Asia Argento, #MeToo, and the Complicated Question of Power

The actress, who accused Harvey Weinstein of rape, reportedly settled claims with her own accuser. Her response to the allegations drew from a familiar playbook.

Brendan McDermid / Reuters

On Sunday night, The New York Times published a report detailing the Italian actress Asia Argento’s 2017 payments to the actor and musician Jimmy Bennett after he alleged that she sexually assaulted him in 2013. According to the Times report, Argento settled Bennett’s claims with payments totaling $380,000 after he accused her of assaulting him in her hotel room during a May 2013 reunion in Marina del Rey, California. At the time of the alleged assault, Argento was 37 and Bennett was 17. The state’s age of consent is 18.

Though the Times story was published this week, Bennett filed his intent to sue in November 2017, a month after The New Yorker published an investigation into the predatory behavior of Harvey Weinstein. Dozens of women alleged that Weinstein had targeted them with sexual advances, and Argento claimed that Weinstein raped her when she was 21. She has since become one of the most vocal #MeToo advocates within the entertainment industry; she gave a speech during the closing ceremony of May’s Cannes Film Festival that referred to the annual gathering as Weinstein’s “hunting ground,” and as the place where he raped her.

Bennett’s “feelings about that day were brought to the forefront recently when Ms. Argento took the spotlight as one of the many victims of Harvey Weinstein,” the actor’s lawyer wrote in the notice of intent to sue.

On Tuesday morning, Argento issued a statement denying the allegations, which she said she was “deeply shocked and hurt by having read,” as well as any sexual relationship with Bennett:

I was linked to him during several years by friendship only, which ended when, subsequent to my exposure in the Weinstein case, Bennett—who was then undergoing severe economic problems and who had previously undertaken legal actions against his own family requesting millions in damages—unexpectedly made an exorbitant request of money from me. Bennett knew my boyfriend, Anthony Bourdain, was a man of great perceived wealth and had his own reputation as a beloved public figure to protect.

Antony [sic] insisted the matter be handled privately and this was also what Bennett wanted. Anthony was afraid of the possible negative publicity that such person, whom he considered dangerous, could have brought upon us. We decided to deal compassionately with Bennett’s demand for help and give it to him.

The statement goes on to refer to the news of Bennett’s allegations as “the umpteenth development of a sequence of events that brings [Argento] great sadness and that constitutes a long-standing persecution.”

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.

Argento’s invocation of her late boyfriend, Anthony Bourdain, the beloved chef and TV host who committed suicide earlier this summer, reads, in itself, as a strategic choice. Just as it is impossible to litigate the veracity of either Argento’s or Bennett’s claims at this initial stage, readers are also unable to refute Argento’s relaying of a deceased man’s wishes. In naming Bourdain as the one who chose to settle Bennett’s claims, Argento shirks accountability. She assigns any secondary culpability to a man who can neither confirm nor deny his decisions. It’s a disappointing choice, especially given the extent to which Argento was harassed after Bourdain’s death by fans who blamed the actress for his suicide. Argento knows all too well the scrutiny that accusers suffer when alleging that powerful figures have harmed them. In an April op-ed for The Guardian, the actress wrote about the additional trauma she and other survivors sustained after sharing their accounts: “Women everywhere, emboldened by the #MeToo movement, have had the courage to share their most painful private traumas in public, only to face blanket denials and further assaults, this time on their character, their credibility, their dignity.”

If, as Bennett alleges, Argento did assault her former teenage co-star, the most nuanced strains of the #MeToo movement are well poised to support both parties in their respective journeys. Even if detractors refuse to grant Argento and Bennett the benefit of a complex empathy, victim-centric forms of justice can do so without condoning Argento’s alleged behavior. If both their allegations are true, Bennett is no less a victim than Argento—and Argento’s predation wouldn’t negate the reality of her own pain. To view a phenomenon as widespread and noxious as sexual violence through a single lens is to fundamentally misunderstand how it operates, and to turn a blind eye to the legions of people it affects. Grappling with the pernicious effects of sexual violence—in all its forms—demands a commitment to looking beyond the veils of convenient rhetoric. There is a righteous kind of power in that.