Group Chat Podcast: Asia Argento And #MeToo

News podcast episode about allegations that #MeToo leader Asia Argento sexually assaulted actor Jimmy Bennett when he was 17.

In this week's episode ...

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Group Chat — 00:27

Julia Furlan: When stories about sexual assault and misconduct started coming out last year, it felt like it was easy to sort people into boxes. There were good people and there were bad people. There were victims and there were perpetrators.

But more and more we’re starting to see that these narratives that aren’t so simple.

This week, the messiness hit right to the core of the #MeToo movement when the new york times broke a story alleging that Asia Argento sexually assaulted actor Jimmy Bennett when he was 17. She was 37 at the time.

Argento was one of the first and most public voices speaking out against Harvey Weinstein last year. And the #MeToo movement THAT SHE HELPED CREATE has made victims all over the world, in all kinds of industries less afraid to speak out.

But now that these allegations against her are out in the open, we, as a society, have to figure out what that means. And for the Group Chat this week, we have entertainment editor David Mack, film critic Alison Willmore, and entertainment reporter Ariane Lange to start the conversation.

David Mack: Alison do you want to start by telling us a little bit more about who Asia is? I think for me she's most famous for being one of Harvey Weinstein's most prominent and vocal accusers. But obviously she has a lengthy career.

Alison Willmore: Right, it is interesting. She's never had a huge amount of US fame and so this has become her story, the Harvey Weinstein's case has become her story, and the #MeToo movement. But she's actually the daughter of Dario Argento, the famous horror director. Suspiria, the remake coming up, is a remake of one of his famous horror films. And she's pretty famous in Italy. She is an Italian star and actress and a filmmaker herself. She even... She made an autobiographical film called Scarlet Diva that actually had kind of this like Harvey Weinstein–esque character in it.

TAPE: “You'll be great. So if you give me a massage, then I can read that little story here…”

She's been a kind of prominent, if like mostly European figure, in film before this. She's also in XXX. The Vin Diesel movie, she was the love interest in the first one.

Ariane Lange: Yes. She was Anthony Bourdain's girlfriend, and he, because of his association with Asia, became one of the prominent male supporters of the #MeToo movement.

DM: Right, right. Okay. So what happened?

AL: So according to The Times they received documents via encrypted email from an unknown source, that said that Asia Argento had paid off a young man, Jimmy Bennett, who's an actor and musician, because he said that she had sexually assaulted him. That she performed oral sex on him when he was just 17 years old and she was 37.

DM: This is right... They had been in a film together in 2004 called The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. I think she directed it, correct?

AW: She did and starred in it.

DM: Yeah, and he played her son. He was quite young at the time and they obviously stayed in touch over the years. In 2013, when Jimmy Bennett was 17, the two met at a hotel in California where the assault allegedly happened. There were Instagrams in this time story from 2013 in which Asia is saying how excited she is to see her former costar to catch up with him. Then they shared a photo of themselves, the kind of blurry selfie. Alison, what specifically is alleged to have happened in this hotel room? And then today, we're recording this on Tuesday, Asia has just put out a statement. What does that statement say?

AL: The statement denies the reporting of the New York Times and she said essentially that Anthony Bourdain encouraged her to settle it quietly. Which is a little strange, that she's invoking him at this juncture.

DM: Right. She makes some claims about Jimmy Bennett's financial status in his motivations in going after this. What does she say?

AW: She essentially says that he has had like a troubled family history and has had kind of legal and financial entanglements of his own, like on the personal side. And I mean the ways in which it's brought up in the statements seem to be there to discredit him in terms of how reliable a figure he is with regard to the claims.

DM: The key thing that this brings up obviously is... As Harvey Weinstein's lawyer Ben Brafman has said, that there's a huge level of hypocrisy here, on Asia’s behalf to be out there, you know, as the prominent face of this movement, and saying that victims should be believed, and then denouncing a person who's making a claim against her. I mean, this is just hugely hypocritical, isn't it?

AL: It doesn't look good. But I think what the #MeToo movement has shown is that these abuses happen everywhere. And so I don't think that necessarily a leader of the movement can't be a victim and also a perpetrator.

AW: Well, I think one of the reasons that #MeToo and Time's Up have been trying really hard to be a leaderless movement is because of things like this, you know, the ways in which the more that these movements get attached to particular people the more those people get scrutinized. And their personal lives, and their pasts... And I think that that kind of goes against the point here, which is that how widespread these abuses are and how related they are to power. Which is something I think that also applies to the claims that are being made against Argento. You know that there is this that power imbalances often enable abuse and that that's part of the kind of scrutiny that needs to happen.

