I was going to avoid writing about fat and bodies and all the usual stuff this week. It’s a week to work on loving your body, being patient with your family, and letting yourself take pleasure in whatever version of abundance your life offers, so not a particularly good week for me to be stomping around the blog being ticked off about things fatmatterish. I even made a promise to myself to not post anything negative on FB for the week just to avoid adding to the stresses.
But the Cosby stuff is floating around the internet, finally unavoidable. I’ve read a good, thoughtful blog by a woman explaining why she loathes the term “rape culture” and then going on to detail her own rape by a powerful man. Her point about the term is that it dignifies the systemic degredation of women by suggesting that it is a function of culture. I’m not sure she’s right about that–I think she’s mistaking “culture” for what, for academics is “high culture”–the arts and humanities (where the same degradation of women is as persistent as in every other part of culture), as opposed to the more anthropological use of “culture” I understand the term to be. And, in anthropological terms, I think it’s a pretty decent way to name an ugly and nauseatingly persistent facet of human behavior, so I’m okay with it. But I have never been roofied and assaulted by a man too powerful to be touched by my coming forward.
I’ve also read several graceful and aching pieces by men acknowledging that dark thread of human behavior. Which has been comforting. I do believe, that at least in some parts of the world (I don’t mean that as geographically as I mean it to speak of more and more individual men stepping up, stepping in, and speaking out all over the place), there are some real shifts. I think it’s a hugely good thing that the Feds are investigating the handling of assault cases at 86 colleges and universities (including my own–Pretty Good U., where we just went through a tough fall with a variety of cases), and that more and more information about the men who do these things being chronic, serial rapists is coming out.
And I understand why no one has wanted to hear about Cosby for so long. It’s hard and terribly sad. He has, for many deeply valid reasons, been a beloved figure for decades, and he has, himself, been the victim of a huge and horrible wound in the murder of his son. And I understand that some of what goes into that kind of charisma is not infrequently a kind of sexual energy that can, in the complexity and muck of the human psyche, manifest in the worst ways. I understand that human beings are complicated and can be crazy-making combinations of vile and noble traits. And, if he is, as it looks increasingly, guilty, there is no adequate excuse for those behaviors, those repeated violences.
I also understand that we rather stupidly cling to the idea that saints are nice people and sinners are mean people. Saints, good people, strong people are very rarely easy people. Lots of actual saints, in fact, were notoriously grumpy and short on personal grooming. Mother Teresa was prone to violence with her sisters and novices, even as she was gentle and endlessly kind to the wretched and the dying. Cosby did, unerase-ably, change the culture for the better and put a lot of kids through college. But it wasn’t okay for Mother Teresa to hit her novices, and …
What worries me about the Cosby thing is that, as inexcusable as his behavior is, and as proper as it is that he should, on some level or other, pay heavily for it, that it will be an excuse to erase the good he did, especially because he’s black. Bill Clinton engaged, un-arguably, in relationships with women who were not his equals in power or status, which means that those women were not, legally, capable of consent. Whether or not those relationships were, technically, rape, they were non-consensual, which is pretty damn close. Bill Clinton gets to be an Elder Statesman (and maybe do a lot of good), and may get to be the first First Gentleman. The funny thing is that I never remember his looking as agonized or tormented, ever, when confronted by his behavior as Cosby’s recent photos have shown. I’m not expressing sympathy for Cosby. I’m saying that the facts of race will figure, inevitably, in how the revelations of his misconduct are handled and processed. I’m saying that if he were white, things might be looking a bit different right now. Then again, I may be wrong. Clarence Thomas gets to be a simulacrum of a Supreme Court Justice, and his wife gets to continue to harass the woman (more likely the only one who came forward) who had the spine to call him out. But race may have been a factor in that, too. 6 years of the Obama presidency has made it agonizingly clear how tangled and untangle-able the issue of race are in America, still–how present the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement are, how un-over they are. Turns out that all those years I’ve been laughing at Southerners’ obsession with “The Wo-ah” I’ve been being a jerk. “The Woah” is no more over than is whatever you want to call the part of humans that accepts that the bodies of men, and the drives of those bodies, have the right to erase the souls and bodies–the humanity–of women.
But once again, all of this stuff is being played out over and in and by the bodies of people, as though, for all our words and thinking and wisdom and hoping, we still do believe that it’s what’s on the outside that not only counts, but is somehow the truth of each person’s humanity.
The problem is not that Bill Cosby is flawed, even vilely flawed. The problem is that he’s human and capable of awfulness that seems to have manifested itself in the critical abuse of the bodies of women. That he’s black (and has also pushed the conversation on race into some weird places, even as he’s been a voice/force for good) is a facet of the problem, and will add to its complexity and color how it is, ultimately, dealt with. No matter how unacceptable his behavior, I am, I will admit, loathe to see a black man erased, especially if he is erased for crimes a white man has survived (even though Clinton’s transgressions may, may, may have been of lesser magnitude) remarkably unscathed.
I don’t pretend to have any answers here. Or even any substantive wisdom beyond that which comes from being the daughter of a charismatic man with a complicated history with women. All that gives me is maybe an above average understanding of how much good can co-exist with the inexcusable facets of a man’s character, and an unusual understanding of how dangerous charisma is to any human’s character and integrity, along with how complicated character and integrity can be.
But one thing I know about this awful business with Bill Cosby, the awful business of an otherwise deservedly distinguished professor trading sex for grades here at Pretty Good U, and of the huge number of grotesquely mis-handled assault cases on campuses all over the country (a young woman is more likely to be raped/assaulted if she goes to college than if she doesn’t–FACT–which certainly does not add up to any version of Equal Opportunity)–one thing I know is that this is about culture, about human culture, and that human culture NEEDS feminism to free men from the millenia of implicit permission to consume the bodies of women to reassure themselves of their too-often fragile and therefore violently expressed masculinity. Bill Cosby needed feminism as much as he needed the NAACP.