Woody Allen, Mia Farrow and What Popular Culture Wants to Believe

There are two stories. In one, a father molests his 7-year-old daughter. In the other, a mother coaches that daughter to falsely accuse the father. These stories, one proposed by Mia Farrow and her advocates, one by Woody Allen and his, clearly contradict each other. No sane person can accept both. Crucially, only one lets you feel mostly OK about watching “Annie Hall” again.

I was a teenager in 1992 when this particular scandal broke, so I experienced them through the cracked prism of gender narratives absorbed from the movies and shows and stealthily read supermarket tabloids of the day: That a woman should be pretty but not too pretty, sexy but not too sexy, smart but not too smart, empowered but mostly in a way that means wearing boob-forward dresses and high heels — but for you! because you want to! — and doesn’t trespass on any actual power. A fun fact about high heels: They make it harder to run away. There were limitless ways, the culture informed me, that a woman could get it wrong — “it” being her body, her career, her accusations of abuse.

I can still remember an article, probably from The National Enquirer, that pitted celebrity women against one another according to their knees. The only star with acceptable ones? The “Entertainment Tonight” host Mary Hart. “Her knees are truly lovely,” the article read.

I thought about these narratives while watching — twice, in a “Clockwork Orange,” eyes-clamped-open kind of way — “Allen v. Farrow.” A four-part documentary by Amy Ziering, Kirby Dick and Amy Herdy, now on HBO, it centers on one of the more involuted scandals of the early ’90s, the breakdown of the relationship between Woody Allen and Mia Farrow and the accusations and counteraccusations and custody trial and appeals that followed. The couple met in 1979. They had a child together in 1987, Ronan Farrow (who changed his name from Satchel). In 1991, Allen formally adopted Mia Farrow’s two youngest children, Dylan, the daughter who has accused him of abuse, and Moses.

Moses Farrow, Soon-Yi Previn, Dylan Farrow and Woody Allen in a scene from the documentary.Credit…HBO

In January 1992, Farrow discovered explicit Polaroids that Allen had taken of another of her daughters, her eldest, Soon-Yi Previn, then 21. In August, Dylan Farrow has said, she was abused when Allen was alone with her for perhaps 20 minutes during his visit to Mia Farrow’s home in Connecticut. Concerned by reports from babysitters and by statements that Dylan allegedly made, Farrow took the child to a pediatrician. The pediatrician reported the suspected abuse to law enforcement. Allen sued for custody. A criminal investigation began. The news media chronicled it all with the kind of fervid enthusiasm you mostly see in circus parades. (Allen has consistently denied the accusations.)

Kirby and Dick’s previous work includes “The Invisible War,” an exposé of sexual assault in the military, and “The Hunting Ground,” which addressed assault on college campuses. Their last sinema, “On the Record,” explored allegations against the music producer Russell Simmons. (He has denied all accusations of nonconsensual sex.) So no, “Allen v. Farrow” isn’t exactly evenhanded. Then again, in cases of abuse allegations, is even-handedness exactly what we want?

Allen and Soon-Yi Previn declined to participate in the series, recently arguing, via a spokesperson, that the filmmakers hadn’t given them enough notice. Not that Allen has made his own case particularly well. In a 1992 news conference he appears whiny, aggrieved. Later, in a “60 Minutes” interview, he says that he couldn’t possibly have abused his child in that moment, because it would have been “illogical.” Is this how most men approach predation? With careful pro-and-con lists? (Also, here’s the title of Allen’s 2015 movie about a murderous professor who sleeps with his young student? “Irrational Man.”)

The documentary shows evidence supporting Allen, chiefly a report from the Child Sexual Abuse Clinic of the Yale-New Haven Hospital, which concluded that Dylan was either fantasizing or had been coached by her mother. On the other side is the testimony, in court and for the camera, of babysitters, family friends and Dylan herself.The judge in the custody trial ultimately labeled Allen’s behavior “grossly inappropriate.”

Dylan, left, and Ronan Farrow with Woody Allen, who has called the documentary “shoddy.”Credit…HBO

But at the arrhythmic heart of the matter were these two stories. Until very recently, the public preferred the one that allowed Allen to keep making movies, movies in which comparatively powerless young women willingly enter into relationships with older, more powerful men.

