dylan farrow and woody allen: a feminist, a rape survivor, and a woody allen fan weighs in

Wmtc friend and reader Dharma Seeker writes:
Some of my discussion groups have been blowing up since Dylan Farrow's open letter to actors in Woody Allen films. My brain is muddled trying to sort out the various issues. I'd love your thoughts and hoped you might blog about it, although if you've not read it yet Dylan's open letter should come with a trigger warning.

If the allegations are true, does that mean that actors have a moral obligation to boycott his films?

Do movie lovers have a moral obligation to boycott his films?

Where do we draw the line that separates the personal failings (to put it mildly) of the artist and appreciation of the art they produce?

I really would love to know your thoughts. I don't want to "support a pedophile" but I can't help thinking it's not that simple. I know you and Allan love Woody Allen films, your enthusiasm for them actually put me on to them. In particular I love Whatever Works and Vicky Christina Barcelona. I've yet to see Blue Jasmine but as you may know Cate Blanchet is nominated for an Oscar for her role, so she seems to be taking a lot of heat for working with him.

Which brings me to my next question... why do so many conversations seem to center around shaming women for working with him? There are already a dearth of good roles for women actors. Why is it ok, in some people's minds, for Larry David to work with Woody but it's not ok for Dianne Keaton? It reeks of patriarchy. To her credit Dylan Farrow did call out a couple of male actors as well. ...

If you feel it's something you'd be comfortable weighing in on I'd love to know what you think, because I respect your opinions and also because you are such a huge fan but also because of your perspective and experience with the subject matter.
I was glad to get Dharma Seeker's email, because it has moved to me to write about this. As she says, it's a natural topic for me: I'm a Woody Allen fan who is also a feminist and a rape survivor. So far I've pushed the topic to the background of my thoughts. The only way for me to fully examine my thoughts and feelings on any subject is to write about it. So here I am.

For reference:

An Open Letter From Dylan Farrow, published by The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof. I did not find this triggering, as the story is completely dissimilar to mine, but survivors of incest and child sexual abuse may find it so.

Choosing Comfort Over Truth: What It Means to Defend Woody Allen by Jessica Valenti in The Nation. I include this as representative of what I've read from many feminist writers.

The Woody Allen Allegations: Not So Fast by Robert B. Weide, who made a documentary about Woody Allen, writing in The Daily Beast. I suggest reading this story, rather than reading about it.

• I believe Dylan Farrow. Why would I not? She is a survivor of sexual abuse and she is coming forward, very publicly. In doing so, she helps all survivors, everywhere, and, I hope, she helps herself, too. Every time a survivor comes forward, she or he must be believed. Dylan Farrow is no exception. Because her perpetrator is a famous person, her public statement is amplified millions of times over. I hope this has turned out to be a positive thing for her. I imagine it is also a burden, but I hope it is more liberating than confining.

• I believe Dylan Farrow, and when she says that Woody Allen's success has felt like a personal rebuke, I must believe her, because those are her feelings. No one can deny how another person feels. I not only believe her, but I can understand it. I can imagine it.

• When Dylan Farrow rebukes actors for working with Woody Allen, I disagree with her. She is absolutely entitled to feel that way, of course, and perhaps I would feel that way if I were her. But in our professional and working lives, we cannot examine the inner lives of our employers and colleagues and decide where and with whom we will work based on our discoveries. If people are judging female actors more harshly than male actors on this issue, that's the usual sexism at work. But neither male nor female actors owe a debt to abuse survivors, to be paid in the form of turning down work.

• Dylan Farrow rebukes Woody Allen's fans, and although I can imagine where she's coming from, I disagree with her there, too. I have been watching Woody Allen films since the 1970s. I love many of them, am indifferent to some, but my opinions and feelings are already part of me. I can't delete them from my brain because of something Woody Allen did. Dylan Farrow's disclosures are disturbing. But I don't experience art based on what I know or don't know about the artist.

I was talking about books with a friend from the library. I mentioned I had re-read Ernest Hemingway's For Whom The Bell Tolls before I went to Spain, and how much I enjoyed it, how it made me appreciate Hemingway in a whole new light. My friend said, "I won't read anything by him. He was a bad person - a womanizer, a drunk, a disloyal friend." She had read The Paris Wife, a novel based on Hemingway's relationship with his first wife, and now she will not experience the man's art.

