Lewinsky to Spears: Need to Relook Coverage of Women In Scandals
Documentaries like Allen vs. Farrow and Framing Britney Spears put a spotlight on media's unjust treatment of women.
The third season of Impeachment: American Crime Story, streaming on Disney+ Hotstar, looks at the infamous Monica Lewinsky-Bill Clinton scandal. The first episode premiered recently, and we are yet to find out where the show takes us. But at the heart of the series is Lewinsky, a woman hounded and torn apart by the media for having a relationship with the President (who has been accused of sexual misconduct by numerous women).
Lewinsky’s story brings to mind some other documentaries which are classic examples of a culture that rests its foundation on misogyny. Let’s take a look:
Allen V. Farrow
Allen V. Farrow, the HBO docu-series streaming on Disney+ Hotstar, inverts and questions most of the things that we know about the Woody Allen-Mia Farrow saga. An in-depth investigation of the case of sexual abuse levied against celebrated actor-director Woody Allen in 1995 by his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow exposes the ugly truth about how the media can be controlled. Interviews by Allen’s former partner Mia Farrow, Dylan, her siblings, former Farrow babysitters and family friends; investigators who worked on the case; psychiatrists, lawyers, child-abuse experts and cultural critics point out how Allen misused his power and position to distort facts, leading to a miscarriage in justice.
Throughout the series, we see how Allen’s cadre of friends and the public at large lent their unwavering support, refusing to believe that this impish, self-deprecating man who embraced misfits and made them feel seen through his films could be a calculated predator in real life. Allen snatched this opportunity to use the press as both a weapon and a shield.
The few reporters who tried to bring forth Mia and Dylan's story were shouted down.
What’s also extremely disturbing about Allen v Farrow is the pattern of grooming by the filmmaker of Mia, Dylan and Soon Yi, another of Mia’s adopted children who Allen had a relationship with and eventually marries. As Mia says in the documentary, she was trapped in her partner’s menacing grip.
The 13 odd films that Woody and Mia worked on together were a nauseating example of the control Allen exercised over Mia, the latter says. She adds that Woody would constantly rebuke her and make her question her competence as a mother and talent as an actor. Mia explains that she was gaslighted to a point where she choked with guilt despite being right in pointing out that Allen’s behaviour towards baby Dylan was uncomfortable.
But weren’t we, the viewers, also manipulated by Allen for decades? As a film critic points out in the show, Allen’s extensive body of work justifies a relationship between a young woman and a much older man as something that should be acceptable. Take, for instance, Manhattan, where Allen’s character is in a relationship with 17-year-old Tracy. The crafty director reiterates that it’s always the naïve youngster who refuses to let go of the warped relationship, despite 'warnings' from the middle-aged men. The women are always to blame.
Then there is the tactical use of privilege and money to counter allegations that seven-year-old Dylan levelled against her ‘father’. Press conference after press conference, interview after interview - Allen never tired of publicly discrediting a child and her mother who was only trying to ensure Dylan's safety. Mia was labelled a hysteric, her views snubbed by opinion pieces and articles, too quick to pass judgments on the acutely sensitive case. And we were all too happy to lap that up.
Filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering harp on the fact that Allen categorically denied having a sexual relationship with Dylan. But the director kind of fell in his own trap during the investigation. Through police reports, witness testimonies, court filings that have been made available to us, investigators come on camera to say that they believed a crime had been committed against Dylan. The second blow came when Allen sued Mia for custody of three of her children (Dylan, Moses and Ronan). The judge observed in his ruling that he found Allen’s behaviour towards Dylan ‘grossly inappropriate’.
Did that stop Allen from harassing his family? Far from it. Days after the ruling, Allen gave a press conference wherein he dismissed all the allegations as ‘vindications’ by a scorned woman. “In the end, the one thing I have been guilty of is falling in love with Mia Farrow’s adult daughter," Allen told the reporters assembled at a New York hotel.
The series plays taped conversations between Allen and Farrow, wherein the former urges her to address a joint press conference where they would ‘refute rumours’. Mia declined.
Immediately after Allen’s statement, the media latched on to his relationship with Soon Yi, turning a deaf ear to the grave issue at hand. Allen was celebrated for ‘confessing’ his love. Interviews with Time and People followed. One instance that shakes the ethics of the media is when, in a taped call, Woody accuses Mia of talking to the Newsweek. Mia counters him by saying she heard he is talking to the publication, at which Allen scoffs. The next day, we see ‘Woody’s Story’ screaming from the cover of Newsweek.
"It doesn’t matter what’s true, what matters is what is believed"- Mia says Allen told her this when her world turned upside down. Isn’t that what we did for years? Allen was an active participant in the narrative, and, through his trademark style, fed the press what was palatable to them. He used the trauma of a child to make the world laugh at her and her mother.
Allen devised a carefully-orchestrated campaign, using the media as a catalyst to reinforce the respect he made everyone believe he deserved. Accused of a heinous crime, Allen saunters into the 60 Minutes show and offers an outrageous excuse that had he chosen to be a podophile, he would have done that years back.
Allen had brainwashed the country so effectively that he was hailed by his peers and given standing ovations at Oscars, making it almost impossible for Dylan to get her side of the story published in New York Times or LA Times.
