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How the Media Failed Britney Spears and Dylan Farrow

Two new documentaries show there’s only one true obstacle to controlling your own narrative in the press: being female

Justin Sutcliffe/AP; Fryderyk Gabowicz/picture-alliance/dpa/AP

Within the last three weeks, TV’s documentary explosion has given us two damning close-ups on decades-old celebrity scandals. In one, an insatiable media-industrial complex takes a vulnerable young woman into its maw, judging her sexuality and questioning, then actively undermining, her sanity. In the other, it happens again. The main difference between them lies in who the celebrity is at the center of each public maelstrom — and how that simple fact determines who survives in its wake.

Framing Britney Spears, a New York Times-produced documentary that premiered February 5th and is now streaming on Hulu, forces us to look anew at Spears’ shot-out-of-a-cannon rise as a teenager and public implosion several years later, both a function of relentless media attention. Some of that attention was courted, sure, as it would be by any young pop star, male or female. But the tenor of the media fervor, the implicit slack-jawed drooling and pawing, the pure objectification with little pretense of taking Spears seriously as an artist (much less a human being), is shocking in retrospect. The tabloid covers — and non-tabloid ones presented with the glossy patina of highbrow journalism, including some produced by this magazine — gawked and squawked over her body, her relationships, her lyrics, her looks. Was it any wonder she took a razor to her head in a last-ditch effort to destroy the sexpot persona that had become her prison? 

What’s most devastating to consider may be the degree to which a young Spears was actually quite self-possessed, far more so than she was given credit for at the time. The doc includes a clip of Diane Sawyer grilling a 21-year-old Spears on ABC’s Primetime about the negative impact her music could have on young girls and the challenges her overtly sexual act presented to parents. (Sawyer was propping up a comment by the then-first lady of Maryland, who’d said she would “shoot” Spears given the chance.) In response, Spears firmly rejects the idea that it is her job to raise other people’s children. But somehow, despite being solid in her decision to present herself publicly as a young adult exploring her sexual side, Spears never actually had control of her own narrative. Soon enough, the narrative controlled her: She was a cheater (as suggested in song by her ex, Justin Timberlake), a bad mom (paparazzi photos of her tripping while holding one of her infant sons), a redneck (there she goes buying Cheetos at a gas station), and finally, an unhinged cautionary tale (those head-shaving, car-smashing pics). Spears was beholden to a media power structure in place at the time — largely male and unrepentantly gross — that allowed her to titillate or to entertain, but never to fully exist. She told us she was not a girl, not yet a woman. What we heard was a come-on. 

Allen V. Farrow, a four-part docuseries that premiered its first hour last Sunday night on HBO, both inverts and reinforces some of the dynamics present in the Spears saga. A detailed look at the sexual abuse allegations levied against writer-director Woody Allen in 1992 by his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow — featuring interviews with Dylan; her mother, Mia Farrow; several of her siblings; former Farrow babysitters and family friends; investigators who worked the case; forensic psychiatrists, lawyers, and child-abuse experts; and cultural critics — it operates as a case study in who we allow to control the media and why. Throughout the series, interview subjects testify to the distorting effects of Allen’s celebrity, how he was surrounded by a cadre of friends in high places, not to mention an adoring public who simply refused to believe that the nebbishy, self-deprecating intellectual who improbably made nerdiness cool was also a coldly calculating predator. Allen was able to harness the press as both a shield and a weapon. Spears, despite being richer and more famous by a considerable magnitude, was only its foil.

The series unfurls a pattern of grooming by Allen, not just of Dylan and Soon-Yi Previn, another of Farrow’s adopted children, whom Allen had an affair with and eventually married. He manipulated Mia, according to the documentary, gaslighting and denigrating her, making her question her instincts as a mother and her capabilities as an actress. But Allen groomed us too, as Vox film critic Alissa Wilkinson points out. First, there is his body of work, decades of films that position relationships between older men and much younger women — in Manhattan, his character is 42, carrying on with Mariel Hemingway’s sexually voracious 17-year-old Tracy — as though they’re completely normal. And then there is the tactical use of his influence and prestige to tell us how to feel and what to think about the allegations seven-year-old Dylan made in August of 1992 — press conference after press conference, interview after interview, strategically laid out to discredit a child and the mother who was seeking to protect her. 

As filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering (who co-wrote the Oscar-nominated 2012 doc The Invisible War, about rape culture in the military) make clear at the end of each episode of Allen V. Farrow, Allen denies having any sexually inappropriate contact with Dylan. (Allen and Previn, who declined to be interviewed for the project, released a statement slamming it as a “hatchet job” and calling the abuse allegations “categorically false.”) But let’s be clear about what he was setting out to defend: As the docuseries lays out using court filings, police reports, and witness testimony, investigators in two states believed a crime had very likely been committed against Dylan. A New York City child welfare case worker deemed Dylan credible and stated in a report that he found sufficient evidence to open a criminal case (his superiors overruled him). When Allen sued Mia for custody of Dylan, Moses, and Satchel (who now goes by Ronan), the judge in that case ruled against him, finding his behavior toward Dylan “grossly inappropriate” and stating that measures must be taken to protect her; both of Allen’s appeals were denied. And in Connecticut, where the alleged abuse occured, state prosecutor Frank Maco concluded that there was probable cause to arrest Allen for third- and fourth-degree sexual assault; he did not go forward, he said, only because he didn’t want to subject Dylan to further trauma on the stand. 

Days after the initial investigation was launched in Connecticut in August of 1992, Allen called a press conference at New York’s Plaza hotel, where he decried the allegations as the “vindictive” machinations of a woman scorned. (Privately, according to taped calls played in the documentary, he had first urged Mia to do a joint conference where they would “refute rumors”; she declined.) “In the end,” he told the assembled reporters that day, “the one thing I have been guilty of is falling in love with Mia Farrow’s adult daughter.” Immediately, media attention was redirected toward the affair with Previn, who was by then a college student. Allen did cover-story interviews in short order for Time, People, and more. In one particularly slimy moment, Allen accuses Mia in a taped call of talking to Newsweek; when she says she heard he was doing that, he denies it — cut to the cover with its screaming headline: “Woody’s Story.”

Unlike so much of the coverage surrounding Spears as she stumbled in her personal life, Allen was a willing participant in, often an architect of, these pieces. He’d been accused of something heinous, and the press was a tool he used to reshape the narrative, excising the child at its center. Throughout his campaign, the media treated him with the respect and gravitas he’d trained us to believe he deserved. Compare Steve Kroft’s collegial tone as he interviewed Allen on 60 Minutes — where the filmmaker offered the lame defense that if he’d wanted to be a child molester, he would’ve done it years ago — with Today anchor Matt Lauer’s condescension as he asked a very pregnant Spears to answer criticism of her parenting for putting her young son on her lap in her car. You’d think the alleged offenses were on the same plane.

Mia Farrow claims Allen once told her amid the chaos of the abuse crisis: “It doesn’t matter what’s true, what matters is what is believed.” 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. As Allen V. Farrow establishes, this story was propagated in the press not just by Allen but by his proxies, from his attorney to talking heads suggested by his PR team as good experts to interview on the subject. It seeped into the cultural consciousness, where it mingled with his reputation as one of the esteemed artists of our time. He was still hailed by his peers in Hollywood, given an enthusiastic standing ovation at the 2002 Oscars and a lifetime achievement award at the 2014 Golden Globes. 

When Dylan got the courage (or maybe just the rage) to speak out again after that awards ceremony, she couldn’t get her essay into either the New York Times or the L.A. Times. One editor called Ronan Farrow and said, “We can’t run this, even though we feel it checks out.” The only way it got air was by Ronan calling in a favor with the Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Nicholas Kristof, who ran it on his blog. The Times published Allen’s rebuttal in its opinion pages. A few years later, in his memoir, Allen attacked Dylan’s motives in trying to reclaim her voice: “Imagine my sadness when she wrote an open letter. The openness is important, as the strategy behind going public is not to resolve anything but to smear me.” Of course that’s what he’d think — it was what he’d been doing to Dylan and Mia all along.

It was only the rise of the MeToo and Time’s Up movements that created the space for Dylan to finally be taken seriously. That same cultural shift also prompted us to reconsider Spears’ story, though not from her own perspective — the bully pulpit has always eluded her grasp. She was rich but still lacked power, dismissed first as a precocious tart, then later as deranged and incompetent. As her reputation was being tarnished, she had seemingly no ability to proffer a counternarrative in the press. The nature of her struggle was different — she was not combating horrifying allegations; her crime was just being a vulnerable young woman in the public eye — but it was no less damaging. While Allen told a talk-show host that, in the aftermath of the abuse scandal, he “simply went about my business and worked,” Spears for a time had no such luxury; she had to retreat. Perhaps her handlers knew that, as she reeled toward a breakdown, she was in no condition to stand in front of a microphone making a speech. Still, throughout her personal crisis, she blamed no one, threw out no red herrings to distract us from her troubles.

While she regained her career with a wildly successful Las Vegas residency, Spears has been effectively muzzled for years by a strict conservatorship that puts her father and business associates in charge of her life, and surely by the experience of having been burned, severely, by the third rail of the press. Dylan and Mia, too, have found ways to move on from, if not to move through, the crisis that had threatened to define them. It may seem curious now that for long stretches of time, none of these women even bothered to try telling their story to the public. But of course they didn’t. They knew, until recently, who was allowed to speak, who would be heard, and who was expected to silently turn the page.

From Rolling Stone US