The Woody Allen dilemma, now resurrected in the wake of Harvey Weinstein being exposed as a serial sexual predator, confronts us on two levels.
Level one is an enduring debate about Allen himself: Is Allen merely attracted to young women in his personal and creative lives, a proclivity that pushes at the boundaries of social norms for consent and age-appropriate relationships? Or is Allen a sexual predator, one who has sexually abused a child?
Level two involves how this remains a debate, how keeping alive arguments about who Allen is provides a shield behind which Allen continues to produce films, accumulating wealth and power, and to remain mostly unscathed—much as Weinstein did for years: When women accuse men of sexual harassment, sexual assault, or sexual abuse, men raise the specter of false accusations—Allen himself responding to the Weinstein scandal by cautioning against a witch hunt in Hollywood.
If we return to level one, we must be willing to acknowledge the tension between consent and women’s (especially young women’s) autonomy and human agency.
Consider for example, a parallel situation involving another powerful and celebrated artist, J.D. Salinger, who courted young women; at 18, Joyce Maynard made a decision:
At Salinger’s urging, I left college — left the world, more or less — to be with him. I will state plainly: This was a choice I made, of my own volition, with as much understanding of the world as an 18-year-old may possess.
Maynard forefronts her autonomy, but we must also admit her decision to be with Salinger was prior to his exposing himself as a monster. In other words, a young woman’s autonomy and consent need not be erased, and must not be demonized, if we keep our focus where it belongs—on the men who are monsters.
So that brings us back to level two and why the most damning possibility about Allen—he is a man who sexually abused a child—remains only a possibility, a rumor, because shouting “Witch hunt!” maintains the accusatory gaze on the victims—imbued with their possibility of being false witnesses.
But the false witness argument is at least a distraction if not a lie:
The majority of sexual assaults, an estimated 63 percent, are never reported to the police (Rennison, 2002). The prevalence of false reporting cases of sexual violence is low (Lisak, Gardinier, Nicksa, & Cote, 2010), yet when survivors come forward, many face scrutiny or encounter barriers. For example, when an assault is reported, survivors may feel that their victimization has been redefined and even distorted by those who investigate, process, and categorize cases.
The valid fear, then, about sexual assault includes the following:
Research shows that rates of false reporting are frequently inflated, in part because of inconsistent definitions and protocols, or a weak understanding of sexual assault. Misconceptions about false reporting rates have direct, negative consequences and can contribute to why many victims don’t report sexual assaults (Lisak et al., 2010). To improve the response to victims of sexual violence, law enforcement and service providers need a thorough understanding of sexual violence and consistency in their definitions, policies and procedures.
We must add that men who assault also perpetuate the “frequently inflated” narrative because treating outliers as some sort of rampant phenomenon allows the monsters to survive without scrutiny or consequences.
Despite Courtney Love in 2005 and, apparently, Family Guy for years—the open secret of sexual abuse in Hollywood has remained closeted, from Weinstein to Kevin Spacey and dozens (hundreds?) of men including Allen and Roman Polanski.
Another hint about the open secret, Lana Del Rey’s “Cola,” serves as a powerful entry into the root cause of the Allen dilemma narrowly and the sexual abuse reality broadly:
“When I wrote that song, I suppose I had a Harvey Weinstein/Harry Winston-type of character in mind,” Del Rey told MTV of the “Cola.” “I envisioned, like, a benevolent, diamond-bestowing-upon-starlets visual, like a Citizen Kane or something. I’m not really sure. I thought it was funny at the time, and I obviously find it really sad now. I support the women who have come forward. I think they’re really brave for doing that.”
Del Rey, like Allen, has strong personal and artistic connections with relationships between young women and older men, but Del Rey personifies how gender shapes the consequences of those experiences and themes for women:
This kind of reversal has cemented LDR’s legend: Caught between misogynist dismissal of her art and feminist critiques of same, she appears coolly immune to both forms of attack, which boil down to a common shame over heterosexual cliché. Each camp argues that she presents a superficial, even damaging view of womanhood, minus the talent or veneer of commentary to carry it off. Where Taylor Swift and Katy Perry will belt a breakup anthem as a call to arms, Lana has the audacity to stew in her nihilism and laugh ruefully at the men who mistreat her. Gendered, negative responses just feed into her enveloping aura.
