Bill Cosby: accused (and given the weight of the allegations, very probable) serial rapist. Woody Allen: accused child molester. Roman Polanski: child rapist. H.P. Lovecraft: extreme xenophobic racist. Bill Maher: misogynist Islamophobe. Walt Disney: Anti-Semite. Adolf Hitler: Hitler. Dr. Seuss: drew racist caricatures of the Japanese. Varg Vikernes: murderer, white nationalist. Michael Jackson: accused child molester. The list goes on.
What in the world are we supposed to do with media created by problematic people? Can we ethically enjoy The Cosby Show knowing the allegations against Bill Cosby? Is it right to watch early Disney films knowing Walt worked on them (and that's not even getting into the WWII propaganda films like the one below where Donald Duck is a workaday Nazi and the Japanese are depicted via a racist caricature of Hirohito)? H.P. Lovecraft is well-known for his racism - the man did name his favorite cat Nigger Man, after all - can we read his stories and poems in good conscience?
It's a question all of us have to deal with at some point or another. The people who create the media we consume are not paragons. They aren't perfect beings. They're people. They're flawed, sometimes even criminal people. And some of them are especially odious in deed or in thought. Alec Baldwin: great on 30 Rock, notably horrible human being. Tina Fey: extremely funny, also thinks ironic blackface is funny despite being blackface.
It's everywhere. And it could be nearly every entertainer or media creator. If you venture far enough back in time, it's pretty much a given that you'll be reading, watching, or otherwise consuming media (print or otherwise) created by people who thought freak shows were okay, or that gay people were the worst among all sinners, that all people who didn't believe in [insert-specific-flavor-here] [insert religion here] deserved to be put to the sword, or that everyone with dark skin was subhuman.
So what do we do? We can't just not consume media. The world we live in doesn't even give us the choice. Sure, we can ditch the TV to avoid Daniel Tosh, promoter of rape against hecklers. We can throw out our books to avoid owning any Chaucer or Shakespeare or people who ever admired them. We can toss out all our music. We can stop using the internet. But even then there's media outside, media we can't control seeing or hearing. We no longer live in a material world, but a media world. Oh yeah. Add Madonna to the list.
Here are a number of strategies for dealing with the issue of problematic creators and their media:
One thing you can do is just pretend that the person is utterly unproblematic while consuming their media. Watch The Cosby Show, enjoy the feel-good goofballness, don't worry about Bill Cosby the rapist and just enjoy Cliff and Clair Huxtable, loving parents. At least he never molested Raven-Symoné (I feel like that accusation may have come from a place of homophobia - the old chestnut that gay people are gay because were molested).
Then you can, after enjoying your Cosby Show fun, take to the internet and talk about how terrible a person Cosby is. It's all about keeping the Cosby-good from the Cosby-bad, and never the twain shall meet.
Alternately, you can consume the show anyway and just pretend like you never heard anything to make the choice unpalatable at all. The Cosby Show was a great show, regardless of what Bill Cosby is like off the show. I grew up watching that show, and I learned a lot from it. It's hard to give up something that you love and that helped shape you. Realizing that a show made by a rapist helped shape who you are is a tough pill to swallow. Better to just ignore it, then.
If we just pretend, we can enjoy the media while watching or reading it, and still condemn the problematic person at other times. Or just pretend there's nothing problematic at all. As long as we don't think about it too hard, it works.
We can also just stop consuming the media period. Bill Cosby, you're dead to us. No more Cosby Show. No more of Cosby's stand-up. No more Fat Albert. Nothing involving Bill Cosby at all.
That also means no more articles about Bill Cosby, no interviews. We are quitting Bill Cosby for good. Just like cigarettes. Or tequila.
This one works, as long as we don't give in to the temptation of looking at anything involving Bill Cosby again. For some, this might be really easy. For others - well, you're already reading this. I guess it hasn't worked out too well for you.
You could also opt to be selective in what you consume. Only stuff dating to before the earliest terrible thing, for instance. In Cosby's case, that appears to be never. The accusations
span the arc of the comedy legend's career, from his pioneering years as the first black star of a network television drama in 1965 to the mid-2000s, when Cosby was firmly entrenched as an elder statesman of the entertainment industry
There is no such thing as Cosby entertainment which comes before the accusations. Which means Cosby is out. On the plus side, Hitler's paintings predate Mein Kampf and the whole Nazi thing, so those are in.
The line doesn't have to be temporal. You could discern based on quality. Little Bill? Eh. Cosby Show? Sure, why not. Fat Albert? Hey, hey, hey. Hitler's paintings? I'm not terribly into portraits of buildings, so I can leave those behind. There are some Lovecraft stories I can absolutely do without, but I will cut you if you try to take At the Mountains of Madness away from me. Tosh.0 can go burn, because it's not even funny anyway.
Whatever standard you choose, stick with it. That's the only thing that makes this coping strategy work.
If you choose to consume any media by or involving problematic people, whether you establish a cutoff line or not, the best strategy is probably to consume critically. That is, don't compartmentalize. Recognize what's problematic, consider it, and use that to inform your experience of the media. Don't ignore it, don't overlook it, just accept it and consume with the broader picture in mind.
Knowing what we know about Bill Cosby gives us a very different perspective with which to watch The Cosby Show. Somehow Cliff Huxtable managed to come from the mind of a man whom numerous women over several decades have accused of rape. Cliff Huxtable came from the mind of a man who preaches respectability politics and how the systemic issues facing African-Americans would be fixed if African-Americans would just go to college (forgetting, of course, the systemic issues which make that difficult or impossible for many). How do we reconcile all these things? How do we make this all make sense?
That's what we can do if we consume our media critically. Cosby was, unfortunately, a phenomenon and influenced American culture profoundly. It's not like we can just pretend like it never happened. It's an opportunity to reflect on rape culture, how men with power are able to silence their victims,and how we create a cult of celebrity worship around people whose only job is to provide entertainment. It's an opportunity, then, to think about what is wrong with our culture, what a better culture might look like, and how to bring that better culture about as a reality.
Bill Cosby is problematic. He's very probably a serial rapist who has evaded justice for his crimes for decades. That doesn't mean, however, that there's nothing to be gained from looking at both his work and his crimes.