The more I reflect on Bill Cosby, the more upset I get. Any man who would drug and rape unsuspecting women is a serious predator. But it is particularly outrageous when Cosby is already in a Hollywood power position that is routinely abused by men to pressure or coerce women into sex anyway.
I can't help but recall a chapter from Lena Dunham's memoir Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned”, about how older, powerful men in Hollywood attempted to exploit her sexually when she entered the industry as a young filmmaker. Dunham's exposé, together with the revelations of Cosby's unchallenged predatory pattern over decades, paints a clear picture of entrenched sexual violence and exploitation in the entertainment industry.
Lena Dunham and I are very different women. I grew up as a black Latina young woman in a white-dominated multiracial environment. I didn’t feel beautiful or desirable (see my thoughts on the recently trending #LightGirls for more details). However, from the moment I sprouted hips, it was made clear to me — by men of all ages — that I was fuckable. For those reasons, I didn’t particularly identify with the first section of Dunham’s memoir. Her quest as an awkward, privileged white girl to lose her virginity and be seen as fuckable is totally out of my experience. And while I had my own young adult cringeworthy sexual moments — my low self-esteem and some regrettable choices — the privilege of being sexually objectified was never something I had to fight for.
However, having read that first part of her memoir, I was left completely breathless by a chapter much later in the book: “I Didn’t Fuck Them, but They Yelled at Me,” about predatory men in Hollywood. Having heard every detail of her youthful quest to be perceived as a sexual being, it is all the more chilling in juxtaposition to the sexual harassment she faced a few years later.
Dunham says she can’t wait to be eighty years old when all the older men in question are dead and she can “name names":
I’ll tell everyone about what the men I met in Hollywood said to me that first whirlwind year …. “I’ll bet you never say no.” “You should be a little more grateful.” ….
I’ll recount all the interactions where I went from having an engaging conversation on craft with a man to hearing about his sexual dissatisfaction with his wife who used to be passionate …. What that translates to is: … you aren’t a model but you sure are young and probably some bold new sexual moves have emerged since the last time I was single in 1992, so let’s try it and then you can go back to being married to your work … and I’ll never watch any of your films again.
She maintains that, “I never fucked any of them … these relationships fell apart as soon as they realized I wasn’t going to be anyone’s protégée ….” She describes their interest in her as simultaneously objectifying and dismissive: “Oh, look, they said to themselves, it's a cute little director-shaped thing.”
And it is made all the more disturbing by how much these sexual advances are not for her sex appeal. They want her creative genius, but would access it via sexual contact. They are like artistic vampires, undead, lifeless, wanting to suck the creative blood from a young woman via sex. “My friend Jenni calls them Sunshine Stealers,” says Dunham. “Men who have been at it a little too long .… They’re looking for some new form of energy …. It’s linked with sex, but it’s not the same. What they want to take from you is way worse than [sex]. It’s ideas, curiosity, an excitement about getting up in the morning and making things.”
While these men were vampires of a sort, Cosby’s alleged pattern of drugging and raping women is almost necrophiliac in nature. According to his victims, he had a specific interest in women being inert, incapacitated, drugged, lifeless.
All of Cosby’s alleged crimes took place in our modern era where a wealthy and powerful man could certainly access women — amateur or professional — who would be willing to act out these fantasies with him. Yet he allegedly chose, as a serial predator, to sexually access women without their consent while incapacitated.
Similarly, Dunham met powerful, wealthy Hollywood men who could have any number of women from sex workers to starlets to, well, their own wives or mistresses, yet they wanted this young, awkward woman. This is a way of dominating women in the field overall, and sexually hazing new women who enter the industry. That Cosby allegedly drugged women so they could neither consent nor escape is particularly brutal in a context where men hold women's most desired life dreams for ransom on the casting couch. If women consent in these situations, they consent under industry-wide conditions of coercion. Cosby simply took it to the next level.
As an author trying to sell my first novel, I know firsthand the anguish of being close enough to your creative visions that you fend for them constantly; they keep you up at night, hungry. Would I have consented to the casting couch? Alas, with my mom body and graying dreadlocks, attempting to enter an industry dominated by heterosexual white women, I'll never know. But I poured money I barely had, time I couldn't really spare, and nights of lost sleep into my dreams of creative success. It is a deeply vulnerable state.
While the stories of Bill Cosby's victims are indicting-ly similar, Dunham's stories have a bit more range, from seedy to haughty. “I sat with a director in his hotel suite while he told me girls love it when you ‘direct’ their blow jobs.” She also mentions a significantly older director and "the email he wrote me after I said to him I couldn’t work on his film because I was making my own show. ‘How could you dismiss the opportunity to be a small part of a film that will be taught in colleges for years to come in exchange for the utter ephemera of a ‘TV pilot.’ ”
Dunham isn’t alone. She bonds with another filmmaker who had a similar experience. According to Dunham’s friend, “I made my first movie and all these men crawled out of the woodwork ….” For ambitious young women, these men stand as sentries outside the gates of the industry. In order to gain entry, one has to contend with them.
Or maybe not. Maybe America's favorite TV dad, Mr. Jell-O pudding, could take a fatherly interest in a girl's career and she would think she'd been rescued from all that — until she woke up from a nightmare of being drugged and raped. The mother of one of Cosby’s accusers says she trusted him totally while he was understood to be mentoring her 18-year-old aspiring actress daughter. The mother asks, "Who wouldn't trust and love Dr. Huxtable?" And once his real agenda was revealed, his status might leave victims afraid to come forward because who would believe such an awful story about him, the poster boy for contemporary father-knows-best?
But women did come forward. Dozens of women, from various walks of life, including African American supermodel Beverly Johnson. Unlike Johnson, however, many of Cosby’s accusers are white women whose racial privilege was not enough to protect them.
We see the same thing in Dunham’s essay on Hollywood: the issue is gender. Dunham’s abundant race and class and name recognition privilege couldn’t protect her from the sexually hostile, threatening, demeaning, and entitled behavior of male gatekeepers. Their actions are designed to remind that there is a different standard for women, even those of her background, who dare to pursue Hollywood dreams for themselves. Clearly these men all have emotional issues, and the allegations against Cosby suggest some deep personal demons. However, the message to women is clear: You are second class citizens who can't get a fair shake in this town.
Fortunately, those older male gatekeepers aren’t at all the entrances to the industry anymore. Cable, web series, YouTube, and new media every day are encroaching on the monopoly those men used to hold. And it's encouraging that — at a certain point in the line of credible accusers — male gatekeepers in Hollywood cancelled Cosby's current projects and syndication contracts.
I’m also glad Dunham didn’t wait until she was eighty to tell the story about what those men said to her. I'm particularly pleased that Tina Fey and Amy Poehler took square aim at Cosby in their recent hosting of the Golden Globe awards. They boldly showed that women showrunners are in Hollywood to stay, women like Fey, Poehler, and Dunham, as well as women of color like Shonda Rhimes and Callie Khouri. Fey and Poehler also showed that there is a place for rape jokes in comedy: those at the expense of the rapist.