During the first few seasons of The Simpsons, its biggest competition in building its ratings was the long-established, critically acclaimed veteran sitcom The Cosby Show. This pairing of these two mostly unrelated shows by TV Guide and other entertainment publications at the time was inspired by their high-ratings and critical praise.
Fast forward 25-ish years later. Interestingly enough, there are still comparisons to be made between Cosby and The Simpsons.
Bill Cosby has been brought up on charges of sexual assault after months and months of accusations from more than 50 different women were made public. Within all this time leading up to the charges, Cosby’s reputation as “America’s Favorite Dad” has been completely dragged through the mud. His upcoming television project was abruptly cancelled, various honors and awards he had gotten over the years were rescinded, and even The Cosby Show has been removed from syndication.
To illustrate this sharp switch, here is a TIME magazine cover from the ’80s versus a newspaper cover from last week.
What does that have to do with The Simpsons?
The Season 6 episode “Homer Badman” was all about the way criminal trials and accusations towards people take a life of its own when it gets wide media coverage. The summer before this episode aired was the summer that OJ Simpson was arrested for the murder of his wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. The year before that Michael Jackson was on trial for child molestation. Both the coverage of that trial and the ensuing OJ Simpson trial would be a bigger circus than anything found in Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. Other major celebrity scandals like the second molestation trial of Michael Jackson, the controversy of former Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines’ public criticism of then-president George W. Bush, the fallout from Tiger Woods’ numerous accusations of infidelity, or the trial for custody of the at-the-time recently-departed Anna Nicole Smith’s newborn daughter played out in much the same way.
These public spectacles mostly happen with celebrities, but sometimes certain scandals reaching the wider public create celebrities out of the people involves. This was the case with people like Scott Peterson, Casey Anthony, George Zimmerman, Jodi Arias, and Homer Simpson in this particular Simpsons episode.
“Homer Badman” makes comedic fodder of the hapless Homer’s name being publicly destroyed by a predatory mass media that cares nothing of the truth in their rush to crucify the accused. The episode sets up that Homer’s alleged sexual harassment of the babysitter was all based on a huge misunderstanding (she mistook his pulling off a gummi candy stuck to the back of her pants as him copping a feel) which makes it that much harder on Homer that no one would even consider his side of the story for a second.
So far, I have mostly focused on how the media within The Simpsons and the actual media have rushed to turn Homer and Bill Cosby respectively into pariahs. This might come off a certain way to some readers, especially considering the extremely polarizing nature of this subject. Let me be clear; I don’t sympathize with Cosby and I don’t think he’s completely innocent of any wrongdoing whatsoever. Furthermore, I have no interest in suggesting that any of the women that have accused Cosby of any felonious behavior are lying. To be honest, I think the framing of the incident between Homer and the babysitter is troubling. In the beginning of the episode, the babysitter is framed as a straw feminist who displays some derisive attitudes towards males. It’s as if this episode is saying that only some uppity man-hating “feminazi” would overreact or worse, conspire to destroy a poor innocent man like Homer’s life. It’s like it’s out of an MRA playbook or something. Going to back to Cosby, I have even heard some people suggest that his whole situation is some big white feminist witch hunt against a black man, which I don’t agree with one bit.
Regardless of whether I or anyone else thinks that Cosby is guilty of innocent of raping these women, the media that is currently painting him as an abhorrent monster isn’t doing so out of regard or respect for any of the victims, or any rape victims, or hell, any woman in general. Some of these women made these accusations against Cosby decades ago, but those got brushed under the rug because it still wanted to maintain Cosby’s image as “America’s Favorite Dad”. Now it’s just piling on because it’s unavoidable now. Earlier in the year before the accusations against Cosby started snowballing, Dylan Farrow, the estranged daughter of Woody Allen, wrote an open letter outlining the sexual abuse she suffered at Allen’s hands during her childhood, and she was largely excoriated in the wake of it. Woody Allen is still held in high regard in the media and still gets plenty of work. Fashion photographer Terry Richardson has been accused of sexual assault by multiple models that he has worked with, yet he is still in high enough demand to do photo shoots with the president. And isn’t it curious that The Cosby Show has been pulled from syndication yet reruns of Two and a Half Men still play on multiple channels, considering its star’s long history of violent behavior towards women?
