When news broke earlier this week that Selena Gomez and Elle Fanning had been cast in Woody Allen’s latest movie, his third for Amazon Studios, the first thing I thought was, “Really?!”
I’m not sure why I was so surprised. After all, there’s no shortage of brilliant, talented women who have happily worked with Allen. (A short list: Cate Blanchett, Diane Keaton, Kristen Stewart, Kate Winslet, Blake Lively, Miley Cyrus, Emma Stone…) But part of me honestly thought that, as feminism has gone mainstream and pop stars become increasingly comfortable with politics, it would be harder to find women willing to work with an alleged sexual predator. Add to that Gomez and Fanning’s young and cool personas and bevy of teenaged fans, and I guess I unconsciously considered them woke by association, if not by deed.
But the fact is, women who work with Allen—and other alleged or admitted sexual predators, like R. Kelly (who has collaborated with Lady Gaga, Mariah Carey and even Céline Dion) or Roman Polanski (who found supporters in Tilda Swinton and Monica Bellucci when he was arrested in Switzerland in 2009, in relation to the alleged 1975 sexual assault of a 13-year-old girl)—see enough benefit that a little negative press is just the cost of doing business.
Proof? When Woody Allen called Blanchett, it took literally two minutes for her to agree to star in Blue Jasmine, she said in 2013 article in the Hollywood Reporter. The next year, she won her first Best Actress Oscar for the role, and thanked Allen in her acceptance speech.
Diane Keaton, now a Hollywood legend in her own right, was Allen’s muse for years and won her first Oscar for 1977’s Annie Hall. She credits him with her entire career: “I will forever be indebted to and I owe every single thing to Woody Allen, everything, because otherwise it wouldn’t have happened for me to carry on my career. Because of Annie Hall I’ve had so many opportunities and possibilities and I took them. Some of those turned out to be really wonderful,” she told the Daily Express earlier this year.
Even the women who don’t win Oscars or BAFTAs or any other acting award for their roles in Allen flicks still experience the halo effect of being associated with him—appearing in a Woody Allen movie remains an indication of talent and offers young actors credibility. A recent episode of Julie Klausner’s Difficult People tackled this exact situation; in “Strike Rat,” Klausner’s character, an aspiring actress also named Julie, gets a secret interview for an Amazon Studios show, which she quickly realizes is an Allen project. She ends up taking the role. As TV critic Liz Shannon Miller writes, “Difficult People lets Julie be blunt about the fact that an individual’s need for success can outweigh larger ethical concerns, which we see so often in the real word.”
So, sure, these women may be referenced in the odd think piece about separating art from artist, or face a few awkward interview questions during their movie promo blitzes. But they’re not likely to experience damaged careers, or even a lasting association with these problematic men. In fact, they’re likely to see a career boost.
Unless, of course, they’re black.
As writer Ira Madison III notes in his column on the Gomez/Allen controversy, “Gabrielle Union and Aja Naomi King were interrogated more about working with Nate Parker on Birth of a Nation than anyone will ever question Fanning or Gomez.” (Madison’s larger point—that women who work with these problematic men are insulated from danger thanks to their privilege—is also a good one.)
Throughout September and October 2016, Union, who has a real-life history of sexual violence, went on what amounts to a rape media tour. She addressed the allegations—which are, again, against Nate Parker, not Gabrielle Union—over and over in TV interviews and print articles. She even wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times detailing her own harrowing rape at gunpoint and acknowledging the allegations against Parker. But the overarching goal was clearly to convince the public that Birth of a Nation was worth seeing. She ended by saying, “It is my hope that we can use this as an opportunity to look within. To open up the conversation. To reach out to organizations which are working hard to prevent these kinds of crimes. And to support its victims. To donate time or money. To play an active role in creating a ripple that will change the ingrained misogyny that permeates our culture. And to eventually wipe the stain clean.”
But why was it Gabrielle Union’s responsibility to help wipe that stain clean? And is it a coincidence that, when it comes to criticism for working with problematic men, black women face far more than white women? I don’t think so. I’d argue that, as a society, we hold black women to a higher moral standard than just about anyone else. And science agrees: a 2016 study published in Academy of Management found that women aren’t more unethical than men, but they do face harsher punishments for ethical violations at work; another study found black women leaders face harsher criticism when they fail than their white or male peers. And of course, there’s an entire body of research that demonstrates the myriad of ways we punish black people more than we do white people, from toddlers to teens to adults.
To be clear, I don’t think women should be held accountable for men’s actions. But I do think we should be held accountable for our own—and working with an alleged sexual predator is legitimately a difficult ethical question. Doing so bolsters his reputation and helps erase his allegedly sordid past. Honestly, I find the fact that we required Gabrielle Union to pull out her own rape as an antidote for Nate Parker’s actions… well, gross. But I respect her more for acknowledging his alleged misdeeds. Gomez, Fanning and all the future Woody Allen muses (and the past ones, for that matter) should similarly rise to the challenge, acknowledging their director’s alleged faults and honestly saying why they are working with him. Of course, their reasons aren’t as admirable as Union’s—she didn’t know about the alleged assault when she signed on for her cameo in Birth of a Nation, and none of Parker’s kids ever wrote a widely circulated op-ed for the New York Times detailing her assault.
But doesn’t that mean it’s even more important for the white and Latino women who benefit from working with Allen to show the same integrity as the Black women who faced so much criticism for working with Parker? I’d argue yes.
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