Cosby's pater patter on trial

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The Independent Online
At the federal courthouse in New York City, Bill Cosby is, for the second time this year, defining his role as an American father - not The Cosby Show's liberal yet authoritarian dad, whose weekly assignments consisted of overcoming his merry pubescent brood and finding new multi- hued designer sweaters. This is Cosby's real family, and he is battling with Autumn Jackson, 22, who claims to be his illegitimate daughter. The trial occurs only seven months after Cosby's only son, Ennis, was shot to death on a Los Angeles freeway while changing a tyre.

Jackson is on trial over her intentions. Is she guilty of trying to extort money from Cosby, by saying that she would sell her story of his paternity if he didn't hand over $40m? Or perhaps she is simply a poor young woman who was unable to attain the affections of her estranged billionaire father.

Cosby is also on trial, struggling to retain his mantle as a benign, unassailable paterfamilias. In nine years of The Cosby Show episodes and in the best-selling book Fatherhood, Cosby built and burnished his public status as an ideal father; and he also satisfied his fans' fantasies by seeming to sustain this role in his "real life" as well. This reassuring and stately public father figure is now testifying against the woman who may be his daughter and refusing to take a DNA test.

In an unaired segment of footage from an interview with Dan Rather, he admitted to having had a surreptitious affair with Jackson's mother, Shawn Thompson, and allowed for the possibility that he was Jackson's father. He has also provided Thompson and Jackson with trust funds and cars.

As one of a handful of African-Americans in the entertainment business who have both immense industry clout and immense audience popularity, Cosby is a figure whose every action would anyway be charged with symbolic value. He is simultaneously a keeper of the status quo and proselytiser of African-American pride. He represents not only the perfect father, but the ultimate African-American celebrity. Who can blame Jackson for wanting to publicise her association with celebrity nobility?

In addition, Autumn Jackson, like many American children, probably yearned for the predictability, the urbanity and the sunny coherence of the Huxtables. She most likely wanted to be part of the perfect television family, where problems could be solved in 22 minutes and there were no gnawing absences.

It makes one wonder whether the sitcom's cheery affirmations of family life served to shame viewers about their own lives, more than inspiring them.