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The trouble with the Woody Allen 'puff piece'

Soon-Yi Previn has somet...

Posted: Sep 19, 2018 6:56 PM
Updated: Sep 19, 2018 6:56 PM

Soon-Yi Previn has something to say, which more or less amounts to: I am an autonomous human being who had a terrible mother, and now I live happily with my husband, who is also my mother's ex, and who, contrary to what my sister (his daughter) says, definitely did not molest her.

The vehicle Soon-Yi Previn and her husband, Woody Allen, chose to deliver this message is an article by the writer Daphne Merkin, a friend of Allen's for more than 40 years, and a woman who has criticized the #MeToo movement as "inquisitorial" and "stripping sex of eros." She has also written that she worries the movement some people characterized to her as a "witch-hunt" could have us "torching people for the content of their fantasies," and complains that we're being urged to think that good old-fashioned "come-ons need to be constricted to a repressive degree."

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Why Allen and Previn wanted Merkin to write this article, published last Sunday, is clear: She's a sympathetic comrade, predisposed not just to their side of the story, but to distaste for the entire movement that has brought it back into the spotlight.

Why New York magazine agreed to such shoddy and unethical journalism is an outstanding question. Here the magazine had an opportunity to explore with honesty a complex (to say the least) series of relationships, missteps, power and gender dynamics that relate profoundly to the inflection point where American society sits in 2018.

It ignored this opportunity.

And this is a shame, because Soon-Yi Previn's story is valuable, and certainly an object of longtime curiosity. It should have been told to someone credible who would approach it with fairness. Instead, the profile reads more or less like three friends sitting around a table gossiping and grousing about someone they've collectively deemed a terrible villain.

That someone is Mia Farrow, Soon-Yi Previn's mother and Woody Allen's former partner (and mother of his child Satchel, now known as Ronan -- as in Farrow, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist). Some of the Farrow kids say Mia Farrow was a great mother; others paint her as a monster; those same fault lines open up over the question of whether Allen molested Farrow's other daughter Dylan Farrow when she was a child.

Since #MeToo forced so many of us to re-evaluate the role of powerful alleged abusers, the renewed focus on Woody Allen has understandably been on the molestation accusations. (He was not charged and has denied the allegations.) We can litigate and relitigate those, but no one's opinion seems to be changing.

But Soon-Yi Previn's story doesn't help rehabilitate his image -- as much as she and Merkin tried in this puff piece. It sets it in sharp relief against the #MeToo moment.

Even putting aside the question of molestation, perhaps the most striking thing about the piece is that it unintentionally reveals Woody Allen's image of himself as a benevolent patriarch -- a carefully-constructed façade of "neurotic nebbish" deployed to cover up what reads very much like a manipulative power to simply do whatever he wants.

He makes plain he cares little for his impact on those around him, including his own children and the small people who thought of him as a father. He has a loose relationship with the truth, saying, for example, that no actress he's worked with has "ever, ever suggested any kind of impropriety at all" -- despite Mariel Hemingway, his "Manhattan" co-star, alleging exactly that.

Still, Merkin paints him as a dedicated parent, even though he's also someone who says about his son, when Merkin raises the subject of his paternity: "I paid for child support for him for his whole childhood, and I don't think that's very fair if he's not mine. "

This, too, is an example of the unbridled male power #MeToo fights. Is it a crime? Of course not. But it's still worthy of discussion and critique. Instead, in this article it passes like a fluffy cloud.

And despite emphasizing their 20-year happy marriage of equals, Allen and Previn reveal a strikingly different dynamic in their love story, with her trying to please him and him trying to mold her. "I think Woody went after me because at that first basketball game I turned out to be more interesting and amusing than he thought I'd be," Previn tells Merkin (Allen began taking Soon-Yi to basketball games when she was a teenager).

In an earlier interview, Woody said of Soon-Yi, "I was paternal. She responded to someone paternal. I liked her youth and energy. She deferred to me, and I was happy to give her an enormous amount of decision-making just as a gift and let her take charge of so many things. She flourished."

In this particular era, Soon-Yi Previn as the young, deferential, daughter figure Allen himself has described doesn't translate as well, and so in Merkin's hands she becomes an independent woman who has "never been one to play it safe."

Indeed, this latest attempt to rehabilitate Woody Allen primarily relies on Previn being the fierce, good woman to contrast with Mia's "bad."

Merkin emphasizes that Previn is a "hands-on mother" who takes her children to "places she says she'd never once gone with Farrow." She quotes a friend of Previn's who says "(Soon-Yi's) job was raising these children, being there for Woody, running the house" -- unlike, it seems, Mia, who was alternately too invested in her children ("She was obsessed with him, completely obsessed," Woody says about Mia's relationship with infant Satchel) or not invested at all.

It's a classic misogynist move, to lionize one woman by contrasting her with a wicked other -- especially when it comes to the "good woman's" superior care for her children and her more feminine deferrals to her husband.

It's too bad, because this story could have been written with the complexity it deserves. It seems to be the tale of a narcissistic man happy to blow up his family and traumatize his children by sleeping with their sister; of two women, one a nascent adult and the other a grown woman, both making imperfect, complicated and sometimes cruel choices, neither one of them a hero and neither a villain.

In the #MeToo era, we need to air those complications, and have the difficult conversations about gender, power, sex and family that are not as black-and-white as assault or not, harassment or not, should we watch his movies or not. It's a shame Merkin, and the editorial decisions of New York magazine, foreclosed upon that opportunity in favor of this frivolous fare that gets us nowhere.

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