“A Missed Opportunity”
Eli Bromberg (Fordham University)
Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s Allen v. Farrow (2021) presents invaluable new analyses, footage, and testimony for considering Dylan Farrow’s 1992 allegations regarding Woody Allen, and the impact of her 2014 choice to reiterate those allegations as an adult. To a great extent, the four-episode series succeeds in diagnosing Allen’s successful, cynical PR strategy, including Allen’s celebratory revelation of his relationship with Dylan’s sister Soon-Yi Previn, and his denial of Dylan’s allegations via the intimation that they were fabricated by a jealous, vengeful Mia Farrow. It also provides compelling evidence that Allen’s legal and PR teams manipulated the processes, overseen by John Leventhal at Yale New Haven Hospital Child Sexual Abuse Clinic, and at the NYC Child Welfare Agency, where caseworker Paul Williams’ work was stymied. The documentary, which presents Dylan speaking in her own words, as an adult and, in harrowing footage, as a child recounting sexual abuse, is really about Dylan. It is her story of survival; it is not a story of fearlessness, but a story of overcoming fear and braving trauma to speak out.
While the documentary accounts for multiple ways that Allen influenced how the media and investigative bodies treated Dylan’s allegations, and his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, it omits any sustained engagement with race, religion, and ethnicity. This is a missed opportunity, because the power dynamics facilitating a white, famously Jewish man announcing a relationship with the Korean American daughter of his white, famously Catholic partner of many years, as a defensive PR move after his seven-year-old white daughter accused him of incestuous sexual abuse, require attention.
Any thorough engagement with Allen’s celebrity and historical importance to comedy and film requires consideration of his stature as a specifically Jewish icon. In episode four, Ronan Farrow observes that, “There’s an additional layer of distortion when this kind of an allegation is raised against someone who is not just beloved in a traditional sense, but beloved in a way where people have an identity association with it, where it’s existential to them that they grew up loving Woody Allen.” Ronan Farrow is correct, but this quality of “identity association” involves Allen’s Jewishness and Allen’s whiteness, religious and racial identifications that are often conflated, even though the lived racial experiences of Jews of color are decisively and materially different than white Jews. Indeed, the whiteness of white Jews helps account for non-Jewish white people’s sympathetic inclinations toward our invocations of vulnerability to antisemitism. (Black Jews’ invocations of antisemitism, in contrast, are rarely as heeded).
I’ve written elsewhere (in short and long form) about how Allen and his team, in his PR media blitz, insinuated antisemitic motivations on the part of Connecticut law enforcement, and in Mia Farrow’s characterizations of him. I suspect Dick and Ziering considered devoting some attention to Allen’s importance as a Jewish icon; one of the small handful of cultural critics they feature, PJ Grisar, is the culture reporter for The Forward, a historically important American Jewish publication (for which, full disclosure, I’ve written on this subject). In addition to Grisar, Joyanna Silberg, interviewed in episode four and in the accompanying podcast, is well-equipped to speak to the significance of sexual abuse in Jewish communal contexts, having contributed to Amy Nuestein’s important collection of essays on the topic, Tempest in the Temple (2009). But neither Grisar nor Silberg nor anyone else in the documentary make mention of Allen’s Jewishness, even in passing.
This reticence robs some analyses of their specificity. Allyssa Wilkinson notes in episode one that Allen is “sort of anything other than the classic Hollywood leading man. He’s not this kind of buff guy on a horse. He reads a lot of books and freaks out about things a lot, and that’s who he is.” Miriam Bale, commenting specifically on Sleeper, observes, “He’s created this adorable persona, that’s this sort of small weak man… he makes neuroses hilarious.”
These are useful observations, but leaving out Allen’s immeasurable impact transforming the schlemiel persona into a widely celebrated version of white American masculinity withholds enormously pertinent information. And this omission prevents any subsequent exploration of the implications of an artist who played an inordinately large role normalizing depictions of Jewish masculinity being accused of unthinkable sexual transgression.
Part of the dynamic of American audiences not wanting to believe Woody Allen could have sexually assaulted Dylan involved (and continues to involve) audiences not wanting to believe that a celebrated Jewish man could do such a thing to an innocent white, Catholic girl. This phenomenon of Jewish community protective politics involves the very understandable impulse of not wanting to believe a cultural icon of a historically minoritized group could possibly confirm even a singular instance of an antisemitic stereotype: the incestuous Jewish pedophile. Today, as we survey the increasing popularity of conspiracy theories, from “Pizzagate” to QAnon, with their intimations that wealthy Jews oversee child sex trafficking networks, thinly veiled 21st century updates of pogrom-inspiring blood libel paranoia, it is easy to understand the preference to believe an iconic, beloved Jewish celebrity couldn’t have sexually assaulted his daughter.
