For more than two decades, the accusation of Woody Allen molesting his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow was swept under the rug, hardly a shadow to his success as a film writer, director, and comedian. His work had been acknowledged fondly for years, most recently depicted in his winning of the Cecil B. DeMille Award at this year’s Golden Globes. Not only was he and his work recognized by winning the award, his Annie Hall companion and coworker Diane Keaton accepted the award for him and gave a robustly positive speech on his character, success, and ability to write “strong women.” Although this award was meant to highlight Allen’s career accomplishments, the obvious disregard for his immoral actions resulted in them being grabbed by the tail and yanked from under their hiding place. And thank God for that.
In the growing light shone upon Allen’s horrendous actions, Dylan Farrow published an open letter to the New York Times about her traumatic experiences with sexual assault from the young age of seven, the extreme lack of punishment that her father had faced, and the aftermath. Allen has disregarded his daughter’s pleas for over twenty years, calling the claims “ludicrous” and “untrue and disgraceful.” Not only does Allen’s refusal to take responsibility for his actions degrade the sufferings of his daughter, it also degrades the experiences of all sexual assault survivors. The lack of accountability and punishment that Allen has faced only makes the situation worse, adding to the long list of privileges that puts him at the top of the media’s accountability hierarchy. To hold Allen accountable would not demean his intelligence and creative ability, but would be overshadowed by his appalling lack of compassion, decency, and respect.
Keaton’s overwhelming appreciation for Allen’s “ability” to write “strong women” also inflicts a very personal disrespect for all sexual assault survivors. Allen is a strong example that writing supposedly strong female characters and respecting women as human beings are two completely different things. To write women in the same way that we write men (strong, personable, diverse, goal-oriented) should not be rare enough that we must value a child molester for doing so. This is, to say the least, unsettling commentary on American cinema.
Woody Allen has not been the first case of “genius” artists that had horrendous pasts that are foreseen simply because of their contributions to society, and he will certainly not be the last. The privileges of the few “geniuses”, an overwhelming majority of these being white men, have been so great that the well-being and suffering of others has been overlooked in order to preserve their art. There is no excuse for being an indecent human being, so why are we making them now?
Ultimately, the difficulty to dismiss Allen’s work comes down to a lack of seriousness of the oppressions and struggles of women, as well as a very thin and vague sense of artistic aesthetic and quality. Men being punished for committing sexual assault is, statistically, very rare, and Allen’s contribution to the art community only adds to his societal privileges. This allows his work to still be valued while ignoring the artist’s oppressive and traumatizing actions.
I have tried several times to look at the controversy of Woody Allen from both an artistic and feminist standpoint. I still don’t understand why I ever have to choose between the potency of quality art and respect for women. Don’t get me wrong, I have enjoyed several of Allen’s films. However, I believe that recognizing his art in general (especially for its women) makes it even more difficult to value and respect women and all sexual assault survivors. If we are to hold Allen accountable for his actions and not value his work, we would lose a large contribution to and development of film and art.
Yet if this is in order to respect survivors of traumatic events and demean the persecutors of these actions, is it really even a loss at all?