Bill Cosby is a disgrace, but he is not Cliff Huxtable
Its star might be a sleazebag, but 'The Cosby Show' was a ray of light in 1980s SA
As one of many SA children in love with the fictional Huxtable family in the 1980s, I shall never forget the stricken face of a teenage classmate who told us all: “Mrs Cosby is getting divorced!” We were horrified. How could this happen? She was the perfect wife and mother. How could she possibly let us all down like that?
Of course, Mrs Cosby, as Clair Huxtable from The Cosby Show was often referred to, was not getting divorced. Phylicia Rashad, the actress who played Clair, was rumoured to have left her husband.
The levels of confusion here are multiple. First, in the real world, Rashad was not married to Bill Cosby, who played Dr Cliff Huxtable. Second, what she did in her private life surely had no bearing on the values espoused by her on-screen character.
But these boundaries were blurred when it came to “the Cosbys”. Part of the confusion stemmed from the name of the sitcom. It was called The Cosby Show, not The Huxtable Show, because it revolved around the warm, loving, understanding and infinitely kind comedian who was its heart and soul: Bill Cosby.
TV viewers have matured along with programming, and audiences today are far more sophisticated. We know the difference between an actor and a character. In those days of sparse choice and suspended disbelief, however, separating the actors from the characters they played on screen was not as easy. Soap opera stars were often accosted in supermarkets by angry viewers who threw frozen sausages at the innocent players whose characters happened to have murdered their twin brother.
For his book, Starring Mandela and Cosby: Media and the End(s) of Apartheid, published in 2010, US academic Ron Krabill interviewed many fans of the sitcom, noting: “Respondents repeatedly referred to the fictional family in The Cosby Show as the Cosbys rather than as the Huxtables.”
This, said Krabill, “indicates the remarkable degree to which the characters of the show came to be understood as ‘real’ by audiences and conflated with the actors who portrayed them, particularly Bill Cosby himself”.
Cosby himself seems to have been hazy about where he ended and Cliff Huxtable began. In a bewildering interview during the show’s heyday, he told a TV presenter how Rashad’s real-life pregnancy had messed with their physical intimacy. He meant the Huxtables’ on-screen relationship, but it didn’t come out that way.
Then there was his public spat with actress Lisa Bonet, who played the Huxtables’ oldest daughter, Denise. Cosby was furious when Bonet appeared in sex scenes with Mickey Rourke in the 1987 film Angel Heart. This was a father chastising his daughter for bad moral judgement. It wasn’t Bill Cosby ranting – it was Cliff Huxtable.
This complicates things further for the public who feel personally betrayed by Cosby. In April, a court found him guilty of three callous and despicable acts of sexual assault on women. On Tuesday this week a judge sentenced him to three to 10 years in prison.
Bill Cosby did this, not Cliff Huxtable, but the level of outrage is because of what Cliff stood for. Those who loved The Cosby Show feel let down. If we believed that Bill the actor had internalised Cliff the character, it would mean Cliff did those things. And that is unimaginable.
The conflation of real and fictional was not the only significant thing about the Cosby phenomenon.
Picture the scene. A family are sitting in front of the TV, dinner plates balanced on laps, shushing one another as the theme song of their favourite sitcom begins. Eyes glued to the screen, they snort with laughter as attractive people who live in a desirable suburb of New York – and who represent the ideal, happy, loving, comfortable family – set about their weekly task of entertaining a world of watchers.
The episode lasts less than half an hour, but it is the joyful apex of this family’s week of viewing pleasure, and they are not alone. Millions of other families in the same country are doing the same. Millions of eyes reflect the same delight.
There is nothing unusual about the shared enjoyment of an excellent comedy series, except in this case the watchers are largely white and the actors are uniformly black.
And this is SA in the 1980s, a country in a state of emergency declared by a government trying desperately to silence the swelling ranks of conscious citizens opposed to a lunatic racial ideology.
PW Botha and his lieutenants relied on the support of white people, who, they assumed, all shared the view that black people did not deserve the same privileges and freedoms.
