Ginia Bellafante, a columnist at the New York Times, wrote an essay Friday that strikes me as an instructive approach to the national dialogue around everything from Dr. Seuss to Lincoln statues to the British royals.
The essay, "Why my teenage self gave Woody Allen a pass," focuses on "Manhattan," which Bellafante says she adored and watched more times than she can count after its 1979 debut in theaters.
"The early 1980s marked both the period of my adolescent hunger for an urbane, grown-up life in New York and the dawn of VHS, enabling the obsessive consumption of movies, which in my case meant the obsessive consumption of movies by Woody Allen," she writes. "In them, I found a vision of the future I wanted, a series of aspirations — to have opinions, to write, to go to book parties but also to make fun of people who approached those things too seriously. The hope was to inhabit the world the way Woody Allen did, as both conspirator and judge."
It didn't occur to her, she writes, that "Manhattan," a comedy about a 42-year-old man (Isaac Davis, played by Allen) sleeping with a 17-year-old girl (Tracy — no last name — played by 16-year-old Mariel Hemingway) was not a love story. And no adults in Bellafante's life (or co-starring in "Manhattan") raised an eyebrow either.
"Isaac is presented as a man of unimpeachable character because he dislikes crass commercialism, narcotics and infidelity," Bellafante writes.
"Allen v. Farrow," a new four-part HBO documentary series that examines Dylan Farrow's sexual abuse accusations against Allen, caused Bellafante to re-watch "Manhattan."
"For all of its visual beauty and brilliant writing, the movie is a shell game in the end," she writes. "Look over there, the director is telling us — it's pretension and quaaludes and bad sitcoms that are really the problem."
And for decades, a sizable chunk of the public, coached and coddled by some complicit media, played along. In the early '90s, Bellafante writes, after Jerry Seinfeld started dating a woman he met in Central Park while she was a high school senior, he took some ribbing. "But a year later," she writes, "People magazine, as if clearing up a misunderstanding, featured the pair on the cover under the headline: 'Look Who's in Love: Jerry Seinfeld, 39, and Shoshanna Lonstein, 18, make an unlikely romance work.' "
Here's the thing:
"If an image like that is unthinkable today," Bellafante writes, "it is because young women have demanded that we stop normalizing exploitive relationships where my own generation could not."
It is undeniable progress when we start to examine the books and movies and other works of art we collectively digest, the statues that dot our public lands, the names of schools that educate our children through more than one lens. Through not just the lens of the creator at the time of creation, or the group with the most power or the group with the loudest voices. But through the lens, also, of the people affected — and too often harmed — by the thing we're discussing.
It shouldn't be up to Allen to tell us whether it's predatory or perfectly fine for a 42-year-old man to date a teenager. The feelings and fates and health of teenagers have to inform our willingness to embrace or reject that story line — fictional or otherwise. That requires listening to teenagers.
When Meghan Markle and Prince Harry tell Oprah Winfrey about the racism (including concerns within the royal family about how dark their son's skin might be), that informs our understanding of the British monarchy as more than a fluffy pastime filling our airtime and tabloids. Just as Netflix's "The Crown" has informed people's understanding of what life was like for the late Princess Diana.
When the Chicago Monuments Project examines Abraham Lincoln's treatment of Native Americans; when the Agassiz Elementary School community interrogates and rejects the false, harmful teachings of its namesake; when Turner Classic Movies introduces a series dealing with stereotypes and harmful tropes in classic films; when Dr. Seuss Enterprises reckons with the beloved author's portrayal of nonwhite characters, that is progress.
More lenses get us closer to the truth. More lenses broaden and deepen our understanding of who we are and who we want to become; who's been heard and who's been harmed.
Rounding up and eliminating the remnants of all that harm isn't always the answer. A college professor showed us D.W. Griffith's 1915 "Birth of a Nation" during a lesson on racist propaganda, and viewing it likely provided a more powerful lesson than reading about it. The Chicago Monuments Project may decide to add plaques or parallel installations for many of the pieces they're examining. Bellafante's newly formed thoughts about "Manhattan" were surely helped along by her ability to find and re-watch it.
We ought to, I think, consider the future of cultural touchstones individually, as they're raised. I'm all for removing Louis Agassiz's name from an elementary school, for example, because I don't think children should be asked to learn and explore and problem solve under the heading of man whose teachings were racist, flawed and harmful.
It's slow, important work and it won't be linear. But I'm grateful we're embarking on it. We are and will continue to be better for it.
As Bellafante wrote of "Manhattan," "It is not simply that so many of us were so besotted with the film for so long; it's that we were perfectly content to look and see virtue."
It's a welcome evolution — a necessary one, even — to revisit the things and the people and the virtues held dear by tastemakers whose tastes weren't shared, or informed by, the people they harmed.