You and I may not know for certain if the rape allegations against Bill Cosby are true or not. They certainly appear damming. Some of those who do know, especially in the press, are now confessing shame that they have long been culpable in enabling him by remaining silent. At the moment the accused is still avoiding the subject and many of his longtime fans wish they could. Of course, we can’t and the women who have come forward must, to paraphrase Arthur Miller, “be paid attention.” Rape and sexual abuse stories are far too common, a shameful commentary on our society. Whatever happens, it’s likely that no story about Cosby, including his obituary, will fail to reference the consistent and damning “testimony” of more than a dozen women. A hero will have fallen from his pedestal and will be the object of that special wrath we reserve for those who falter in that pantheon — those emperors who so blatantly wear no clothes, who fall far short of their myth.
The late Joseph Campbell was fascinated by heroes, and concurrently with myth. They go together. His Hero with a Thousand Faces is a classic that many of us read in college and his six PBS dialogues with Bill Moyers captured our attention as few public conversations do. Campbell spent his life contemplating The Power of Myth in which the hero plays center stage. What made it so compelling to him and to us is that myth and heroes, past and present, continue to play large in our lives. That pertains with fiction but perhaps more so in real life. Myths reflect who we are and the values we hold dear; heroes personify the stories we tell ourselves. Pop culture contributes some of them.
From 1957 until 1963 television spun the myth of the American family embodied in Ward Cleaver — the heroic and prototypical father figure. The Cleavers were nice folk who lived and saw the world from the perspective of their WASP identity. Forget the melting pot and America’s already diversified population. In this story, America was white and Ward’s kind of people were those who succeeded and ruled. It was their birthright. Leave it to Beaver (the Cleaver familiy's story) wouldn’t play in 2014, its myth, while not altogether discredited, far too simple in a country whose demographic shift can no longer be ignored. An early sign of that shift came in the 1980s in the family and person of Cliff Huxtable — Bill Cosby. He shared many of the values and decency of Ward Cleaver; many of the same ambitions to do well and have his children do even better. Huxtable’s mythic statement was that people who weren’t WASPs, in this case African Americans, could be middle-class, professional and feel equally entitled to the national dream. For their time, and in the context of mainstream television, Ward and Cliff were our dads, our heroes. Because he represented a greater breakthrough, a questioning if not shattering of the earlier myth, Cliff Huxtable somehow stood taller of the two.
It is always problematic, and perhaps unfair, to conflate actor and character. After all, one is real and the other is fiction. But if my reading is correct, Joseph Campbell understood that such a merger is natural. When it comes to heroes, the real is transcendent and interchangeable. Myths reflect us. Our lives echo myth. The heroes of fact and fiction merge and at some profound level can be one and the same. Bill Cosby is just an actor, an entertainer, but especially as Huxtable, he became a hero. And the merger took place for very good reason. The Cosby Show (1984-92) aired decades after both Leave it to Beaver and the turbulent years of the civil rights struggle. Lyndon Johnson in fact had signed the Civil Rights Bill just a year after Ward and his family went off the air, twenty before Cliff and his came to command of the small screen.
Huxtable was no civil rights activist, quite the opposite. He and his family were the mythical fulfillment of the movement’s dream. They were not on a journey; they had arrived. Their lives were sitcom normal — funny and every day fare. No one questioned how a black man could be a doctor; it was just assumed that his role was expected, as it should have been. The whole point was that blackness really had nothing to do with the story or the characters aspirations. It was in the simple fact of being, in Huxtable’s ordinariness, dare I say WASP-like nature, that he became a hero. If Martin King dreamt, Cliff Huxtable was the mythical fulfillment. If he could prevail at normalcy, so could any of us. And part of that myth was that all was well, that the struggle, at least on some level, was over. Call it a clear departure from reality, and it was, but like any myth African Americans embraced it with hopes for themselves, as did Whites who wanted to feel that the show was a token of their job well done.
Maybe we shouldn’t merge mythical and real life heroes but we do. The idea that nice heroic Dr. Huxtable, that Cosby who traded on being a benign father figure, might concurrently have been drugging a raping women shocks us. It infuriates us. How could we have been so taken in by a myth, and to wit a sitcom myth? Why do we so readily buy into myth and heroes? Well it appears that we have no choice. While some of us may protest being taken in by them, heroes and their myths abound in every aspect of our personal and shared life. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. come to mind, all of them much larger than life. Ronald Reagan is the hero of contemporary Republicanism. Nelson Mandela is our modern day Gandhi, and Steve Jobs the heroic icon of stylish technology. We put them on a pedestal hoping that some of their glow will fall on us, encourage or enable us to join them on the stage.
Our need for heroes doesn’t go unnoticed by those who are bent on constructing myths, often of their own. Reagan, Mandela and Jobs certainly understood that. The cult of the personality that prevails today is all about hero building. Barack Obama wasn’t only a candidate for president, he was, and remains for some, something special: a hero. Intellectually, we know that those with starring roles are mere mortals, but emotionally we want them to be more and assume that to be the case. Cosby, in part by the roles he chose to play, built his own heroic myth. His problem now is not simply that he may be a rapist but that such criminality goes against the constructed and accepted myth of his personhood. The hero has fallen, and that’s something we can’t and shouldn’t accept or excuse.