Woody Allen: Don’t Leave the Art Out of This

This article was written to be published in one of the political publications I usually write for, yet the editors of these publications, I believe understandably, were afraid the issue was “too sticky” and could potentially lead to libel suits, and thus chose to pass it up, even though they agreed with my arguments. Some had mentioned they faced libel suits for even smaller issues in the past and had lost lots of money in the process in legal fees, despite the fact that the suits were thrown out. (I might note that this is only one among several common examples of how fears of lawsuits lead publications to self-censor.) This article is therefore exclusive to my blog.

Dylan Farrow published an open letter in the New York Times on 1 February 2014, detailing the horrific sexual crimes her adopted father, Woody Allen, repeatedly committed against her when she was only seven years old. It was her first public statement on the issue in over 20 years.

A slew of (overwhelmingly white and male—more on this point later) apologists promptly proceeded to churn and churn out enough excuses, enough hollow insinuations that Farrow is “fabricating” her accusations, to make misogynist butter. Even prominent liberal figures like Eric Alterman had no problem defending Allen against the allegations.

In the case of Woody Allen, these apologies have usually fallen into one of two categories: 1. Challenge the allegations, asserting that we can’t conclusively “know” that Allen is guilty; or, 2. Accept that Allen is guilty, but try to shield his work from his crimes.

In this work, I, an ex-Woody Allen fan, will deconstruct these two arguments, and posit that we should defend neither Allen nor his oeuvre.

Allegations of “Fabrication”

The idea that Dylan Farrow “made up” her accusations against Woody Allen is most despicable. It is indicative of the hegemonic rape culture in which it is situated. The argument relies heavily on a logical sleight of hand: Allen’s crimes have not been “proven”; therefore they are suspect; therefore they probably didn’t happen; therefore Farrow is “fabricating” the allegations to attract attention to herself, to make money, to “get back” at her father—the list of absurd excuses grows.

Allen is “innocent until proven guilty,” the apologists insist, in a most clever strategy. The duplicity in simultaneously taking for granted Farrow’s guilt in “fabricating” allegations while assuming Allen’s innocence —presumably because he’s “brilliant,” highly-esteemed, rich, famous, white, and male—is not addressed. Shouting “due process” from the mountaintops ensures that no “rational” person could possibly contest your position.

“Innocent until proven guilty.” No one challenges the notion; to do so would surely be unreasonable—even suggest that you might, and you’ll be called an advocate of totalitarianism. On the other hand, accepting the principle in cases like this, you’ll see it becomes much more of an empty aphorism, a pleasant-sounding dictum with an air of  integrity to it, that serves power and relegates justice to a secondary, even tertiary, role—all the while maintaining an alluring veneer of strict egalitarianism. You’re damned if you do; damned if you don’t.

Apologists love it, because it frees them from the burden of proving that Farrow’s accusations are “fabricated,” and instead puts the “burden of proof” on the survivor. They consistently reiterate that Allen, in our magical “Justice” System, has the presumption of innocence, while, at the same time, they know very well that there is no way that he can actually be proven guilty. “It’s been decades and no evidence has been presented,” apologists remind us, implying that the veracity of her claims is hence dubious. “You need evidence! If you don’t have evidence, your case is meaningless!”

To this point, I agree; it is important, nay, it is a necessity, that we approach things empirically, that, epistemologically speaking, we provide evidence for what we assert as knowledge. Let us not strawman evidence, nonetheless. Physical evidence from a scene of the crime is not the only kind of evidence. This hardline conception of “evidence” is appealed to only when convenient; in cases like this, no physical evidence can be procured. Only two people were ever present at the (numerous) scene(s) of the crime. Apologists know this; they use it to their advantage. The colorful world becomes its own black and white film; its shades of gray are ignored. We can trust either Allen or Farrow. One has numerous Academy Awards; one is on television each and every day; one has been making award-winning films for decades. So who you gonna trust? Apologists cannot help but choose to side with the party that brings them the most convenience, regardless of whether or not they actually utilize the exacting evidential method they claim to uphold. Induction becomes assumption becomes fact. But you can still call it science.

