The latest Woody Allen story is creepy, but let’s not call it criminal
I don’t defend the film director over his alleged affair with 17-year-old Christina Engelhardt, but the realities of power and sex are complex
The Guardian 20 Dec 2018
I love the #MeToo movement. As the mother of two daughters, I’m delighted to see the rebalancing of a system that was skewed to allow sexual exploitation by men in power. I also salute the way society is facing up to long-ago crimes, and that adults who were sexually abused as children are bringing charges against people who believed they’d got away with it.
However, as a child of the libertarian 1970s and as a former anthropologist, I am sometimes appalled when the rigidity of the law fails to allow for the complex intrigues of body and heart in matters of sex. Occasionally, our pendulum swings towards puritanism.
This week, former model and actress Christina Engelhardt claimed she had an eight-year relationship with Woody Allen, beginning when she was just under 17 and he was 41. The movie Manhattan echoes their story. I first watched Allen’s black-and-white eulogy to New York in 1979, when I was 17 – the same age as Tracy, portrayed by Mariel Hemingway. I saw nothing wrong in her affair with Allen’s character, though admittedly it was a heady time of sexual freedom; my own boyfriend was 30.
Things have changed since then. Engelhardt claims that her story is not designed to indict her former lover. “It‘s almost as if I’m now expected to trash him,” she told the Hollywood Reporter. However, while the relationship would have been legal in the UK, in New York, the age of consent is 17. For a couple of months, Allen allegedly breaking the law.
“Love makes no difference,” announced a social worker I met when researching my novel Putney, in which 13-year-old Daphne believes herself in love with a much older man. It takes her decades to understand that her secret “love affair” was actually grooming and statutory rape. A child is unable to give consent; emotions are irrelevant. Nevertheless, small age measurements matter during an adolescent’s delicate transformations and when the “child” is almost 17, it looks very different. My mother got married at 17 (my father was 27), and notwithstanding their doomed marriage, there is a danger of infantilising 17-year-olds by labelling them “children”. Removing agency (even to make mistakes) from young people and denying them control of their bodies can be questionable, however much we value their safety.
Literature and films are littered with May-December liaisons. Jane Eyre was 18 when she fell for Mr Rochester (about double her age) and Rebecca was in her early 20s when she married a widower in his 40s. Lynn Barber’s excellent memoir (and subsequent film) An Education details her involvement with an older man when she was 16. As is common in child abuse, Barber’s parents were “groomed” alongside her, favouring her impending marriage over university. In The Graduate, a young man is seduced by the middle-aged Mrs Robinson, and another mid-life crisis pushes Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham into lusting after his daughter’s 14-year-old friend in American Beauty. Nabokov’s Lolita stands as the archetypal story of middle-aged obsession with young flesh and Humbert Humbert’s cynical pursuit of lust still shocks. In Putney, I hoped to give a voice and agency to a 1970s Lolita figure and to explore her emotions, which are manipulated but nonetheless feel real: a terrible tangle.
I would not want to defend Woody Allen in general. He has already joined the ranks of the damned in the film industry and is spurned by many. If his adopted daughter’s accusations of child molestation are true, he deserves this. However, I would argue that Engelhardt’s “kiss and tell” celebrity claims are too flimsy to constitute another crime. Yes, Engelhardt was very young and Allen was in the position of power, but we couldn’t ban all relationships of unequal power.
I asked my student daughter her opinion of relationships such as Allen’s alleged one with Engelhardt, when the girl is not underage. “It’s not illegal, but it’s creepy,” she replied. And that’s about right. Allen should have known better. But inside my mind there remains a nagging question about who has the right to peer inside the heart of a beautiful young woman and a skinny, balding man in his 40s and to judge them? Yes, we must protect the young. But who can designate a particular day in teenagers’ lives, which allows them to fall in love and discover the mysteries of sex?
Mariel Hemingway and Woody Allen in his film Manhattan. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive