The Terribly Long Then Suddenly Swift Death of Bill Cosby’s Image

Rape accusations have come back to haunt the comedian years after they first surfaced. Why now?

THE STORY: Decade-old allegations have recently resurfaced that Bill Cosby, the smiling, sweater-wearing patriarch of The Cosby Show, habitually drugged and raped women. An NBC sitcom that Cosby was in the early stages of developing and a Netflix special (set to air on November 28) have both been shelved. That all makes sense. Who wants to give a public platform to an accused serial rapist? What’s curious is the timing. These claims have been floating around for years. Why the sudden groundswell of anti-Cosby sentiment?

The Internet plus time. That’s the short answer. But there are a few other things involved.

THE BREAKDOWN: The current brouhaha started a month ago when comedian Hannibal Buress called Cosby a rapist during a stand-up set in Philadelphia: “Bill Cosby has the fucking smuggest old black man public persona that I hate. Pull your pants up, black people. I was on TV in the ’80s. I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom. Yeah, but you raped women, Bill Cosby. So, brings you down a couple notches.” Cosby didn’t publicly respond. Instead, his team issued a meme challenge that turned into a PR nightmare.

The allegations against Cosby date back to 2005 when Andrea Constand, a former staffer for the basketball team at  Temple University (which Cosby attended before dropping out to pursue comedy), claimed he had drugged and assaulted her at his home. Former Montgomery County DA Bruce Castor says he wanted to prosecute Cosby but felt he lacked sufficient evidence to win the case. In Constand’s civil suit, her lawyers said they had found 13 women with similar stories; Cosby settled the case in 2006. In the years between Constand’s accusation and Burress’s callout, other women came forward against Cosby: a California lawyer, an aspiring actress from Denver, a model. Here’s a handy timeline.

Forward to 2014. Cosby’s star power has waned. Though he pops up periodically on talk shows and at other events, he’s nowhere near the peak of his Cosby Show fame. People who might have been wary of accusing him back then are perhaps more likely to come forward now. And come forward they have. Several women have gone public, including Barbara Bowman (who was Jane Doe #2), Joan Tarshis, and Janice Dickinson. It’s easy to dismiss, belittle, and revile a faceless, nameless accuser. It’s not so easy when an accuser shows her face and shares her name (though as women who have made public accusations of rape can attest, it’s far from impossible). And with the Internet, these accusations can live forever, which means old and new allegations can pop up every time someone searches Cosby’s name. A culture that’s more sensitive to accusations of violence and sexual assault—whether it’s NFL player Ray Rice or Canadian public radio superstar (in Canada “public radio superstar” isn’t oxymoronic) Jian Ghomeshi—shines a brighter light on the issue.

Still, the match that set off this powder keg was a simple, straightforward accusation: rape. That’s the advantage Hannibal Buress has in being a comedian. No dissembling. No PR-speak. No dancing around the subject. It also didn’t hurt that all these years later, it took a man saying the word “rape” to make people listen. That’s worth remembering.