What Is It About Our Artists and Very Young Girls?

Our cultural canon is built on the backs of young girls.

Feb 3, 2014 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment

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Priscilla was 14 years old when they began their relationship. Photo via Flickr

 
Over the weekend, in my social media feeds at least, the Superbowl was completely eclipsed by reactions to the powerful, sickening "open letter" from Dylan Farrow reaffirming and detailing her accusation that her adoptive father Woody Allen molested her at the age of 7.
 
It begins:
 
"What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie? Before you answer, you should know: when I was seven years old, Woody Allen took me by the hand and led me into a dim, closet-like attic on the second floor of our house. He told me to lay on my stomach and play with my brother’s electric train set. Then he sexually assaulted me."
 
The essay kicked off a maelstrom of visceral emotional reactions, from those supporting a full-on boycott of Allen's work to those outright calling Dylan Farrow a mentally ill liar. I don't know what happened in that attic, although if you are a person whose first reaction to a survivor's story is to claim that he or she is lying, my unedited response to you is a deep and visceral "F YOU."
 
Followed by, "Do you have any idea how difficult it is to come forward with something like this, to have your story and life history scrutinized and dissected, to struggle under the weight of the powerful social stigma of having been sexually abused?
 
But here's the thing. I don't even need molestation charges to know Woody Allen is a scumbag. Having sex with your girlfriend's 19-year-old daughter is plenty, thanks. And while molesting his 7-year-old daughter would perhaps catapult Allen from the league of "disgusting" to "monstrous," there's plenty to be disgusted by even without those allegations.
 
Like actress Stacey Nelkin, who has said her relationship with Allen is the basis of his film "Manhattan," and who was a 17-year-old high-school student when it began. Or his first wife, Harlene Rosen, who was 16 to his 19 when they married. Rosen eventually sued Allen over a joke he was using in his stand-up that referred to her being sexually assaulted outside of her apartment. (In response to newspapers saying she had been "violated," Allen said "Knowing my ex-wife it probably wasn't a moving violation.)
 
And of course, most glaringly and most undeniably, the fact that Allen's 12-year relationship with Mia Farrow ended in 1992 when she discovered nude photographs he had taken of her 19-year-old daughter. He was 56 at the time.
 
It may not be illegal, but to have a sexual affair with the teenage daughter of your longtime girlfriend, a woman with whom you have three children of your own, strikes me as inarguably immoral. This man married his childrens' sister.
 
Unfortunately, Woody is just one of our many artistic idols with a documented taste for teenage girls. In our society, if you give a certain kind of man the keys to the kingdom -- if you tell him, "You are special, you are above reproach, you can have what you want" -- part of what he wants is likely to be fresh, pretty, easily manipulated, very young girls. Girls who are in no position to rewrite the script they're used to.
 
As a result, underage girls and famous artists are an age-old pairing -- the chocolate and peanut butter of the artistic world.
 
You can't read about any artistic history or movement -- from punk rock to 18th century poetry -- without reading about someone's teenage mistress or girlfriend. Men with big egos and senses of entitlement combined with a lack of boundaries have always chewed up and swallowed emotionally immature young girls.
 
Off the top of my head alone: Edgar Allan Poe married his 13-year-old cousin, as did Jerry Lee Lewis. Elvis Presley was obsessed with 14-year-old girls (like his would-be wife Priscilla, who was 14 when he met her) and lost interest in his sexual partners once they were no longer virgins.
 
 
Ted Nugent has admitted to a fondness for underage girls, and at one point became 17-year-old girlfriend Pele Massa's legal guardian to avoid hassle. Marvin Gaye was 33 when he started dating 16-year-old Janis Hunter. The Eagles' Don Henley was arrested when police found a drugged, naked 16-year-old girl at his house. Salinger dated teenage girls.
 
Iggy Pop allegedly slept with Sable Starr when she was only 13, then wrote the song "Look Away" about her. Starr went on to have relationships with Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls and Richard Hell, all before turning 17. Chuck Berry went to jail for transporting an underage girl across state lines, and allegedly appeared in in a video urinating on a young girl in a hotel bathtub. Rob Lowe made a sex tape with a 16-year-old girl.
 
Roman Polanski plead guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl, then fled to France to escape imprisonment. Cher was 16 when she met 27-year-old Sonny Bono. Jimmy Page had a relationship with Lori Maddox, a 14-year-old groupie he proceeded to keep behind closed doors for years to avoid legal trouble. She was linked to David Bowie a year earlier.
 
Charles Dickens left his wife for an 18-year-old and then publicly slandered his betrayed wife in the newspaper. Fifty-one-year-old Doug Hutchinson married 16-year-old Courtney Stodden. Bill Wyman, the Rolling Stones' bassist, infamously "dated" 13-year-old Mandy Smith. Mackenzie Phillips' musician dad first raped her when she was 17 or 18.
 
The above are not only just the ones that come to mind quickly, they're just the ones who got caught. Our cultural canon is built on the backs of young girls.
 
It's no mystery why teen girls would be drawn to the powerful men who court them. Young girls, a traditionally fairly powerless group, wake up one day to discover they wield enormous sexual power, power they may use without the perspective or emotional maturity to fully understand the consequences. Many 13-year-olds with access to rock stars and visionary directors would be thrilled to capture one's interest, but unable to fully understand how unlevel the playing field truly is.
 
As Priscilla Presley, groomed like a dress-up doll from the age of 14 to be Elvis's perfect woman, put it: "I was someone he created. I was just a kid and I was consumed by him. All I desired was not to disappoint him."
 
Nor do I think this is just a celebrity thing. I was a pretty, sexually vulnerable teen -- I remember the thrill of attention from adult men, adult men who rarely uttered the "no" I so desperately needed. I also remember the severe emotional aftermath of realizing I had been manipulated.
 
I've walked down the New York City street with a 14-year-old relative and wanted to slap the adult men who ogled and catcalled her despite her obviously youthful beauty. It's a cultural problem writ large in celebrity scandal, and while I'm not sure if the percentage of "artistic geniuses" sleeping with underage girls is any higher than in regular society, it does seem as if people are willing to excuse the transgressions from talented people.
 
And when we look the other way when famous men abuse young girls, what message does that send to the non-famous men thinking about doing the same thing? What message does it send to our daughters, that their bodies and souls are less important than a really good film?
 
As I've written before, it doesn't matter if a young girl is saying yes, it's the job of adult men to say no. And not only are celebrities not often well-practiced in saying "No," nobody is saying no to them -- not their managers, their employees, their friends and hangers-on, not even the courts or the judges.
 
I have to conclude that it is our job, as a society, to start saying no, instead of "eh." To start putting our foot down instead of shrugging.
To ignore the initial tug of "But I really like this movie/song/whatever" and start to value victims over perpetrators, even really talented ones.
 
Because when we shrug, when we look away, we become complicit in the exploitation and abuse of young women that has long fed our culture machine. And I no longer think that's an acceptable price for good art.
 
As for Allen, specifically? I think we should have stopped following his work over a decade ago when he went public with his relationship with Soon-Yi. Luckily, it's not too late.