Cosby: The Women Speak and the Power of Reality Television

The stories in A&E’s special by now are familiar, but the fact that they continue to be told is a sign of progress.

Jennifer Thompson, answering a question during an interview at her family's home in Florida in March 2015 (Chris O'Meara / AP)
He came after me like a wild animal … And I was coherent enough to fight, and scratch, and scream, and cry, and try to wrestle my way out of there. He had me pinned to the bed with his elbow over my chin, and was ferociously trying to remove his belt buckle … and I fought so hard that he eventually just threw me away off the bed.
He had sex with me. I was not a participant. It was not consensual.
And if there is any question about why women don’t report rape, it’s because it’s so damned humiliating, you don’t want to ever talk about it again.
The stories are familiar at this point. The drinks. The druggings. The assaults both violent and hazy. The sense of confusion, and fear, and betrayal. “I kept saying to myself, ‘Dr. Huxtable, Dr. Huxtable,’” one woman recalls. Statutes of limitations prevent most of Bill Cosby’s accusers from filing criminal charges or lawsuits against him; too much time has gone by. So what they have at this point, the new A&E special Cosby: The Women Speak suggested, is their stories. And the fact that there are, collectively, many of them to tell.
“He’s given us all a purpose; a sisterhood purpose,” Lise-Lotte Lublin says during the show. “We’re going to make a change in the world. We’ve already started.”
Cosby: The Women Speak, which aired Thursday night, is something of a televised (and, production-wise, unrelated) follow-up to New York magazine’s recent “Bill Cosby’s Accusers Speak Out” cover story. “More than 50 women have accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault, drugging, or rape,” the show’s intro card, stark in black and white, reads. “Their allegations span five decades. He has never been charged with a crime with regard to any of these accusations. His attorneys have said Bill Cosby denies all the allegations.”
The show weaves Cosby’s story—his rise to fame, his role as a powerful celebrity and a cultural critic, his one-time status as “America’s dad”—with those of his alleged victims. But the interviews, the women’s stories, are the focus. Shot in sterile, white studios, and conducted by unseen producers, the interviews air in roughly chronological order, starting with the women who met Cosby in 1969, and ending with women who met Cosby in the early 2000s. There’s the model Beverly Johnson. There’s the comedy writer Joan Tarshis. There’s the former Playboy Bunny Victoria Valentino. And the pseudonymed former flight attendant “Elizabeth.” And Sarita Butterfield. And Charlotte Fox. And Barbara Bowman. And Beth Ferrier. And Chelan Lasha. And Eden Tirl. And Heidi Thomas. And Louisa Moritz.
Their stories and recollections range—the settings, the decades, the drinks given—but most of them involve offers of mentorship and career guidance, followed by assaults and threats and silence.
It was literally like being under anesthesia, and you’re trying to wake up, but you can’t.
And as he was leaving and zipping us his pants, he said, “Don’t forget. Don’t make me mad. I’m going to be your best friend.”
I never really felt any danger from him, at all. And so I took the pill. And I couldn't keep my head up. I started to feel nauseated.
The next morning I just slipped out of bed. Feeling lower than dirt.
I was so disappointed. It was like a family member had done something to me.
I hate that I met him. My life changed for the worse since I met him.
We get a brief note on Cosby’s perspective in all this—largely through a clip of his lawyer, Monique Pressley, appearing on Good Morning America and declaring that “the sheer volume or number of people who are saying a particular thing does not make it true”—but the show is unequivocal about Cosby’s guilt. The many instances of the word “alleged” in the show’s narration read like lawyer-inserted afterthoughts.
Which is a bit ironic, because the law itself is actually a co-star in the show. The special concludes with a brief discussion of the statutes of limitations that prevent the women from taking legal action against Cosby. Some of the women are speaking out, they say, because they want to change the laws that prevent those suits. (Lise-Lotte Lublin recently lobbied, successfully, for such a change in Nevada: The state now allows for the prosecutions of assaults alleged to have occurred as many as 20 years ago.) There is a distinct sense of advocacy here.
But: To what end? Given the familiarity of the stories—given the New York article that went viral this summer, given the fact that Cosby has been effectively tried and condemned in the court of public opinion—what does a special like this end up accomplishing? Does it exploit the women? Does it glibly turn their experiences into entertainment? Does it romanticize what might actually be achieved by “telling one’s story”?
Yes, a little. All of those things, a little. For the most part, though, Cosby: The Women Speak seems aware of the pitfalls it’s navigating. It cannily frames itself not just as a short documentary, but as a kind of extra-earnest reality show. The interviews in it include shots, in their white-washed studio settings, of cameras and rigs and studio umbrellas. The special’s logo, spliced between ad breaks, is its title situated between analog film strips. There’s a tacit acknowledgement, with all this, that any show aired for public consumption on the Arts & Entertainment Network will have an element of exploitation.
That, ironically, is part of what gives the show its power. The women—many of whom work in Hollywood, many of whom were not believed until their stories became part of a broader, media-driven assumption about Cosby—know better than anyone the transactions involved in justice, when that justice is mandated by the media. They are willing to make those exchanges, their show makes clear, because the alternatives—silence, disbelief, injustice—are worse. The women’s stories may be familiar at this point. That is precisely why they need to be told, and retold, and told again. There’s a sense in all this that complacency was Cosby’s best, if alleged, accomplice.
And so: “We have the right to speak our voice,” Beverly Johnson says. “I don’t need people to validate my opinion and what happened. What I need to do is tell my story.”