Lisa Kalayji

FWSA eye

After years of silence, Dylan Farrow, adopted daughter of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, recently reminded Hollywood and the world at large of a decades-old scandal which Woody Allen fans had hoped to forget: the allegations that he sexually assaulted her when she was a young child. Farrow has published an open letter to the film industry at large in The Opinion Pages of the New York Times, reiterating and describing with disturbing vividness the assault of her childhood. You can read the letter here:

Reactions have been predictably mixed, with some coming to the alleged victim’s defense, and others insisting that it’s unfair to treat an allegation as if it were a fact. Feminists and others familiar with the all-too-pervasive phenomena of victim-blaming and victim-doubting – blaming sexual assault victims for having caused their own assaults, and holding allegations of sexual assault to be possible or likely lies until undeniably proven true – can hardly be surprised that many doubt the truth of Farrow’s claims. In a time when even the hard evidence seen in the infamous Steubenville rape case left so many shaking their heads in saddened disappointment over the harm to the rapists’ future prospects caused by what they deemed a mere youthful lapse in judgement, that a rape culture-driven society would be more concerned about the possibility of tarnishing Allen’s sterling Hollywood reputation than about the possibility (not to say probability) that they’ve spent decades working with, esteeming, and showering with accolades a man who has sexually assaulted a child is frustratingly typical.

What is of particular interest, though, is Dylan’s creative name-dropping of some of those who she feels have knowingly turned a blind eye to Allen’s alleged history of sexual violence. These allegations raised quite a stir two decades ago, so Farrow is taking it as a given that those who continue to work with Woody Allen aren’t doing so in ignorance of what he’s been accused of doing. In her open letter, she does more than point a finger at the entertainment industry for happily playing Hollywood with Allen – she directly addresses some of the individuals who have done so, asking them to imagine how they might see the situation if they were personally involved in it:

“What if it had been your child, Cate Blanchett? Louis CK? Alec Baldwin? What if it had been you, Emma Stone? Or you, Scarlett Johansson? You knew me when I was a little girl, Diane Keaton. Have you forgotten me?”

What Farrow has done here is put a face on the act of denying child sexual assault allegations. More than an indictment of a culture which prizes creative genius highly enough to let slide even the most gruesome moral failings, her call-out draws attention to the individual, personal decision that every actor who works with or publicly praises Woody Allen makes when they do so. She addresses parents, asking them if they would be as happy to ignore the alleged sexual assault of their own child. She asks young women whether they would as easily forget the terrifying assault scene she describes if they had been the victims (and in so doing, reminds these actresses that as little girls they, too, were vulnerable to such attacks).

The public responses from those actors named in the letter who have chosen to engage publicly with the issue has been illustrative of precisely the phenomenon Dylan has drawn forward in her letter.  Alec Baldwin and Cate Blanchett have both commented on the issue. Coverage of their comments can be found here

Both Blanchett’s and Baldwin’s remarks defy Farrow’s demand that entertainers take responsibility for their decisions to work with Allen. What Farrow has done with her open letter is shift her private struggle with victimization back into the public sphere, and remind the public of their responsibility to take a victim’s allegations of sexual assault seriously. What Blanchett and Baldwin have done, however, is to respond that they are not willing to accept that an alleged sexual assault by a prominent public figure is anyone’s problem but the victim’s. Through their insistent re-framing of Dylan’s story as a private family issue, they reject responsibility for the contribution to rape culture they make when they treat a sexual assault allegation as not worth taking any note of.

As many sexual assault victims know, accusations of assault are too often met with distrust, doubt, and suspicion of deceit, and are dismissed. The perpetrator carries on with their life as usual, while the victim retreats to a private world of psychological trauma. Perhaps Blanchett and Baldwin did not give their remarks so much consideration as that, and simply wanted to get a hot potato out of their hands. In doing so, however, both as individuals and, most especially, as prominent celebrities, they have ratified a cultural paradigm in which a sexual assailant is left to deal with his or her guilt or innocence in private, and in which a victim who seeks acknowledgement, help, and protection from a public which claims to be strongly opposed to sexual violence is instead levelled with implicit and explicit accusations of deception and asked to please “find some sort of resolution and peace” – just be sure to keep quiet about it.

L. Kalayji photo

Lisa is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Edinburgh, specialising in feminist history, theory, and methodology, and in queer and transgender theories. Her doctoral research explores the role of emotions in second-wave feminists’ constructions of womanhood, and she is an activist in queer feminist politics.