Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashad as Heathcliff and Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show
NBC Universal screenshot

Editor’s note: In an interview with ABC’s Linsey Davis, Phylicia Rashad said that she never said “forget those women.” Instead, the Tony Award-winning actress claims that she said, “It’s not about these women.”

Showbiz 411’s Roger Friedman insists that Rashad did, in fact, say “forget these women” but that the intent has been misconstrued. “[Rashad] meant, ‘those women aside’—as in, she’s not talking about that; she’s talking about Cosby’s legacy being destroyed.”

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The old saying “Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it” came back to haunt many people yesterday when Tony Award-winning actress Phylicia Rashad, best known for her role as Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show, finally addressed the avalanche of sexual assault allegations that have been levied against her former co-star and TV husband, Bill Cosby.

In a tone at turns both combative and dismissive, Rashad defended Cosby against women who she said were engaged in a shadowy conspiracy to ruin his legacy and that of his eponymous show.

“Forget these women,” Rashad said in an exclusive interview with Showbiz 411’s Roger Friedman. “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.”

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Rashad went on to scoff at accusations against Cosby made by former supermodels Beverly Johnson and Janice Dickinson. Both women claimed that the comedian drugged them, with Dickinson also accusing him of rape. Rashad trampled over their tears and trauma with two words: “Oh, please.”

“Someone is determined to keep Bill Cosby off TV,” Rashad said. “And it’s worked.”

The Cosby Show “represented America to the outside world,” she continued. “This was the American family. And now you’re seeing it being destroyed. Why?”

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Why, indeed.

There has been a romanticization of both Cosby and Cosby that reeks of arrogance and delusion. Despite what Rashad and others may believe, Cosby isn’t the savior of black America, and the Illuminati isn’t out to get him. The Cosby Show was not then, and certainly isn’t now, the only media depiction of a healthy black family. And the dismantling of Cosby’s benign, fatherly facade is a blow to nothing but his own image and 1980s nostalgia.

What has become glaring by omission is that while Cosby’s previously silent female supporters—including his wife, Camille Cosby; Cosby star Keshia Knight Pulliam; Debbie Allen, Rashad’s sister and former director-producer of Cosby spin-off A Different World; and now Rashad—have defended Cosby’s “legacy” both in media and philanthropy, none have attempted to defend the character of the man himself.

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Rashad didn’t say, “Bill Cosby is an honorable man.” She didn’t say, “Bill Cosby is not capable of rape.” She instead evoked the memory of The Cosby Show and used it as a talisman to ward off any negative attention directed at her former co-star.

This strategy is not without precedent.

There has been this transparent attempt to blur the lines between reality and fiction—between Cosby and Heathcliff Huxtable, his on-screen character. Though I’ve previously written about Woody Allen-esque undertones of the show, for all intents and purposes, Cliff was trustworthy, paternal and loving—the opposite of a predator. And the same black community that Cosby has treated with condescension and disdain is supposed to allow him to wear that character like an impenetrable suit of armor, simply because we have fond memories of hoagies and Hillman.

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Witnessing Rashad employ the victim-blaming tactics and language commonly reserved for rape apologists was disappointing, to say the least. If her long silence served as a tentative indictment of Cosby, her words served as evidence that her position, or, at least, that of her TV character, Clair—the patron saint of black womanhood—hasn’t precluded her from perpetuating rape culture.

Rape culture, particularly as it manifests in black America, demands that justice for sexual assault victims be positioned secondary to the reputations of “good” black men. And in a white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy that cares little for black men, and even less for black women, “good” black men are too often the only victims we collectively exert the energy to save.

It is a culture both physically and psychologically violent, demanding victims’ silence and loyalty for what’s presumed to be the greater good of the black community.

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It is a culture that demands we treat men with respect and admiration that are rarely reciprocated.

In a recently released interview with NewsOne Now host Roland Martin, Cosby had this to say about his television chemistry with Rashad: “[Phylicia’s ex husband] Ahmad Rashad messed that thing up.

“When he married her I didn’t mind, but then she got pregnant and I didn’t want Cliff and Clair to have another kid,” he continued. “So we had to hide her body, which took me away from—took Cliff away from touching her and playing with her because I didn’t want the audience to see that.

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“When that was over and she went on and had the … child—it was gone, man. Not the love for her, but it was gone in terms of now we have to get back to the touching. I just lost it.”

And what does Rashad say in her first public interview, about the sexual allegations levied against Cosby, and since he made those astoundingly sexist and territorial remarks?

“I love him,” she told Friedman.

She loves him.

Though there are critics who have argued that the Clair Huxtable character wasn’t aspirational because she sprang from the twisted mind of an alleged sexual predator, I’ve never felt that way. As I wrote previously, in examining the legacy of The Cosby Show, “Clair Huxtable should not serve as an indictment of whom we aspire to be, rather a warning against whom we aspire to love.”

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The exact same thing, unfortunately, can now be said about Phylicia Rashad.