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Phillips: In the #MeToo era, go beyond separating the art from the artist

Ruby Phillips, Assistant Opinion Editor

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I grew up watching “The Cosby Show.” I wanted to be as cool as Denise, as cute as Rudy and as classy as Clair. I cannot emphasize enough how important the Cosby legacy is for so many generations of black people: To see a middle-class black family who was funny and loving made me feel more black, as if my family was being represented without being mocked or caricatured.

When allegations against Bill Cosby started forming, I didn’t doubt them for a minute. People often fail to understand the sheer bravery it takes to come forward about sexual assault, especially when the assailant is so powerful and the survivor has so little to gain by doing so. But when Cosby was convicted on three counts of aggravated sexual assault four days ago, the Cosby legacy that sat so firmly planted in my childhood was destroyed. Cosby now faces up to 10 years in prison on each count and could possibly die there. I did not feel sad for Cosby himself, but I struggled to conceptualize how Cliff Huxtable — the sympathetic, intelligent black patriarch of the Huxtable household — could be implicated in such an awful situation.

While I mourned over the death of the image of Huxtable, I never shamed Cosby’s victims or blamed them for tarnishing his legacy. All perpetrators of sexual assault, including Cosby, are always responsible for their own actions. I have been shocked by the number of people from both white and black communities who have used this terrible event to tear down the women who have come forward and/or project Cosby’s actions onto the demographic of black men.

In the era of #MeToo, more women are coming forward about powerful men with allegations of sexual assault and harassment — but we have to remember that women have always dealt with sexual assault and harassment. Cosby’s conviction is a unique situation because I believe he carries more significance within marginalized communities than, say, Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey. This probably explains all the backlash his sentence is receiving.

Each time another man is accused, I reevaluate how I may be implicitly condoning their power. For example, I have tried to stop watching several shows and films featuring men who have been implicated in sexual assault no matter how different the instances were, from “Parks and Recreation” to “The Usual Suspects” to NBC’s “The Today Show.” Not only does this strategy often fail because I tend to fall off the wagon, but it also doesn’t reduce the problem or challenge the system that perpetuates it.

I have begun to ask myself whether it is even possible to appreciate and acknowledge art featuring people who have harmed others. Our ability to disengage from our complicity now doesn’t do much good because these men are already famous. Us choosing not to consume abusers’ art doesn’t make them unfamous — it makes them infamous. The answer to this question obviously deserves a more nuanced analysis that differs based on each case and considers the definition of ethical consumption. Frankly, I don’t know what the right way to consume art is anymore — but I do know that I can try to turn toward different artists and re-conceptualize how I remember these perpetrators in my head.

Yes, the Cosby legacy is dead and while I mourn for it, I still appreciate so many of the beautiful gifts “The Cosby Show” gave to me. But I cannot think of him in the same way that I did before. Instead, I am thankful for the careers that the show launched — particularly for actresses like Phylicia Rashad and Lisa Bonet — and the theme song, which plays in my dreams sometimes. And I know this isn’t the last legacy I will have to put to rest.

As more and more legacies from talented men become meaningless, I realize that we have given so much power to celebrities in general, especially males, that we forgive their actions as long as they continue to produce brilliant art. But I cannot stand for that transaction anymore. When I am about to rewatch Eminem’s “8 Mile” or Spacey in “American Beauty” for the 60th time, I have to stop myself and reflect. I think about how many women’s careers have been ruined and how many women have had to give up their bodies, their dreams and their self respect just to indulge some man. I think about how many men have gotten away with it and continue to get away with it. Then if that doesn’t work, I think about the silence — the decades and decades of silence — and the fear that people continue to feel about coming forward and dismantling this complex system. And I remember that the small inconvenience of me not watching a good movie pales in comparison to that. There are plenty of other good movies, ones that weren’t made by abusive men.

I am not the perfect ethical consumer; in fact, I watched “Good Will Hunting” last night and swooned over Casey Affleck, all while fully aware he has been accused of sexual harassment. But I encourage you to push back and be conscious. There is no shortage of brilliant art created by good people who don’t abuse others — Northwestern’s campus alone proves that. So maybe we should try to uplift the creative and talented artists around us who can make their art while still respecting people and their bodies. Perhaps it’s time to take a break from the problematic icons of yesteryear and focus on supporting the principled icons of tomorrow.

Correction: A previous version of this column misstated what Casey Affleck was accused of. He was sued for sexual harassment. The Daily regrets the error.

Ruby Phillips is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be contacted at rubyphillips2020@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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