If apologists were truly concerned with science—and not merely with hiply appealing to it to justify the status quo—they might, oh, I don’t know, take a quick look at the mountains of scientific literature demonstrating that false rape accusations are incredibly rare. In doing so, they would see that, if they were serious about the actual statistics, it would be much more logical to presume Allen’s guilt, not innocence. “Current Information on the Scope and Nature of Child Sexual Abuse,” a 1994 article in Princeton’s The Future of Children Journal Issue: Sexual Abuse of Children found, in a review of five studies, that fabricated reports occur only 4-8% of the time. In other words 92-96% of reports are true—yet it is always taken as a given that the survivor is “fabricating” the report. A measly 4% chance of fabrication can be used to write off the possibility of rape, when patriarchal discourse makes it convenient, but if there were a 4% chance that, say, a terrorist threat were true, you can bet your bottom dollar every social and political institution in this country would bend over backward to prevent it from happening. “That’s different,” the cynic argues. “Terrorism threatens lives.” Oh, and rape doesn’t? Rape, sexual assault, molestation, these are forms of sexual terrorism; they destroy lives—millions per year. And when American society at large refuses to punish, yet alone even acknowledge, these horrendous crimes, it is facilitating that terrorism.

Are you sick and tired of so many people implying that little children “fabricate” stories about being molested and raped multiple times? ‘Cus I sure am. Yet this is how rape culture works. We live in a society in which it is simply assumed that women bravely speaking out about the horrendous atrocities committed against them are lying. They are obviously doing it for attention. If they are children, it is said they “imagined” the incident(s)—because kids are prone to create elaborate, imaginative stories, it is suggested—or that it was simply a failure of memory, that they don’t remember the event correctly.  If they are adults, the same ridiculous arguments are adapted to, directly transposed onto, new circumstances. Their accounts are written off as “only one side of the story.” Instead of shaming the rapists, the survivors are publicly shamed for being “liars,” for “allowing” themselves to be raped, for wearing the “wrong” clothes or daring to have a drink. And we wonder why rape is under-reported.

Farrow’s account stands as a firm example of how this process works. This was a child who confessed to many instances of molestation, and who has been scarred by the crimes for her entire life; this is a person who changed her own name to distance herself from her past life. Seven-year-olds don’t make up complex stories about serial rapists. And, even if they did (a big “if”), they wouldn’t change their name years later to try to forget the pain they “fabricated.” Farrow tells us “[I was] made to recount my story over and over again, to doctor after doctor, pushed to see if I’d admit I was lying as part of a legal battle I couldn’t possibly understand.” The trauma and pressure of such torture lead many to simply remain quiet. 60% of sexual assaults are never reported. And, even when they are reported, they are often deemed “false” not because they didn’t happen, but because the pain one must endure in order to do so is unbearable.

In a chilling story published last year in Freethought Blogs, “I Am a False Rape Allegation Statistic,” a woman explains how she was systematically failed at every level after she was violently raped. She details how all social and political institutions categorically assume that women are fabricating stories of rape. Survivors are endlessly interrogated, accused of lying, forced to constantly reenact what happened. In the end, many buckle. The thought of being able to simply stop talking about the incident is attractive. Justice isn’t served, but at least the pain can be mildly—although certainly not permanently, never permanently—mitigated. These are the survivors of rape that make up many “false” rape allegation statistics. How much of this 4-8% is really false? Perhaps we’ll never know. But the benefit of the doubt should be given to the survivor.

If apologists were really concerned with the evidence surrounding Allen’s case, they would see not only that it is very, very likely that Farrow’s allegations are true, but that her abuse, at the hands of a loved one, is by no means unusual. Approximately one in five women in the U.S. is raped at least once in her lifetime. 42.4% of female rape survivors were first raped before age 18. Some studies estimate one in four girls (and one in six boys) in the U.S. is sexually abused before the age of 18. Others hold that one in three girls (and one in seven boys) will be sexually abused before age 18. A large majority, 70%, of reported sexual assaults occur to children less than 17 years old—the median age is nine. And in as many as 93% of cases of child sexual abuse, the child knows the abuser—half the time, it is a relative. Child sexual abuse is rampant, and exceedingly under-reported. Almost 90% of child sexual abuse is never officially reported, and over 30% of survivors never tell anyone they were abused.

