Framing Britney Spears, a documentary that aired earlier this month, opened the floodgates to a long look back at just how cruelly the media covered this particular woman in the 2000s. Suddenly the internet was a sea of sexist ledes from Britney Spears profiles, terrible late-night interviews, and horrifying celebrity tabloid magazine covers.
This treatment is hardly unique to Britney; there were plenty of other women in the public eye who were profoundly mistreated: from Princess Diana to Taylor Swift to Amanda Bynes to Monica Lewinksy to Michelle Obama. And there was one other woman in particular whose story has recently come back into the spotlight: Mia Farrow. This Sunday night, HBO will air the second episode of Allen v. Farrow, a four-part documentary on the relationship of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, their acrimonious split, and the sexual molestation allegations against Allen. I found it profoundly hard to watch.
It’s important to note that I know many of the players—at least superficially. I’ve met Woody a few times. My grandparents were friendly with Mia, and I sometimes message with her on Twitter, but I don't know her in real life. I’ve met Ronan. Woody and Mia were enormous figures in the New York I grew up in. My grandfather Howard Fast lived in the same building on 74th street as Woody.
And as a product of 1990s New York, I found many of the elements of this story hauntingly familiar. Mia’s adopted son Moses Farrow entered my class at Dalton not long after I left for another school. I went to the same diners, rode the same Madison Avenue bus, shopped at the same shops. I, too, was a product of a messy public divorce, just like the Farrow children. Thank God my parents were far less famous than Woody and Mia. But pieces were written about my parents’ divorce, sides were taken, there were lawsuits and lawsuits and more lawsuits. There are no winners in cases like these, but children who go through public divorces when they have not yet entered grade school are among those who suffer the most.
But when I think back to the events of the early ’90s, my sympathy goes not only to the children who were caught up in these devastating events, but to Mia as well—not just because I believe that Woody is the obvious villain, but because of the way the media treated her.
This was a story that played out, like many Manhattan dramas, in the pages of New York tabloids. For the New York Post, this was content, not a family tragedy. The New York City media ecosystem sustained itself on stories of Woody and Mia and Soon-Yi. There were headlines like “Woody Loves Mia’s Daughter” and “Woody’s Steamy Tapes” splashed across the New York Post. Even the more subdued New York Daily News had this headline: “Woody in Love, Allen Speaks Out About Mia’s Daughter.” The tabloids bathed in a kind of sick glee. It was the sort of story that confirmed everything media wanted to believe about celebrities. The storyline was that they might be famous and beautiful, but deep down they were profoundly, truly, and deeply broken.
And then there was the way that Mia was described. In 2014, Woody Allen’s lawyer, Elkan Abramowitz, called her “a bitter bitch.” Andrea Peyser wrote numerous New York Post opinion pieces defending Woody: from “Mia Farrow has finally succeeded in destroying Woody Allen—and we should be afraid” to the more recent: “Put me on Team Woody—Mia Farrow is full of it.”
Maria Fontoura writes in Rolling Stone that Woody managed to control the narrative through a barrage of interviews, “What was widely believed for decades, thanks to Allen’s press blitz, was his version of events: that Mia was crazy, that Dylan’s tale was fabricated, a function of her mother’s desire for revenge against Allen for his relationship with Soon-Yi.”
But ultimately, it may have been the sheer volume of content that was the most destructive to the family. These people are, after all, humans, and they were used as kindling for a news cycle bonfire.
I have found Allen v. Farrow to be a very compassionate look at the children and the hardship they faced. The filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering have spent the last ten years making movies about sexual assault allegations. According to the New York Times, the filmmakers said the story “offered them a chance to discuss familial child abuse and incest, a topic that survivors consistently asked the two to tackle.” This was to be a truly thoughtful look at the family’s story through the eyes of people who knew how to cover the subject matter without tabloid exploitation.
Just like with the New York Times’s Britney documentary, we have a chance to re examine this story decades later and figure out the role that the media—and all of us who consumed it—played. We don’t cover young female pop stars the same disgusting sexist way we did a decade ago, but can the same be said of the way we cover victims of scandal?