Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, and the Problem of Racism in Rape Culture

November 24, 2014 • Culture

You remember the first time you watched Annie Hall, don’t you?

I know I do. I was sixteen, then, with my blankets puddled around me and a melting bowl of ice cream resting in my lap. I was recovering from some fresh heartache. Some boy. And I watched, open-mouthed, as Alvy and Annie came together and fell apart, again and again, the good and the bad bubbling up in the same breath. Not start to finish, not once upon a time to happily never after, but fractured, disjointed, non-linear. It was (500) Days of Summer without the gloss. It stopped me in my tracks.

Years and years later, Dylan Farrow penned an open letter in the New York Times alleging that Woody Allen had molested her. Immediately after I read the devastating, unshakeable words “he sexually assaulted me,” I had two thoughts, in quick succession:

  1. How am I supposed to reconcile the fact that my favourite movie of all time is the work of an alleged child molester?
  2. It doesn’t matter.

No matter how much Annie Hall comforted me during moments of grief, no matter how much it taught me about writing, about storytelling: it doesn’t matter. I believe Dylan Farrow, and that means that any respect I once had for Woody Allen or his oeuvre is gone.

Just now, as I type these words, new allegations are being published regarding another beloved titan of comedy. Bill Cosby stands accused by several women, all alleging that he groped, drugged, sexually assaulted, or raped them. In the wake of this storm, NBC and Netflix have canceled plans for new projects with Cosby, and TV Land has pulled the legendary Cosby Show from its line-up.

The message to Cosby’s alleged victims has been loud, and clear: we believe you, and your safety means more than his legacy.

Well, great. Am I supposed to laud NBC for fighting rape culture when, less than a year ago, they aired a Golden Globes ceremony which featured Woody Allen receiving a lifetime achievement award? Does Netflix get feminist kudos for cancelling Cosby’s special when Annie Hall and Manhattan and half the Allen catalogue is still available for instant streaming?

Dylan Farrow published her allegations in the New York Times nine months ago. Since then, Woody Allen has been nominated for six Tony Awards, raked in $26 million worth of box office receipts for his latest directorial effort, and enjoyed the defence (and silence) of more Hollywood luminaries than I can list. “It’s not like this is someone who has been prosecuted and found guilty,” scoffed Scarlett Johansson. “It’s all guesswork.”

Bill Cosby is, perhaps, the only man in Hollywood whose career trajectory even remotely resembles Allen’s. Both are pushing eighty, with countless prestigious industry awards under their belts. Both are credited with laying a creative foundation for generations of comedians, actors, and directors. More than merely entertainers, Cosby and Allen are icons.

They both stand accused of the same crime.

Only one is being punished.

It’s an ugly reality to confront, isn’t it?

Television networks, mainstream media outlets, and the lay public alike have joined forces in condemning Bill Cosby and spurning his work, telling Cosby’s alleged victims, “We believe you.”

But Woody Allen? Woody Allen, the storied director whose career has come surging back with the recent success of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris, and Blue Jasmine? Woody Allen, who every actor in Hollywood dreams of working with? Woody Allen, who is white? A child molester? Hmm, who can really say for sure?

Four years ago, a group of Southwestern University psychologists conducted a simple study: seventy white undergraduates were asked to read fictional newspaper articles recounting rapes committed by white and black celebrities. The students were then asked to rate the credibility of each alleged rapist and his purported victim.

The results?

Unsurprisingly, given the wildly disparate reactions to the allegations against Allen and Cosby, black celebrities were judged to be less credible than white celebrities.

“White jurors judging rape cases might rationalize their harsh treatment toward black celebrities as being due to the rape,” wrote the authors of the study, “and not because of the defendant’s race or social status. Given this rationalization, harsh legal treatment of black celebrities can be justified (in one’s mind) as appropriate and fair, rather than racist.”

This is not to say that Bill Cosby doesn’t deserve the treatment he is receiving – only that Woody Allen deserves this treatment, too. Sean Penn, who once brutally beat Madonna with a baseball bat, deserves the same treatment Chris Brown has received for attacking Rihanna. Red carpet fixtures like David O. Russell, Michael Fassbender, and Josh Brolin deserve to be blacklisted for their well-documented sexual abuse and domestic violence.

But they continue to make box office smashes. They continue to win industry awards.

In the white liberal imaginary, it’s acceptable to keep buying tickets to American Hustle. To keep filing into cinemas to watch Michael Fassbender in skintight black-and-yellow. To keep giving lifetime achievement awards to Woody Allen. People will do all of these things and, in the same breath, call for an end to Cosby Show reruns, ostensibly in the name of dismantling rape culture.

