The Moral Imperative

If art doesn’t make us better, then what on earth is it for? – Alice Walker

Woody’s career as a great American filmmaker was cemented in 1977, with the release of Annie Hall. The movie was nominated for five Academy Awards, four of which it won. Allen received two Academy Awards, one for Best Director and the other for Best Original Screenplay. The films, Interiors, Manhattan and Stardust Memories followed, one succeeding year after the next. Hannah and Her Sisters, starring Mia Farrow, came out a near decade later, in 1988, for which Allen won another Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. In fact, Allen has directed, written, or starred in (or all of the above in many cases) a movie since 1977. That’s 37 years of filmmaking, not including the decade leading up to Annie Hall. It is safe to say that Allen has taken full advantage of being a heralded filmmaker. It has been reported that his scripts are rarely curtailed much less questioned. The man can make the film that he wants, when he wants. It is the kind of freedom every ambitious artist dreams of.

In August of 1992, however, Allen’s reputation would be threatened by the accusation that he had molested Dylan Farrow, Mia Farrow’s adopted-daughter. Mia Farrow was Allen’s girlfriend of 12 years at this time. Simultaneously, Farrow discovered that Allen had taken sexually explicit polaroids of an underage Soon-Yi Previn, Farrow’s other adopted-daughter. Following this discovery, Farrow would learn that Allen was engaging in a romantic relationship with Soon-Yi, thus cementing the fissure between Farrow and Allen as a permanent divide.

A flurry of accusations, denials and a media blitz ensued that would leave general opinion split into a divisive he said/she said camp. Some viewed Allen as a child molester, others viewed Farrow as a vengeful ex-girlfriend. And so the narrative remained and remains.

Forty-two films, and twenty-two years later, in a recent open letter published February 2014 in the New York Times, Dylan Farrow penned a brief tell-all recounting that infamous day Allen molested her, in vivid detail:

What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie? Before you answer, you should know: when I was seven years old, Woody Allen took me by the hand and led me into a dim, closet-like attic on the second floor of our house. He told me to lay on my stomach and play with my brother’s electric train set. Then he sexually assaulted me. He talked to me while he did it, whispering that I was a good girl, that this was our secret, promising that we’d go to Paris and I’d be a star in his movies. I remember staring at that toy train, focusing on it as it traveled in its circle around the attic. To this day, I find it difficult to look at toy trains.

Dylan’s open letter came on the heels of the announcement that the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award would be presented to Allen at the Golden Globes in 2013. Ronan Farrow took a few jabs at Allen via his twitter, and thus factions were officially rehashed; the he said/she said camp reignited their defenses, and the question now lingers afresh: Did Woody Allen molest Dylan Farrow? Or, was Dylan Farrow manipulated by Mia into believing that she’d been molested by Woody Allen?


According to the Joseph J. Peters Institute in Philadelphia, a non-profit mental health agency focused on sexual abuse, 96% of children who report sexual abuse are telling the truth. Bravehearts, a leading Australian child protection advocate, states, “Children rarely lie about or imagine sexual assault. In 98% of cases their statements are found to be true.” Child abuse statistics via Wikipedia offer a wider margin of error, reporting that 90% of victims are telling the truth. Taking these various numbers into consideration, let’s say, then, that the percentage of sexual abuse victims who lie about their sexual abuse is between 2 and 10%. The reason this statistic is so hard to nail down is because most victims of sexual abuse don’t report it due to a fear of not being believed (according to the U.S. Department of Justice, only 30% of sexual abuse claims are reported). If these statistics tell us anything, it is that a vast majority of children that report an instance of sexual abuse are indeed telling the truth.

In the case of Woody Allen vs. Mia Farrow, why, then, are we so divided when the statistics alone speak in clear favor of Dylan Farrow’s vivid account?

Further, a case in which a victim has made a false accusation, it is said, ultimately confesses to the truth, or the story disintegrates and the case dissolves as quickly as the story was made up. The truth has a way of sticking, whereas the lie does not. This begs the question, how could Dylan Farrow hold onto to such vivid details of her sexual abuse twenty-two years later if it was false?


