When Tina Fey and Amy Poehler ripped into Bill Cosby several minutes into the Golden Globe awards, all I could think about was how glad I was that I wasn’t sitting in the area where cameras panned Hollywood’s elite, recording every nuance and glimmer of a reaction, who knew full well the clip would be on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube forever. The Golden Globes, a night reserved for awards from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and, with any luck, some good-natured Hollywood levity, usually is free from controversial news items.
But not this year. Fey and Poehler found a way to weave Cosby’s alleged sexual transgressions into their comedy bit for Into the Woods, one of the movies up an award. Pick up the video at 8:20:
I’m sure many of the glamorous attendees were wondering whether the Globes’ golden girls should have used the joke or not. But as we’re dissecting the ceremony’s most shock-worthy moment, I think there are other more pressing questions:
First, did the joke work, was it funny?
I think it depends on who you are. If you are looking at it from the perspective of whether Tina Fey and Amy Poehler had enough guts to use a joke like that (though it looked to me as if Poehler was going along with the “pills in the people!!” routine), in a setting like that, then it was a huge success. Fey told the joke, she had the guts, and some people thought it was really great.
If you look at it from the point of view of whether Fey deepened her connection with the audience and whether they agreed with her that it was a joke, or even whether it was funny, I think there is a lot to be disputed about that. The audience was confused. The people in my living room were confused. Because knowing how to react to the news that one of the icons of television for the last four decades has behaved terribly and has been for some time is confusing and we don’t know what to do with it.
At that moment I had to ask myself if the audience was supposed to be part of the gag. Most people weren’t sure what to do or even what to make of it. There is nothing wrong with not knowing what to make of a joke that digs into our deepest tragedy and our deepest hurts. For me, it’s a little less clear whether the joke worked.
What was Fey’s motive in telling the joke?
If Fey’s motive was to make sure all the world knows that Bill Cosby has been accused of egregious exploitation of women, then it worked. If the purpose of the joke was to get everyone on the side of the women who’ve been hurt, it probably succeeded, to some degree. It’s just as likely many in the audience were stunned and so uncomfortable they will distance themselves even further from these issues. This isn’t the first time that Fey has used her comedy platform to suggest there were things about Cosby we needed to know. Maybe Fey decided the time for subtlety was over.
If the objective was to mock Cosby and his silence about the accusations, Fey definitely succeeded in that. If Fey was going for an audience vote of Cosby’s guilt or innocence, she failed. Again, the audience was confused and didn’t know what to do in the situation. With that regard, the joke was on them.
There is another possibility. Fey was using her moment in the spotlight to get us off our collective asses to do something about the exploitation of women. It didn’t come off that way, but it had that effect for me since this is a subject I’ve been studying for some time now. If that is true, we would hope to see several articles and interviews with her giving the back story of why she chose that joke, at that time, and what it means to her to be in a position to prod and poke on our human behavior. In so many ways, I’m glad she did it, and I’ll explain.
What do the rest of us do with the joke and what was our collective reaction?
I feel as though we are being trained in our society to act with one reaction, outrage, for almost every kind of offense. We are being trained to hear every story of exploitation and abuse and react: express outrage, lock them up, get rid of them.
The value of the “one reaction” is that it makes it very easy for us to see who else is on our side and who is against us. And we look to see if someone has an outrage reaction and count them as good if they do. For the mass, collective reaction, this is what people want; it brings us all together. I don’t blame the audience at the Golden Globes for feeling on the spot because they were. They were and are going to be judged for their reactions. On some level, they were exploited too.
For so many of us, the one reaction doesn’t fit. As a person who has spent over four decades trying to rebuild a life and patch back together my sense of self after my father destroyed our family, I have learned that the one reaction is only the first step on the path to healing a heart. There is sadness, grief, sorrow, dismay, more grief, loss, anger, despondence, anxiety, loneliness, and the list goes on. It is a major separation because we can’t understand it and we don’t know where to turn for connection. I’m speaking as someone who’s been hurt and as someone who’s been related to someone who’s been hurt and related to someone who’s done the hurting. It’s complicated.
What does Cosby mean in our lives?
Cosby has been America’s father, literally. We watched him for decades and felt a close relationship with him. It’s like being told your father has hurt your sister and you can’t believe it and don’t want to believe it, but you know its true and you don’t know what to say because the black hole of dismay and sorrow and grief is so large you’re about to fall into it. You aren’t sure you’ll find your way out, or whether she will either. And, just because you aren’t taking up space in the New York Times for an ad denigrating Cosby, or anyone else who’s been accused, doesn’t mean you aren’t in solidarity and well-wishing for the those he’s allegedly hurt.
In that sense, we are the big-family, the societal family, letting the reality dawn on us and all the emotional reactions flow over us after hearing and processing what has become for Cosby’s fans something of a father-child abuse story. This takes a fairly long time and the one reaction story is debilitating. It makes any other reaction wrong.
In my own case, I have been so fortunate to have partners, friends and my husband hold their reactions when I told them my story. They haven’t roused up and shouted ‘let’s just go kill the f-*&–‘ or anything related to rising to my defense. And I didn’t want them to defend me. They’ve sat with me and held my hand; they’ve listened to my story and in the end that was what I really needed — to be heard. Being witnessed has been a huge piece of the healing process. Someone hating my father for me did me no good, especially since I am now taking care of him since his stroke.
What do we do now?
In our society, we don’t know how to have these conversations. We don’t know how to do this healing. The private one-to-one therapy sessions are only a tiny slice of what it takes to complete a healing process and that is the only part of the process that is fully funded. Thus, our larger culture has no idea how to be part of the healing for a woman or a man who’s been hurt. When we don’t know what to do, we laugh it off, we reject it, we blame the woman, and we rant about locking the accused away.
One idea beyond outrage is contained in this 28-minute clip from a 1992 NBC show. If we had the guts we would put our money into programs like this instead of locking people away. If a program like this existed Cosby and his wife and every one of those women who claim they have been exploited by him, could get help and we would have the possibility of working out way out of the bind we are in. We need solutions besides shaming and shunning and locking people up.
There’s one more question weighing on my mind.
What is inside Tina Fey that makes Cosby a hot issue for her? Not that it’s not a hot issue for many of us, I would argue it is for all of us, for all the reasons I’ve outlined here. I wonder if Fey would be willing to talk about her personal experiences and open a deeper conversation, a conversation greater than joking, to galvanize others to respond with outrage. I wonder if she would advocate for programs like the one outlined in the video clip.
Mostly, I wonder how we will stem the systemic inter-generational violations we are trying to ignore, the hurts that keep us from loving and living the way we know we can if given the chance. It’s no longer one woman’s problem, or one man’s problem. We are all in this together and it is time to move beyond outrage.
Kim Cottrell is a Feldenkrais® practitioner, educator, and former speech pathologist. Kim blogs at ahealthystepmother.com and contributes regularly to Walk About Magazine. To schedule an interview or book a speaking engagement with Kim, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org