This past summer and fall, as my marriage was very quietly imploding, I spent what little free time I had jogging around the park near my Brooklyn apartment, trying, I guess, to figure out my own story, 3.3 miles at a time. While I ran, I listened to “You’re Wrong About,” an irreverent, stiletto-sharp podcast that often discusses maligned women of the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s — Anna Nicole Smith, Tonya Harding, Janet Jackson, Monica Lewinsky, half a dozen more.

These stories run a big-haired gamut in terms of individual culpability, but in every case, popular culture found a way to blame the woman, often to excuse a more blameworthy man. Take, for example, Janet Jackson’s Nipplegate, a scandal that never touched Justin Timberlake. Or Monica Lewinsky, portrayed as a slut, as though that somehow negated the outrageous power imbalance in Bill Clinton’s relationship with her. This recalls another lesson I learned from ’80s and ’90s media: The only good victim is a perfect victim. That otherwise it was probably her fault.

This particular narrative re-emerges in the recent documentary “Framing Britney Spears.” That sinema shows news media at the turn of the century panting to tell a story about a star acting inappropriately, a party girl wilding out when she should have been at home. “Britney: Out of Control,” read an Us Weekly cover. Whose control? Conveniently, the tabloid framing lays Spears’s spiral at her own bare feet. It avoids impugning the people with actual power, the magazine editors and the record company executives who shaped and policed and profited from her image.

I asked Sarah Marshall, a journalist and a host of “You’re Wrong About,” why popular culture likes to portray women as complicit and deserving of contempt. “It justifies subjugating them,” she said. “If women are randomly taken down for possessing what we see as an alarming degree of power, even if it isn’t, then maybe they’ll be more fearful about how they wield it.”

Mia Farrow — with her children Daisy, Fletcher, Soon-Yi and Lark Previn — cooperated extensively with the documentary makers.Credit…HBO

Has popular culture finally moved on? In a recent telephone interview, Anne Helen Petersen, a celebrity gossip expert and the author of “Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman,” discussed sympathetic attitudes toward Allen, Michael Jackson and R. Kelly in the ’90s and 2000s. “I don’t think we were equipped to deal with stories of abuse at that moment,” she said. Now she sees “a larger shift in our apparatus of language to understand and condemn when it comes to abuse,” she said.

We can perhaps trace that shift if we survey the celebrity scandals of the past year — involving Marilyn Manson, Shia LaBeoufand others. Then again, when it comes to gossip and censure, the scales for men and women remain differently weighted. Armie Hammer had to allegedly ask to eat women in order to provoke outrage. (He’s denied the accusations.) All Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion had to do was rap about female arousal. A few weeks after they released “WAP,” Megan Thee Stallion accused the rapper Tory Lanez of shooting her in July, a charge Lanez has denied. Some social media users then suggested that the shooting was somehow her fault.

The “Allen v. Farrow” series, in part because it sides so unequivocally and uncritically with Mia Farrow, will convince some but not all. Still, no matter what did or didn’t happen in that Connecticut crawl space in 1992, and even though we know, or we should know, that child sexual abuse is frighteningly common and that false reports of abuse are rare, there was one story that our culture believed. Here’s how a now adult Dylan Farrow put in an a CBS interview from 2018: “What I don’t understand is how is this crazy story of me being brainwashed and coached more believable than what I’m saying about being sexually assaulted by my father?”

How? Because that story reinforces norms of power and control. Because it supports an idea of women as conniving and untrustworthy. Because making women wrong — for their knees, for their autonomy — is what our culture loves to do. And if a woman like Mia Farrow — pretty, successful, comparatively wealthy — could be exposed as a villain, it becomes that much easier to delegitimize the rest of us, particularly women of color, who are more likely to experience sexual violence and less likely to report it.

If you believe Allen, his story is a happy one, at least until #MeToo came along and complicated it. He marries Previn. He makes movie after movie. He even wins another Oscar. If you believe Dylan Farrow, you recognize she grew up knowing that her abuser went unpunished, that his career flourished. That’s a terrible ending. What attitudes would our culture have to sacrifice to imagine a better one?

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