When all else fails, these silly “facts,” aside, the apologist will ultimately fall back on appeals to authority and an almost religious belief in the infallibility of social and political institutions. “I trust the Justice System,” they insist. It doesn’t matter that only 3% of rapists ever spend a single day in prison. “Many Rape [Survivors] Say Justice System Still Fails Them,” notes NPR; the National Women’s Health Network speaks of “Underreported Rape: The Failure of the Criminal Justice System“; countless other articles come to similar conclusions. Not important. There’s no “evidence.” We have to question the survivor’s allegations. It too doesn’t matter that it has, time and time again, been demonstrated that the “Justice” System is obscenely racist, unconcerned with mental illness, extremely transphobic, and hopelessly stacked against the less economically advantaged; it doesn’t matter that even some Congresspeople readily confess to this structural oppression. The white, neurotypical, cisgender, middle-class male Woody Allen apologist often has an indefatigable belief in the power of the “Justice” System to invariably and infallibly be the arbiter of justice.

Yet all of this discussion is still of the structural. What of the personal? This case is particularly significant in that Farrow’s allegations are not the only thing that might lead us to suspect Allen of sexual predation of minors. If this were an individual who didn’t have a past of, oh, you know, dating the daughter of his 12-year-long partner, perhaps the truth of the allegations might be a tad bit (only a tad bit) less probable. This knowledge, however, lends new meaning to Woody Allen quotes like “I like little girls overwhelmingly better than little boys” (said in person),” “I’m dating a girl who does homework” (said in Manhattan), “There’s a certain warmth and poignance associated with young women I would never have seen without her” (said in person, in speaking of Diane Keaton), or, perhaps most damning of all, “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” (in a 1976 issue People).

Films like Whatever Works and Manhattan, both of which feature young women (21 in the former, 17 in the latter) dating men decades older than them (interestingly, Allen always depicts these relationships as young women coming on to older men, and not the inverse) too seem more prescient. Even Robert B. Weide, in his popular defense of Allen, published in the Daily Beast about a week before Farrow’s open letter, was willing to admit that, “If anyone is creeped out by the notion of a 55-year old man becoming involved with his girlfriend’s 19-year old adopted daughter, I understand.” This is coming from the kind of filth who, even after Farrow published her open letter, stood by his insistence that her allegations may very well be fabricated.

That people actually entertain the idea that Farrow “fabricated” allegations of rape is so absurd as to be beyond reproach. I have a fun game. Ask Woody Allen apologists who insist that Farrow “made up” stories of being raped and abused why she would do so. What is she supposed to get out of it? Is she blackmailing her adopted father? And, if she is, why would she go to the New York Times to do it? Why not just blackmail Allen himself? Is this some kind of conspiracy theory? Is she just angry at her dad and wants the world to hate him—so angry she published a letter in the one of world’s most-read newspapers? The lengths to which apologists will go to defend Allen are preposterous. They’ll avoid answering the question directly; stumble over trite, worn-out excuses; they’ll mumble about “due process,” about the “Justice” System. But, when you keep all that has been articulated above in mind, you’ll see that not only do they have little ground to stand on, the few spots that are left are covered with mounds of DVDs from Woody Allen’s seemingly endless filmography.

“Love the art; hate the crime”?

And it is here we come to the second, and more nuanced, variety of Woody Allen apologetics. This breed of apologists is more understandable, in that it accepts the overwhelming probability that Allen is indeed a rapist and sexual predator of minors. The tendency, however, is to say, “As a cinephile, I want to keep his movies out of this. What he did was unconscionable, but it doesn’t make his films any less brilliant.” Yet can we actually do this, can we separate the artist from the art? Or, perhaps more importantly, should we?

I sympathize with all sides of this argument. Yet I tend to gravitate much more toward damning both the man and his art. More on this point in a moment. I must first say I have a few reservations with this approach not because I want to save Allen’s “brilliant” films, but because, in spite of Kubrick’s insistence to the contrary, a film is not like a novel or a symphony—a film cannot be made by one person.

Film is unique among artistic media in that it, practically without exception, requires multiple creative agents. Regardless of much the self-professed auteur insists otherwise, the act of filmmaking, almost invariably, requires many hands and many minds. Most films, especially in Hollywood—the tradition in which Allen works—have several-hundred-, or even several-thousand-person crews (watch the credits the next time you see a film; you might be surprised at how many people are involved).

Allen is interesting in these regards in that he may perhaps stand as one of the more compelling examples of auteur theory in practice. He has both written and directed now close to 50 films (at least one a year almost every year since 1971), and he has acted as the protagonist (virtually always the same neurotic character) in a large majority of them. Allen has a truly singular style, and almost all of his works bear the unmistakable brand of their creator. A small handful of exceptions in his entire exorbitant filmography aside (stylistically speaking, Match Point, Cassandra’s Dream, Sweet and Lowdown, and Anything Else stand as more prominent examples—although even some of these feature Allen as a supporting character), one cannot possibly divorce the Woody Allen persona from the Woody Allen film. Even when he is not the work’s protagonist, his dialogue, his dry wit, and, perchance most markedly, the themes he explores in almost every film he has made (namely, variations on the existentialist conception of the meaningless of life and of the universe and the discovery and fulfillment of arbitrary, human-constructed meaning through love) practically have his name written on them.

Can art ever be separated from its creator? Perhaps when that art has multiple creators, it can be separated from some of them. In this instance, however, although Allen’s films have always been the product of the toil of many hands, he, as one of the best examples of the auteur in the entire American canon, can hardly be seen as separate. Should the labor of the thousands of human beings involved in the creation of his scores of films be written off because they were conceived of by a pedophiliac rapist? I do find this a harsh sentence, but I find it the appropriate one. At the risk of hyperbolizing, let us ask ourselves how much labor was poured into the creation and maintenance of enormous systems of oppression, of colonial empires, of more at the behest of individual leaders. I am not suggesting that crew members of Allen’s films are “little Eichmanns” working within systems of evil. Rather, I am merely noting that every action done in a society, including, and especially, artistic ones, necessarily involves other human beings. No action can be performed in a vacuum.

It is in regards to this very point that I maintain that we should not excuse Woody Allen’s art. Such is the easy way out, the cop out. The reality of the matter is that valuing art works by rapists and sexual predators of minors is not a neutral action. It is not as simple as merely saying, “Let’s leave the art alone,” even if you can somehow separate it from its creator. The road goes both ways—the road goes many ways. Your actions have consequences. Other survivors “are still scared, vulnerable, and struggling for the courage to tell the truth. The message that Hollywood sends matters for them,” Farrow writes. It is too simple, too myopic, to suggest that Allen’s cultural castigation only affects him and Farrow. Nay, it has broad implications for the cultural and historical context in which it is situated.

“But his art is brilliant!” many an apologist will exclaim. And, yes, I in fact agree. Stardust Memories, Zelig, Annie Hall, Shadows and Fog, and The Purple Rose of Cairo, stand, or rather stood, as some of my favorite films in the history of American cinema. I readily admit that I was an enormous Woody Allen fan before I learnt of his horrific crimes (we live in a society in which one can watch all of an eminent filmmaker’s gargantuan oeuvre, along with two documentaries about said figure, and not come across the fact that he raped his adopted daughter; this is rape culture). I have seen all 48 of Allen’s films at least once; some I have seen several times. I considered him an important influence. I very much admired his work. I am not, by any means, saying this because I “expect a cookie for being a decent human being.” Not at all. I say this because I understand why people would go to lengths to save Woody Allen’s films. Many are indeed brilliant works of art.

