It's worse than just Woody Allen: Middle-age men, younger women and the true horror in Mariel Hemingway's new disclosures

Mariel Hemingway was 18, and that matters -- but so do the cultural messages we send about men, power, sex and age

Published March 26, 2015 4:09PM (EDT)

Woody Allen            (Reuters/Vincent Kessler)
Woody Allen (Reuters/Vincent Kessler)

Put any variation of “teenager” and “sex” in a headline, and you’re going to get outrage. Yet sometimes, the nuances of each word get lost in the rush to be horrified. Witness the reaction to Mariel Hemingway’s forthcoming memoir "Out Came the Sun," to be published April 7 by Regan Arts (along with a young adult-themed diary, "Invisible Girl"). Fox News published an excerpt titled “Exclusive: Young Mariel Hemingway had to rebuff Woody Allen’s advances.” Technically, according to the section of the book quoted in the piece, that is true; after the filming of "Manhattan," when she was 18 and he, 44, he asked her to go to Paris with him. But, given the allegations of abuse at age 7 by Allen’s adopted daughter Dylan Farrow disclosed in an open letter in 2014, “young” seems misleading at best in this headline.

The specific age very much matters, especially in a story like this. To be more blunt: if our laws around consent and statutory rape matter, we should not conflate attempting to seduce an 18-year-old with actual crimes. It may be distasteful and disturbing, but what Hemingway is describing is not illegal. The tone of many pieces puts it on par with more serious misdeeds.

Especially given Allen’s relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, adopted daughter of Mia Farrow, begun when she was 19 and he, 56, we must be precise when writing about Hemingway -- and when we’re not, we do a disservice to her and the larger story.

For instance, Bustle used the headline “Mariel Hemingway Says Woody Allen Tried To Seduce Her & Her Account Of His Actions Is So Sickening,” then goes for outrage over facts by writing, “In new claims against the 79-year-old filmmaker and actor, Mariel Hemingway said Woody Allen attempted to seduce her during the production of 'Manhattan' back in 1979, when she was just 16 years old, and he was 44 years old.” We may as a culture still find it sickening that a man in his mid-40s would be interested in an 18-year-old, but we need to at least recognize that an 18-year-old has the right to make her own decisions about how to respond to such a situation. Breitbart went with “Mariel Hemingway Says Woody Allen Tried To Seduce Her When She Was a Teen.” Again, technically an 18-year-old is indeed a teenager, but the more common usage usually refers to those under 18, but there’s less shock value in using “18” in a headline, which other outlets such as Page Six have done.

This is not to defend Allen's actions, as Hemingway describes them. Based on everything I’ve read, I agree fully with Jezebel’s assessment of him as a “Garbage Human.” But if we are going to take allegations of sexual misconduct seriously, both Allen’s and others’, we do need to make the same crucial distinction that the law does between a potential sex crime and our own biases regarding age differences.

The more important question I see being raised by Hemingway is why, exactly, middle-aged men are so entranced with women over half their age. As Hemingway writes in her memoir, “Our relationship was platonic, but I started to see that he had a kind of crush on me, though I dismissed it as the kind of thing that seemed to happen any time middle-aged men got around young women.” I’m actually more troubled by what she writes about Bob Fosse, who directed her in Star 80: “I let us into my room. And then, for the next fifteen minutes, I ran rings around the couch while Bob Fosse chased me for purposes of sex.”

As girls and young women have become even more sexualized in the ensuing decades since Hemingway was 18, it’s important to look at what their takeaway is from the message that they are fair game for men far older than them. Am I saying there’s nothing fishy about a man in his 40s, who was already in a position of power as Hemingway’s director, trying to seduce her? Of course not.

But the fault here doesn’t lie solely with Allen. According to FOX, “She warned her parents ‘that I didn’t know what the arrangement was going to be, that I wasn’t sure if I was even going to have my own room. Woody hadn’t said that. He hadn’t even hinted it. But I wanted them to put their foot down. They didn’t. They kept lightly encouraging me.’”

That to me is just as horrifying as Allen flying to their home to ask if he could take Hemingway to Paris. So let’s clarify what it is we are so sickened by when talking about age differences, and recognize that this is symptomatic of more than just Allen being a “dirty old man.”

By Rachel Kramer Bussel

Rachel Kramer Bussel is the author of "Sex & Cupcakes: A Juicy Collection of Essays" and the editor of more than 70 anthologies, including "The Big Book of Orgasms" and the Best Women's Erotica of the Year series. She teaches erotica writing workshops online and in-person, writes widely about books, culture, sex, dating and herself, and Tweets @raquelita.

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Mariel Hemingway Woody Allen