Here, however, let’s pause at “I thought it was funny at the time.”
This film is either an homage or garbled analysis of Allen, a work that is blunt pastiche that may ultimately be 21st-century fan fiction—seemingly an artistic extension of Allen’s “witch hunt” mantra.
With Del Ray’s mea culpa in mind about her art, a brief moment in Louis CK’s film trailer is telling:
Louis C.K.’s character is not sure he is ok with his beautiful and carefree daughter dating a man three times her age, and at one point reiterates to Malkovich’s character that she is a minor, to which he responds “a minor what?”
Let’s extrapolate Del Ray’s response to her own song: Maybe Allen seemed funny “at the time,” and maybe Louis CK thinks his Being Woody Allen is funny now—but this was never funny because monsters in real life are never funny.
Hollywood has made billions on fictional monsters, but we must now admit Hollywood has made billions by monsters as well—and they continue by the dozens.
“The evil that men do” (here, the sexism of Shakespeare language is prescient), however, is not a Hollywood real-life story alone; the monsters are everywhere, and if we look carefully at the Hollywood cesspool, we see the root of all evil—”the love of money” that empowers the shield behind which monsters thrive.
Weinstein and Allen, although not alone or unique, depended on their power and wealth to make or break the careers of young women—megalomaniacs who disregarded the humanity of their victims.
I have argued before that Tom and Daisy Buchanan in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby are the “careless people,” the wealthy who are themselves monsters, who best represent who America truly is as a country—a people poisoned by capitalism, materialism, and consumerism.
The real world of Hollywood, in fact, trumps Fitzgerald’s fictional unmasking of the America Dream, but nothing can surpass the actual Trump clan now lording over the U.S.
The national indignity of Donald Trump being elected president after being exposed on video as a sexual predator himself is something the country can never erase, or even explain—adding to our long history of propping up men-who-are-monsters as heroes and honorable men.
But we should be just as disgusted by Donald Trump Jr. who recently continued the Trump family tradition of stealing other people’s ideas when he Tweeted (like father, like son) on Halloween, our national celebration of fictional heroes:
I’m going to take half of Chloe’s candy tonight & give it to some kid who sat at home. It’s never to early to teach her about socialism. pic.twitter.com/3ie9C0jv2G
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) October 31, 2017
Like Allen’s “witch hunt” response to Weinstein, Junior is playing the diversion game in order to maintain the shield behind which the Trumps scuttle along as the monsters they are.
Many have noted that Junior appears clueless about both socialism and his dear capitalism, his shield. Framing socialism as some sort of monster itself is a diversion from how capitalism creates monsters and perpetuates them.
Advocates of amoral systems, capitalism, must hide that socialism is, in fact, a moral system—a people consenting to community and cooperation so that everyone has essential needs that support basic human dignity and agency.
Explaining socialism, Oscar Wilde argued: “It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property. It is both immoral and unfair”:
Socialism, Communism, or whatever one chooses to call it, by converting private property into public wealth, and substituting co-operation for competition, will restore society to its proper condition of a thoroughly healthy organism, and insure the material well-being of each member of the community….
Private property has crushed true Individualism, and set up an Individualism that is false. It has debarred one part of the community from being individual by starving them. It has debarred the other part of the community from being individual by putting them on the wrong road, and encumbering them….The industry necessary for the making money is also very demoralising. In a community like ours, where property confers immense distinction, social position, honour, respect, titles, and other pleasant things of the kind, man, being naturally ambitious, makes it his aim to accumulate this property, and goes on wearily and tediously accumulating it long after he has got far more than he wants, or can use, or enjoy, or perhaps even know of.
Wilde concludes ( with more prescient sexist language), “The evolution of man is slow. The injustice of men is great.”
The deplorables laugh at Junior’s ignorant Tweet because they think it is funny.
What now? Will we allow “I thought it was funny at the time” to appear on the gravestones of the women and children sacrificed in our quest for the all mighty dollar?
Or like Del Ray can we finally admit it isn’t funny.
It was never funny.