Argento’s denial of Bennett’s claims leaves no room for equivocation. It is an absolute refusal to acknowledge any veracity in his claims, a stark contrast to her many statements about believing women (and men) who step forward with stories of assault or harassment. But her statement is familiar in its own way, drawing from an easily recognizable playbook. On its face, Argento’s denial deploys several rhetorical tools designed to undercut the credibility of her accuser. She suggests that he is troubled, money-hungry, and vengeful; she underscores her own shock. Rose McGowan, Argento’s friend and a fellow Weinstein accuser, as well as one of Hollywood’s most vocal (if also contentious) #MeToo advocates, asked that people “be gentle” during this time because “none of us know the truth of the situation.” McGowan has, in the past, called on her Twitter followers to “grab a spine and denounce” those accused of sexual predation; this appeal for gentleness appears restricted to Argento’s case.
It may be surprising (for some) to see this behavior from a woman—especially one so vocal about her past history of abuse. In a statement to ABC News on Monday, before Argento released her statement, Weinstein’s lawyer Benjamin Brafman attacked Argento for her “stunning level of hypocrisy,” calling into question once more the legitimacy of her claims against the Hollywood producer. “At the very same time Argento was working on her own secret settlement for the alleged sexual abuse of a minor,” Brafman said, “she was positioning herself at the forefront of those condemning Mr. Weinstein.” Weinstein, whose lawyer called Argento’s rape accusation “completely false” in May, reportedly reacted with “almost relief” to the news that the actress had been accused of misconduct.
But Brafman’s rhetoric is as unexceptional as it is reductive. It feels exhausting to repeat that it is entirely possible for Argento to be both a victim of Weinstein’s and a perpetrator of harm against Bennett. That these possible designations are in conflict with each other is precisely the nature of sexual assault and its attendant trauma: Many perpetrators of sexual violence are themselves victims of it. This neither absolves Argento of her alleged crimes nor renders her own story of victimization void. The knowledge does, however, challenge the most frequently deployed rhetorical points about sexual abuse and gendered violence.
Certainly, the majority of abuses addressed under the loosely applied mandate of “MeToo” are alleged to have been perpetrated by men. To walk through the world as a man is to be inoculated against many kinds of accountability. Gender is by no means an irrelevant variable. But for advocates who have limited their ethical indictments to “men,” that nebulous and stratified coalition, the news of allegations against Argento presents an ethical hurdle. It is far easier to assign blame to the broad category of men than it is to reckon with the myriad ways power manifests itself in the structures that connect human beings to one another. (And deeply ingrained cultural myths with sexist roots, like the belief that women are naturally nurturing and submissive, contribute to a climate in which female-perpetrated acts of abuse are disproportionately underreported.)
But where the academic community rallied around Avital Ronell, an NYU professor accused of harassment by one of her male students, the survivors and advocates who have pushed the broader #MeToo movement are weighing Argento’s alleged behavior with more nuance. The sharpest #MeToo leaders have long named power—rather than gender— as the primary factor enabling abuse. In a series of tweets following the news, #MeToo founder Tarana Burke addressed the allegations against the outspoken actress—and the effect they have on the movement Argento has championed for the better part of the past year:
“I’ve said repeatedly that the #metooMVMT is for all of us, including these brave young men who are now coming forward. It will continue to be jarring when we hear the names of some of our faves connected to sexual violence unless we shift from talking about individuals and begin to talk about power. Sexual violence is about power and privilege. That doesn’t change if the perpetrator is your favorite actress, activist, or professor of any gender. And we won’t shift the culture unless we get serious about shifting these false narratives.”
At first glance, it is comparatively easy to understand the power Weinstein wielded: The Hollywood heavyweight’s authority stemmed not only from his patriarchal posturing but also from the multiple networks of people who protected him either to benefit from his industry influence or out of fear. But so, too, do the allegations against Argento reveal a notable imbalance: The actress is 20 years her accuser’s senior. The two first met when she played his mother in The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, a 2004 film that Argento directed and helped write. She also starred in the movie, playing a drug-addicted sex worker who uses her son, a role the 7-year-old Bennett was cast in, to attract clients (in the film, this leads to the rape of Bennett’s character). In the time since, Argento has repeatedly referred to Bennett as her “son” and her “love.” In the context of his accusations, these are not lighthearted terms of endearment; they are rhetorical reminders of her position of authority in his life. They are tools of power.