Vanity Fair released a fact sheet: 10 Undeniable Facts About the Woody Allen Sexual-Abuse Allegation, debunking long held assumptions about the case, and which you can read here:


Recently, while scrolling through various mainstream news-outlets’ websites, I came across three disturbing stories. In China, a man tried to blow up his pregnant girlfriend because he was not ready for a child. In Connecticut, a young man has stabbed to death his friend because she did not want to go to prom with him. In California, a millionaire poker player has thrown a woman off the roof of his house, breaking her foot. On April 15, 2014, the militant group Boko Haram abducted more than 276 Nigerian schoolgirls from their school. The leader, Abubakar Shekau, has reportedly threatened to sell these girls. Nothing, so far, has been done to find the girls. This all speaks to a larger crisis among women everywhere. 1 in 5 girls will experience sexual abuse in their lifetime. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, every 90 seconds, somewhere in America, someone is sexually assaulted. By the time you are finished reading this article, roughly 3 – 4 females will have become victims of sexual abuse. The hostility towards women is palpable, and it is global.

As surely as it is our responsibility to care for our young, so too is it our responsibility to invent the world in which they can be properly cared for. Consider the numbers alone: the percentage of female victims who are sexually abused (83%), the percentage of women mentioned in The New York Times obituary section (10%) – of the last 66 obits, 7 were of women, (the poet and VIDA executive committee member, Lynn Melnick, insightfully brought this to our attention). For every dollar that a man earns, a woman earns anywhere from 0.05 to 0.77 cents less.

The recent firing of New York Times’ first female Executive-Editor Jill Abramson, was due, in part, to a pay-gap dispute. Abramson discovered that she was getting paid less than her male counterpart. You can read more on Abramson’s ousting here:

Le Monde’s Managing Editor Natalie Nougayrede resigned recently because she felt she was being undermined as head of the paper. She was Le Monde’s first female managing editor. You can read more here:

To our young women everywhere, the message is clear: in 2014, women are second-class citizens.


Recall earlier when I quoted Allen as having referred to Farrow as “vindictive,” and Dylan Farrow as “brainwashed.” In fact, he wrote in his rebuttal to Dylan Farrow’s open letter, which was published in the New York Times,

Soon-Yi and I made countless attempts to see Dylan but Mia blocked them all, spitefully knowing how much we both loved her but totally indifferent to the pain and damage she was causing the little girl merely to appease her own vindictiveness.


One must ask, did Dylan even write the letter or was it at least guided by her mother? Does the letter really benefit Dylan or does it simply advance her mother’s shabby agenda? That is to hurt me with a smear.

Let’s consider these terms and their implications. To suggest that an angry woman is “spiteful,” and “vindictive” is to suggest that she is “unreliable,” and once that stone is cast, it sets ripples into the minds of the ones who judge, and this is the logic that ensues: an angry woman cannot be trusted, therefore, Dylan Farrow is lying because she has been manipulated by someone who is angry. This thought process is illogical; one type of emotion does not necessarily beget one type of action. An angry woman is capable of many things; revenge can come in many forms, some of them healthy, in fact. It is a curious presumption, to say the least, that an angry woman should also be considered psychologically dangerous or unfit.

Farrow had a right to be angry. Her trust, and the sanctity of her family had been breached in the most egregious way. But this emotion does not mean that she would therefore seek to hinder the safety of her children by infusing Dylan with a false nightmare of a memory.

Allen’s negative characterization of Farrow is not a new kind of slander toward the “angry woman”. Such a characterization of a woman scorned perpetuates the idea of women as being irrational, and Farrow as someone who could, and would, go so far as to invent a scenario in which she subjects her own child to false memories of molestation.


So why, given the evidence and the statistics, are we divided? We are troubled because we cannot reconcile the contradiction between what is true and what we have been conditioned to believe. In this sense, we are, finally, confronted with the moral imperative:

What do you value: a man’s talent? Or a little girl’s right to a childhood?


This is what the world looks like when you praise Woody Allen: you create an environment in which hostility towards women in the form of sexual or physical violence is acceptable. It is no wonder then, that we have found ourselves honoring an un-convicted child molester, and allowed a militant group to abduct 276 Nigerian girls. It is no wonder then that certain male celebrities, despite having committed egregious crimes against women, have gone on in their careers to much acclaim, maintaining their star status without skipping a beat.

