Something there’s been a lot of talk about lately, since so many sexual harassment and assault scandals have broken, is how hard it is to have to confront the fact that people who have done terrible things have also created wonderful works of art. One article I read recently talked about this with regard to watching the work of Woody Allen, going into detail about how hard it is to now watch Manhattan in the post-Soon-Yi era (not to mention the post-Dylan-sexual-assault era, which is something the author spends less time on, perhaps because the parallels are not so direct).
But this makes me wonder not so much How do we watch it now? but, Why did we watch it then and not feel disturbed? Why did we not talk about how problematic it was that the film’s main character, the 40-something Isaac played by Woody Allen, was dating Mariel Hemingway’s 17-year-old high school student? Why did everyone in the film and by and large the audience just accept that without feeling icky? Sure, the film is partly about how the relationship between Isaac and Tracy makes Isaac uncomfortable because he knows she’s too young for him and their feelings aren’t mutual, but it’s not about the fact that that’s true because he’s an experienced adult having sex with an vulnerable teenager. On one level, you can look at this as just being part of Allen’s problematic oeuvre: he’s pretty consistently terrible at stepping outside of himself, which is why there’s almost always a character with Woody Allen’s mannerisms and preoccupations in the film, and why too many of his films become a quite obvious repetition of those same preoccupations over and over again. He may be our most self-conscious and least self-aware celebrated filmmaker, which is one reason why his films are so drastically uneven, and also probably why he can’t face up to the fact that there were some fucked-up choices in his personal life. I know many cinephiles want to think of the man as a genius, but why can’t we, instead, think of him as a guy who has made some films with wonderful aesthetics, some with ingenious storylines, some with insightful/hilarious dialogue, and some with all three, who is still just a guy with a lot of problems (which show up in his films) who, consequently, has done bad things — partly because our elevation of him to this pedestal is what allowed him, if not inspired him, to do them, and get away with it.
This is one good thing about working in the business: you learn very early on that very few people, if any, are worthy of being worshipped. At best, these celebrated artists — male and female — whose work you admire are very talented human beings who have all of the failings that go along with the human being part, in addition to whatever additional moodiness, egotism, and poor judgment may come with the talent. At worst, they’re total assholes, thanks in large part to the distortion of reality around them that fame creates. Most of them are somewhere in between, and the idea we have that they must be wonderful because they’ve created art that affected us strongly, often on an emotional level that we have trouble critically analyzing, is a terrible mistake to make. The fact that we want this to be true is understandable. If you can say people are good or bad in the same way that movies are good or bad in the same way that ideas are good or bad, it’s all much easier for our little brains and large emotions. But that’s not how it usually is, and our desire, against all logic, to see things in black and white — even if it’s gorgeous, wide-screen, high contrast, and shot by Gordon Willis — is what needs to be dissected and challenged, because we should never have looked at them that way in the first place.
This is just one of many things we need to get past as a culture in order to make sense of things post-Woody, post-Cosby, post-Spacey, and post-whoever-is-next (I’d say Matt Lauer, but really, no great loss there). We need to start thinking more discerningly about the people we entrust with our admiration, be they actors, or directors, or public office-holders. We’d like to say that anyone who sexually harasses, assaults or abuses other people in any way should be erased from public life, which is what the entertainment industry is trying to do right now with Kevin Spacey and Louis CK (who I have worked with and am not a fan of, see here, in spite of never having been forced to look at his penis). But making them just go away without talking about what they did, the damage it inflicted, and what should happen next is going to make it impossible for our culture to take stock of where we’ve been that allowed these things to happen, and where we go from here. We need to think and talk about these men as human beings who did things we, justifiably, love, and also did things we, justifiably, condemn. Because loads of good things to do and bad things to do exist in every situation, and it’s going to be hard to teach anyone to choose one over the other if we don’t admit that each of us, no matter how brilliant or boring, is capable of doing both.
And most importantly, we need to talk about why women have been treated this way by so many men – and that means thinking critically about the art and entertainment they create, and how it often reflects and reinforces a culture that’s just plain bad for women and girls. Visual media are incredibly powerful. They build our sense of what is normal and not normal. By just devouring the images they constantly feed us without questioning them, we’re ingesting them into our worldview. The only way we change that view is to talk about it, how powerful men control it, and how it portrays and validates them at the expense of the rest of us, particularly if we’re female.
Maybe if we hadn’t been so focused on Woody being a genius, we would have seen sooner that his flawed work reflects a culture that views teenaged girls as sex objects. Maybe Alabama would have paid attention sooner to the fact that Roy Moore was acting out those cultural fantasies. But before more women get hurt, it’s time to talk about the important differences between men like him, Donald Trump, Bill Clinton and Al Franken, but how they all reflect a culture that encourages men to perceive sex as a trophy to which they are entitled. We need to look more closely at how these fucked-up human beings reflect us, instead of choosing to look away.