Defending the Case Against Woody Allen
What happens when an artist finds himself above reproach? Woody Allen, it would seem, finds himself in this rather fortunate position, even as new allegations about his conduct toward stepdaughter Dylan Farrow emerge. In a New York Timespiece published Saturday, she described the sexual abuse Allen inflicted on her as a seven-year-old girl. She says the abuse has haunted her throughout her life: “Each time I saw my abuser’s face—on a poster, on a t-shirt, on television—I could only hide my panic until I found a place to be alone and fall apart.”
If any politician or pundit faced these accusations, one would hope they would lose their position, or at least be subjected to careful scrutiny and investigation. Yet in Allen’s case, many are willing to shrug off the immensity of the crime because of his great artistic talent. Rod Dreher wrote in a blogpost a few days ago, “I completely agree that Allen is a pig—if there were no Dylan Farrow accusations at all, his unrepented-of conduct with Soon-Yi Previn was enough to establish his swinishness—but that does not detract from his accomplishments as a filmmaker.”
Perhaps these allegations do not diminish Allen’s accomplishments. But even so, one must carefully consider the ethics of this position. Maureen Orth gathered substantive accusations in 1992 that supported claims of inappropriate behavior by Allen toward Dylan Farrow when she was little. Allen has denied all accusations, and continues to live without culpability. Does one continue to watch his movies, to view and enjoy his art? Andrew Sullivan thinks so, though he seems to believe Farrow is telling the truth:
Perhaps with less essential talents, the sins may more adequately define the artist. But that, in many ways, only makes the injustice worse. Those with the greatest gifts can get away with the greatest crimes.
We can and should rail against this, while surely also be realistically resigned to it. It struck me, for example, rather apposite that as the blogosphere is debating whether to boycott Woody Allen’s films in the future because of this horrifying story, exponentially more people are tuning into the Super Bowl to watch a game we now know will render many of its players mentally incapacitated in their middle ages and beyond. We know that this spectacle is based on the premise of brain damage for many of its participants, but we watch anyway.
This argument appears flawed and alarming to me for a couple simple reasons. First, the Super Bowl comparison does not hold, because tackle football’s dangers and horrors are all known to the athletes involved, and they engage in the sport voluntarily. If Peyton Manning’s concern over his future health and wellbeing ever trumped his desire to play football and make money, he could resign in a heartbeat. He plays football on his own prerogative, and he bears the consequences of his own actions. How do the choices of a 37-year-old man with power, fame, and athletic prowess compare to the involuntary and frightened oppression of a seven-year-old girl?
If the Farrows’ claims are false, then Allen should be cleared of blame. But what if she is telling the truth? Even now, she is forced to stand by and watch as the world says, “Woody Allen may be morally reprehensible—but that’s okay, we can live with that. We value his movies.”
This is, in essence, what Sullivan and Dreher are saying. The ends (the art) justify the means (the abusive artist). There are many artists, it is true, who lived with little to no morals. But there seems to me an important difference between the person whose sins are voluntarily indulged in, and the person who takes advantage of the young, the vulnerable, and the voiceless. This seems to be too horrific to ignore. Perhaps I am too sensitive. But I do not want to douse my mind in the artistic thought of a man with such inexcusable inclinations and actions. I don’t speak merely as a woman; as a human being, believing in the right of every other human being to justice, this claim should be investigated and carefully considered—not merely by the parties in question, but by the public who absorbs Allen’s art. Art changes us: it affects our perceptions and our world views. Can we really trust ourselves—our minds, eyes, and ears—to Allen’s hands?
The more Allen’s art flourishes in the eyes of the media, the less likely he’ll feel responsible for his actions. As James Banks wrote at Humane Pursuits, “What Ross Douthat wrote of Joe Paterno and other figures considered heroes in their respective vocations applies to the inordinately talented as well; they also believe that ‘they have higher responsibilities than the ordinary run of humankind.’ And every honor or award reinforces this belief.” Note these words Allen uttered in a 1976 interview with People Magazine:
‘I’m open-minded about sex. I’m not above reproach; if anything, I’m below reproach. I mean, if I was caught in a love nest with 15 12-year-old girls tomorrow, people would think, yeah, I always knew that about him.’ Allen pauses. ‘Nothing I could come up with would surprise anyone,’ he ventures helplessly. ‘I admit to it all.’
These words were perturbingly similar to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Svidrigailov, a character in the novel Crime and Punishment. Here’s a brief description of the character from Cliffs Notes:
Svidrigailov admits to Raskolnikov that he has a ‘natural propensity’ for the vulgar. He has no scruples about getting his own way. His life has been constructed on the idea that his own feelings and pleasures are more important than anything else; therefore, he can rape a mute 15-year-old girl and, upon hearing that this girl has hanged herself, have no feelings of remorse. He simply shrugs his shoulders.
Svidrigailov believes he stands above (or perhaps below, as Allen put it) common morality. And the 15-year-old girl is helpless: she can do nothing to stop him. The world turns a blind eye. But this is not 19th century Russia. Dylan Farrow’s story should not be ignored. If she is lying, then the lie should be exposed and Allen should be exonerated. If she is telling the truth, however, Woody Allen should face the consequences, especially in the realm that so empowered him: his art.