This is not about “Cancel Culture”
This is not about cancel culture.
Well, people will think that it’s about cancel culture, so let’s start there. The term cancel culture carries negative connotations, but is now used by both its proponents and opponents in reference to the practice of invalidating or discrediting someone and their work when the court of public opinion has deemed them guilty of violating certain social mores.
I believe in individual development and think sometimes it can be challenging to apply current social expectations retroactively to tweets from the early aughts. Now we know better, but back then we didn’t. I also think that cancel culture has enforced substantial behavioural shifts, particularly when the legal system lags behind the rapid pace of societal change. Whether its gains outweigh the impact on the lives of the few who have perhaps been too hastily tried remains a topic for future discussion. Today, I’m concerned about those who are almost certainly guilty as arraigned, and what happens to their work afterwards.
Two things led me to share more political opinions that might get me canceled depending on how societal standards change: Lindsay Ellis’ new video on transphobia, specifically the part about J.K. Rowling, and the newly released Allen V. Farrow on HBO.
Lindsay Ellis is one of my favourite YouTubers, and I attribute much of my inability to find love to watching her and Casually Explained tell scripted jokes at 2x speed and then searching fruitlessly for someone who can deliver the same wit in real life. The video in question is a third one in a thematic trilogy, the first one explaining Barthes’ concept of “death of the author” and the second one explaining why that concept isn’t relevant to the case of J.K. Rowling.
To quickly summarize, “death of the author” encourages literary interpretation and analysis only based on the contents of the text, not paratextual elements, current events, biographical details of the author, or anything else that a foreword would explain. Once the text has been created, the author no longer has any relationship with it. This is a critical theory, not one applicable to the nuances of money, influence, and cancel culture.
Lindsay Ellis argues that J.K. Rowling is a particularly egregious case and I am inclined to agree with her. J.K. Rowling is actively campaigning against trans people, not only using her influence as creator of the Harry Potter franchise, but financial proceeds therefrom. In a time when transphobia is still rampant, this sort of rhetoric not only solidifies dangerous beliefs, but also incites violence against trans people. Supporting Harry Potter by purchasing paraphernalia or even increasing its popularity through conversation is as close as one can get to directly supporting transphobia.
I was a bit too young to grow up alongside Harry Potter; though I did eagerly await books six and seven, as well as watch the movies on opening weekend, my favourite childhood book series were Artemis Fowl and A Series of Unfortunate Events, both of which sharply shaped my tastes in humour. Though I really liked work by Alex Wang, Armie Hammer, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., and Neil deGrasse Tyson, I could live without them once I decided that I could no longer support them in good conscience, as I could J.K. Rowling. My crisis is with Woody Allen.
The sexual assault allegations against Allen have never been proven, but the writing seems to be on the wall: he then married his stepdaughter, a woman he had known since she was a girl of nine and he a man of forty-four. Does he have pedophilic interests? I’m inclined believe so. Did he act on them? Not unlikely either. This isn’t like Kanye coming out as a Trump supporter; I don’t know anyone who would stand with Allen if the allegations were proven, and I can’t stand him even when the allegations aren’t proven.
Yet I adore his movies. I have only seen a fraction, but none of them have been misses. Midnight in Paris is one of my favourite movies. Annie Hall was hilarious, self-aware, and seminal. And yes, they appeal to the male fantasy, especially to the bookish, sarcastic, tortured-artist types, but who cared: I even thought A Rainy Day in New York was pretty good.
I considered his case distinct from that of J.K. Rowling; he wasn’t using his money and reputation to promote pedophilia but was trying to distance himself from these accusations as much as possible. Although I was increasing his influence by supporting his art, he wasn’t rallying pedophiles to him. I didn’t rationalize his behaviour: he never became acceptable because he made good movies, but I just loved his movies.
Despite this, I endeavoured to separate him from his work, not à la death of the author, but just his movies from what I knew of him as a person. Perhaps it’d be okay if I torrented all of his movies going forward and refrained from talking about him. A Woody Allen one-liner was part of a reason that I wrote a blog post from a few weeks ago, but I couldn’t bring myself to quote the movie because I didn’t want to “promote” him.
This has largely been how I viewed art produced by problematic public figures: I’m allowed to consume it privately if I’m not amplifying any of their views. How else am I supposed to reconcile his movies with what I believe to be true about him? I can’t help but like them; it’s hard enough to refrain from discussing them, but I cannot say that I didn’t personally enjoy them.
Then I watched Everyone Says I Love You last week. It wasn’t even Manhattan, but it was enough to make me uncomfortable. I’ve seen a couple of movies where Woody Allen has a role, but with his alleged crimes recently dredged up, I couldn’t help but see parallels. His character is an older man who uses information obtained from a younger woman’s therapy sessions to seduce and sleep with her. She ends up leaving him, but there are no consequences. There was some great comedy and even social commentary, but they were overshadowed by what seemed eerily close to pedophilic grooming for me to concentrate on much else. At that point, regardless of my ethics, regardless of whether he did anything at all, the media circus occupied enough real estate in my head that I was unable to enjoy the movie.
Will I stop watching Woody Allen movies? It’s hard to say for certain, but I think the decision has been made for me, not by me. There are so many movies in the world, why watch one that will potentially make me uncomfortable or drag me deeper into my fandom? I also rarely rewatch movies, even my favourites, unless it’s to introduce it to someone for the first time, something else I will not be doing. So I’m just left with my memories of my favourite Woody Allen movies, and left hoping that I can hold onto the feelings and ideas they brought me, remembering them as they were, not as they are.