Newspapers should make us more informed and smarter, not less informed and dumber. Thus a Washington Post feature this morning qualifies as journalism malpractice, incompetence exemplified. Its theme: “Gee, why is Woody Allen signing a new deal to do a streaming comedy series for Amazon, while Bill Cosby lost his deal with NBC?” The print edition sub-heads: “Crisis responses may explain…”
No, they don’t. This is a false comparison based on superficial similarities: two comics who initially peaked in the same era, both in their seventies, shadowed now by sex scandals. The effort to use one to question the treatment of the other is either intellectually dishonest or so analytically unsound that it should forfeit the authors’ privileges of being assigned to write anything for mass consumption (the Post piece is by Stephanie Merry and Amy Argetsinger, and shame on them). The question of why Allen and Cosby are being treated differently in the court of public opinion isn’t worth asking, but since they asked, here are the obvious answers:
1. Woody Allen’s art, comedy, and persona have never had anything to do with virtue, stable families or being any kind of a role model. As a performer, he has presented himself as perpetually horny, neurotic, obsessed with sex and masturbation, prone to lying, and open to adultery, betrayal, stealing friends’ lovers; in “Manhattan,” he happily romanced a virtual child. In real life, he says things like “The heart wants what the heart wants,” which is a rationalization for any act unethical or illegal, involving sexual or romantic desire. If you were ever a fan of Woody Allen after the age of 13, you were so because he was funny, accepting the fact that he is at best a sexually obsessed, maladjusted creep.
None of this is true of Cosby, who has always aimed his comedy at innocence, functional families and traditional virtues, and represented his own values as consistent with these when speaking for himself. Sex was not any part of Cosby’s art or image. He was an iconic good guy.
2. Allen courted and seduced his adopted de facto daughter while supposedly being partnered with Mia Farrow. This is despicable, but fit for a typical Woody Allen plot, and full of enough qualifiers and equivocations—well, he wasn’t really married, and she was adopted, so it wasn’t really incest, and she was almost of age when it started, and she did consent—that if one is inclined toward Hollywood values, Allen’s conduct in that nauseating episode won’t make you burn your copy of “Bananas.” He was also accused of molesting his 7-year old daughter, but the accusation is old, the accusers are the former child’s bitter and angry mother (Farrow) and the alleged victim was long under the influence of said bitter mother: this is a veritable playground for confirmation bias. We know that estranged spouses sometimes use false accusations of molestation against their exes. The evidence against Allen is pretty strong, but it is muddled, and never received the kind of extended publicity Cosby’s scandal is getting. I doubt that most Americans even know about it.
Cosby’s record of sexual assault, in contrast, is hard to deny after over 25 separate allegations from different women. Any expert in sexual harassment will agree that the proliferation of previously unknown victims after the initial accusation is the watermark of a predator. The Post article suggests that Allen benefited because he openly rebutted the charges, while Cosby did not. Cosby can’t rebut the charges. Allen can because there is only one incident to rebut, and his accusers are a grown seven-year-old decades after the alleged crime, and an angry ex-lover who has a reputation of her own as an eccentric.
3. Allen, at this point in his career, is a director. His art merely has his name on it, not his face. Cosby is primarily a performer. It is much easier to laugh at jokes written by horrible people than those performed by horrible people.
4. Woody Allen, even at his peak, was a niche performer and an acquired taste. For decades he has been an elitist cult celebrity with declining popular appeal. Cosby has always been a mainstream celebrity. Is there any overlap at all between Cosby’s core audience (middle-class, multi-racial, middle America, moderate to conservative) and Allen’s (white, college and grad school, Jewish, East-West coasts, liberal)? Hardly. There can’t be a double standard when the audiences involved already have different standards.
5. Amazon didn’t seal this deal with Allen when the Dylan controversy was at its peak, and besides, this is web steaming, not a national network TV show that we’re talking about. Cosby can still fill a concert hall, if he’s willing to endure the protesters.
In short, the reason Allen’s fortunes aren’t suffering as much as Cosby’s is because there is little similarity between the two comics, their scandals, their careers, their material, their fan base, or the values they stand for, and asking the question is irresponsible. There can be only one reason to do it, I think, and that is to suggest that racism is the reason. The Post never mentions this theory, but clearly points the way to it: if none of the other posited explanations ring true, and they don’t, what are we left with when comparing “two septuagenarian comedy icons, one white and one black, both recently mired in accusations about long-ago sex crimes,” and the white one somehow manages to rise above the smoke?
“Is it easier to believe Cosby’s accusers because we live in a culture that assumes the worst about black men and the revelation of Cosby’s lifetime of sexual violence confirmed deep-rooted prejudices against men of color? Is it because, for black men accused of rape, being a celebrity is actually a liability?”
This is a perfect example of the dishonest rhetorical question, by the way. No, it is easier to believe Cosby’s accusers because there are almost thirty of them telling essentially the same story, and because he paid off the first one who sued him to avoid the evidence becoming public. If thirty adults came forward to say that Woody Allen molested them when they were children, I guarantee Amazon would not be signing him up, whether he was black, white, or blue. But I understand, ThinkProgress—anything to accuse America of being racist.
Now here is a legitimate mystery for the Post, ThinkProgress and others to explore: why did the same people condemning Cosby now defend Bill Clinton, cheer him at the 2012 Democratic Convention devoted to respecting women, and why are they prepared to support a Presidential nominee who participated in discrediting his accusers?
As for me, I only have one standard. I find Allen, Cosby and Clinton all repellent and untrustworthy, and wouldn’t trust any of them alone with my teenage daughter. Nor would I laugh at any of their jokes, spend money that would go into their pockets, or vote for someone who admires or enables them.