Why Woody Allen's Thing for Younger Women Doesn't Make Him a Pedophile

Gays Know Danger of Being Branded by Mainstream

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By Jay MIchaelson

Published February 10, 2014.
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Hopefully, Woody Allen Fatigue has now settled in. Every major newspaper in the country has run op-eds on this horrible situation, some by family members themselves. This publication has published four: one demanding that we “stand up for Dylan Farrow,” one likening the pursuit of Allen to a “lynch mob,” and two professing ambivalence about the case.

News cycles being what they are, this one is probably drawing to a close, barring any new revelations or investigations by the authorities. But before it does, let’s not forget to look in the mirror. The image isn’t pretty.

First, as a queer activist, I found it deeply disturbing how many pundits elided the distinction between a somewhat creepy, consensual relationship between two adults (i.e. Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn) and child molestation. Indeed, even when the relationship wasn’t mentioned explicitly, it seemed to hover in the background.

Woody Allen’s a letch. He likes young girls. What do you expect?

While this attitude may seem reasonable at first, upon close reflection it is outrageous. There are plenty of relationships that plenty of people find creepy — mine and my partner’s included.

Yet creepy is not the same as criminal. Nor is “liking young girls” (and I’ll include Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan and Soon-Yi Previn in real life in that category) the same as pedophilia. The former is a predilection, the latter a pathology. The former can be expressed consensually and morally, the latter cannot. The former may be victimless, the latter scars victims for life.

In this case, there has never been any evidence — or even accusation — that this relationship began when Previn was a minor. And, as Allen’s defenders have pointed out, the two lived in different homes, and Previn’s father (and father-figure) was Andre Previn not Woody Allen. Again, we may be creeped out by the whole thing, and that’s fine, but an age-discordant relationship is a completely different matter from an accusation of child molestation.

For this reason, admitting the Allen-Previn relationship into ‘evidence’ is no different from accusing gay men of pedophilia, a slander that LGBT people have had to endure for decades. It is irresponsible and shameful.

Second, the media’s rush to philosophize and politicize the case is likewise deeply problematic. Whether one believed Dylan Farrow quickly became a referendum on whether one opposes rape culture.

Really? Clearly, there are uncertainties on all sides of this particular story: inconsistencies in everyone’s stories (including Allen’s), multiple polygraph tests that may or may not have been agreed to, evidence of coaching, contradictory statements from judges and attorneys, you name it. In this context, is a denial of rape/abuse culture the only reason one might doubt this testimony?

In one Facebook exchange, I asked some friends whether Woody Allen could produce anything that would cause them to change their minds. Two — one of whom, it’s important to note, is a victim of child abuse himself — said no. More than anything else, that unshakable conclusion indicates the peril of deciding a case on political leanings (or emotional scars) rather than evidence.

Conversely, of course, those who write off Dylan Farrow as brainwashed by her manipulative mother are also, often, acting out a script. Woody Allen’s such a great guy, such a genius — he couldn’t possibly have done this. News flash: Many people who commit abuse are people who couldn’t possibly have done so.

Surely we can do better than this. We can be feminists aware of how female victims are often blamed and undermined — and not rush to judgment here. We can be partisans for ambivalence — and yet not deny the troubling evidence that does exist. And most importantly, we can notice our own gut reactions — and then not be ruled by them. A gut sense that one side is right is a great reason to be more careful about assuming it.

Most importantly, the Week of Woody demonstrated that we in the press are not good at not knowing. Unfortunately, this 21-year-old case is not simple. There is an adult woman who insists she remembers a hideous act. Her mother and one brother believe her; the other brother does not. And the accused has brought forth significant evidence indicating his innocence, not least two subsequent decades of blameless behavior. Smart people have lined up on all sides, as have medical and law enforcement professionals.

The fact — and it is a fact — is that we don’t know whom to believe. This could be an opportunity to experience what some spiritual teachers call the “wisdom of insecurity.” We want to know, and it would be good to know, because whether to celebrate Woody Allen or not has become a moral question. But we don’t know, and probably won’t. Can we learn from that tension, observe the urge to resolve it, and reflect on how we fall back on beliefs and assumptions in order to do so?

Could our ignorance be, in fact, a teachable moment?

Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward.


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