But this impulse is felt outside of the Jewish community, too – non-Jews opposed to bigotry, and sensitized to the dangers and evils of antisemitism, may well also prefer to believe that such allegations about a celebrated Jewish figure cannot be true. That Dick and Ziering follow Ronan Farrow’s comments about “identity association” with footage of televised discussions about Michael Jackson, Bill Cosby, and Roman Polanski reinforces how these anxieties are particularly trenchant with minoritized masculinities. But while Jackson and Cosby’s status as Black icons tends to generate explicit discussion in consideration of their alleged sexual assaults – especially by Black discussants – Allen’s Jewishness goes unmentioned in Allen v. Farrow.
Tending to the ethno-racial dynamics involving Allen and Previn is equally important, and helps paint a fuller picture of how Allen benefited from white privilege even as he disingenuously implied that antisemitism made him the aggrieved party. The extent to which Allen’s grooming of Previn was so readily overlooked involved racist presuppositions relating to how Allen’s whiteness juxtaposed with Previn’s Asian-ness. Kimberly McKee’s scholarship is an invaluable resource on this point. Similarly, Zanita Fenton’s legal scholarship explores (and historicizes) how privileging white male subjectivity about paternity has, within interracial families, facilitated what she refers to as the “hidden exhibition of incest.” Audiences’ propensity to defer to Allen’s “logic” in declaring that he was “not a father to [Mia Farrow’s] adopted kids,” at the same time that he brought a lawsuit arguing that he was the more fit parent to three of Previn’s siblings (including two “adopted kids”), speaks to Allen’s success wielding subjective white male authority.
I am sympathetic to the limitations and challenges Dick and Ziering face as documentary filmmakers threading so much complex narrative material. Addressing these issues directly may seem risky. Commenting on the significance of Allen’s Jewishness, let alone presenting an argument that he insinuated the “smear campaign” against him was antisemitic, might yield accusations that the documentary itself operated in an antisemitic fashion. It would also likely generate unwanted attention from white supremacists eager to expose “Jewish conspiracy.” But being silent on these issues does not prevent these sorts of characterizations, either; it just confirms the anxiety surrounding such discomfiting material.
Consider that when Jewish community protective politics cannot plausibly allow for the insistence of an accused Jewish man’s innocence, a form of secular excommunication can also (insufficiently) address the problem. The discomfort of acknowledging that a Jewish icon is a sexual offender is alleviated if the accused is no longer really Jewish. Allen v. Farrow, by never mentioning Allen’s Jewishness, performs this work, even if inadvertently. But the importance of interrogating Allen’s status as a Jewish icon involves acknowledging that Jewish icons – like powerful men of any background – are capable of doing horrible things, and that Allen’s role elevating a certain type of Jewish masculine persona facilitated the public disinclination to believe he could have sexually assaulted his daughter. Furthermore, calling out Allen’s bad faith intimations of antisemitism is as vital as calling out the other cynical but successful PR gambits of Allen and his team. By drawing attention to Allen’s attempt to exploit Jewish community protective politics, we name something that needs to be named, and describe a strategy that Dylan, her siblings, and her mother – who are not Jewish – cannot necessarily name without being exposed to further bad-faith attacks.
“Public Gaslighting and Family Privacy”
Elizabeth Nathanson (Muhlenberg College)
There is so much to find horrifying in Allen v. Farrow (HBO, 2021). There is the painful home video taken by Mia Farrow in 1992 of seven-year-old daughter Dylan Farrow recounting the acts of abuse she was subjected to by her father, Woody Allen. There is the moment when Mia Farrow describes how Allen wrenched Dylan from her arms as she recovered from the birth of Satchel Farrow. There is the scene when Mia Farrow narrates the outrageous shock of finding pornographic pictures of her college-aged daughter Soon-yi in Allen’s apartment. There is the realization that the Yale New-Haven Hospital produced a deeply flawed evaluation of Dylan, finding the child “inconsistent” in her forced, repeated retelling of her trauma. There is the revelation by legal and psychological experts that the claim of “parental alienation syndrome” in American courts is a misogynistic tactic used by controlling, narcissistic, abusive fathers in custody battles to distract from their own crimes of domestic abuse. The litany of personal and institutionally-inflicted traumas goes on and on.
