When I heard about the allegations of rape against Bill Cosby, I wished I had been surprised. Everyone seemed surprised, shocked even. This was America’s father figure, the beloved patriarch.
I had grown up with Cosby as a constant, reassuring presence. I watched Fat Albert as a child, episodes of I Spy, too. His stand-up routine Bill Cosby, Himself had made me laugh out loud. My family never missed an episode of the Cosby Show. I liked him. I can’t remember a time when I did not like him.
But I do not recognize the fatherly persona so many articles about him have described. He is described as a stern, deeply moral authority figure.
But Bill Cosby was always more than that.
He was like a father when he taught kids on Fat Albert, told them what was good for them and what was bad for them. One episode included a song about the dangers of junk food, so it surprised me when he started hawking pudding and popsicles. This was the man who was supposed to tell us not to eat them, but he was telling us to eat them, and he was enjoying them with gusto himself.
He also sold cookies and Coca Cola, in one ad emphasizing that Coke was less sweet than Pepsi.
In the conflation of these two ads lies the charming balance Cosby always struck. On the one hand, he was like everyone’s father who ate fat free pudding and drank less sweet cola. On the other, he was childlike and self-indulgent, enjoying treats his educational children’s show told children they should not.
In the first episode of The Cosby Show, there is a famous exchange between Cosby’s Cliff Huxtable and his son Theo. Theo had D’s on his report card, but he tells his father, “You’re a doctor, and Mom’s a lawyer. . .but maybe I was born to be a regular person. . . If you weren’t a doctor, I wouldn’t love you less because you’re my dad. And so, instead of acting disappointed because I’m not like you, maybe you can just accept who I am and love me anyway because I’m your son.”
It is a moving monologue, and typical of the Norman Lear-style sitcoms of the sixties and seventies. Theo represents all the hippy sons and daughters of that era, and the audience, aging hippy children themselves, applauds.
Cosby slowly stands and says, “Theo, that’s the dumbest thing I have ever heard in my life. No wonder you get D’s in everything. . .You are going to try as hard as you can, and you are going to do it because I said so. I am your father. I brought you in this world, and I’ll take you out.”
Bill Cosby’s response marks the dawn of the Reagan 80s, the growth (often, unfortunately, without maturation) of the hippies into yuppies, and the nadir of compassion for everyone from confused sons of the upper class to children on welfare. The audience applauds madly, and Cosby becomes America’s patriarch.
But for all Cliff’s lectures to his children on good behavior, he does not always act like a grown, responsible adult. Over the course of the series, he is forever sneaking into the kitchen behind his wife’s back to snack on a treat his doctor has been denying him or to taste the forbidden holiday turkey before the guests arrive. His complaint against his children is less that they are not achieving their potential than that they are getting in his way, demanding time and energy and money when he would rather be self-indulgent. He just wants to rest and enjoy and do whatever he wants to do, but no one will let him.
Cliff is very like the father in Cosby’s stand-up routine “Chocolate Cake for Breakfast.” In this, a father is forced out of bed by his increasingly angry wife early in the morning to cook breakfast for his children. The implication is that she usually makes breakfast, and he insists he has no idea where the pots and pans are. When his youngest daughter greets him in the kitchen, she wants chocolate cake and grapefruit juice for breakfast, he happily obliges, and all the children wind up eating chocolate cake, drinking grapefruit juice, and singing, “Dad is great! He gives us chocolate cake!”
Then the wife appears, gorgon-like, and sends the father to his room, “Which,” Cosby tells us, “Is where I wanted to be in the first place.”
The idea of the patriarch is a grown, responsible man who is able to tell his children (and, in many cases, his wife) what to do because he deserves to have authority. While Cosby’s persona both in his standup and as Cliff is not the man-child of a Seth Rogan movie, it is a mistake to see him as a moral exemplar either. Cliff was responsible in that he worked hard, supported his family, loved them, and gave good advice–albeit occasionally laced with threats of violence if they failed to comply.
But once his responsibilities were fulfilled, he was selfish, sometimes greedy or lazy, and mischievous. We loved that part of him too, the inability to resist chocolate, the wish for a nap after hard work. It was the 80s, and like Cosby, America wanted to have it both ways, to be superego to others and id to itself.
It feels ironic to remember Lisa Bonet, cast out from the cast of the Cosby show for her nudity in Angel Heart. Her public nudity was not consistent with the world Cosby had created, yet his alleged drugging and raping of women was. It feels in retrospect like a microcosm of all patriarchies, the man taking by force what the woman is censured for giving freely.
The last time I saw Bill Cosby was at The Playboy Jazz Festival. I remember how he used to lend the event respectability. Hugh Hefner and his current crop of concubines might sit in the front box, but Cosby held court on stage. I can’t help but wonder if he will continue to MC, or if Hefner will determine that Cosby’s alleged behaviors have been beneath Playboy’s dignity and let him go.
It’s no surprise really that the man who tells younger men to pull up their pants has trouble keeping on his own. Bill Cosby has been telling us all along who he was, a man who knows how other people should live but who, like all patriarchs, will answer to no one about whether he lives that way himself.