Let's leave aside the fact that The First Wife was a novel; in this case, it doesn't matter if the novel was 100% factual or not. I was amazed that someone would choose not to experience art because of something they know about the artist. The implications of this are enormous - and absurd. Shall we lay bare every artist's life story, examine their motives, their worldview, their moral code, pass judgment on them, then if we find the artist to be upstanding moral citizens, read their books, see their plays, view their paintings? I don't subscribe to a stereotype of the artist as outside the bounds of morality, but neither do I set myself up as judge and jury. When it comes to art, I'm not there for the artist's personal life. I'm there for the art. An artist may choose to infuse her work with morality, but the personal moral code of the artist is irrelevant.

• At the beginning of Choosing Comfort Over Truth: What It Means to Defend Woody Allen, Jessica Valenti tells us straight off that she has never seen a Woody Allen film. Her parents shunned Allen's movies because of his relationship - which she puts in quotes - with Soon-Yi Previn. Personally, if my parents had told me not to watch a director's films, I'd be trying to rent, borrow, or download as many of his films as I could. But Valenti has chosen to respect her parents' judgments. She sees Allen as a pariah, and she sees his defenders as either abusers, liars, or tools of patriarchy.

I read Valenti often, and I often agree with her, but from this piece I read: "My parents told me not to watch these films because they were made by a bad man", a statement both juvenile and useless. What purpose does boycotting Woody Allen films serve? Who does it help?

When Valenti writes--
Because no matter how much we know to be true, patriarchy pushes us to put aside our good judgment—particularly when that good judgement is urging us to believe bad things about talented, white men.

I believe...that people are skeptical of abuse victims because “the truth and pervasiveness of sexual violence around the world is overwhelming. Why would anyone want to face such truth?” I also believe that deep down people know that once we start to believe victims en masse—once we take their pain and experience seriously—that everything will have to change.
-- I agree with her.

However, there are two aspects of her column with which I disagree. One, she claims:
Or, as one of Allen’s friends did in a shameful article for The Daily Beast—we simply insinuate that the protective parent is just a slut, so how can you believe anything she says anyway?
I read Robert Weide's article in the Daily Beast. I don't understand why Valenti would misrepresent an article that we can all read for ourselves, and I don't know how she comes up with her analysis of the story. Weide actually praises Mia Farrow for her undeniable talent and her humanitarian work. He does mention Farrow's relationship with Frank Sinatra, when Farrow was 20 and Sinatra was 50, but that is a fact, not an accusation. Weide mentions Farrow's other relationships (Andre Previn, etc.) but how is that slut-shaming? Unless Valenti is engaging in some kind of reverse sexism or prudishness, I don't know why facts about Farrow's relationships would disturb her.

More importantly, though, I note that Valenti's parents kept her safe from Woody Allen's movies not because Allen had abused Dylan Farrow, but because of his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn. Valenti segues seamlessly from Soon-Yi Previn to Dylan Farrow, as if they represent the same issue. I find this disturbing.

• I understand that many people find the age difference between Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn hideous and disgusting. This, in my opinion, is a bias; it has more to do with social norms than with anything inherently wrong with the relationship. I also understand people think that Allen and Previn committed an act of treachery and betrayal against Mia Farrow. And I have no doubt that from Farrow's perspective, it seemed that way. But facts are facts. Woody Allen was not Soon-Yi Previn's parent, or guardian, or custodian. Note I do not say, and I am not implying, the qualified "he was not her real father". I am not distinguishing between adoptive and biological. Allen was not her father at all. He was her mother's boyfriend, and while that may seem to many as a crime, it is not child abuse. And Mia Farrow, who did have a relationship with Frank Sinatra when she was 20 and the singer was 50, should know that. I think we all should know it.

• Conflating Woody Allen's relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, now a married couple of 17 years, and a sexually inappropriate relationship with the young Dylan Farrow is unfair and a bit ridiculous. One is consensual, but outside social norms and distasteful to the prudish. The other is child sexual abuse.

• People claim that the age and power difference between Allen and Previn, and Previn's age when they first became involved, negate the possibility of consensual sex. I find that insulting to young women. Teenage girls can make up their own minds about whether and with whom to have sex. They may make mistakes, but that doesn't mean they can't give consent.

