Culture

What the Woody Allen Regret Parade Reveals About the #MeToo Movement

Does the Culture Gain Anything from Hearing What It Wants to Hear?

By Sam Eichner ·
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The list of actors and actresses who have recently voiced their regret for having worked with the disgraced director Woody Allen is growing by the day.

This whole parade began with Greta Gerwig, who directed one of the year’s best films, Lady Bird. Backstage at the Golden Globes, earlier this month, she was asked whether or not she regretted working with Allen, on his 2012 film, To Rome with Love. Her wavering answer—she “hadn’t come down on one side or the other”—made headlines, and caused an uproar amongst some in the #MeToo movement. Two days later, in an interview with The New York Times, Gerwig appeared to realize her mistake, offering a satisfactory revision: “I would like to speak specifically to the Woody Allen question, which I have been asked about a couple of times recently, as I worked for him on a film that came out in 2012,” Gerwig told The Times. “It is something that I take very seriously and have been thinking deeply about, and it has taken me time to gather my thoughts and say what I mean to say. I can only speak for myself and what I’ve come to is this: If I had known then what I know now, I would not have acted in the film.”

What Gerwig is referring to is an open letter, published in The Times in 2014, written by Allen’s adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow—wherein she discussed, with grave detail, the ways in which Allen sexually assaulted her as a child. Of course, her accusations had been public since 1993, when the case was brought to court, and widely discussed ever since. (Allen has denied all allegations, and he was never prosecuted.) At the time, Allen's cadre of actors seemed, if not to defend him, then stake out a middle ground that, in the wake of our current reckoning, has all but disappeared. Scarlett Johannson, a frequent Allen collaborator, refused to weigh in on the allegations, calling it "all guesswork"; Cate Blanchett, who won an Oscar that year for her work in Allen's film, Blue Jasmine, had just this to say: "It's obviously been a long and painful situation for the family and I hope they find some resolution and peace." Business, for the most part, proceeded as usual. 

However, any fan of Allen’s work, and particularly any person who worked with him since 1993, would’ve known about the accusations. Farrow’s letter, while powerful, wasn’t necessarily breaking news then, and it certainly isn't breaking news now. What's changed is the culture's willingness to listen to victims of sexual assault, and the pressure on those who've worked with him to speak out. 

Since Gerwig’s public disavowal, other actors and actresses have followed suit. Rebecca Hall, who starred in 2008’s Vicky Christina Barcelona, announced that she would be donating her salary from work in Allen’s forthcoming film, A Rainy Day in Manhattan, to the Time’s Up legal fund; Timothée Chalamet, who will appear in the same film, soon did the same. Golden Globe-winner Rachel Brosnahan, who worked on Allen’s mini-series for Amazon, and Mira Sorvino, whose career was allegedly ruined by Harvey Weinstein after she rejected his sexual advances, and who worked with Allen on 1995’s Mighty Aphrodite, also came forward to publicize their regret. Just today, Colin Firth, who worked with Allen on 2013’s Magic in the Moonlight, provided a statement to The Guardian, saying that he would never again work with the director.

It is quite feasible that anyone who’s ever worked with Woody Allen since 1993 and hopes to work in Hollywood again will eventually come forward—except maybe Alec Baldwin. Where this list will stop is still unclear. Should I donate the money I would’ve spent on a ticket to see Wonder Wheel to the Time’s Up fund? Should theaters donate the profits they made from showing his movies, too? These questions may seem facetious, but the absurdity of posing them gives way to a greater question: are audiences not complicit, by the culture’s current standards, of supporting the artwork of a monster? 

I do not have a clear answer for this, nor do I wish to comment on Farrow’s allegations. Either way, it’s a good sign that we are beginning to listen to the accounts of those who were ignored for so long.

And yet, as the list of people publicly renouncing Allen grows, as the pressure for those who have yet to speak up mounts, what does it really mean to publicize your regret for having worked with him? The people want regret, so these actors give it to them; in Gerwig’s case, she revises it until she gets it right. I’m not saying their regret isn’t genuine, or that they shouldn’t speak out, or that they shouldn't donate their salaries. But it is increasingly difficult not to view these pronouncements as empty, false, self-interested gestures, the second step in a dance the left is guilty of initiating. As Gaby Del Valle writes for The Outline, “If the tide is finally turning against Allen, it’s only because there is finally nothing to gain by remaining at his side.”

Many have mourned the loss of nuance in a culture where the hottest, fastest, boldest take reigns—where the transparency between public and private, combined with social media, has contributed to a discourse dominated by vitriolic call-outs, condemnations and self-righteousness. This is sadly, inevitably true of the #MeToo movement, too—which is not as much a specific critique as a general reality. In a moment that increasingly prioritizes black-and-white polarities over shades of gray, public figures are fast-learning what the right response is to placate their critics. Yet one has to wonder whether these right responses are really authentic—whether the regret publicized by these actors and actresses reflects the complex nature of how they really feel, or if it’s just something they’re saying because they know it’s what we want them to say.

Think about it: how many times have you heard, recently, a commentator express, of this or that person’s statements, that that’s what they “wanted” them to say? I heard it just the other day, regarding Gerwig’s answer in The New York Times, from culture critic Ira Madison III, on his popular new "Keep It" podcast (which is, this present example excluded, excellent). The problem with this formulation, both expressly and tacitly, is that tricky, untrustworthy verb: want. Because we can’t ignore the fact that, while we want something from our celebrities—the right response on issues of sexual assault—they want something from us, too: our attention, our affirmation, our adoration. There’s a reason Rebecca Hall and Timothée Chalamet donated their salary from Allen’s forthcoming film to Time’s Up, rather than an equal amount from their bank account. We should be frank about what that reason is. 

With each new expression of regret, the act is diminished to the point of threatening the movement's longterm viability, papering over the messy truth with cut-and-dry contriteness. Where is the nuance and criticism necessary for this movement to thrive in a discourse predicated on satiating the desires of its loudest faction? When Matt Damon gets pilloried for statements like, “I do believe there’s a spectrum of behavior. And we’re going to have to figure—you know, there’s a difference between...patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation,” and subsequently yields to public pressure and chastises himself for such notions, does the greater conversation not suffer? After all, was that statement so outrageous? Was it so different from what Masha Gessen argued, has been arguing, in a series of articles for The New Yorker?

Damon, and men like him, may have been, may still be, part of the problem. But I also think they’re genuinely trying to be part of the solution; and if #MeToo is going to succeed, if real change is going to happen, they are (unfortunately or not) going to need to be. 

What, then, does the movement gain from occluding these opinions? From a debate that tendentiously shifts from the rightness or wrongness of an opinion itself to the valorization or vilification of the person who expressed it? How are people—people who genuinely want to be a part of the solution—supposed to become a part of the solution, if they’re too afraid to share their real concerns and skepticisms, however wrong or disagreeable, for fear of condemnation?

Sam Eichner likes literature, reality television and his twin cats equally. He has consistently been told he needs a shave since he started growing facial hair.

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