Mariel Hemingway’s Disturbing Woody Allen Story Highlights the Importance of Bystanders in Rape Culture

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There’s a scene towards the end of the 2009 film An Education in which Carey Mulligan’s heroine — who has dropped out of school to marry an older man who turns out to be an already-married fraud — talks with her parents. She’s remonstrating them for encouraging her in every step of the relationship, for being as floored as she was by her suitor. “Silly schoolgirls are always getting seduced by glamorous older men,” she says. “What about you two?” In other words: How could you let me do this?

I thought of that moment when I read about Mariel Hemingway and Woody Allen’s interactions, in an advance look at her new memoir. She writes of being visited, and essentially courted by, Allen when she was a young woman, after filming the (somewhat creepy in retrospect) May-December romantic comedy Manhattan. Life imitated art, essentially. He wanted very much to take her with him to Paris.

While Hemingway was over the age of consent, and none of Allen’s overtures were illegal, she wanted to draw boundaries, and asked for her parents’ help:

“Our relationship was platonic, but I started to see that he had a kind of crush on me, though I dismissed it as the kind of thing that seemed to happen any time middle-aged men got around young women,” writes Hemingway, who was so inexperienced that she was embarrassed by the sex talk in the film. She warned her parents “that I didn’t know what the arrangement was going to be, that I wasn’t sure if I was even going to have my own room. Woody hadn’t said that. He hadn’t even hinted it. But I wanted them to put their foot down. They didn’t. They kept lightly encouraging me.” Allen was then in his mid-forties.

Hemingway writes that she eventually confronted Allen and he left her home once she made it clear sex was off the table if they went to Paris.

Rape may not have been at issue here, but the dynamics that inform rape culture were. I’ve written before about how difficult it can be for people to forcefully withdraw consent when they are at a power disadvantage. A pair of parents thrusting their daughter into the hands of a wealthy and famous older man — because these qualities of his seem more important than her safety, or simply because his charm and connections makes them feel better about themselves — contributes to a skewed and imbalanced society.

“As girls and young women have become even more sexualized in the ensuing decades since Hemingway was 18, it’s important to look at what their takeaway is from the message that they are fair game for men far older than them,” Rachel Kramer Bussell wrote in Salon yesterday. The concept of the beauty and potential of young women being used as a tool for a family’s advancement, for instance, is one facet of rape culture. Another facet? The idea that it’s natural that the young actress would be dogged by unwanted advances from so many of the men she worked with, including Allen and Bob Fosse. To end rape culture we have to look carefully and listen to the voices of young women, and grant them agency. If a young person says she’s uncomfortable with a situation, her friends or family should trust her read on it.

Take the other disturbing anecdote that came out recently, in which Chelsea Handler recalled being asked by Bill Cosby’s team to meet the comedian and alleged serial rapist alone in his hotel room:

I don’t want to go alone. I go, I don’t know him. So the three guys I was with—thank God these guys were with me. One was filming and one was like a producer; we were filming something—I brought them up with me to his room and thank God I did, because now I know what would’ve happened if I went up there alone.

Handler had a posse. She had bystanders who, at her request, came to offer her support in an uncomfortable situation, and prevented her from being alone and vulnerable.

These two stories, taken together, show us the role that third parties and bystanders can play in short-circuiting rape culture. By listening for signs of discomfort, by being attuned to women’s (or anyone’s) boundaries, by being mindful of power dynamics, people outside the “he-said/she said” axis may not be able to stop rape culture in its tracks, but they can slow the whole mechanism down.

As Jessica Valenti noted this winter in a column about bystander intervention training on campus, “A community immersed in bystander intervention not only makes it much more difficult for perpetrators to attack; it also sends a clear message to rapists that what they are doing is not OK, which moves us towards broader cultural change.”