• There do seem to be some unusual issues and inconsistencies around the sexual abuse of Dylan Farrow by Woody Allen. I don't think it's wrong to look at those with clear eyes. Refusing to look at possible circumstances doesn't further the cause of survivors of sexual abuse. I believe what Dylan Farrow writes, but I can still read Robert Weide's column and wonder how the two fit together.

• When revelations about Allen and Soon-Yi Previn first surfaced, some co-workers of mine said things like, "He is so sick and twisted. Just look at his movies, you can tell what a freak he is! This just proves it." If there are people who see Woody Allen's movies as evidence of freakishness or sickness, I can only imagine that their view of the human condition is so narrow and constricted as to admit very little outside their own experience.

If, like Valenti or my friend who won't read Hemingway, one chooses not to experience a person's art because of the artist's choices or moral code, that is one's right, of course. But to state or imply that people who do otherwise - people who will continue to enjoy Woody Allen's movies - are somehow complicit in child sexual abuse is to wrap oneself in a cocoon of moral judgment that is both convenient and self-righteous.

The implication that the next time I watch a Woody Allen film I am standing with abusers and betraying survivors doesn't stand up to scrutiny. What other films shouldn't I watch? Is there a list of morally pure directors I can refer to? What about musicians, architects, painters? And, remind me, how does boycotting Woody Allen help survivors?

Of course Dylan Farrow can't stand to see her perpetrator celebrated and feted, and her pain dismissed as ambiguity or lies. But for viewers - or non-viewers! - to sit in judgment of actors or other movie-viewers, as if the decision to not watch a movie is something more than a personal choice, as if that choice bestows some sort of moral superiority... give me a break. And conflating Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn with Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow is, at best, fuzzy thinking. At worst, it's sexist, paternalistic, and insulting.


EssieAsh said...

Thanks for this. Very well said.

laura k said...

Thanks! And thanks for commenting.

johngoldfine said...

This is such a thoughtful and balanced analysis. I agree with your thinking and your attitude, but for one sentence:

Every time a survivor comes forward, she or he must be believed.

To me that begs the question. Of course, if the person is a survivor, they are to be believed. But the question here is not whether survivors should be given credence, but whether this particular woman is, in fact, a survivor. She says yes, he says no.

Cases like the McMartin Preschool, Wenatchee, or Fells Acres ought to make us all skeptical (not necessarily dismissive or denying) about the reliability of children's memories.

laura k said...

You're right, John. There are such things as planted memories, false memories, there is witch-hunting hysteria, and so on. Those are undeniable facts, and lives have been ruined by not heeding them. You are totally right in that.

The better way to put it, for me, is that there must be, always, a presumption of truth. Every allegation or claim or statement must be taken seriously. Unless our society adheres to an absolute presumption of truth-telling, we perpetuate the secrecy and shame and self-blame that accompanies sexual abuse.

I've seen, sometimes to my shock and horror, how many people in our society employ a presumption of falsehood.

Phil said...

Excellent piece, Laura. It seems to me that if every art consumer accepted or rejected art based solely on the consumer's perceptions of the artist's moral or ethical weaknesses and failings, global culture would look a lot like the global environment--pretty bleak.

laura k said...

Thanks, Phil.

It would also only be based on what we know. Anyone whose life story hasn't been made public would be exempt. So either our judgements are incomplete or our art choices are hypocritical. Kind of nuts.

laura k said...

Woody Allen's response

I almost think it would be worse to have been a victim of this crime! To have a mother who would mentally abuse you and exploit you in this way, causing you to have such pain when it's in her power to stop it, would almost be worse than being sexually abused at age 7.

Whether the survivor of crimes perpetrated by Woody Allen or Mia Farrow, this woman has suffered.

allan said...

Another survivor writes ("Woody Allen Is Not a Monster. He Is a Person. Like My Father."):

"We are in the paradoxical situation of being subject to pure evil and knowing from experience that its representatives are rarely pure evil themselves. No one is. We have almost certainly seen at least a flicker of innocent joy or generosity in their face. We have puzzled over this person who hurt us, and considered the fact that they too were children once. ... Most of us would sooner discard all parties who have been tainted by this event than we would look at how tenuous the sanctity of children really is, how commonplace abuse is, or see the capacity for the mostly good to do periodic evil. We live in the same universe as those who abuse kids. We walk among them. If we want to end the sexual abuse of children, it will begin with the recognition that we are simply not that different from them."

laura k said...