If you support women, if you support victims of sexual assault and domestic violence,  and if your commitment to the end of misogyny goes any deeper than aversive racism, you will extend to Russell and Fassbender and Allen the same treatment you reserve for Cosby.

Think back to the first time you watched Annie Hall. Remember how the coupling of Rhapsody in Blue and black-and-white New York took your breath away in those first five minutes of Manhattan. Recall the tears you cried during the climax of Silver Linings Playbook, and the “Hope Speech” in Milk.

And realize that none of it matters.

  • I personally think we should be treating Cosby more like Allen. How does tarnishing an artist’s legacy protect victims? As a survivor myself, I’ve worked long and hard to come to the conclusion that rape is not the only thing that matters about a person – whether they were a victim of it, or a perpetrator. To read more about my (admittedly controversial) opinion, check out this article I wrote called “Outside the ‘Rapist Box’: Bill Cosby, Woody Allen and my Father”: http://embodiedexperiments.com/outside-the-rapist-box-bill-cosby-woody-allen-and-my-father/

  • Rick

    Well, for years and years Cosby got the same treatment as Allen has gotten – better treatment I would say. Allen has been an outcast since the 1990s. What has changed for Cosby? Well, more and more and more women have come forward.
    Generally speaking, if you want society to shun people based on _accusations alone_, you will be disappointed. What’s exceptional about the Cosby case is just how many have come out recently, to the point where it’s become increasingly untenable to grant him the benefit of the doubt.

  • I’m going to have to politely disagree.

    First of all, one accusation of molestation 21 years ago isn’t the same as years and years and years of different women all saying the same thing. Even if we’re only looking at it from a numbers perspective, what Cosby did was by all accounts significantly worse. Which leads to the second thing:

    Not everyone believes Dylan’s story.

    I’ve read literally hundreds of pages of court documents, trying to know with some degree of certainty what actually occurred to the young Dylan Farrow. So far, all I know for sure is that even the judge who spoke ill of Woody Allen’s character said he didn’t believe he had sexually molested Dylan. Why is that relevant? Because Woody Allen also spoke out, and also outright refuted the allegations.

    Bill Cosby has essentially been completely silent about this entire affair. When given opportunities to give his side of the story, he opted for silence. I feel, if anything, we’re all furious at Bill Cosby not just for supposedly raping these women, but also because he never had the courage to face down these accusations and even attempt to prove us wrong.

    I was very conflicted about Allen’s history so i did research and found that, at least in my book, there is not enough evidence to condemn him. The same can absolutely not be said for Bill Cosby. All the evidence I’ve seen, including his own behavior, has lead me (along with many others) to condemn Bill Cosby. I don’t feel it’s a race thing at all. Especially since, as we all know, Woody Allen is not ‘white’… he’s Jewish.

    • beck0974

      Jewish is an ethnicity. On the US Census, he’d check white.

      • So would a person from Spain, that hardly precludes them from being considered a prejudiced class of citizen here in the states.

    • taritac

      To the contrary, there is no more evidence of Bill Cosby’s wrongdoing than there is of Woody Allen’s. In fact, there is MORE evidence of Allen’s wrongdoing since there was an actual investigation done, one that only reached an “inconclusive” result. So far, the only evidence of Cosby’s wrongdoing is the word of his accusers. Dylan has re-iterated her accusations decades later, just like Cosby’s accusers have. Why should we believe Cosby’s accusers without so much as a finding of fact, and disregard Dylan’s?

      • Except that not only was Cosby also investigated, but he also settled out of court with one of his accusers. What’s your explanation for that?

  • I’m glad I’m not the only one who sees this double standard in Hollywood. I always say that putting a black face on social problems like domestic violence and rape while addressing and showing concern for those same problems is half-assed liberalism and false progressionism.

    Domestic violence, misogyny and rape are indeed problems in society, but I hate it when they’re seemingly discussed only if famous blacks are in the picture. I notice how such stories last longer as opposed to white celebrities. And, like you, I also noticed how white celebrities are still getting much admiration from the press and media while the same demonizes black celebrities.

    Thank you very much for illustrating this problem.

  • Beatrice_Kiddo15

    As much as I think race does indeed (and unfortunately) play a part, I think a big part of the issue is time. Like this news clip points out, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCA0SZTLRv4, Allen is so much further removed from his incident than Cosby is.

  • EsotericAllusion .

    The case against Bill Cosby as a serial rapist is extremely strong. The case against Woody Allen as a child molester is not. That does and should explain the difference in approachs to both’s art.

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