It’s not a new idea that America is a sharply divided country, at least along partisan lines: that assumption has been the bedrock assumption of our political conversations at least as long as I’ve been alive and conscious of them. But it’s similarly easy to assume that when our attention turns away from the ballot box on Election Day and from Washington the rest of the year, more unites us than divides us. That, as Barack Obama put it in 2004, “We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.” That we share common assumptions about what constitutes the good life, and what it means to be good to each other. That we think Bruno Mars did a fine job at the Super Bowl halftime show.
So it’s always fascinating, and sometimes profoundly discomfiting, when assumptions that are commonly, if quietly, held by large numbers of Americans suddenly become highly visible, and remind us of just how different our views of the world can be outside of politics. My sense is that we’re living through two of those moments simultaneously in mass culture. The renewed visibility of child sex abuse allegations against director Woody Allen have exposed two diametrically opposed perspectives on why Dylan Farrow might have spoken publicly on the charges she made as a child. And the increasing visibility of transgender people in public life has prompted hosts like Katie Couric and Piers Morgan to reach out to women like actress Laverne Cox and writer Janet Mock. But the questions they’ve asked have revealed how little even highly educated journalists with prominent platforms know about transgender people and the issues trans communities face.
In both cases, the treatment of Dylan Farrow as a potential or even probable liar, and the treatment of transgender women as curiosities reveal deeply divided cultural assumptions and levels of knowledge about sexual assault cases and trans communities. And they’re a reminder that it’s often a far easier task to remedy ignorance than to shift deeply-held and deeply-informed assumptions.
The Allen debate has been percolating for several months. In November, Vanity Fair published a profile of Mia Farrow by Maureen Orth that reiterated the allegations about Allen’s abuse of Dylan that Orth had reported more than two decades earlier. The debate escalated last month when the Golden Globes honored Allen with a lifetime achievement award, accepted on his behalf by Allen’s frequent leading lady Diane Keaton, who spoke at length about the roles that Allen had created for women. During the presentation, both Mia Farrow and her son Ronan tweeted about the contrast between the portrait Keaton painted of Allen and their own experiences of him. And the reheated conversation reached a rolling boil this weekend when New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof published a letter by Dylan Farrow on his blog in which she reiterated the charges she’d made as a young girl.
The conversation about how to respond to Dylan’s allegations has ranged from speculation about how they might affect the Oscar chances for Allen’s latest film, Blue Jasmine, to close readings of Allen’s cinematic catalogue. But the sharpest, most painful divide that’s been exposed is between those who believe Allen must be presumed innocent of the allegations because he has not been legally convicted, and those who believe Dylan must be presumed innocent of making false accusations.
It’s not as if we’ve never debated this contradiction in our belief in the criminal justice system and ways in which we know rape and sexual abuse survivors are often shamed and marginalized. But in the wide-ranging public debate about Dylan Farrow’s allegation, it’s striking the extent to which those who doubt Dylan (often because they doubt her mother, believing that Dylan’s allegations are a product of a nasty custody dispute) and those who believe her see irreconcilably different versions of the events.
On Monday, Stephen King found himself the subject of a great deal of anger after responding to a tweet from author Mary Carr that included a link to an essay supporting Dylan Farrow, who over the weekend published a letter reiterating the allegations she made against Allen when she was seven. The first part of King’s tweet expressed sentiments many of Allen’s fans have expressed over the years. It was the latter that seemed to express prevalent, reaction to Dylan’s decision to step forward: that she must be seeking attention or acting from similarly selfish motivations. “Boy, I’m stumped on that one,” King wrote. “I don’t like to think it’s true, and there’s an element of palpable bitchery there, but…” Later, he’d backtrack, writing: “Have no opinion on the accusations; hope they’re not true. Probably used the wrong word.” King’s expression of suspicion was jarring both because he’s so frequently been an advocate for diversity and empathy in fiction, and because the “palpable bitchery” that was so obvious to him–be it Dylan Farrow’s, or that of the author of the essay–was not palpable, or even visible, to others.
