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Barbershop: Bill Cosby, And Violence On Network TV


Now it's time for our trip to the Barbershop - that's our weekly conversation about what's in the news and what's on our minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shapeup this week are Goldie Taylor. She's editor at large for The Daily Beast. She's with us from the Radio Foundation Studio in New York City. Hi, Goldie.

GOLDIE TAYLOR: Good afternoon. Hey, Michel.

MARTIN: Ann Hornaday is chief film critic for The Washington Post. She's here in Washington, D.C. Hi, Ann.

ANN HORNADAY: Hello, hello.

MARTIN: And last but not least, NPR's own TV critic Eric Deggans. I think you're in Florida, right? Happy New Year.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Yep, I'm in my office in St. Petersburg, yep, yep.

MARTIN: All right, so maybe it's because we have a little time off over the holidays and I had some time to actually watch some things that I don't normally do, but, you know, I had pop culture on my mind. But there's nothing light or fluffy about the first big story I wanted to ask you about, and that's Bill Cosby. And I think by now you have to know that dozens of women have accused Bill Cosby of sexually assaulting them. And most of these cases, they say he gave them drugs without their consent to get them to submit. Now, Cosby's never been criminally charged until this past week, when, with only a couple of days left under the statute of limitations, Pennsylvania's incoming Montgomery County district attorney filed charges against him in connection with one of those cases. And he's been arrested, arraigned and released on bail. And he says - and his attorneys say he will vigorously contest these charges. But Goldie, you have been writing about this. In fact, when you wrote about this for the October Ebony magazine cover - cover showed a picture of "The Cosby Show" TV family seen through smashed glass - that really seemed to push people's buttons. It was almost as if people could not accept the idea that this was even, you know, possibly true, right?

TAYLOR: Oh, sure...

MARTIN: That seems to be the reaction that people have. What's your reaction to this now?

TAYLOR: You know, I think that, you know, especially with regard to that cover that we were out to push a conversation that really wasn't happening at the time, and that was what do these allegations mean to the broader culture? What did "The Cosby Show" mean to the culture? And we're still really having - grappling with that conversation, even as he faces, you know, these criminal charges. Bill Cosby deserves due process. He deserves his day in court. But so then do these women. They deserve their day in court, and so often victims of sexual violence don't get that day.

MARTIN: You wrote in a piece for The Daily Beast that you never believed Bill Cosby, and you say that the worst thing Bill Cosby ever said was nothing. Tell us a little bit more about that.

TAYLOR: You know, I just think that looking back on - you know, and I'm a survivor myself. And the very first thing that you hear from an abuser's lips were, you know, things like, you know, they asked for it or, you know, she shouldn't have been dressed like that or - you know, there are all kinds of victim shaming that we engaged in. Bill Cosby, on the other hand, didn't say a word. He went on about his life. I call it sort of whistling past the graveyard. And in his silence, I heard a lot of other things, a lot of other people speaking on his behalf. And those were people who were his agents, his publicist, his lawyers shaming these women in ways that, you know - you know, were simply untenable to me. And then to turn around and to sue them for daring come forward, you know, with these allegations.

MARTIN: Eric, jump in here. You've written about this, too.

DEGGANS: Yeah, if I can break in for a second. I mean, one of the things that's interesting to me - I'm helping NPR cover this, so I want to be careful about impugning guilt; you know, I have to try to be as evenhanded as possible. But if these allegations are true, that tactic that Goldie talked about has worked for him for a very long time. And I think Bill Cosby's downfall was when his public image began to become less laudatory. We want to believe that our movie stars and our TV stars are like the virtuous characters that they play on these TV shows and movies. And when he became the scold who was telling young black people and poor black people that they were the reason why they were having problems with the police or they were the reason why they were poor or they were the reason why they were being oppressed, suddenly, his public image became different. And he became much more vulnerable, and he never realized that...

MARTIN: But - wait a minute, are you saying he's vulnerable - because these are criminal acts - that the only reason that his...

DEGGANS: I'm not saying the only reason.

MARTIN: ...Criminal behavior is being pursued is that his public image is tarnished and - is that it?

DEGGANS: I'm not saying the only reason, but it seems obvious that he used his tremendous public image to deflect questions about his behavior. And when he got to the point where that image was not able to deflect those questions anymore, people really began to pay attention to them. And the reason why the Hannibal Burress standup routine - this young black comic who called him out for being accused of rape - the reason why that's so important is because that was the voice of a younger generation who didn't grow up necessarily lauding - you know, lionizing Bill Cosby in the same way that people my age did.

HORNADAY: And if I may...

DEGGANS: They weren't as - he didn't have that sort of hallowed space in their pop-culture lives that he may have had in our generation. And they felt, I think, freer to be harsher and look at him and say what's really going on here in a way that people who wanted to believe the Bill Cosby legend had more trouble doing.

