#TheEmptyChair: what Bill Cosby’s victims have taught us about rape culture

by slowsho

NEWYORK-MAG-COVER-JULY-2015_LEAD

Originally written the week of July 26, when the article was published.

If there’s one thing you need to take away from the New York Mag cover story ‘Cosby: The Women’, it’s that this is what rape culture does to women, to generations of women.

This is what happens when we don’t believe women, when we give the benefit of the doubt to powerful men because their public image is one of benevolence, and family feel-goodness.

This is what happens when a woman doesn’t feel safe enough to talk to the law, because powerful people will get what they want.

And let’s be clear about this: for a long time, Cosby did. He has squashed cases, tried to silence women with money and has used all the means at his disposal to shame them into silence.

The background

Bill Cosby has been a Hollywood fixture forever, but he is most famous for playing the beloved patriarch Cliff Huxtable on The Cosby Show, a show that centred on ordinary family life in an upper middle class black family. It spoke of race, certainly, but subtly. Cosby became the jovial, loveable black father figure in American culture.

As a kid growing up in small-town, middle-class India, Cosby was likely one of the first few black men on my television screen – at least one of the first few adored and accoladed, instead of typecast in minor movie roles as ‘the angry black guy’ or ‘the sassy black woman’.

I grew up watching Kids Say the Darndest Things with my mother. Over the years, whenever we travelled to big cities, my mother and I would scour bookshops for – among other books – any of Cosby’s many thin volumes.

The Cosby Show, in fact, came last for us, when I had moved away from home, but not before teaching my mom how to find TV shows on the internet.

Just around the time my mother was gushing about the Huxtable family did the stories rape accusations start to register in my life, from the articles people shared, to discussions among comedians (most notably Hannibal Buress, who famously called Cosby a rapist during a show). I did what everyone did initially – like Time’s Justin Woreland has said, I pushed the accusations to the back of my mind.

I was a bad feminist; like most people, I initially couldn’t imagine that this seemingly adorable man could have done all that they were saying. It wasn’t even like he was a central cultural icon for me – I just found it so hard to fathom for the first few days.

Then I started to read. There was the Vanity Fair article by Beverly Johnson, who is also in the NY Mag piece. Then supermodel Janice Dickinson talked about the time Cosby drugged and raped her in 1982.

As one woman spoke, more came out with their stories. It was crystal clear: we had failed them by refusing to believe them individually.

The African-American burden

As one of the women, Jewel Allison says in the piece, “I had a few moments where I tried to come forward. But I was just too scared, and I also had the extra burden of not really wanting to take an African-American man down.”

For the longest time, Bill Cosby has been the cultural icon of an upwardly mobile black America. The Cosby Show was a promise of stability, family and the American dream – if only black people would get with the programme. Those aren’t my words; Cosby has famously chided poor black people in a speech now called the ‘Pound cake speech’.

#TheEmptyChair

Here we are then, with 35 women together in one story, and another 11 who didn’t want to be featured.

And who knows how many more?

There is no denying this: Bill Cosby drugged and raped these women. He stripped them of their consent, and then he stripped them of the ability to say something.

As the magazine noted a few days after the story’s release, the piece has sparked off a conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #TheEmptyChair, reference to that last empty chair at the bottom of the cover photo – a stand-in for the 11 women who chose not to be featured in the piece, but also for the many women who have been silenced over the years.

Rape and what it can mean

Technically, the piece revealed nothing now. All these women had made these accusations in the past, either as Jane Does or in their own names, either as part of a lawsuit only or in public/in the media.

That’s not what’s striking. It’s when you put all these narratives side by side, look at the chronology of assault, and the commonalities in all the stories – it’s chilling and heartbreaking.

It takes 35 women sitting together for us to believe each of their individual narratives.

A running thread through all of these narratives is that most of the time, these women either didn’t realise that what was being done to them constituted rape, or they were told that they would never be able to convince the police of the same.

That’s what the last few years has changed for these women – and hopefully for many others going forward. For those who are suspicious of the many, many women seemingly coming out of the woodwork to charge Cosby with assault, understand that social media and safe spaces for women on the Internet has made it possible for these voices to ring across the internet as loudly as Cosby’s more powerful voice usually does.

If Bill Cosby could squash the National Inquirer piece on him assaulting women by promising a scoop, it doesn’t matter anymore. There are many other media organisations willing to tell their story.

This is also possible because of how we look at assault today. As the women rightly point out, in the 60s and 70s, rape was strangers in the bush, not mentors, celebrities and certainly not intimate partners.

Thank god for feminism. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times. We are here today, where people (men, woman and transpeople) can talk about assault and at least some of us – and increasingly more and more of us – will listen, will take them seriously. It’s scary to think that this was simply not a possibility fifty years ago, that everyone from your family to acquaintances to the police would tell you to just get over it, or that you had it wrong.

The cover story that NY Mag did this week speaks to the lasting effect of the years of sexual violence and decades of mental torture. It reminds us: a woman doesn’t have to be gangraped and left to die for her life and agency to be taken away forever.

Forget America, look at ourselves: we will weep for the murdered, the mauled and left to die. But what about the many, many women facing intimate partner violence?

If I sound hyperbolic, it’s because I am desperate in my need to never have this happen again. We cannot let a person do this to many women over so many decades, for it to take this long for the story to be told. Nevermind justice; the statute of limitations has passed for a lot of these women, and they will never get the ‘legal’ retribution that a lot of people seem to think suffice as justice.

Boycott Cosby, but that’s the least of it. Let’s instead believe them. Let’s not let this happen again.