Yet here were many white people watching and loving a TV show starring black people. The Cosby Show was the most popular show aired on any TV channel in SA in the 1980s. It showed a parallel universe in which a middle-class black family lived, argued, worked and thrived without restraint, just like any other family. This was something SA had not seen before. This was normality.
How is it that the SABC, information watchdog for the apartheid government, did not see how The Cosby Show might bend the bars of its segregationist thinking?
Perhaps the programme directors did not realise that the Huxtables were in fact black. Or perhaps they underestimated their audience; perhaps they did not think that white viewers could make the leap from connecting with black Americans to engaging with black South Africans, nor that black viewers would see their future selves in the characters. Or perhaps a few right-minded operators knew what the show represented but convinced their superiors that it was not in the least subversive.
Krabill’s book dissects the significance of The Cosby Show and in particular its impact on South Africans living in one of the most oppressive periods in our history. In a footnote he reveals that “in spite of intense searches of the SABC archives and countless discussions with media professionals in South Africa, I have been unable to find any evidence of discussion or controversy around The Cosby Show’s airing on SABC. It almost seems as though the show slipped under the radar of the SABC, not an unheard-of occurrence, and was chosen only because of its immense popularity in the United States.”
Krabill speculates that SA censors kept their eyes focused on news and actuality programming in order to present to viewers a skewed and stunted version of reality, but that they did not pay much attention to messages that might be delivered through the medium of entertainment.
The Cosby Show was a seemingly innocent fiction that, according to Krabill, “became a space into which individuals’ hopes, fears, and desires for a future South Africa could be projected with a great deal more freedom”.
Of course it was not as simple as all that. Krabill points out that in the US, “the seeming lack of complication around race in the Huxtables’ lives became a liability rather than an asset, and demands that the programme deal directly with racism, poverty and other social issues began to grow”.
To say that the show fostered better race relations in SA and helped end apartheid is perhaps an overstatement. Some white watchers seemed able to live with the contradiction between the raceless normality they loved on screen and a continued acceptance of the abnormal, segregated world in which they lived.
Whatever the show may or may not have done to bring black and white people closer together, the fact remains that the Huxtables, Cliff in particular, made our lives happier and our world more hopeful.
Bill Cosby may have let humanity down, but Bill Cosby is not Cliff Huxtable. Cosby the man is a disgrace. Huxtable the fictional character upheld dignity and love for one’s family, values shared by all races. These things stand apart from the ugly Cosby mess. And they are still things to be celebrated.
Guilty as charged – a timeline
In 2004, Andrea Constand, who worked for a university basketball team, visited Bill Cosby’s home to ask for career advice. He gave her pills to reduce her anxiety, which she took, and when she regained consciousness, she said, he was sexually assaulting her.
Constand went to the police in 2005 after prolonged trauma following the incident. The prosecutors refused to file charges against Cosby. She sued him in civil court and in 2006 Cosby paid her a settlement of $3.38m without admitting that he assaulted her. He did, however, say that he had previously given sedative drugs to women he planned to seduce.
The incident was kept quiet, but in 2014 another woman accused Cosby of drugging and sexually assaulting her in 1979. This opened the floodgates: more than 50 women came forward with similar stories.
In 2015, prosecutors agreed to reopen Constand’s case and she filed a criminal charge against Cosby for the 2004 incident. A preliminary hearing was held in 2016 in which it was decreed that there was enough evidence to try Cosby for sexual assault. The trial, held in 2017, ended in a hung jury and a mistrial.
The retrial was held in April. Constand was backed up by five more women who testified how Cosby had assaulted them in a similar fashion. After two weeks of testimony and cross-examination, on April 26 the jury found Cosby guilty on three counts of aggravated indecent assault.
When the prosecution requested bail to be revoked because Cosby might flee in his private plane, Cosby responded: “He doesn’t have a plane, you asshole!”
On Tuesday Cosby was sentenced to three to 10 years in prison.