Yet I am no longer interested in defending them. You don’t just “save something” because you “like” it. “I like it,” on its own, is never a good reason. Defending Allen’s films is a political act; defending them is tantamount to declaring that, “Yes, this man might have done horrible things, but we can still admire his work. Our defense might harm the survivors of his, of any others’, crimes, yet that cost is worth it, it is worth the cultural benefit these magna opera bring to society; it is worth the collateral damage.”

“Allen is a genius!” the apologists insist. “He’s a mastermind of the movies, a cinematic savant!” Again, I agree, but so what? The continued emphasis on this idea is problematic in that it is fundamentally based in the notion that genius is necessarily limited, that genius is scarce. If your goal is to maximize the effect “brilliant” art can have on society as a whole, you must remember that, when you defend rapists and sexual predators of minors because you value their artistic output, no matter how brilliant they or their works are, you unavoidably attack the artistic output of survivors who are hurt by such defense.

What of Dylan Farrow’s genius? She may very well have been a cinematic genius. But the man who raped and molested her went scot-free, and her accusations were thrown to the wayside. This ruined her life. What of the potential cinematic masterpieces Farrow could have made, were she not continuously attacked by Woody Allen? Yes, perhaps Allen’s many films have had a positive impact on society as a whole, but what of the films that could very well have had an even more positive impact but were not made because the society in which they could have existed valued rapists over survivors? How many artistic geniuses have had their genius destroyed by rapists while we allow it, unpunished? How many survivors have struggled through the rest of their lives, unable to pursue art (or science, or activism, or whatever it is) to their fullest potential because society valued the output of their oppressor over them? Censuring Allen’s films is not “throwing the baby out with the bath water”; it is the result of the hardheaded realization that defending someone’s art must, of necessity, take place in a particular socio-politico-historical context, and that such defense, occurring at an intersection of particular hegemonic discourses, has far-reaching implications.

Let me state clearly here that I am not suggesting that we should forbid the viewing or study of these works. I would never imply that we need to “throw out” Woody Allen’s films. I am merely saying that we cannot separate them from the person who made them. There is an enormous difference between these two ideas. In these regards, I similarly do not feel that we should go and burn all of the recordings and scores of the operas of Wagner (an egregious anti-Semite). Instead, I am positing that we can only consider this art in light of the way it oppresses. I dare the Wagner aficionado to tell a survivor of the Holocaust that one can separate Wagner’s music from its composer.

Perhaps one day we will see Allen’s films in the same light in which we see the work of D.W. Griffith (a virulent racist), that is to say, significant in terms of their larger aesthetic and cultural import, yet absolutely inexcusable in terms of the ways in which they reify oppression. I recognize that such an analogy breaks down with the recognition that the Griffith was additionally guilty of his crimes within his works, while Allen is guilty outside of his works, but, in the absence of any kind of historical precedent of society punishing a pedophiliac rapist artist for their crimes, given the enormity of the patriarchal rape culture in which we live, this might be the best we can do.

Stephen Jay Gould once wrote “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” Modulating this idea, I contend that we should be less interested in the beauty and aesthetic value of Allen’s films, or in the art created by any rapist that goes unpunished by society, than in the near certainty that the lives of people of equal and even greater talent were destroyed by rapists, rapists who still walk the streets freely today.

Woody Allen Apologetics & White-Supremacist-Capitalist-Patriarchy

When Farrow bravely published her story for all the world to hear, the ensuing burst of white male apologetics and mansplaining surely demonstrates that something had struck a chord with the white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchal establishment. Nicholas Kristof (who coincidentally saw no issue, in the preface to Farrow’s letter, in both implying that she might be lying and plugging his own article) tweeted about the “gender gap in reaction to Dylan’s essay,” explaining how many “men are denouncing me for publishing it; many women thanking me for the same.”