A similarly significant divide is present in the reaction to a Daily Beast piece by documentarian Robert Weide that attempts to cast skepticism on Dylan Farrow’s allegations mostly by calling Mia Farrow’s motivations into question. Among the most prominent proponents of the piece is New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, who recommended the piece in a blog post questioning Kristof’s decision to publish Dylan Farrow’s letter, given his work with Mia and Ronan. Speaking for the piece’s appalled critics is Slate senior editor Jessica Winter, who tries to unpack both why the piece has been so widely circulated, and the problems with its framing and treatment of the facts.
Part of the reason these periodic discussions of how to treat both sexual assault survivors and the people who have been accused of assaulting them fairly in the courts of law and public opinion are so dispiriting is because they rarely seem to break a miserable deadlock. This is at least the second large-scale conversation about Dylan Farrow’s allegations against Woody Allen, and this go-round seems no more likely to produce any sort of consensus on either Dylan’s specific charges or the way we conduct these debates than the one two decades earlier did.
But I see more reason for hope in another arena of cultural conversation. In recent months, a number of outlets have run high-profile interviews with transgender women, or stories about transgender women, that have been greeted with frustration, derision, and even outrage. First, Katie Couric, who was already under fire for giving space on her daytime talk show to anti-vaccine advocates who rely on flawed science, did a segment with model Carmen Carrera and actress and Orange Is The New Black star Laverne Cox. Couric came under fire for devoting a substantial portion of the segment to questions about the physical changes both women have experienced. It may have been a line of inquiry that was intended to inform Couric’s audience, a reflection of persistent curiosity about transition surgeries. But trans advocates and their allies found the questions rude and intrusive–and a missed opportunity to talk about issues both women face in the entertainment industry, and the political challenges for trans people everywhere.
The sense that there was a gap between what media outlets and their consumers know about trans people, and what they ought to know, only intensified in January when Grantland, the ESPN-affiliated sports and entertainment site, published a long piece about a transgender woman who had invented a buzzy new putter. But the piece revealed both that the reporter had outed the woman to one of the investors in her golf club company, and that she had committed suicide during the reporting. The backlash to the piece was intense, raising issues about everything from the framing of transgender identity as an act of deception comparable to fraud, to Grantland’s use of pronouns and careless attitude towards outing.
And most recently, Piers Morgan interviewed transgender writer and advocate Janet Mock about her new book, Redefining Realness. Mock has said that she felt Morgan and his producers used outdated and insensitive language to describe her in on-screen text. And she told BuzzFeed that she was frustrated by Morgan’s focus on the point in her relationship with her current boyfriend when she came out to him, rather than on the other themes of her book. ““They’re not talking about my advocacy or anything like that, it’s just about this most sensationalized … meme of discussion of trans women’s lives: ‘We’re not real women, so therefore if we’re in relationships with men we’re deceiving them,’” she said.
These incidents are understandably frustrated to transgender people and their allies, who feel that increased media attention has been prurient rather than illuminating. But ignorance and poorly-phrased curiosity are easier problems to fix than hardened opinions about who should be presumed guilty or innocent in sexual assault cases. And there are many signs that outlets can learn quickly from their missteps in interviews with and coverage of trans people. Couric’s segment met with not just a quick response, but with many suggestions for other questions she might have asked Carrera and Cox. Grantland editor Bill Simmons issued a very public and wide-ranging admission of what he didn’t know and didn’t consider in publishing the feature on the golf club, and ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte said that the incident illustrated the organization’s need for diversity. And Morgan’s interview with Mock has been greeted as in keeping with a broadly boorish affect that Morgan brought with him from U.K. tabloid culture, rather than as any sort of model for how to educate his audience and treat trans interview subjects respectfully.
It’s irritating for communities like those of transgender people to wait for mass media and viewing audiences to make up for years of lost understanding. But as tiresome as it can be for members of marginalized communities to have to constantly explain their lives and their issues to audiences who haven’t bothered to educate themselves, ignorance is easier to overcome than hardened resistance. It’s one thing for Piers Morgan, Katie Couric, and Bill Simmons to catch up to the people who are ahead of them on the same road. It’s another, harder task to get Dylan Farrow and Woody Allen’s supporters to get on the same track decades after they started traveling on divergent highways.