The national conversation that followed would continue throughout the year, expanding to include renewed rape accusations against Bill Cosby and a botched Rolling Stone story and playing out in discussions of some of the biggest television shows of the year. These fierce debates have produced little in the way of consensus. But they have confirmed how difficult it can be for us to talk to each other with clarity and compassion in public, much less in private.
The public attempts to adjudicate the allegations against Allen and Cosby served as ugly bookends to a year that was marked by so many other kinds of tragedy. And taken together, the treatment of these two men is a blunt illustration of how the stories women tell weigh against the reputations of men.
Dylan Farrow’s allegations were investigated when her mother reported them to authorities, both by the police and journalists. Renewing them, even 20 years later in a radically different cultural moment, did not change the fundamentals of the case for many observers: that Dylan was 7 years old when her mother reported that Dylan said Allen abused her; that a doctor who interviewed Dylan concluded that the allegations were untrue; and that Allen was never charged, though he did lose a legal bid for custody of Dylan.
Reminding the public of her accusation may have forced some of Allen’s collaborators to defend their ongoing associations with him. But as with Roman Polanski, who has worked steadily despite being convicted of “unlawful sex,” Dylan Farrow’s pain has not rendered Allen unemployable. As of this writing, he is reported to be at work on yet another movie about an older man who pursues a much, much younger woman.
Cosby, by contrast, has suffered real consequences for the allegations against him. Netflix shelved a comedy special he had taped for the streaming service. NBC canceled plans to build a new family comedy around him, wisely if belatedly sensing that the accusations Cosby faced make it difficult to see him as credible parenting expert. And he resigned from Temple University’s board of trustees. Earlier this year, he had given remarks at the school’s commencement exercises.
But Cosby’s slide from the pinnacle of American public life began only when women began to come forward in staggering numbers, telling strikingly similar stories about his alleged methodology, a toxic combination of professional mentorship, drugs and violence. And some of the women who say they were Cosby’s victims are prominent in their own right, including models Janice Dickinson and Beverly Johnson: Americans were invested in them in a way they may not have felt connected to Barbara Bowman, who told her story online in The Washington Post.
If the Cosby and Allen stories show us the results of our assumptions about sexual assault allegations, Rolling Stone’s now-infamous story about sexual assault at the University of Virginia did a great deal to explain why women face so much skepticism. After the piece became a national sensation, my colleagues here at The Post raised questions about elements of the story, and then did the work reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely did not to try to confirm the details of a story that a woman named Jackie told her about a gang rape she says she experienced during her freshman year at the prestigious school.
No one has been able to prove definitively that Jackie did not experience some trauma during her first year at U-Va. Erdely seems to have intended for Jackie to be a symbol of resilience in the face of institutional indifference. But by putting her out as the face of the story without demanding reporting and research that might have bolstered her account, Rolling Stone made Jackie another entry that people will cite when they suggest that women lie about sexual assault.
If our debates over Allen, Cosby and Rolling Stone’s story often devolved into shouting matches that brought about little resolution, culture and our reactions to it sometimes helped us find new — if not always comforting — perspectives on sexual assault.
Amidst all sorts of hypotheticals about how sexual communication can break down, “Game of Thrones” gave us a powerful illustration of how people can interpret a single situation in radically different ways. George R.R. Martin’s novels contain an upsetting but powerful scene in which Cersei Lannister (played by Lena Headey in the HBO series) seduces her brother and lover, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) in the sept where their son Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) lies in state after he was brutally assassinated at his wedding. The sex is unsettling but unquestionably consensual, an expression of profound grief by two people who cannot share the specific nature of their sorrow in public.
But in the HBO series, the showrunners made crucial changes. Jaime is the aggressor, wondering why “the gods made me love a hateful woman.” And Cersei says no to him, repeatedly. Most viewers interpreted this fairly clear staging as a rape, but there appeared to be creative differences. Director Alex Graves said that what started as a rape is meant to turn consensual by the end of the scene. Showrunner David Benioff described the scene as an assault. On set, this failure of communication only has artistic consequences. But off the screen, the incident was a terrifying parable about what our assumptions and failure to read each other correctly might cost us.
“True Detective,” which started off as an intriguing and innovative riff on the police procedural genre, became something else by its first-season finale: yet another example of how we often use discussions about rape less to express real concern for survivors and the criminal justice system than to solidify our own social positioning.
Series creator Nic Pizzolatto told a reporter that his detectives, Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) were pursuing an evil that had “historical roots in culture and government.” What they found at the end of a trail of raped and murdered women who had been disposed of in macabre ways was Errol Childress (Glenn Fleshler), the son of the illegitimate half-brother of a powerful and politically connected minister who may have covered up a child molestation scandal in his church. They also find a living victim, Betty Childress (Ann Dowd).
But in the final moments of the series, the fact that Errol’s family is evading the law is dispensed with in a few sentences, and the prospect of justice or healing for Betty goes entirely unmentioned. What matters instead is the final healing of the once-close relationship between Marty and Rust, and Rust’s renewed faith. At least our discussions about believing rape victims by default or a theoretical scourge of false accusations have something to do with our culture of sexual violence. For all their supposed doggedness, Marty and Rust saw the dead women the same way Errol did: as fuel for their private obsessions.
While both of these examples are mirrors that reflect uncomfortable images back at us, Haruki Murakami’s “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage,” shows us what we could be, if we could break out of our cultural scripts. In this powerful novel, a man named Tsukuru finally learns in adulthood why his high school friends suddenly cut him off: Shiro, a fragile member of their circle, accused Tsukuru of rape.
But rather than making Shiro out to be some sort of vengeful harpy, Murakami never strips her humanity away from her and maintains our pity for a fragile girl, now dead. Like a number of students at U-Va. who have told The Washington Post that whatever the discrepancies in Rolling Stone’s now-infamous cover story, they believe something bad happened to their friend Jackie, Tsukuru’s friends remain convinced that someone raped Shiro.
“I had to protect her,” Eri, the other girl in the group, tells Tsukuru. “And in order to do that, I had to cut you off. It was impossible to protect you and protect her at the same time. I had to accept one of you completely, and reject the other entirely.” Tsukuru was absolutely wounded by Shiro’s false accusation, but he survived. Yet for all the cruelty and unfairness of the situation, Shiro was obviously in huge pain.
Murakami reminds us that everyone in rape cases deserves justice, at a moment when so many appear so dissatisfied with the legal system or alternative university tribunals. It’s an idea we might do well to take with us off the page and out into the world.