The idea of a public image is one of the oldest of political concepts. Since Ancient Greece, and then Rome, individuals have actively cultivated such an image in order to provide a context for their actions and to secure themselves within the minds of the populations they rule. One of the key effects of a public image is to ensure that an individual’s actions are placed into a context whereby they can feed their own image. The public-image itself depends on the ability to relate itself to the actions of a person. For example, when a modern politician opens a school or appears at a certain meeting, the rely on their public image to give this action meaning. This meaning is constituted as a representation of the inner-life, and “real,” authentic nature of a person. As such, the majority of politicians engage in activities that feed their public image by making them appear kind, caring and, where appropriate, strong. It is possible to understand more about the nature of the public image, however if one considers what happens when a person’s actions and behaviours are deemed to contradict it so completely that the image is irrevocably tarnished. Not only does such an occasion destroy the public image of the individual involved, but it also puts in question the very idea that the way a person appears in the public realm is an accurate reflection of their actual character.
For several decades, Bill Cosby was considered to be an archetypal successful person. As an African American comedian, he had found a large degree of success as a stand-up and had also stared and co-written a hugely successful television show: “The Cosby Show.” This show portrayed Cosby as the head of a fictional African American family, and appeared to extol the virtues of hard work, mutual affection and honesty. Alongside this, “The Cosby Show” was a part of a constellation of shows and media that presented an African American middle-class to the world, at a time when the majority of such people still lived in largely deprived and heavily policed communities. As such, Cosby’s public-image was not only that of a self-made successful artist, but also of an emblem of middle-class values which enabled the public image of African Americans to progress past the emphasis on “black-sploitation” films of the 1970s and 1980s. Within this context, Cosby was generally taken to be liberal minded, and to stand as a force for social progress.
This image was shattered, however, when in 2004 claims of sexual and assault and date-rape began to made against Cosby by several women. These women claimed that Cosby had knowingly assaulted them and that he deliberately abused his perceived image as a friendly and kind family man in conduct systematic rape. To date, thrity five women have come forward saying that they were assaulted by Cosby. Likewise, other people in the entertainment industry have claimed that they have known about Cosby’s actions for a long time, but that no one felt as if it would be worthwhile to speak out as such an action would be unable to puncture his public image. Indeed, several women have stated that they would have spoken out much earlier had they felt as if they would be listened to. Before considering the effect that these revelations have had on Cosby’s image, it is therefore possible to note that the fact that the public remained ignorant of Cosby’s nature for so long is largely due to the fact that people believed that the image held of him would override any individual revelation of his true nature.
As such, the public image is not simply something that can change the context of a particular action; it is also something that can prevent knowledge of actions coming to light at all. Once this knowledge did occur, however, Cosby’s image was tarnished beyond repair. Not only is he now considered to be a criminal, but his behaviour is thought of as the direct opposite of the behaviours that lay behind the manner in which he was perceived. It is impossible to reconcile the image of a serial rapist with the image of a man who holds staunch family values. Likewise, it is not possible to reconcile and image of someone who has achieved success as a result of their talent and dedication with the idea of someone who would deliberately and cynically manipulate the opportunities that this success has given him. As such, Bill Cosby does not simply demonstrate that public images can be forever tarnished by particular behaviours, but also that this is most likely to happen when these behaviours are the direct antithesis of that which is expected of the person in question.
The collapse of Cosby’s public image has also had a knock-on effect with regard to the way in which men in the entertainment industry are perceived. It is no longer considered to be the case that a person’s public image can render them immune from suspicion, and the revelation of Cosby’s claims has led several people to comment on the wide-spread nature of sexual assault and misogyny within the entertainment industry as a whole. This effect has been amplified by the fact that Cosby himself was considered to be a paragon of domestic virtue. To conclude, therefore, not only can the revelation of behaviour that is contrary to a public image render that image completely untenable, but it can also lead to a wide-spread questioning of the notion of the public image itself.