The docuseries is particularly disturbing when we hear the words of Allen himself, words which reveal how the monster was always publicly visible; we just chose not to recognize it. Allen declined to be interviewed for the documentary, yet his voice appears through his own reading for the audiobook of his 2020 autobiography. It is hard not to feel deep shame as we listen to Allen’s recorded voice and realize how we are complicit in a culture that celebrated, rather than denigrated, this so-called auteur who speaks of the women and children in his life using terms laced with domination and sexism. For example, Allen describes falling in love with Mia Farrow because she was a “flexible” actress, and says that, as a partner, “she could not have been more attentive to my needs.” Such language is interwoven throughout the documentary alongside close analysis of his films, like the critically acclaimed Manhattan, a presumably romantic film in which Allen depicts his 42-year-old persona in a relationship with 17-year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemmingway). As Claire Dederer argues in the documentary, Allen “puts the desire onto Tracy….he uses her to make his predation ok.” Allen’s public and private personas are shown as completely enmeshed, defined by misogyny and articulated through cinematic auteurship to appear benign.
Allen v. Farrow shifts between Allen’s public words and those provided by Mia Farrow in her interviews with the filmmakers, juxtaposing two different worlds. One is a demented fantasy in which the cinematic auteur presents himself as both the victim and desired object of younger women. This world is contrasted with a second, constituted by the stories of women like Mia Farrow who describe how Allen eroded her sense of self and reality: “After a while it didn’t matter what I was or who I was. I was there to serve him.” The women and children become victims to a storytelling practice that provides cover for predation.
The documentary asks us to consider Dylan and Mia Farrow – and arguably a public aware of Allen’s persona and films – victims of gaslighting, a rhetorical practice that not only crafts lies but demonizes and renders crazy any who might try to contradict the perpetrator’s self-serving narrative. Such gaslighting is a kind of “entitlement” that philosopher Kate Manne describes as having “a distinctly moral dimension, as well as an epistemic one: via a variety of techniques, the victim may effectively be prohibited from disputing the gaslighter’s version of events, his narrative, or his side of the story” (148). This gaslighting is revealed to have occurred both at the hands of Allen and through the deployment of a publicity machine willing to capitalize on domestic abuse by presenting it as celebrity drama.
The constructed reality in which Allen is publicly celebrated as the victim of desirous, hysterical, scorned women is unraveled by Allen v. Farrow, which offers firsthand, intimate knowledge and documentation to expose the public exploitation of the true victims. Throughout the custody dispute, Mia Farrow is shown avoiding public discourse. Farrow explains she realized that, as a parent, “you have one job and that is to stand by your child and keep her safe.” This appears not as retreat but as a survival strategy grounded in (justified) distrust of public discourse about mothers and children. The documentary integrates Farrow’s moving 1990s self-produced home video footage of her children playing in their house with present day interviews about how she rooted herself as caretaker: “I didn’t feel it was seemly to get into a public fight with him…. I just had to keep my focus on the kids and try to keep them safe and try to keep whatever semblance of normal that we could under the circumstances.” However, this film appears to have given Farrow the chance to finally say her piece, to speak back to Allen’s discursive power through assertions of the reality of her family’s private life.
Paradoxically, this public docuseries uses private moments and spaces to counter the public gaslighting that Allen so successfully carried out. Allen v. Farrow illustrates how Farrow and her children were vulnerable to exposure and exploitation in the public sphere due to self-serving PR and legal machinations. And yet, the documentary reveals how resistance to such manipulation can reside in the intimate, feminized spaces of domesticity. Farrow’s Connecticut home and her community of women friends and young female babysitters are her allies, testifying in the film and in court to her maternal prowess and care. Her home movies reflect an abiding maternal gaze, one which the documentary deploys to illustrate a warm, loving, respectful home. The reclaimed home presented here recognizes the children as subjects, not just as victims, and Mia as a devoted parent, not the vindictive figure shaped by a demented father and a thirsty press. While the crime committed against the Farrow family began at home, it extended outside into the spaces of public discourse. In response, the filmmakers return again and again to the interior space of this home, demonstrating that – when they were unable to receive fair treatment in the public sphere – Farrow and her children found honesty in and through the intimate spaces of feminized alliances and maternal domesticity.