Such a response should not come as a surprise. In Hollywood, patriarchy, white supremacy, capital, and stardom mix in a most mephitic stew. Allen is symptomatic of a much larger white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchal establishment, one that conveniently whitewashes the horrific crimes of “talented” rich white male artists in the insistence that the public should “Love the artist; hate the crime” (if the latter is even widely known). Roman Polanski is a fellow rapist and sexual predator of minors; Sean Penn brutally beat Madonna; Charlie Sheen has beaten multiple partners; Mel Gibson beat his girlfriend; and Charlie Chaplin, at age 35, was forced to marry 16-year-old Lita Grey, having impregnated her (under California law, he could have been charged with statutory rape)—two years later, Grey then divorced him, accusing him of adultery, abuse, and “perverted sexual desires.”

White male movie stars are not alone in these regards. Jimmy Page, guitarist of Led Zeppelin, one of rock’s most celebrated guitarists in one of rock’s most celebrated bands, stands as another example, among many, of celebrity rapists who today freely roam the world. Upon seeing a 14-year-old whom he considered attractive in a nightclub, Page had his tour manager Richard Cole tell her “Jimmy told me that he’s going to have you whether you like it or not,” and throw her in his limo, threatening “you fucking move and I’ll fucking have your head.” But, hey, “‘Stairway to Heaven’ is brilliant!” the apologist earnestly reminds us. “Can’t we just forget that it was written by, oh, you know, a rapist and sexual predator of minors and just enjoy the music?” No. Not if you have any ounce of compassion for survivors of rape and sexual assault.

“Men are raped too!” many an irate Men’s Right “Activist,” will insist. Yes, but it is practically irrelevant to bring up. Approximately one in every 71, or 1.4% of, men in the U.S. is raped. So yes, the problem exists, and it is serious, but, again, nearly one in five American women is raped. Treating these two issues as though they are even remotely similar is misleading at best, insidious at worst. Rape is gendered issue. In instances of rape, men are very, very overwhelmingly guilty. Bringing up sexual violence against men (aside from being an asinine effort to insist “men are oppressed too”) is often simply a non sequitur, an attempt to draw the emphasis from the fact that rape is a problem caused and propagated almost entirely by men, not by women or those of other genders.

And, race, race, like usual, everything to do with this. Imagine Woody Allen were a person of color, and his daughter-in-law confessed that he had repeatedly raped and molested her. His career would instantly be destroyed. The corporate media would bring in countless “specialists” to speculate as to what it is in Woody Allen’s cultural upbringing (especially if he were Arab) that “made him this way,” as if he were not an individual but solely a reflection of the race he belonged to.

Such an instance is not impossible to imagine; we have parallels in popular culture. Yet Allen has the luxury of being a white male. Innocence is therefore presumed, always and everywhere, unless a very large burden of proof is met. Sometimes, often, this burden is impossible to meet, but “That’s not our problem,” the white male apologist maintains.

“Woody Allen is a living testament to the way our society fails the survivors of sexual assault and abuse,” Farrow reminds us in her letter. In this context, the statement can also be understood not only as an indictment of the rape culture that allows 97% of rapists to go free, but as a recognition that our society and its institutions largely exist to serve people like Allen—famous, rich, white men. Fellow creative famous, rich, white men, like Roman Polanski, another “genius” filmmaker, can drug and then rape a 13-year-old girl while she screams for him to stop, but it’s okay, because their films are pretty and just say oh so much about the human condition!

I highly, highly doubt that there will be any actual legal persecution for Allen in the long run. It is probably impossible to procure evidence, two decades later, when only two people were present. Even if he were sentenced and taken to court, the odds are very high that he would be exculpated. He is a rich, famous, white male. The “Justice” System was (literally) made for people like him.

Yet, even if no legal punishment can be served, cultural punishment can. For his crimes, Allen should face absolute cultural eschewment; he should be publicly shamed for being the rapist and sexual predator of minors he is.

Honoring the “genius” of a rapist with a lifetime achievement award only serves to normalize rape, to suggest that one can commit horrendous crimes against other human beings and still enjoy a prosperous life, unpunished for your despicable transgressions.

As an ex-Woody Allen fan, as an ex-huge Woody Allen fan, I have to let my morals and values take precedence over my artistic interests. I recommend that others do the same.

Woody Allen is a rapist and sexual predator of minors. He should not be admired; he should be reproached. And don’t leave the art of out it.