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February 09, 2014 9:39 AM The Dylan Farrow case and the power of internet

By Kathleen Geier

Fatigued by the Woody Allen/Dylan Farrow saga? That’s understandable. When the Onion starts satirizing a media obsession you know it’s at or approaching jump-the-shark status.

But I wanted to approach it from a different angle, and talk about how the case has played out on the internet and in social media. I followed this case closely when it originally broke. I was a big Woody Allen fan at the time, and I was, of course, horrified, both by the Soon Yi scandal and by the child abuse charges. I was living in New York and read about the case in the papers, and also in the occasional long-form article that would appear in a magazine like Vanity Fair or New York. I think my favorite story was the one about Mia Farrow’s ex-husband Frank Sinatra allegedly offering to break both of Woody’s legs. Whatta guy! That must be the kind of moment tabloid headline writers dream about.

Following a lurid yet undeniably fascinating case like this in traditional media was addictive, but processing information that way had its problems. If you didn’t pick up the day’s paper, you might miss an important development. You wouldn’t always have access to good regional long-form pieces, like this Connecticut magazine article I linked to earlier (though if you heard about it and you were really determined to get your hands on it, you could seek out a specialty magazine store or see if the library had it).

More problematic was the issue of the media gatekeepers. The gatekeepers distorted public perceptions of the case in two ways. First, Woody Allen was an extremely powerful figure in New York at the time, with significant pull in the New York media. It’s difficult for people to remember now, but at the time, Woody Allen was treated like a god, each new movie awaited with baited bated breath. So I remember reading many stories that portrayed Mia as a vengeful, mentally unstable harpy. At the same time, stories were very light on the details of exactly what Woody was alleged to have done to Dylan. That’s why Maureen Orth’s 1992 Vanity Fair article, which reported on both the allegations and on Woody’s obsession with Dylan in sickening detail, came as a shock. It’s well worth noting that Orth came to the story as an outsider without previous connections to Allen or the old boys’ club that ruled the New York newspaper scene.

So, Woody Allen’s power in shaping the narrative in traditional media outlets was one problem with the gatekeepers. Another problem is that media consumers could not readily access important documents related to the case. For example, Dylan Farrow’s letter, raw and unmediated, reads as far more harrowing than Nicholas Kristof’s excerpts from it in his column.

Another great example is the text of the decision in Woody Allen’s 1992 custody suit against Mia Farrow. At the time it was released, excerpts of it may well have been published in the newspapers. But the complete version of Judge Elliott Wilk’s withering assessment of Woody Allen as a father and as a human being has not been widely available before. Keep in mind that Wilk may well have seen more evidence about this case than anyone else. He pored through the documents and he heard all the witnesses and saw them cross-examined. What he had to say about Woody Allen’s monstrous egoism, lack of conscience, and inability to experience empathy is brutal. But to appreciate the full force of it, you have to read the entire text of his ruling.

One reason why this case has been so fascinating is the range of commenters and pundits who have been weighing in on it. Yes, you do have the usual clueless old white dudes who are content to recycle the same old sexist slurs. The nuts-and-sluts defense lives! … though in this case it’s being used against Mia rather than Dylan.

But what’s wonderful is that we’ve also heard from women like Ann Friedman, Amanda Marcotte, Katie McDonough, Jessica Winter, Emily McCombs and Natalie Shure. They address the case from different angles, but the one the thing they all have in common is that their writing is grounded in their experience as women, their utilization of feminism as a tool of analysis, and their commitment to challenging rape culture myths.

Back in the 1990s, you never saw very many female opinion columnists writing about these issues — not in most mainstream media outlets, at least. In liberal magazines like The Nation or Mother Jones you could enjoy Katha Pollitt or Molly Ivins, but even in those places, women’s voices were badly outnumbered by men’s. That so many vibrant feminist writers now have platforms on web outlets is a wonderful thing.

Another fascinating thing about this story is the power of social media. Articles and information about the case are being shared rapidly via Facebook and Twitter. The people who care to follow the case are able to be far better informed about it than was possible 20 years ago. This means that Team Woody will not be able to get away with nearly as much BS, which is excellent.

Another huge sign of progress is the support Dylan Farrow has been enjoying on social media like Facebook and Twitter. Nicholas Kristof tweeted that Dylan said she was “immensely grateful” for the outpouring of support. I’ve been reliably informed that the best predictor of recovery from trauma is receiving social support. If so, then showing support for victims on social media and shunning the predators can be a way to help victims recover. Supporting victims also helps reinforce social norms that abuse is not okay, and this in turn can lead to lower rates of sexual assault.

Of course, social media has a well-known dark side, too. There’s the worrisome potential for vigilante justice. Wrongful convictions almost never happen to powerful white men like Woody Allen, however. A more realistic concern is that Dylan Farrow could be triggered and retraumatized by going public with her story, and by a vicious backlash from Woody Allen supporters. I assume she’s considered all the possible negatives, consulted mental health professionals, and made a conscious, and brave, decision to go forward. She doesn’t appear to be on social media under the name Dylan Farrow, which is wise, since if she were, she would almost certainly be receiving death threats and rape threats, as so many women who are active on social media do.

Finally, in looking at this case, in 2014, from a media strategy angle, it seems clear that, in the court of public opinion, Team Farrow is beating the crap out of Team Allen. Perhaps that’s because it appears that, to paraphrase Stephen Colbert, the facts have a well-known pro-Farrow bias. The more well-acquainted people are with the details, the worse Woody looks. But there’s also something else.

Woody Allen is a control freak who’s been set in his ways for decades now. This cranky stodginess has unfortunately seeped into his work. His movies don’t seem to have incorporated a single new cultural influence since the 1970s at least, and that is not a good thing. As Allen’s buddy and defender Robert Weide notes, the man doesn’t even know how to use a computer. This lack of knowledge about the workings of computers is amusingly apparent in Blue Jasmine. It’s an interesting film, but the plot point hinging on a computer is distractingly unrealistic, because it betrays Woody Allen’s lack of understanding of how computers do their thing in modern society.

Team Farrow, however, is very savvy on this point. Mia Farrow quite admirably bounced back from the Soon Yi scandal and, when acting roles dried up, reinvented herself as a human rights activist. As part of her activist work, she’s become a lively presence on Twitter. So has her son Ronan, a Rhodes Scholar who, like his mom, is involved with human rights work and politics, and who’s about to launch a new show on MSNBC. Those two clearly know how to play the social media game. So, too, it’s become clear, does Dylan Farrow, who’s revealed herself to be a powerful writer. So Team Farrow has those three, smart people all, two of them tweeting, one of them prepared to write rapid-fire responses to the tsunami of BS coming from Team Allen.

But Woody Allen, as we’ve established doesn’t even know how to operate a computer. Neither he nor Soon Yi nor anyone else on his side seems particularly well-equipped to take up the cudgels for him on social media — or even to understand what social media is. (The one exception may be Dylan’s Farrow brother, who is now estranged from the Farrows and supporting Woody Allen). Woody Allen appears to have met his match, at long last. The ex-lover and children he so brutally mistreated are using the internet to powerfully shape public perceptions of him — painting a devastating portrait that could well serve as his epitaph for generations to come.

It is hardly justice for Dylan. But in the absence of that, it may be the next best thing.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

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