Separating Art from the Artist: Is It Possible?

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A few days ago Dylan Farrow, adopted daughter of actress Mia Farrow, released an open letter detailing the abuse she endured beginning as a seven-year old. Actor, writer, and director Woody Allen was the perpetrator. I am not going to use the words “claims” or “alleges” or “alleged.” To believe that Dylan is lying is absurd. She has never sought money from him and he has not ever been charged. When the abuse was uncovered, the family decided not to go to court because doctors said that Dylan was too fragile. Also, it is never acceptable to question allegations of abuse as an outsider, for “She’s lying” to be the default response. It’s dangerous and cruel.

This has resurfaced for a number of reasons, one being that on the night of the Golden Globes, Diane Keaton gave a special speech honoring Woody Allen, and Ronan Farrow, Dylan’s brother, tweeted “Missed the Woody Allen tribute. Did they put the part where a woman publicly confirmed he molested her at age 7 before or after Annie Hall?” Mia Farrow also went to Twitter and said that she didn’t even watch the tribute and later retweeted her son’s response.

Dylan’s letter is incredibly painful to read and triggering for people who have gone through abuse. I won’t go into detail with it; the point that it raises is how do we respond to people who have created universally beloved art, but are also accused of horrendous actions? Should I enjoy a Woody Allen film?

I really won’t be able to for a while, especially certain films. In Manhattan, Woody Allen’s character is a grown man and is dating a 17-year old girl, who is actually portrayed by a 16-year old. That’s super creepy. Basically, any movie that he is in, I don’t want to see. But then I think about movies like Midnight in Paris, which is highly-regarded. My parents loved it. I don’t judge them for that, or anyone else who likes that movie, but I am deeply conflicted. I can’t even imagine how painful it would be for an abuse survivor to see the world fawning over their abuser. In celebrating Woody Allen’s art, celebrating him as a person, are we contributing to a culture that excuses people for their actions? Are we saying that the sexual abuse Dylan suffered is somehow “less bad” because of “how good” a Woody Allen movie is?

Does an abuser’s reaction to an accusation have a place in all this? Woody Allen has always denied any wrongdoing, even saying that Mia Farrow made her daughter lie about it. If he admitted to any part of it, would that make enjoying his movies a little less problematic? Well, at least he’s sorry. Is that good enough?

Woody Allen isn’t the only famous person who is extremely problematic. Roman Polanski raped a teenager and cannot enter the United States without facing 50 years in prison. Rob Lowe made a sex tape with a 16-year old and avoided being criminally charged by doing 20 hours of community service. R. Kelly had a big scandal involving multiple underage girls (one who tried to commit suicide). All these men (and other celebrities – male and female – who have committed crimes) still have very successful careers. Roman Polanski makes award-winning movies and works with every famous actor/actress under the sun. Rob Lowe has reinvented himself as a comic actor. R. Kelly continues to make music and recently performed on SNL with Lady Gaga. Is it possible to separate people from their art or should everything they touch be considered tainted? It’s easy to talk about “forgiveness” when we aren’t the ones who have been so deeply wounded, and a lot of the time, like Woody Allen, these people still don’t think they did anything wrong.

I don’t what the right thing to do is. I do know, however, that famous people should not get off the hook and be idolized. Acknowledge that there is some major darkness there and be sensitive that in supporting their work, you are also supporting the person in some small (or large, depending on your degree of appreciation) way. Don’t get touchy if someone looks at you sideways when they hear you listening to R. Kelly or talking about how awesome it is that Woody Allen is still relevant after so many years. They have good reason to question you.

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