On canonicity, dead white men, and living girls

No more rape culture

Trust women.

Woody Allen. There, made you shiver, didn’t I? Here is a man who is accused of molesting his daughter when she was a child, and who in fact married a different daughter shortly after. It does not matter to me in the least that he was not convicted of the first crime; I’m not on a jury. I am, however, a daughter — and more to the point, a stepdaughter, in a family where blood relations were not the only important bonds. The violation of both Dylan Farrow and Soon-Yi Previn is unthinkable to me, no matter whose DNA they hold. I hope that until the day he dies, Woody Allen will not be able to hear his name without the phrase “suspected child rapist” attached to it. He can go hang out with Roman Polanski and commiserate about how “everyone wants to fuck young girls.”

I’ve seen a lot of commentary, both public and semi-private, about how you might respond to this if you’re a fan of Allen’s movies. Most of this debate/chatter/whatever centers on the complicity of the audience: if you watch Woody Allen’s movies, are you forgiving him whether you want to or not? Do you have to disavow your love for his artistic output if you find that you now despise the man? Now, these are potentially interesting questions, if you want to turn this debacle into an intellectual roundtable on whether you can ever separate the art from the artist. But look what we lose when we turn to that conversation: we lose Dylan Farrow. We lose her violation and we also lose her bravery. She just disappears, becomes a shadowy figure in the history of American cinema and the life and times of Woody Allen. We are more complicit with Allen when we do *this* than we are when we watch Annie Hall.

I want to be very clear about this: Dylan Farrow, living human being, is more important than Annie Hall, fictional woman. You may feel like you know Annie Hall, and that she has changed your life, and that’s fine. But if you would rather live in a world where Dylan Farrow never gets justice from her rapist but you get to watch Annie Hall than in a world where Woody Allen goes to jail and Annie Hall doesn’t exist, you are, again, complicit. The art exists, and you get to feel however you want about it; the humans involved exist, too, and you ought to give a shit about it.

Film is not my world: I’m a casual fan and not even remotely a scholar of it. But in English lit, we have what is colloquially called a Dead White Men problem. The people who have most influenced how we understand the history of our art over centuries are the people whose voices were most privileged in it. Many, maybe most, of the people whose work we still know today are profoundly good writers. There’s nothing wrong with loving their work, and there’s nothing wrong with being a (dead) white man if that’s what you were born to (back when you were alive). Some of these men did awful, awful things — raped women, owned slaves, killed people in duels, sabotaged the work of other writers, and so on. But they lived so long ago! Their victims are silenced precisely because they are victims: their voices were not considered relevant to history, literary or otherwise.

Pause for mandatory Adrienne Rich excerpt:

Once open the books, you have to face
the underside of everything you’ve loved —
the rack and pincers held in readiness, the gag
even the best voices have had to mumble through,
the silence burying unwanted children —
women, deviants, witness — in desert sand.
— from “Twenty-one Love Poems”

Hang on, though — I study 20th-21st century literature. Many of the people I read and research are still alive, or were alive within my lifetime. That’s when we readers start to get squeamish. Ezra Pound was convicted of treason. Günter Grass was in the Waffen-SS, however briefly. Norman Mailer STABBED HIS WIFE. William S. Burroughs killed his! And we *know* these things, now, when they are are not all relegated to the dead white man section of cultural history.

We live in a culture where rape and violence against women are normalized. Roman Polanski thinks everyone would do what he did to a 13-year-old girl. Woody Allen thinks that he can probably sweep this all under the rug by implying that Mia Farrow is a vengeful bitch of an ex. And whenever activists or survivors say “Hey, you know that guy is a rapist, right” loud enough, for the most part the response from the cultural gatekeepers is to write a think piece about how sad it is that you can’t watch Annie Hall without guilt instead of how fucking sad it is that a man can rape his 7-year-old child and never see a day in jail or even lose his job.

Rape culture is one of the most powerful manifestations of the patriarchy, and one of the ways it manifests is to always, always privilege the life of a man over the life of a woman. What Woody Allen says through is movies is more important to most people than what Dylan Farrow has said her entire life. We want to be able to treat Allen as a Dead White Man With A Problematic Legacy, because then we can pretend that we are talking about art instead of about rape.

Fuck dead white men. Let’s burn down the archives. Let’s give the world back to the living girls.

5 responses to “On canonicity, dead white men, and living girls

  1. Pingback: Elsewhere on the Internet: Women, art, and love « Scribal Tattoo·

  2. So, just to be clear: Soon-Yi was never Woody’s daughter. He never actually treated her like a daughter. By most accounts, they weren’t very close at all until they started dating. They didn’t live together, since Mia and Woody weren’t living together. In her memoir, Mia admits that it was her idea that Woody and Soon-Yi start spending more time together. When they did start dating, they were both consenting adults.

    I don’t defend him: if he did anything wrong, then he deserves some kind of punishment. But if you’re going to make a case against him, at least get your facts right. I stopped reading after that inaccuracy, simply because inaccuracies like that portend a righteously angry sermon to come. And I’d rather read a well thought-out opinion than another knee-jerk “guilty until proven innocent” bash against him.

    • Jane, I’m letting your comment through for two reasons:

      1. Woody Allen had been dating Soon-Yi’s mother since Soon-Yi was prepubescent. He fathered a child with her mother. I don’t give a shit if they didn’t live together, weren’t married, what have you. That is a violation, and the fact that Soon-Yi was barely legal when they started dating does not change my mind about that.

      2. Any comment that includes the phrase “I stopped reading” is the blogging equivalent of saying “I’m throwing a rock through your window with a note wrapped around it.” If you want to engage, please engage. If you don’t want to, then don’t waste your time.

  3. Ezra Pound was not “convicted of treason”….He was judged by four u.s. govt. appointed psychiatrists to be mentally unfit to stand trial for treason (although Pound himself wanted his “day in court” but his attorney and Pound’s wife believed that an insanity plea was the only way to save his life), and he was committed involuntarily to a mental hospital “until fit to stand trial” and since all govt. appointed psychiatrists said he would never be fit to stand trial, it was the first time in the history of u.s. jurisprudence that there was a life sentence without trial. Poet Robert Creeley said that for a dozen years the foremost literary salon in America was held in a madhouse. Pound was released in 1959 under a deportation order after over a decade of confinement and after persistent intervention on his behalf by a number of distinguished American poets and writers.

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