Earlier, I mentioned that I disagreed with the assertion that Cosby’s trial/public crucifixion is some kind of white feminist plot to take down a black man. With that said, I don’t think race is completely divorced from what we’re seeing with Cosby. I do think white privilege often plays a role in the aforementioned white men with history of abuse getting off light while Cosby is being rake through the coals (I admit R. Kelly and Chris Brown got off relatively light too, but let’s see how much longer that lasts before they’re taken down). Also, considering that most of the women accusing Cosby of sexual assault are white, I can’t help but think that this is playing into the collectively ingrained image of black men as sexual predators that want to defile white women. I’m not saying that the victims are willingly perpetuating this, but the constant coverage of this (and the wall-to-wall coverage of Tiger Woods’ mistress scandals) may further ingrain that idea in people’s minds, especially in comparison to the lack of coverage Terry Richardson’s sexual assault accusations have gotten.
This might sound strange, but I also think that ingrained white supremacist attitudes within our major media machine played a role in building up Cosby’s career and image in the first place. The idea of a black comedian becoming a huge comedy and television star in the 1960s and that same black comedian starring in a 1980s sitcom about a black family that is so successful and beloved that he is crowned “America’s Favorite Dad” appears super progressive on the surface, but let’s further analyse the material that made him so famous. In the 1960s, Cosby found fame with white audiences by telling jokes that completely unrelated to race or politics. Doesn’t it strike you as a little odd that a black man like him, especially one that grew up poor in Philadelphia’s housing projects, completely ignores these subjects in the midst of such a pivotal time of black protest against the structures of racism? His sitcom The Cosby Show was a mostly colorblind affair that would have been completely so if not for the occasional celebrations of black music. His lack of a challenge towards white supremacy as his career rose is not coincidence in my opinion. This reached a crescendo in 2004 with his infamous “Pound Cake” speech, which gave a black face to the attitudes many white racists have long had towards the black community. From then on, Cosby would focus more on doing speaking engagements where he would berate the black community for what he saw as its shortcomings. For the longest time, Cosby served as a useful symbol of America’s triumph over racism. His image, fame, and point of view perpetuated the idea that if he can make it, any other black person that doesn’t achieve the same isn’t held back by any systemic racist structures; they simply don’t work hard enough or they’re morally deficient somehow. I don’t doubt for a second that Cosby’s privilege and role in the media helped him avoid scrutiny for his behavior behind closed doors, but now that it’s unavoidable, the media has to wash its hands of anything Cosby.
So when I read BuzzFeed’s brutally harsh annotation of Cosby’s “Pound Cake” speech, I couldn’t help but be annoyed by BuzzFeed. I don’t disagree with the writer’s commentary, but I know damn well that a major publication like BuzzFeed wouldn’t have posted an article like this ten years ago or anytime before Cosby’s name was taken through the ringer. Even if Cosby was never accused of anything illicit and he really was the paragon of morality he built himself to be, the statements made about impoverished black people would be just as deplorable. Would BuzzFeed post a similar annotation or rebuttal towards the similar manner in which CNN’s Don Lemon pathologized the black community on several different occasions? If not, than it’s clear what they were really trying to do with that annotation.
I wish I knew how to end this on a less depressing note, but I don’t. This whole Cosby scandal isn’t about integrity, or justice, or supporting rape victims, or any of that. It’s all about the media just using an manipulating everyone. It’s using the sexual assault victims, it’s using Bill Cosby, it’s using any of the lawyers and reporters involved, and it’s using all of us. Once this is all done, the victims will either be disregarded or exploited, Cosby will be a pariah regardless of the verdict, a lawyer or the judge in the trial might shamelessly seek out their 15 minutes of fame, and the media will probably find a new black celebrity to fill the role Cosby had in regards to the black community.