It was only after movements like #MeToo and 'Time’s Up' that Dylan got the space she deserved. “I simply went about my business and worked”, Allen told a talk-show host amidst the scandal. Thanks to the press, that was a luxury that only men can afford. Did the media ever stop and think about the lives damaged?
Framing Britney Spears
The New York Times documentary forces us to re-look at Britney’s fame as a teenager and the subsequent breakdown, both as a result of glaring media attention. Britney rightfully owned her hard-earned success as a pop star, but the unforgiving media made it clear from the very beginning that they wouldn’t even pretend to respect Spears as an artiste.
Instead, they added fuel to the drooling and objectifying, time and again asking the young girl about her choice of clothes, and ‘breasts’ instead of highlighting her music. Tabloid and non-tabloid covers had a ball dissecting Spears’ body, lyrics, relationships and lifestyle. A clip shows a show host asking a very young Britney about marriage, choosing to ignore the spectacular performance she delivered minutes before.
One of the most devastating instances in the documentary is a clip showing Diane Sawyer smirking and questioning Spears about the negative impact her music and her ‘explicitly sexual’ lyrics can have on young girls and their parents.
To which a confident Spears replies that it’s not her job to raise other people’s children. Throughout her career, Spears was never credited for being smart, intelligent and in absolute control of her decisions. Instead, the narrative completely shifted after she broke up with Justin Timberlake. She was labelled a cheater (courtesy Timberlake’s song), an unfit mother (a few photos of Spears holding her infant while driving seemed to be enough for the world).
The last nail on the coffin was when, in a fit of desperation, Spears smashed the windows of a journalist’s car because privacy is a word that’s completely alien to the media. The system that crushed Britney Spears was a largely male-dominated one, which saw her as an object of titillation and didn’t bother to highlight the mental trauma she was facing. Britney’s tears were meat for juicier headlines, her shaved head (a mark of protest) an excuse to further ridicule her and reduce her life to questions in a quiz show.
A photojournalist recounts, in the documentary, about the kind of money Spears’ ‘candid’ photos would fetch. This gave rise to a vulture-esque atmosphere, which gave free reign to the media to swoop down on the pop star when she was at her worst.
Unlike Woody Allen, Spears couldn’t use her position or money to her advantage. She was butchered by the press, muzzled for years by a strict conservatorship and pushed to the wall by a voyeuristic gaze. Till very recently, Spears didn’t talk about the oppressive conservatorship and blamed no one because she was well aware as to who would actually be heard.
This is Paris
By recounting the boarding school abuse that she suffered, Paris Hilton makes us question what we actually want to see in this YouTube documentary. Behind the castle of wealth that she has amassed, Hilton opens up as to how unhappy she has been. Hilton’s teenage years were spent drinking, partying and being sent to a number of reformatory schools. She escaped from most of them, but the experience in the last one, Provo Canyon school, in Utah, was harrowing.
Hilton alleges that she and other students there were subjected to verbal abuse and 'torturing' from staff members, and 10-hour stretches in solitary confinement for hiding prescription medicines that the students were forced to take. Hilton claims that the drugs rendered them comatose.
Hilton also delves into the sex tape with her former boyfriend that was leaked. Behind the glamour and glitz of celebrities that is always thrust at us, are stories of trauma, betrayal and unhappiness. Not much has been talked about Hilton’s complex persona and that she is much more than her lucrative career, glossy lipsticks and designer clothes.
Monica Lewinsky- Bill Clinton - The Controversy
The latest season of Impeachment: American Crime Story, sinks its teeth into the Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton-controversy. In 1998, a 22-year-old woman, Monica Lewinsky, became the most talked-about intern in the world. That ‘fame’ is a scathing study about betrayal.
The then United States president Bill Clinton was found to have a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, who was working as a White House intern. Clinton was impeached for lying under oath, becoming the second US president to be impeached in history.
The first episode of the series starts with Linda Tripp, a former senior White House employee who surreptitiously taped hours of Lewinsky’s conversations with her and broke the scandal.
We are yet to see how the show unfurls the way Lewinsky was treated, but let us look at the press coverage from the time.
"A little tart", was how the prominent Wall Street Journal referred to Monica Lewinsky. New York magazine took pride in its reportage, wherein it stated that as an adolescent, Lewinsky had spent two summers at fat camp, "paying particular attention to the boys".
Maureen Dowd called her a 'ditzy, predatory White House intern', and was even awarded the Pulitzer for her coverage. Fox News actually released a poll investigating whether the public thought Lewinsky was an 'average girl' or a 'young tramp looking for thrills'. No points in guessing which way the public swayed. Lewinsky became a whipping ball, and making fun of a 22-year-old became a pastime for news channels and late night shows.
Need to Re-Assess
For decades, women in the thick of controversies have been used as punching bags. From their clothes to their diction, every little detail has been scrutinised on national television, for people to gawk at and ridicule. Remember Rhea Chakraborty and the way she was treated following her partner Sushant Singh Rajput’s demise?
From celebrated actors to filmmakers and even the most powerful man in the country - whenever things go awry, it’s always the women who are vilified. Mia Farrow, Monica Lewinsky, Britney Spears, Rhea Chakraborty - these women might have mustered all their courage in trying to move on, but it should be a reckoning for those of us in the media. We must look back at our mistakes and collectively apologise.
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