The news about Bill Cosby is sad. It follows a familiar pattern. A star is accused of something, in this case drugging women and sexually assaulting them, and the press and public go into overdrive to condemn them. Although the allegations have not been proven in a court of law, the court of public opinion has begun to pass judgement. What is has not been judged, though, is the public’s complicity in these cases. As we learned from the Jimmy Savile allegations, celebrity status protects the alleged behaviour. The same celebrity status, with its attendant money and influence, has helped to protect Bill Cosby against these allegations.
Who was going to stop him?
Instead of asking, “how could get away with it”, we need to ask “Who was going to stop his alleged behaviour?” Who was going to stop him when the public had invested so much in his celebrity status? A celebrity is known by the status an audience and public opinion give them. If we want to understand how Bill Cosby could get away with his alleged behaviour, we only need to look at our infatuation, our addiction, to the celebrity culture of entertainment. In particular, there is a belief that a celebrity should, and will, receive preferential treatment. The celebrity is not celebrated for their intrinsic worth or goodness as a person. They are celebrated for what they seem to be, the reputation within the public imagination. As a society, our culture habituates us to accept the appearance as the reality. When the appearance, the cult of celebrity, dominates the person, it changes our understanding of the human person and what is acceptable about the human person.
Celebrity as commodity is what makes Bill Cosby powerful
When celebrity becomes the measure of a person’s worth, the person becomes a commodity. Their appearance is what matters not what they are like as a person. The entertainment industry encourages us to value the person as a celebrity, as a commodity. We, the audience, want the appearance to be the reality. We want our celebrities to be larger than life. We want them to be as what we see on the screen. We will overlook their fallen nature, their weakness, their depravity, because we have invested so much in their status, their celebrity, their success. In that relationship, we do not seek out the person, as a person, in all their flaws. Celebrities are ordinary people without any particular grace or insight into life and we would rather belief the magical than the mundane. There is nothing intrinsically interesting about a celebrity as a person. Their appearance is what made them famous not who they are.
How does this explain Bill Cosby?
The entertainment system protects and rewards Bill Cosby. He provides a commodity, a service. He entertains us. He could rely on the public opinion that created and supported his celebrity status to defend him. Anyone who challenges that celebrity status would attract more attention and more resistance. Even if the celebrity status did not deter someone with a complaint, he had the resources to defend his status as a celebrity with lawyers or settlement payments.
Appearance shapes our reality by shaping our public opinion
The cult of celebrity’s power is created by our willingness to accept appearances as reality. Millions of people have seen Bill Cosby on TV. He appeared to them as a funny comedian and later a jovial, avuncular, patrician on his hit television programme. Everyone saw him as he appeared to be in those roles. Few saw him or know him as a person. Many may see a celebrity, but few will know them as a person. Bill Cosby is no different. How Cosby appeared for the public was not the same as it was for those who claim to “really know what he is”, the ones who were in the room, drugged, and helpless. They remained silent or unheard because it easier to believe what so many believe than listen to the individual who disagrees. He had wealth, organisations, and lawyers to defend him and hide his true reality that the women have alleged. The public opinion about Bill Cosby was shaped by his public face. The public, in effect, defend him by consuming his public face, his value as an entertainment commodity.
What is the entertainment industry’s commodity?
Appearances are enhanced by our desire to believe them. We want to be entertained. We want to believe the magic. The entertainment industry succeeds to the extent that it can turn a person into a commodity that entertains us. We, the audience, make them powerful by buying them as a commodity. The entertainment industry traffics in flesh and we are its consumers. Is surprising that Bill Cosby’s alleged behaviour is sexual? We rarely see actors involved in financial scandals or political scandals. Instead, they are involved in sexual scandals. One only need look at the latest music videos to see the flesh trade in operation. The flesh trade fuels the culture of celebrity, which undermines the dignity of the human person. There is no behaviour so abhorrent that it cannot attract someone or some organisation to “celebrate it and thereby profit from it”.
That which you watch repeatedly shapes your soul?
The next time you watch television or go to the cinema, consider whether your entertainment supports and enhances the cult and culture of celebrity that enables Bill Cosby’s alleged behaviour. The programmes may amuse and even entertain but at what cost? When you buy into the cult of celebrity, you support the flesh trade that enables this type of behaviour.