Very good, thanks for that.

The whole "monster" construct has got to go. Just the fact that it's used so frequently ought to give people a clue that there are no monsters. There are only humans, with our incredible capacity to do good and do bad.

On the other hand, at least child sexual abuse is talked about now, a very recent and positive change.

Amy said...

Sorry in advance that this is both late and so long, butI read this the other day and found it very thought-provoking, so I've been thinking about it over the past couple of days.

Reading Woody Allen's response today only confused me more. We can never know the truth, but whatever it is, Dylan was a victim of both of her parents' abuse in multiple ways.

I agree with you in principle that we should not judge the art by the artist. We can be sure that many artists, actors, musicians, writers, etc., are not people we would want to have a drink with, let alone be friends with. And usually I'd rather not know.

But once we know, can we really put that out of mind? It's like telling the jury to disregard evidence they've already heard. If the art is good enough, I guess it takes us out of that level of consciousness and works on its own.

And if someone refuses to watch programs like the Olympics because of the ugliness and wrongdoing that happens behind the scenes, how is it different to refuse to watch a Woody Allen movie if you think he is a pedophile? I could never root for someone like Michael Vick, even if he was on the Red Sox and a superstar. (I know Vick played football, but you know what I mean.) Is there a difference between sports and the arts? If so, why?

I am not suggesting that anyone has a right to tell anyone else what they can read, hear, watch, but if a person chooses out of principle not to spend money or time on the works of an artist they believe to be immoral or criminal, I can empathize with that point of view.

Having said all that, I have to admit that I saw and greatly enjoyed Blue Jasmine, and I don't feel guilty for doing so, despite my sympathy for Dylan and her wish that people would boycott that and all his other movies.

Thanks for writing about this. As always, I find your thoughts helpful and provocative in a good way.

laura k said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Amy. I'm very glad to read your contribution.

I would never suggest that there's a right way and a wrong way to approach this issue. Anyone who feels it's wrong and unconscionable to see a Woody Allen film by all means should not see it. It's better (IMO) if they do that without trying to impose their judgments on others, but if they do... I can only nod my head and then do what I want.

For me the Olympics analogy doesn't work. My loathing of the Olympics is not from any ugliness I perceive behind the scenes - as if I could enjoy the games if I just didn't know this or that about them.

The Olympics disgust me altogether. If it were somehow possible to watch athletes perform amazing feats with no Olympics around them - no countries, no medals, no sponsorship, no ads, no announcers - I might enjoy it. But then that wouldn't be the Olympics.

I don't expect anyone else to share my feelings, I don't tell anyone else they are wrong for watching the Olympics, and I don't try to convince anyone else to share my POV. That's a crucial point here.

Re Michael Vick, the reason he is different *for me* is that I have a very low opinion of what Michael Vick contributes to the world, if indeed he contributes anything. He is a criminal, a torturer and murderer of animals. I wouldn't be able to cheer for him under any circumstances.

But when I watch a Woody Allen film, I'm not cheering for Woody Allen the man. I don't have to think about the man at all. For me it's not like trying to disregard something I know. It doesn't come up. I'm watching a movie, not Woody Allen.

This may also be influenced by the fact that I have watched Allen's films all my life. Whereas I have no history with Vick, he hasn't contributed to my life the way Woody Allen has. The sum total of what I have from Michael Vick is animal torture and murder. I heard his name for the first time in connection with the dogs.

Amy said...

Thanks, Laura, for your response. Like I said, I had no issue watching Blue Jasmine or, for that matter, any of his films, and I, too, have been watching them since Take the Money and Run (though I have not loved all of them). But I do see the other side. It's just a gray area for me.

In the case of Woody Allen, it also is different since we don't really know what the truth is. With Vick, we do.

And I do see the difference with the Olympics. I suppose a better analogy to that would be watching a work one finds to be reprehensible---a movie condoning animal abuse or even a political point of view we find abhorrent--as opposed to watching a work by an artist whom one finds personally reprehensible but whose works are not.

So I do see your points. Thanks again.

laura k said...

There's plenty of gray area to go around. I wish there weren't any gray area in the story itself - Dylan Farrow vs Woody Allen - but I must admit there is.