But at the arrhythmic heart of the matter were these two stories. Until very recently, the public preferred the one that allowed Allen to keep making movies, movies in which comparatively powerless young women willingly enter into relationships with older, more powerful men.
This past summer and fall, as my marriage was very quietly imploding, I spent what little free time I had jogging around the park near my Brooklyn apartment, trying, I guess, to figure out my own story, 3.3 miles at a time. While I ran, I listened to “You’re Wrong About,” an irreverent, stiletto-sharp podcast that often discusses maligned women of the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s — Anna Nicole Smith, Tonya Harding, Janet Jackson, Monica Lewinsky, half a dozen more.
These stories run a big-haired gamut in terms of individual culpability, but in every case, popular culture found a way to blame the woman, often to excuse a more blameworthy man. Take, for example, Janet Jackson’s Nipplegate, a scandal that never touched Justin Timberlake. Or Monica Lewinsky, portrayed as a slut, as though that somehow negated the outrageous power imbalance in Bill Clinton’s relationship with her. This recalls another lesson I learned from ’80s and ’90s media: The only good victim is a perfect victim. That otherwise it was probably her fault.
This particular narrative re-emerges in the recent documentary “Framing Britney Spears.” That film shows news media at the turn of the century panting to tell a story about a star acting inappropriately, a party girl wilding out when she should have been at home. “Britney: Out of Control,” read an Us Weekly cover. Whose control? Conveniently, the tabloid framing lays Spears’s spiral at her own bare feet. It avoids impugning the people with actual power, the magazine editors and the record company executives who shaped and policed and profited from her image.
Nearly 30 years ago, Woody Allen was accused of sexually abusing Dylan Farrow, his adoptive daughter. A new docuseries re-examines the case.
I asked Sarah Marshall, a journalist and a host of “You’re Wrong About,” why popular culture likes to portray women as complicit and deserving of contempt. “It justifies subjugating them,” she said. “If women are randomly taken down for possessing what we see as an alarming degree of power, even if it isn’t, then maybe they’ll be more fearful about how they wield it.”