Phylicia Rashad and the Awful Power of 'Forget These Women'

A costar defends Bill Cosby with an old, seductive line of thought.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters

When people accuse a public figure of private monstrousness, some friends naturally come to that figure’s defense. So it’s unremarkable to see Phylicia Rashad dismiss the rape allegations against her former sitcom husband Bill Cosby. But what is remarkable, shocking even, is the way she encapsulated a whole culture’s attitude and tradition about fame and abuse and gender with three words: “Forget these women.”

She’s talking about the more than 20 people who’ve said that Cosby sexually assaulted them, in many cases after allegedly drugging them. “Forget these women,” Rashad told Showbiz411 writer Roger Friedman at a Selma luncheon. "What you're seeing is the destruction of a legacy. And I think it's orchestrated. I don't know why or who's doing it, but it's the legacy. And it's a legacy that is so important to the culture."

This isn’t “innocent until proven guilty,” the line from Cosby actress Keshia Knight Pulliam a mere day earlier. It’s not “that’s not the man I knew,” the response from anyone who grew up watching the Huxtables. It’s not even “don’t listen.” It’s “hear, then forget”—a straightforward assertion that a person’s cultural product is more important than whatever individual harm that person may have caused.

This is the logic that has allowed many, many men to live fondly in the public’s mind despite strong evidence they gravely mistreated women. The list is enormous. It’s near the logic that allows people to ignore Thomas Jefferson’s slaveholding and infidelity, or John Lennon’s domestic abuse and neglect of his child.

What’s been surprising about the Cosby case is how people woke up to accusations that had been in the public sphere for years; how America seemed on the verge of forgetting these women but then, perhaps because of the sheer magnitude of the accusations or perhaps by some combination of cultural conditions, started paying attention. For anyone who believes the voices of assault victims have been unduly minimized and erased throughout history, that was progress. Rashad probably isn't the only one who would like to undo it.