The divide continues: while, on the one hand, celebrities are quick to join the movement to find the abducted Nigerian girls, on the other, celebrities are equally as swift to evade responsibility when it comes to the allegation that Allen molested Dylan Farrow. One such actor stated: “You are mistaken if you think there is a place for me, or any outsider, in this family’s issue.” He is wrong in this statement in that the very thing that perpetuates sexual abuse is the idea that it is a private matter. Such a term, “private matter” is the very thing that elicits shame on the part of the victim. It is the reason she will never come forward with her story. It is the reason so many sexual abuse cases go unreported (70%). Our victim has been conditioned to believe that such an experience is a “private matter” with herself. To come forward, we tell her, would be to bring shame upon the family, would be to bring shame upon herself.

In a recent interview commemorating Spike Lee’s directorial debut, “She’s Gotta Have It,” Lee expressed this regret in regards to the controversial rape scene:

If I was able to have any do-overs, that would be it. It was just totally . . . stupid. I was immature. It made light of rape, and that’s the one thing I would take back. I was immature and I hate that I did not view rape as the vile act that it is. I can promise you, there will be nothing like that in ‘She’s Gotta Have It,’ the TV show.

Here we have an introspective filmmaker acknowledging his mistake and the damage that it caused, as well as correcting the error of his thinking and his ways. This is the height of the critical mind.


Answering the question of how to rectify the damaged relationship the world has with women is the next step in making meaning of the information I have presented above. It is my belief that Allen should no longer receive any praise of any kind. This means:

  • No awards of any kind
  • No reviews of any kind.
  • No festivals of any kind.
  • No criterion collection labels of any kind.
  • No premiers of any kind.

Allen does not deserve accolades while his victim goes disbelieved in this world. While I cannot prevent him from making his movies, I can decide not to engage with his work.


For too long, we have allowed talented men to behave in unscrupulous ways, setting the precedent that male artists, by virtue of their talent, are excused from basic human decency. T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound were each racists, but they’ve long been deceased. You might call it racism in formaldehyde, an object to look upon, and learn from – how we ought not to be. Neil Postman once stated that museums could serve to show us our mistakes. The Holocaust Museum, for example, is a monument to massive human error, a mistake we have sought not to repeat. So too, can the allegation against Allen serve to show us how we ought not to behave in the face of an injustice. If we are serious about equality among men and women, we must take seriously the allegation against Allen. Equality means facing difficult truths about what we value as a society.


In the third paragraph of the opening chapter of Lolita, the narrator, Humbert, confesses: “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” Nabokov gives it all away at the start, but even by then, I was charmed by the musical voice of Humbert, a man who, like Allen, falls in love with the underage daughter, Lolita, of his girlfriend. I remember being struck by the very real moral torment I felt after having read Lolita. As a young writer, I relished the beauty of Nabokov’s lyrical prose, such to the extent that I felt empathic toward Humbert. His artful tongue seemed to justify his immoral behavior. One part of me felt that Lolita, too, wanted Humbert as much as he wanted her. I believed, erroneously, that her agency was equal to that of a grown man’s, thus justifying their sexual partnership. I wished all this because it meant I would not have to challenge my own culpability. But that is not the kind of reader I am, and so I began to pull the narrative apart, to question the artistry and the message it truly sent. And what I was left with was a choice: Would I value Humbert’s fancy prose? Or would I value Lolita’s innocence?


We must seek to reinvent the standards by which all women are treated. In “A Vindication of the Rights of Women,” Mary Wollstonecraft sought to demolish the inequality that existed between men and women. One of her most crucial points was that, “to deny women their rights is to deprive the world of half its thinking power.”

We undermine our own progress by devaluing women. Judith Butler puts it another way: “The first step towards nonviolence, which is surely an absolute obligation we all bear, is to begin to think critically, and to ask others to do the same.” I predict those who wish to separate the art from the artist in this case will be proven by time as living in the shadows of antiquated thinking, thinking so riddled with cracks built by illogic as to lose the childhood of many women through these spaces in-between. It is one thing to be an unlikeable artist, but it is quite another to be an artist who has committed a crime against an innocent party without consequence. What worth does great art have if we don’t bring its message to bear in the living world? What chance have we got at a harmonious life if we don’t act as the critical beings we are meant to be? How many Lolitas need to suffer before we decide to put a stop to the countless Humberts taking advantage of underage women? This, now, is the critical thinking phase, the point at which we must become active listeners with agency. This, now, is the point at which we say enough is enough. A girl’s innocence should always trump a man’s talent.


Liz Dosta Bio PicLiz Dosta is a feminist writer and artist living in Brooklyn.