In midst of the ongoing turmoil over the now two dozen women accusing Bill Cosby of sexual assault, another famous accused abuser—Woody Allen—announced that he will be writing and directing a TV show for Amazon’s streaming service. Allen has been famously accused of molesting his daughter Dylan Farrow, an accusation that resurfaced last year when his ex-partner Mia Farrow and son Ronan Farrow reminded everyone of the allegations during last year’s Golden Globes. But while Cosby is facing cancellation of his TV show and boycott pressure, Allen just sails along, signing a TV deal and even announcing a movie with the creepiest possible premise in light of his both alleged abuse and on-the-record marriage to one of Mia Farrow’s children. Why is Allen getting off scot-free while Cosby is facing late in life career turmoil?
It’s hard to say, though one of the most obvious possibilities is that black celebrities make softer targets than white celebrities, as evidenced by the fact that Ray Rice and Chris Brown saw career penalties for hitting women while Charlie Sheen actually got a TV show because of his “bad boy” antics that include beating women. Another obvious possibility is that it’s a lot harder to brush off 24 fingers pointing at you than one.
Jessica Goldstein of Think Progress has a lengthy theory, which, amongst other things, boils down to this: Because Cosby is seen as a more wholesome and mainstream person compared to Woody Allen’s reputation as a weird dude, the cognitive dissonance is so great that it forces people to believe the allegations against Cosby more. Cosby’s “crimes feel personal to the viewers who love him,” she writes, but someone “could throw the whole Allen affair away as too bizarre to understand.”
It’s an interesting idea, but I have to disagree. The sad reality is that people are more likely to believe ugly allegations against someone if they already have a pre-existing belief that the person is bad, as the MMA fighter War Machine discovered when he failed to garner sympathy after beating up his ex-girlfriend. Cosby’s image as all-American dad protected him for years against credible allegations for just this reason. Allen gets a pass despite, not because of, his creepiness.
Nor can it be said that Allen benefits from it being “just” a “he said/she said” situation, as there is corroborating evidence and Allen has lost every time this has gone to court.
No, what these two cases prove most of all is that, when it comes to sexual assault allegations, the main factor is whether or not the accused can successfully use widespread sexism in his favor. It’s just a matter of painting the alleged victim with one of the many colorful misogynist stereotypes available to you—perhaps the “woman scorned” or the “attention whore”?—and let the public’s pre-existing hostility to women do the rest.
Allen has played this game masterfully. His public responses to the allegations have been little more than accusations that his ex-girlfriend, Mia Farrow, is a crazed and jealous ex-wife who is willing to do anything to get revenge for being dumped. Allen was able to overcome the substantial evidence that he’s a creep, because, frankly, there’s just a lot fewer people out there who get angry at creepy dudes than who get wound up over the idea of vengeful ex-wives.
Cosby was able to glide for a long time on the same strategy—invoking the stereotype of the “gold digger” or “attention whore” to discredit his accusers—but that strategy was upended when the comedian Hannibal Buress repeated the allegations. Buress, a man, was protected from the Cosby strategy of painting accusers as gold-digging sluts out for money or as mentally unstable women who want attention.
Now there’s so many accusers and some of the accusations are so old that it’s straining the misogynist stereotypes past the breaking point. It’s hard for all but the most die-hard misogynists to imagine even one woman making a false accusation to get revenge for being rejected 40 years ago. It’s nearly impossible to imagine two dozen women colluding to bring down a man because they’re mad about a decades-old blow-off. It’s certainly harder for the public to imagine than Allen’s story of a bitter ex-wife who has bullied her daughter into making false accusations.
Of course, the ur-lesson here is that defenses against sexual abuse allegations tend to be rated on the believability scale rather than a sober assessment of the evidence, or else Allen would be just as screwed as Cosby is.
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about liberal politics, the religious right and reproductive health care. She’s a prolific Twitter villian who can be followed @amandamarcotte.