On Woody Allen And Hollywood’s Shameful Perpetuation Of Rape Culture

By Veve Jaffa

flickr/Aurora
The media’s long-time role in sanitizing celebrity indiscretion has had a devastating cultural impact.

May 11 marked the opening day of the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, but speculation about which movies would be a hit and what the stars would be wearing weren’t the only news items making headlines. The same day, Woody Allen’s son Ronan Farrow published an article in The Hollywood Reporter in which he held the film industry accountable for its complicity in protecting known abusers — namely, his father.

Shortly after, staff from THR found themselves banned from a lunch event at Cannes thanks to Allen’s long-time publicist Leslee Dart, a move she admitted was an act of retaliation for publishing Ronan’s article, saying:

“It’s only natural that I would show displeasure when the press — in this case, The Hollywood Reporter — goes out of its way to be harmful to my client.”

More than two years have passed since Dylan Farrow published her courageous and harrowing open letter in The New York Times detailing the sexual abuse she experienced as a child at the hands of her father, but media outlets and the film industry at large have done little to offer support, choosing instead to protect Allen. That the allegations have been handled in such a way should come as no surprise. This may be the first time a festival has enabled politically-influenced bans on journalists — setting a new precedent for the lengths the industry will go to shield famous abusers from accountability — but it’s hardly the first time Hollywood has eschewed moral principle to protect its elite.

The industry has a long history of covering up abuse, using media outlets to engage in insidious endorsements of rape culture, and suppressing and discrediting survivor’s stories. This unsettling symbiosis harkens back to the Golden Age of Hollywood, when the studio system reigned supreme, exerting near-absolute control over the media, employing “fixers” to alter, fabricate, or bury stories to hide celebrity indiscretion.

Clark Gable was accused of raping Loretta Young during the filming of Call of The Wild, a reality Young didn’t fully accept or understand until she heard the term “date rape” late in life, but nonetheless, she knew she would have to cover up the assault and resulting pregnancy if she wanted to keep working in the industry. When Patricia Douglas was raped by an MGM salesman at a studio party in 1937, MGM did everything in their power to silence her, including hiring a security agency to track down every woman at the party to publicly discredit her story, claiming that Douglas, a woman who never drank, was in fact drunk the night of the attack. MGM’s bought testimony was used to publish character assassinations and smear campaigns, tilting public opinion in favor of the studio.

And then, of course, there are more recent examples, like Roman Polanski. Hollywood has vocally defended and supported the director — even after he was charged with drugging and raping a 13-year-old, ultimately pleading guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. Polanski won his Best Director Oscar after these charges were made, while he was in France to avoid being sentenced. When Polanski was detained in Switzerland a few years ago as a result of the charges, power player Harvey Weinstein came to his defense, saying, “We’re calling on every filmmaker we can to help fix this terrible situation.”

This entrenched prioritization of male celebrity reputation is at the root of how the film industry and media are dealing with the allegations against Allen. In his article, Ronan digs into biased media representation as he recounts the difficulty Dylan had in finding an outlet to publish her story. And while it was eventually picked up by the New York Times, its publication came embedded with strict caveats and a tight word limit, restrictions that did not apply to Allen’s response, which the Times also ran. As Ronan wrote:

“Soon afterward, the Times gave her alleged attacker twice the space — and prime position in the print edition, with no caveats or surrounding context. It was a stark reminder of how differently our press treats vulnerable accusers and powerful men who stand accused.”

The aftermath of Dylan’s letter is also telling. After securing a TV deal with Amazon, publicity was alight with anticipation for Allen’s new work; no matter that the announcement came right on the heels of Dylan going public with her story. Despite the severity of her accusations and the overwhelming evidence in support of them, Allen has continued to receive money and accolades from the industry and media at large.

In fact, the letter has had no perceivably negative effect on Allen’s career or access to industry opportunities. Instead, the scant media attention the story has received has generated more sympathy for Allen than outrage. Vulture felt the need to add this (sadly not uncommon) addendum to an article praising Allen’s recent Amazon deal:

“Woody Allen might have raped his adopted stepdaughter when she was 7 years old. Or he might not have. This is a very troubling allegation that will likely haunt Allen for the remainder of his days. It’s also one that we’re not going to get to the bottom of here. (It’s also different from the allegations against Bill Cosby, whose accusations come from many, many different people and span decades. Those accusations led to Cosby having his TV projects yanked and canceled, which was probably appropriate.)”

