Last month, Dylan Farrow published a letter in the New York Times accusing her father, Woody Allen, of molesting her, 20 years after she first spoke out against him as a 7-year-old child. The month before, the Village Voice republished reams of documents describing allegations that R. Kelly repeatedly raped young girls, more than a decade after the initial investigation first made national news. With these two buried sexual-assault allegations newly relevant, Gawker’s Tom Scocca asked why there was no similar discussion about another buried celebrity case: “Who wants to remember Bill Cosby’s multiple sex-assault accusations?”
Cosby, Scocca recounts, has been accused of targeting, grooming, then drugging and raping multiple young women as early as the 1970s and as recently as 2004. Newsweek’s Katie J.M. Baker wanted to remember, and interviewed two women who made some of the since-forgotten allegations against Cosby. And yet the rekindled discussion about Cosby’s sexual abuse hasn’t quite incited the media firestorm that those against Kelly and Allen did. Why not?
One reason might be that the news pegs for the revisiting of Kelly’s and Allen’s cases seem stronger. Farrow’s letter came on the heels of a Golden Globes tribute to Allen’s life and career and an Oscar nomination for his Blue Jasmine script. The Kelly accusations reignited after he headlined the Pitchfork Music Festival and released a well-reviewed new album. Key journalists—Maureen Orth at Vanity Fair, Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times—took the initiative to tie these events to the artists’ pasts, perhaps aware that the Internet had opened up a new audience for these old allegations.
Scocca notes that it’s been so easy to forget the Cosby allegations because “nobody wanted to live in a world where Bill Cosby was a sexual predator. It was too much to handle.” I’m sure that was true. But since Scocca brought it back to our collective attention, we’ve pretty much all gone and forgotten it again. This is probably because we’re not engaging with Cosby as a public figure in 2014 in the same way we are with Kelly and Allen. Cosby’s modern activism takes the form of a conservatism that discounts rap and blames black men for their subjugation. If we see Cosby’s sexual-assault allegations as a relic of the past, it’s partly because we also see Cosby that way. Scocca dredged up the allegations against Cosby not because Cosby is currently making news but because rape is. (Still, our collective attention span for rape allegations is short, but our appetite for new music and movies is strong. Concerned journalists can smartly piggyback on those cultural products to remind us to care, but the effect only lasts so long.)
But our divided attention is also a result of the types of victims we prefer to support. In the most high-profile rape cases to spark national conversations in recent years—from Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, and R. Kelly to the cases in Steubenville, Ohio, and Maryville, Mo.—the victims have all been children and teenagers. In a society that still has trouble seeing all forms of sexual abuse as clearly wrong, it’s easier for us to place blame on attackers who target underage victims. When the victims of rape are adult women, we focus on their own behavior and mistrust their testimonies, softening our incrimination of their attackers. When I asked Newsweek’s Baker why she felt that the victims she spoke with had been ignored, she told me: “I think it’s because they were imperfect victims, as victims so often are,” Baker told me. The two women Baker interviewed were young at the time of the assaults, but over the age of 18. More importantly, “they were ambitious aspiring actresses and models who were hanging out with an older man who said he’d make them famous.” Maybe we take their age and ambition—their self-determination, really—as an excuse to withhold our support.