychic person, or anything of the sort. Certain things always just creeped me out as a teenager, especially when it came to girls and their bodies. In particular, their virginity.
Imagine it’s a regular day in the Cosby household (season 6, episode 12—so America and the Cosby’s are very comfortable with one another by this point), but Denise (played by Lisa Bonet), the second eldest, returns from Africa married. That’s right, she’s married and with a stepdaughter! Cue the shock, excitement, hurt feelings, and awkward laughter and the father’s interrogation of his new son-in-law about his daughter’s virginity at the time of the wedding. Did I mention that by now Denise has spent two years in college and met Martin while working in Africa? Martin requests some alone time with Cliff as his new son-in-law and what is supposed to be initially uncomfortable becomes all good fun since they are both military men and exhale over Denise’s maidenhood. This part of the show is still fresh in my memory as one of television’s most awkward and strangest. Why would this be important? Why is this important? Why is this funny?
When Cosby’s name came up in the headlines in 2004 after his famous “Pound Cake” speech I thought: hmmmkay, there’s an old fussy man but whatever. I recalled how he’d had a falling out with Lisa Bonet after she’d posed nude for Interview Magazine and she eventually left the show over “creative differences.” I thought that I could at least appreciate the show for its portrayal of wholesome and no-nonsense parenting because I could relate it to my own rearing. But that was it. My parents are divorced. My father is engaged for the third time and my mother never remarried. According to Cosby I come from a broken home.
But, according to Cosby, it’s totally normal for a father to discuss his adult daughter’s sexuality. This is not ok.
This matters now because for sexual predators of Cosby’s ilk they see women as property. Women are not humans, not with identities, not with names, personas, habits, eccentricities, certainly not full selves with self-possession. Why, if self-possession were taken for granted with women then it wouldn’t seem totally normal for a grown sane man to sit down with another grown sane man and fully engage with each other about his daughter’s/ wife’s virginity.
Neither Bill Cosby, nor is that episode an outlier in our society. Virginity is a completely acceptable trope in television sitcoms and entertainment overall. It goes like this: There’s a developing, almost-adult daughter. There’s a father. Daughter has a date/crush/wedding/marriage to a man. Sex is discussed, gah! This storyline and father-daughter sexual dynamic shows up regardless of the racial or class position of the characters/family. For instance, I remember another squirmy scene in the movie Father of the Bride II with Steve Martin. In this one, his daughter is now pregnant and after they announce this, the camera quickly shoots to Martin who then has a brief rage-filled daydream realizing that for his daughter to be pregnant means that she must have had sex. GASP. Who’s The Boss? , The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the entire roster of those TGIF shows every Friday night (in Step by Step the contrasting sexual prudishness and insatiability of stepsisters was a running joke. Again, something I found gross (in the case of Step by Step these were teenage girls — not grown women).
So why does this matter now? Because, in this case Bill Cosby’s art was not too far from his personal life. In his personal life he preyed on women as property to be had and in his writing and performances he also deemed women as objects to be owned and negotiated. The devil’s in the details, as they say, so none of this should come as a huge shocker when you look at how the artist portrayed girls and women. And, though perhaps not mainstream, folks were slowly but surely paying attention to something not quite right since the show’s inception. In The Cosby Show women were to be had and to be discussed and to be fawned over. This matters now because the only truly relevant thread to pull out of all that’s occurred is how enmeshed (and encouraging) we are in and of rape and misogynistic culture in the first place. Is it truly a stretch for a man who treats a woman’s sexuality as his own dispossessed and negotiable object to be a sexual predator?