At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly, it feels as though it’s practically impossible to get to the end of any social engagement these days without somebody raising the most dreaded of all dinner-party subjects: Woody Allen.
The conversation always goes the same way: someone begins by pointing out the director’s murky and frequently disturbing history with young girls before somebody else asserts that everyone needs to learn how to ‘separate the art from the artist‘. Conversations such as these are doomed to be inconclusive. It’s like putting a Harvard-educated psychologist and a paranormal enthusiast in the same room and assuming that they’ll come to some neat compromise about the existence of ghosts; the conclusions we’re looking for are utter fantasy. I’m all for embracing complexity, and I understand that these discussions are an essential part of the learning process, but here’s the thing: while we’re debating the ins and outs of cancel culture, the structures at the heart of Hollywood that allow individuals such as Woody Allen to continue making work, regardless of if their innocent or not, remain as powerful as ever.
Woody Allen is one of those figures who is universally recognised as being -to put it lightly – a bit of a creep. I mean, come on, there’s hardly a Woody Allen film out there that doesn’t contain some barely post-pubescent girl being lusted after by whoever happens to be playing the thinly-veiled version of the director that time round. Likewise, it’s common knowledge that Allen struck up a relationship with Christina Engelhardt, star of Manhattan when she was just 16. The already-famous filmmaker, on the other hand, was 41. Then there are the famous sexual abuse allegations, which, in 1992, saw Allen accused by his then seven-year-old adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, of sexually abusing her while she was living in the home of her mother, Mia Farrow. Dylan’s allegations were made just eight months after she learned of Allen’s relationship with another of his adopted daughter’s, Soon-Yi Previn, who married Allen in 1997.
We’ve known about Allen’s complex past for a long long time now, and while the details behind Dylan Farrow’s allegations are still the subject of an extensive legal battle, all the claims made by her have been found to be consistent with the testimonies of the three witnesses that were present the day the abuse took place. But even before then, anyone who had heard of Woody Allen had also heard tell of his various misdeeds. And yet, because he is so revered by film enthusiasts, fellow directors, and, importantly, financiers, he has faced no backlash and has continued to make work.
The perceived complexity of the cancel culture debate has acted as a smokescreen behind which he has been able to remain invulnerable, meaning that very few people have stepped out and condemned him in the same way others have faced. When Grete Gerwig was asked if she regretted working with Woody Allen in light of the abuse allegations, for example, she fumbled her way through a vague and evasive response, in which she described the issue as “something that I’ve thought deeply about and I care deeply about, and I haven’t even had an opportunity to have an in-depth discussion where I come down on one side or the other”.
It’s not just Woody Allen who has seemingly been given a get out of jail free card. If you think about it, there are very few male individuals accused of sexual abuse who have actually been reprimanded for their crimes. Take Louis C.K, for example. Back in 2017, the comedian was accused by five separate women of sexual abuse. He became a symbol of the disgraced men of the MeToo movement and gave a formulaic apology in which he admitted his power over the women he molested. Then, in 2020, he returned to the stage. In his show, Sincerely, Louis C.K, he made light of the allegations and received countless standing ovations for it. To compound the Louis C.K situation, the Grammy’s recently wiped his history clean by nominating him for an award at the upcoming ceremony. Even more worrying is the case of Roman Polanski, who, in 1977 was arrested and charged with the rape and sodomy of 13-year-old Samantha Geimer. In 2002 he was awarded the Academy Award for Best Director for The Pianist and will soon release his next film, The Palace.
All of this points towards something none of us would like to admit: cancel culture simply cannot stand up against the deeply embedded patriarchal structures at the heart of Hollywood. For every Woody Allen or Louis C.K, there are countless cases of female stars whose careers have been destroyed as the result of some inconsequential media frenzy – Janet Jackson and Britney Spears being just two obvious examples. Individuals such as Woody Allen, on the other hand, lie at the centre of a film industry (and indeed a society) that has been created to benefit them. As a result, their misdeeds are frequently regarded as unique and complex cases that constantly require more thought. Such luxury has rarely been afforded to women.
Looking at cases like Allen, Polanski, and innumerable others, it’s clear that cancel culture is having very little effect on the actual power structures that have allowed men such as these to get away with their actions. It seems as though we’re confusing literally cancelling someone (i.e cutting their support network so that they disappear from the public domain) with labelling someone a monster as if that’s the same as fixing the root cause of the issue. Yes, everyone is innocent until proven guilty, but why do we favour Allen’s alleged innocence over Farrow’s alleged abuse? Why do we continue to ignore the fact that Hollywood is built on a system of values that places male excellence over the collective suffering of hundreds of women? Until we recognise the way in which Hollywood is set up to support men like Allen and dismiss survivors, we’ll never be able to find our way out of the superficial name-calling that has come to define this post-MeToo era.