Why Dylan Farrow's Woody Allen Accusations Hit a Nerve

Allegations that Allen molested his adopted daughter divide film critics and fans.

Director Woody Allen poses during a photo-call for a screening of "Blue Jasmine," his latest movie, on Aug. 27, 2013, in Paris.

Director Woody Allen's adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, published an open letter alleging Allen sexually abused her as a child. 

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Her accusations were more than 20 years old and were never brought in front of a criminal court. But Dylan Farrow’s account of how Woody Allen allegedly sexually molested her when she was 7 turned an already bubbling debate to a full boil.

"Woody Allen is a living testament to the way our society fails the survivors of sexual assault and abuse,” she wrote in open letter published Saturday. Her perspective – posted on New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s blog – is chilling, even as it largely repeats the claims made by a Vanity Fair article in 1992 and rehashed in a follow-up feature last October.

But it's how Farrow framed her open letter – opening and closing with a not uncommon question: “What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie? “ – that shows why her allegations are so vexing. She has revived a debate not just about Allen's presumed innocence, but ones about the distinction between art and artist and the state of American rape culture at large.

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Allen attorney Elkan Abramowitz and publicist Leslee Dart both swiftly denied Farrow’s claims, and Abramowitz even appeared on NBC's "Today" show Tuesday to further dismiss the allegations. Other defenders have rushed to Allen’s side, from columnists at The Guardian and the New York Daily News to Barbara Walters on “The View.” Many – including New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, who addressed concerns about whether Kristoff’s blog was an appropriate forum for Farrow to post her letter – have pointed to a lengthy, breathless rebuttal by Allen documentary director Robert Weide that was published by the Daily Beast when Allen’s Golden Globes lifetime achievement award reignited the debate. (Since Farrow’s open letter was posted, the Daily Beast has added an update confirming that Weide is standing by his defense, though others have found flaws in his arguments.) 

Allen’s reps and the outside defenders who have joined them have carefully avoided “blaming the victim,” arguing that Farrow is not lying, but rather was manipulated by her mother, Mia Farrow, as an impressionable young girl during a well-publicized custody battle between Mia Farrow and Allen. They suggest Mia Farrow is manufacturing the controversy again, this time to spoil the accolades Allen’s latest film, “Blue Jasmine,” has been expected to receive in the current awards season. Mia and her son Ronan, who is estranged from Allen, first stoked a fire two decades smoldering when they tweeted their displeasure with him winning an honorary Golden Globe during the ceremony.

It is not just Allen, but also his work, that makes the debate surrounding his innocence so heated. Allen is just one in a long line of artists who have been suspected, charged or even convicted of committing ugly crimes, some of the worst involving children. Be it him or R. Kelly or Michael Jackson or Roman Polanksi who is being accused, the question is always raised regarding whether it is OK to separate one’s feelings for an artist from those toward his work. The same is true when it comes to behaviors or views, like Orson Scott Card's and Mel Gibson's, that don’t necessarily break any laws but still deeply offend. And even though a criminal court will very likely never come down on Allen’s innocence or guilt in regard to Dylan Farrow’s accusations, he still has to face the court of public opinion and the influence it has on his films' success at the box office and on the awards show circuit.  

Polanski, who pleaded guilty to having unlawful sex with an underage girl before fleeing the country, has been able to continue making critically and commercially successful films. Making his comparison to Allen more convoluted is that Mia Farrow is a friend of Polanksi’s who has taken his side in court in a libel suit against Vanity Fair. Samantha Geimer, Polanksi’s victim, also spoke out in the wake of the Allen accusations, telling HuffPost Live that the art should be kept separate from the artist and that “either you like the movies or you don’t.”

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Allen’s case is particularly blurry, considering that his films have always felt especially personal in shaping how audiences perceived him. Allen often starred in them as a sympathetic protagonist who seemed to be a riff on his public persona – the bumbling neurotic who somehow always manages to get the girl. His on-screen muses were also his real-life lovers, as was the case with Diane Keaton, who had no problem accepting the honorary Golden Globe on his behalf, and with Mia Farrow. For this reason, critics have turned to his work for any hints of his innocence or guilt, or at least a clue to his psychology toward the matter. More than a few of his defenders have related Jasmine, the character Cate Blanchett plays in “Blue Jasmine,” to how Allen may see Mia Farrow’s role in the current circumstances. “The film tells the story of a wealthy New York socialite and pathological liar whose inability to control her rage on learning of her husband's infidelity leads to the whole family's downfall," as the The Guardian described it.

But others have combed his artistic record – which some accused of being problematic toward women even before the molestation accusations flared up again – with a little less certainty. Sure there’s the continued presence of May-December romances. But, like his marriage to Soon-Yi Previn – Farrow’s adopted daughter from a previous relationship whom Allen took up with when he was 56 and she was 21 – just because those relationships come off as creepy doesn’t mean they’re morally wrong.

More alarming however, are a play Allen wrote and produced that was flagged by New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum, a 1976 interview Allen gave People magazine highlighted by Buzzfeed’s Kate Arthur, and other places jokes were cracked regarding underage sex or molestation. Worth noting is that since the accusations first arose in 1992, Allen has seemed to avoid making such pointed references. Guilty or innocent, no one is arguing whether the controversy itself has had an effect on his work.

After all this reflection and tea-leaf reading, many critics have stepped forward to say that they’re still not sure, nor will they ever be. That’s all right, says Eric Sasson writing for The New Republic, who has a bigger problem with those outside commentators who feel steadfastly one way or the other.  But that doesn’t answer the question of how those accusations – however uncertain – should and will affect the way audiences view Allen's films.

Allen’s on-screen collaborators, some of whom were called out by name in Dylan Farrow's’s letter and have their own reputations at stake, have been asked about the scandal. A similar line has been pushed forward (one echoed by Geimer): It’s a matter for his family, not us, to come to terms with, as “Blue Jasmine” stars Blanchett and Alec Baldwin have more or less put it. Some critics are more than willing to follow suit.

But for all the talk of how Dylan Farrow's story and the ensuing fallout have affected the way we see Allen’s films, there’s also a discussion of what it says about how we see rape.

“We’ve always used celebrity culture as a place to work out larger social ideas,” says Oakland University professor Erin Meyers, also the author of “Dishing Dirt in the Digital Age: Celebrity Gossip Blogs and Participatory Culture.

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“This is a really uncomfortable topic, who to believe and understanding the ramifications in one’s life in terms of sexual abuse,” she says, noting the discussion of the Allen case “gives us a path to talk about it, but also makes it more complicated.”

Some have suggested that Allen’s defenders, both the established writers and those merely commenting on social media, have skewed male, perhaps reflecting what studies have shown: that general attitudes toward rape are still largely genderized.

What really happened between Dylan Farrow and Allen is likely to stay an unsettled matter – a reality that may be particularly painful for those whose job it is to judge his films. But just because there is no answer doesn’t mean no good can come from the questions being directed at rape culture on the whole.

“This thing is happening all across the nation and we don’t hear about it,” Meyers says.