Scarlett Johansson is the latest in a long line of Hollywood figures to be pilloried for her apparent hypocrisy on social issues.
Johansson has been at the forefront of the #MeToo movement, the Weinstein fallout, the TimesUp campaign—anything that features famous women confronting powerful men and demanding that the harmful status quo change, ScarJo has been there. But she’s also been in a few Woody Allen films, and has yet to say anything about how that chapter in her career feels to her now. Problematic!
At this year’s Los Angeles Women’s March, Johansson was behind the mic, the very picture of female resistance. She singled out one specific friend, an unnamed man who had borrowed a pin touting the cause, as a perpetrator of the very behavior she was fighting. “I want my pin back,” she said, to cheers.
ScarJo’s friend, who the activist’s team later confirmed was James Franco, stands accused of behavior that can be most accurately be described as “sexually creepy”—using his status to pressure women to acquiesce to encounters with which they were uncomfortable. The allegations are already impacting Franco’s career; some award watchers speculate they nudged Oscar voters to snub the Golden Globe winner’s performance.
But critics were quick to point out Johansson, said nothing about Woody Allen, who she worked with extensively early in her career. Allen’s adopted daughter Dylan Farrow accused the director of molesting her when she was 7 years old in a 2014 op-ed. Even though the last time Johansson had appeared in an Allen film was in 2008, years before the op-ed, a journalist asked her about the allegations about a month after Farrow’s piece ran. Johansson brushed them aside. “It’s all guesswork,” she told The Guardian.
As she’s eagerly stepped into the #MeToo spotlight, it’s odd that Johansson didn’t see this backlash coming. Allen’s continued career longevity, despite Farrow’s repeated insistence that he molested her as a child, is one of the more awkward unresolved storylines in Hollywood—a recurring invisible asterisk that follows the title of any of his films, a permanent stink that wafts behind the actors who continue to work with him. And Johansson, as a visible advocate for systemic change in Hollywood, needs to reckon with the fact that she’s defended Allen but condemned Franco, who was accused of much less severe crimes than assaulting a child.
Johansson should have either apologized to Dylan Farrow or explained why the LA Times’ reporting on Franco is enough to spur her to speech but Farrow’s first-person account isn’t enough to inspire self-examination. Does she believe the newspaper, but not Dylan Farrow? That’s probably something she should have been prepared to address, given the role Allen played in her career.
The cynical interpretation of these events is that Johansson has no problem speaking out against men like Franco, who have no direct power over her career, but isn’t willing to put herself on the line to confront a man like Allen, whose brand has overlapped with her own. But that world view is obtuse in its own way. It imagines a world of flat-line personalities, it enforces an expectation of permanent perfection that’s impossible for anybody to obtain, and is in fact contrary to the notion of progress.
But let’s do a short thought experiment. Let’s say Scarlett Johansson, in 2014, really believed that stories like Farrow’s were “guesswork.” Let’s say that in the four years that have elapsed since she made those comments, she’s learned about the world around her. Maybe she’s awakened to truths she didn’t want to believe. Maybe she’s matured. Perhaps Scarlett Johansson, and other women who have in the past benefitted from men or turned a blind eye to men who have bolstered their careers, simply grew as a person.
And maybe she didn’t! Of course movie stars and public figures and the ultra-wealthy who lecture the masses on morals are often susceptible to hypocrisy, and of course it’s important for people and movements to reckon with their own imperfections before trying to address the world’s.
But the backlash against Johansson is a teachable moment. It reads like a tantalizing and familiar script, one that allows the public to pounce on growth, rebrand it as duplicity, and discount earnest betterment.
Leaping open-armed to the conclusion that a gradual change in a person’s behavior or opinion is akin to opportunistic hypocrisy is dangerous. The reason the #MeToo moment matters is that it feels like a sea change; the reason it feels like a sea change is that many people in positions to shape their respective industries have changed their minds as a result of receiving and processing new information. The reason these people feel comfortable espousing new ideas is that on the other side of their own growth, they’re not perpetually punished for views they no longer hold.
Nobody is born a perfect advocate, ally, or activist; we all ostensibly go through life learning (and if we’re not, we should aspire to). It’s hard to imagine the depressing hellscape we’d live in if the human capacity for empathy hardened at a certain age like concrete.
So, yes, by all means, let’s point out moral duplicity. But let’s not conflate personal breakthroughs with moral pretense. If we do, we’ll get nothing done.