Note how their concern extends solely to a man accused of rape, while speculating about the lifelong damage Dylan’s story will likely inflict, but not a single word is spared to recognize the life-altering impact of rape or how difficult it would be to see your rapist on TV and in the news on a regular basis. Further, comparing Allen to Bill Cosby sets a dangerous precedent for survivors coming forth with their stories, implying that in order for accusations to be taken seriously, at least 24 other people need to come forward.

The burden of proof has always been placed solely on victims of rape, with criteria dictating who is worthy of belief, making it more difficult to seek justice and support. Bringing Cosby into their justification for defending a rapist perpetuates harmful myths about rape, assuming that people with money and clout are incapable of such depravity, and even peddling the outlandish idea that your rapist can’t really be a rapist if they haven’t been caught raping anyone else. Allen relied on those same harmful misconceptions in his response to Dylan’s letter, claiming everything from his age, to a lack of prior allegations, to his new relationship with stepdaughter Soon-Yi as reasons why he couldn’t possibly have raped his daughter, relying on rape culture’s invention of the stranger lurking in a dark alley, despite the fact that the majority of rapes are carried out by people close to the victim, like family members.

The media’s long-time role in sanitizing celebrity indiscretion has had a devastating cultural impact, reinforcing damaging perceptions of rape survivors and affecting public attitudes toward survivor acceptance and support. When media outlets choose to give rapists platforms instead of their victims, or to outright silence and suppress survivor’s stories, it feeds into a self-sustaining system, one that convinces other survivors it’s not worth the trouble or public scrutiny to come forward.

Ronan acknowledged the effect silence has on survivor support, writing:

“That kind of silence isn’t just wrong. It’s dangerous. It sends a message to victims that it’s not worth the anguish of coming forward. It sends a message about who we are as a society, what we’ll overlook, who we’ll ignore, who matters and who doesn’t.”

The industry’s unanimous silence on matters of sexual abuse has the same effect from within, normalizing the exploitation and abuse of young stars. Cannes toeing the line and allowing THR’s ban not only discourages survivors from coming forward, it serves as a warning to those who wish to break the cultural contract and the silence expected to go along with it.

The complexity of character that we afford famous men mired in even the most horrific allegations is not a kindness afforded to their victims. Regardless of how much credence may be retroactively afforded to Dylan’s story, and no matter how many people recognize Allen’s deeply inappropriate and abusive interactions with young women and children, that will always only be a small part of how he is defined.

The prevailing attitude seems to be that merely acknowledging the truth is where social accountability begins and ends. Indeed, the majority of Dylan’s few supporters in the media and film industry have offered their acknowledgement of Allen’s wrongdoings as the appropriate personal and moral compromise in order to continue offering their pens and patronage to his work. Mentally noting Allen’s wrongdoings may assuage personal guilt for perpetuating his success, but it does nothing to challenge the systems that continue to privilege and protect him — the same systems that have allowed famous rapists and abusers to professionally thrive free of consequence for years. When survivors ask for a boycott, it’s not about “making the problem disappear,” it’s about hurting the systems that privilege and protect rapists enough to hopefully make them disappear.

The prevailing attitude seems to be that merely acknowledging the truth is where social accountability begins and ends.

It’s no accident, of course, that Hollywood continually sidesteps these accusations, as it serves their monetary interests to do so. Allen’s films have raked in millions upon millions of dollars for the industry’s players and Allen himself, who earned a cool $15 million in the Amazon deal. And as long as the industry has this invested capitalist interest in silencing survivors, the cycle will continue.

That said, we stand a chance of changing this harmful culture with our own words and influence. Mainstream media may have let Dylan down, but we luckily live in a time where platforms exist to support marginalized voices as well, and with them we can make our voices heard to combat the silence.

When asked if he had read Ronan’s article that led to the ban, Allen said he had not, adding “I have moved so far past that. You know, I never think about it.”

I bet there isn’t a day that goes by that Dylan doesn’t think about it.

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