MARTIN: Ann Hornaday?

HORNADAY: I also think that this is a part of a whole - this story could only have happened now in terms of technology, social media and as Eric said, the kind of cultural moment where we're seeing all sorts of instances where impunity is being challenged. And, you know, I am one of those people who, to my now shame and consternation, never knew about these allegations. And I know that sounds impossible to believe. But I think, you know, as Eric was saying about the different personae that Cosby was able to pull off, that's a degree of compartmentalization that now is just impossible in terms of Twitter and political activism. I mean, I really connect it to all sorts of things that happened in the last couple of years, including, you know, what we're seeing with police - over-policing in communities - even the Adam Sandler movie, where the extras, you know, walked off the set because they were unhappy with the roles. I mean, this is all connected to - to impunity. And...

MARTIN: So you're saying that what has been hidden cannot now be hidden.

HORNADAY: Right. I feel like it's definitely a changed game now.

MARTIN: What was - on a different note, Ann, I want to talk about something that you wrote about recently that really caught my attention. It's kind of the opposite point about how there's too much being seen. And you wrote this piece about the explicitness of violence in movies, especially recent movies that have been released. You said that you - you wrote about "The Hateful Eight" and "The Revenant," both of which have gotten, you know, a lot of attention for different reasons. And you said that, you know - that both traffic and lingering widescreen images of savage brutality and mortification - and you say that, you know, either way, whether it's kind of the artiness of it or the sort of ironic distance of Tarantino or Inarritu's artily masochistic extremes, you say genuine empathy and self-reflection are getting short-circuited by the surface values of aesthetics, technical achievement and shocking vicarious jolts. Is it - do you just feel that - what do you think - is it that our - extreme violence in films has become routine now, or is these particular examples that you want to call out?

HORNADAY: Well, it was a function of seeing these movies in such close proximity. I mean, they're opening within, you know, days and weeks of each other across the country. And it's just sort of - it was jolting to see this imagery that - you know, in such short succession. And it really - you know, violence has been a part of filmmaking since the medium's inception, so it's something as a critic that I always have to grapple with - is a piece of film grammar? And it's not just the violence, it's the suffering. You know, I wanted to kind of change the lens a little bit and look at the uses of human suffering and how it's depicted. I just wanted to look a little bit at how - what these filmmakers were asking of the audience. Are they asking us merely to be spectators and voyeurs, or are they asking us to do something more challenging?

MARTIN: Goldie, what do you think about this?

TAYLOR: You know, I think that the notion that human suffering is used as currency, you know, is as old as the medium itself. It's as old as, you know, stage plays themselves - that human suffering, whether it be internal or external, you know, is the very bedrock, the fiber of conflict that we see in drama or comedy or any other kind of genre. And raising those stakes is what keeps an audience moving along with the story. You know, both television and film are beginning to merge onto one platform. And in that, we see the stakes raised even further. But in that, we also find a brand-new thing happening - audience control unlike we have ever had truly, you know, in the history of mass distribution, where an audience can truly democratize the content - vote up or down what they want to see, what they don't want to see. They share culpability, I think, with some of these studios who are making it for - you know, for their consumption.

MARTIN: Well, tie a bow on it, Eric. We say we have a choice, but do you really have a choice when everything is this violent, or is your only choice...

DEGGANS: Oh, you can - I think you can...

MARTIN: I mean, I'm happy to read a book. I'm happy to turn it off and just read a book, everybody. Get your...

DEGGANS: You don't necessarily have to turn it off. There are plenty of shows that are - there are great thrillers, there are great action shows that don't have violence in them. You just have to work a little harder to find him. I'm always telling people with great power comes great responsibility. And as an audience, we have never had more choices. But that means you've got to find out what you're consuming, just like you can't eat at McDonald's every day, you can't consume, you know, trashy movies or television and expect it to not affect you. I in a weird way am less worried about movies like "Silence Of The Lambs" or "The Revenant," where the violence gets your attention. I'm more worried about superhero films. I'm more worried about cop films. I'm more worried about films where the violence doesn't even occur to you because it is so much a part of the genre. One of the - my big criticisms of the "Superman" movie "Man Of Steel" is that there are conflicts in which entire cities are leveled. We know that if that actually happened, you know, thousands of people would be dead. And they don't show that in the film because they know that it would derail the story they're trying to tell, and they want to try to pretend that nobody got hurt. But we know that when violence on this scale is perpetuated, there has to be a cost. They don't show that cost. And those are the kinds of films and TV shows that I'm really worried about.

MARTIN: That's all the time we have for today with NPR's Eric Deggans, Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post and The Daily Beast editor Goldie Taylor. Thank you, everybody and happy New Year.

HORNADAY: Thank you. Happy new year.

TAYLOR: Happy New Year.

DEGGANS: Happy 2016. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.