The Bill Cosby scandal, explained

Comedian Bill Cosby speaks during the celebration of the 55th anniversary of a Washington institution Ben's Chili Bowl on August 22, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Photo Courtesy of Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT) Comedian Bill Cosby speaks during the celebration of the 55th anniversary of a Washington institution Ben's Chili Bowl on August 22, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Photo Courtesy of Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, Netflix was positioned to premiere a new stand-up special from comedian Bill Cosby. Titled "Bill Cosby 77," the special was taped this summer on the 77th birthday of the comedy pioneer, whose NBC hit "The Cosby Show" proved to be very influential in how Americans talked about race in the wake of the civil rights movement.

If you go onto Netflix right now, you will find that Bill Cosby's return to the stage is nowhere to be found. This is not by accident or even a mere case of rescheduling — Netflix will not be distributing "Bill Cosby 77" on its streaming service, at least not any time soon.

Instead of talking about what Cosby has to say in his old age about pudding pops and how low the youth wear their pants, we are now talking about something as disappointing as it is surprisingly common. A beloved sitcom star, who may as well be a surrogate parent to millions who grew up during his heyday, has seen his public persona turn from the embodiment of "Dad" to the face of one of the most heinous crimes imaginable.

More than a dozen women (and counting) who have nothing to gain from coming forward have said Bill Cosby used his immense power and access to rape without consequence.

The sudden public outrage against Cosby has resulted in backlash from the seedier parts of your Facebook and Twitter feeds, with people desperate to believe that many independent parties are conspiring to defame the namesake of their favorite ironic sweater. Type the words "why did they wait cosby" into Twitter's search form and you will find a never ending stream of people defending Cosby. "Why did they wait?"

Blame these people for having a terrible memory, or even blame the media for framing the narrative in the present tense. Either way, the question is the result of a misunderstanding. While some have come out in the wake of this most recent wave of attention, most of these accusations were made years ago. In 2005, 13 women anonymously agreed to testify against Cosby in a sexual abuse case. As these things tend to go, it was settled out of court.

This creates another question, one that's less easy to dismiss people for asking: "Why now?"

While Cosby's 2006 denial of any wrongdoing was deemed suitable to wash his hands of the incidents, that was while social media remained in its infancy. A lot has changed since then, including the notoriously insular (and male) comedy community that has fostered Cosby for half a century.

The current firestorm, which has resulted in reruns of "The Cosby Show" being pulled and NBC to halt development on Cosby's newest sitcom project, can be traced back to a stand-up performance by comedian Hannibal Buress, who has become very popular due to the progressive racial and sexual commentary in his work and his supporting role on Comedy Central's "Broad City." In his performance, he told the audience to look into the allegations against Cosby, which they did. Google searches about Cosby spiked.

It may have ended there if Cosby's PR team did not inadvertently stoke the flames. As the scandal percolated on social media, the official Bill Cosby Twitter account invited people to create "#CosbyMemes" with an online generator. This immediately backfired as almost every instance of meme creation referenced the sexual assault allegations. Considering the pro-feminist, anti-rape stance of Twitter's most influential users, it's no wonder this did not go well.

Cosby has not spoken publicly about the new wave of allegations, though his lawyers are sticking to the stance they took years ago. It is not likely that he will receive any legal action against him, as rape charges are often impossible to prosecute with the passage of time and the decay of physical evidence.

It remains to be seen how the court of public opinion will see Cosby as this story fades away in favor of issues like Ferguson. Some media critics suggest that Cosby is "done," while at the same time it would not be unprecedented for an alleged rapist to see the public fall back in love with him. After all, Mike Tyson made a cameo in a "Hangover" movie and now he has a hit TV show. Only time will tell.

 

Reach the reporter at zheltzel@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @zachheltzel

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