Everyone makes mistakes. This is universal. However, not everyone knows how to apologise. It’s easy to become defensive about our missteps, to couch our “sorry”s with excuses, and to try and soften the shame we feel about being in the wrong with self-righteousness. If you want to know how to give a proper apology, Mira Sorvino and Greta Gerwig have both just delivered masterclasses.
Gerwig, asked about working with Woody Allen by Frank Bruni, a New York Times columnist, said “If I had known then what I know now, I would not have acted in the film. I have not worked for him again, and I will not work for him again. Dylan Farrow’s two different pieces made me realise that I increased another woman’s pain, and I was heartbroken by that realisation.” She added, “I grew up on his movies, and they have informed me as an artist, and I cannot change that fact now, but I can make different decisions moving forward.” (It’s worth noting that very few men are being asked to comment on or defend their work with Allen. Justin Timberlake wore black to the Golden Globes, and was praised for sharing a #TimesUp selfie, but there were few repercussions when he told Stephen Colbert that working with Allen was “like a dream come true”.)
Sorvino wrote an open letter to Farrow, published by the Huffington Post, saying, “I am so sorry, Dylan! I cannot begin to imagine how you have felt, all these years as you watched someone you called out as having hurt you as a child, a vulnerable little girl in his care, be lauded again and again, including by me and countless others in Hollywood who praised him and ignored you.”
Our mistakes might make us feel weak and stupid, but when we openly address them, we will all become smarter and stronger
Over the last few months, we’ve become increasingly aware that Hollywood is the land of cognitive dissonance, and it’s become harder and harder to reconcile the range of reputations of its most notable auteurs. “He’s a monster!” “But he’s a genius!” The author Claire Dederer writes of researching Roman Polanski, the director convicted of raping Samantha Gailey when she was 13 and finding herself “awed by his monstrousness… And yet. When I watched his movies, their beauty was another kind of monument, impervious to my knowledge of his iniquities.” In their apologies, both Gerwig and Sorvino acknowledge that Farrow’s actions and activism made them change their minds. It’s difficult to denounce your heroes, and to realise that someone is capable of creating work you love as well as behaving in a hurtful, harmful, abusive way.
In 2014, Farrow wrote, “Each time I saw my abuser’s face – on a poster, on a T-shirt, on television – I could only hide my panic until I found a place to be alone and fall apart… It felt like a personal rebuke, like [Allen’s] awards and accolades were a way to tell me to shut up and go away.” It’s easy to intellectualise the argument, to claim that a true connoisseur can separate the art from the artist. It’s frightening to put yourself in the position of the abused, and acknowledge that for too long, good art has allowed bad artists to hide in plain sight. I don’t believe that many of us would have turned down the opportunities afforded to Sorvino and Gerwig, if we’d been in their position. However, I do think their apologies are timely, powerful and sincere – and a call to all of us to listen to women, and believe them.
These apologies remind us that abuse is contingent on power. The actions of an abuser make the victim feel powerless. That powerlessness is exacerbated by the knowledge that the weaker you are in relation to your abuser’s strength, the less likely you are to be believed. Men who abuse women are usually in a position to conceal their crimes. It’s their word against ours. They act knowing the full extent of their power, and how to use it. They know that it will be easy for them to find support, and difficult for their victims. This makes it extremely common for the rest of us to be in the wrong. However, it’s easy to make things right by saying sorry, sincerely, as Sorvino and Gerwig have. Their apologies have tipped the power balance against abusers everywhere. Farrow’s simple, gracious response to Gerwig is a brilliant example of a woman who has finally been heard, and is listening in response.
At some point in our lives, most of us will be on the wrong side of history. If listening to women and believing them was easy and obvious, we probably wouldn’t need a #MeToo movement. We have all grown up in a patriarchy. Many of us have been conditioned to side with abusers for the sake of our own safety. If we don’t, we know we’re going to be on the losing team. No one wants to be wrong, but admitting it is the only way of making things right. Our mistakes might make us feel weak and stupid, but when we openly address them, we will all become smarter and stronger.