Asia Argento’s alleged abuse of a 17-year-old boy doesn’t undermine the #MeToo movement. It underscores it.
The New York Times reported on Sunday that the actress and director, whose accusations against producer Harvey Weinstein propelled her to a starring role in the countrywide campaign against sexual assault, paid $380,000 to Jimmy Bennett after he accused her of “a sexual battery” he says occurred five years ago, when he was below the age of consent in California. Argento, who denies the Times’s account, was 37 at the time. She and Bennett became close when he played her son in a film she directed.
The scandal has come as a boon to critics eager to discredit #MeToo as a movement. But Argento’s apparent hypocrisy doesn’t make the #MeToo movement hypocritical as a whole. What could is how those who support it choose to respond to the report — which is what makes it so important that this latest episode lead to a discussion of the complexities of sexual assault. Complexity, after all, is what #MeToo is all about.
There are plenty of places to start. Accusations against Kevin Spacey that surfaced last year reminded many of us (and taught others for the first time) that men are far from immune from assault. This accusation against Argento should remind us also that men are also far from the only perpetrators of assault.
At the same time, that reality can’t become an excuse to ignore the endemic misogyny that made #MeToo necessary for the women who started it. The line that connects the accusations against Argento to the accusations against Spacey to the accusations against Weinstein pulsates with power: Argento was a mentor and maternal figure to Bennett; Spacey was an idol to his alleged victims; Weinstein was a bridge between irrelevancy and stardom. And when societal structures put men in positions of power more often than women, women will bear the burden when men abuse that power.
This through line makes it all the more imperative to talk about not only the men who have been hurt without anyone noticing. Power imbalances help to silence people of color, too, and people who are gay or transgender and people with less wealth and smaller platforms than those whose stories have dominated the #MeToo movement so far.
The Argento affair also raises another conundrum that has confounded those contemplating what happens next to the anti-assault campaign: Argento allegedly abused one boy below the age of consent. Weinstein allegedly abused more than 80 women. All abuse is unacceptable. But more generally in the #MeToo movement, we have to make gradations in our judgments.
Those gradations aren’t always so easy. How does Aziz Ansari compare to Al Franken? How does Al Franken compare to Louis C.K.? How do any of them compare to Weinstein, who has become an avatar for the worst of the worst? These men have all been accused of varying degrees of misconduct, but their alleged crimes aren’t the same. Queries such as these are dangerous; they offer an opportunity to write off appalling acts simply because they’re less appalling than others. Yet they’re also essential to thinking through appropriate punishment, and for outlining exactly how we want to see our culture change.
Finally, the Argento allegations dismantle the myth of the model victim. They suggest to us that someone who has been abused also has the ability to abuse — that you don’t have to be innocent of everything to have suffered something. This doesn’t mean accepting the argument that the psychological damage dealt to the traumatized necessarily causes them to inflict trauma on others, or that we should excuse them when they do. It merely means, as The Post’s Monica Hesse has written, that two things can be true at once. Someone can be a victim of assault and have committed it, too.
#MeToo’s mass storytelling was meant to transmit a message of universality: that this wasn’t about one type of woman or one type of man; it was about people and power and how their intersection can lead to irreparable harm. The accusation against Argento tells us the same thing. There is no model victim. There is no model for a predator. And there is, so far, no model for fixing this that doesn’t begin with talking about it — especially when the conversation is a hard one to have.