DM: Right, right. There was this LA Times story that was going around and people were... was getting well and truly ratioed on Twitter, as the expression goes, and the story was 'why claims against Asia Argento don't invalidate the #MeToo movement.' And I think the tweet was framed as such kind of ‘Do these claims invalidate the #MeToo movement in terms of reliability and stuff?' What was— what were both of your instincts when you first saw that tweet?

AW: Well, I think it underscores how much, when we talk about claims made publicly, how much response is usually still couched in being like ‘Here's why this person can't be believed.’ And I think one of the things that #MeToo has made me think about a lot is how much we still cling to this idea of what they call an 'ideal victim,' in which whoever is making claims has to also prove how free of any like attachment of kind of wrongdoing to them in any way in order to really be believed. And I think that that is a really damaging kind of thing that we need to let go of, because you don't need to be passed some purity test in order for bad things to have happened to you. You know, and that's... And conversely and I think that that's part of what we're talking about here...Someone can be very active in like progressive causes and devoting themselves to like positive things, that doesn't mean that they are incapable of harming someone.

DM: Absolutely. We've seen some very prominent people on the left get accused over this last year. What you're saying there reminds me of reporting a story last year on accusations against the actor Jeremy Piven and, you know, some of the women that were coming forward had their own sort of troubled histories and involving run-ins with the law as well. And I remember Gloria Allred telling us that you know, "you don't have to be a nun to be a believable victim" and that's kind of stuck with me in terms of who we choose to listen to at least at that very basic level. For me it's not necessarily about believing one side over the other, but it's at least about listening, right?

AW: Yeah, I want to also say, she was one of the earliest people to speak up. And you know those, I think you could certainly make the argument, they were people who were taking the biggest risks because we didn't know that so many people would kind of feel more comfortable speaking up and safer speaking up, and safer speaking up, and that it would become this huge number of people. But that also in that first, you know, in that New Yorker story where she first spoke up, she brought up herself the messiness of this, you know, she talks about being assaulted by Weinstein or allegedly being assaulted by Weinstein, but then goes on to say she had this consensual relationship with him for years afterwards, you know, and that wanted to put the whole complicated reality of that situation out there. And I think that as this story unfolds it's always useful to remember that #MeToo is about the kind of messiness of this, that there are no ideal victims and also that there is no right way for people to have behaved. You know, that like... I think that the more that we start scrutinizing individuals for behaving like the ideal victim the more you can undermine the movement itself, which is this larger thing.

DM: I just want to take this notion of victim that we've been talking about here, which I think is a really interesting conversation, and acknowledge that we're talking about a younger man and an older woman. And I think it's been interesting to look at the way that this has been treated, with I would say the extreme level of seriousness, that I I don't think it would have received before this movement, is that fair to say?

AW: Yeah, and I think you know, maybe the kind of... Some of that came from a place of people like looking for ammo against either Argento herself or #MeToo in general, but I do think that there... That the positive of it is that this case is being taken seriously, and these claims are being taken seriously. And you know, I mean if that's...If that's what it takes to have some forward movement with that... At least there's there is some positive quality coming out of this.

DM: Can I ask a final question to you both? Where do you think this story goes from here?

AW: I mean, I feel like it's going to continue to be messy. You know, I think that very few of these cases have included someone being like ‘Yes, I did it. I'm sorry. What can I do?’ You know from what this is looking like it's going to be really messy and I think... I hope that that is kind of allowed to stay messy in the details of the case, you know as opposed to be used as an ammo, as I've already seen it used against #MeToo as a larger movement.

AL: I don't know. It's going nowhere good. I think the next step of the #MeToo movement, and we haven't quite gotten there yet, but we have to figure out what to do with the bad actors. So far mostly what's happened with #MeToo is we've been outing people, mostly men, and shaming them. But we're not going to execute these people right? We're not going to send them all to the #MeToo criminal island or whatever. So we have to figure out what to do.

AW: Send them off to the island, yeah!

AL: And I think that in a way this could be a test case. I don't know.

AW: I mean, I think that the thing that I want, which I think is maybe hopeless, is for us to not always be able to take these things seriously without also pitting them against each other. You know that like, you're like which of these allegations is like the worst one and therefore, you know, I don't know, weighing them on a scale. I think is not a helpful discourse.

DM: I think I would argue that we have to acknowledge that there are some of these men and women who are facing legal accusations and criminal investigations. And Harvey Weinstein is in court, charged with some very serious charges and there are other people who have been accused of gross kind of behavior at work and gross comments. Grouping them all together, I think, in one kind of category is first of all not helpful because that implies there's one answer to all of these problems. I would think that we want the people who need to face justice to face justice, and we want the people who've done wrong to acknowledge that they've done wrong and just like in both of those areas there should be, hopefully, some effort to amend that behavior and to rectify it and to make good whatever that looks like, whether it's time served in prison, whether it's kind of leading a cultural change. There’s scales in there. There's complexity.

AL: I think most of the victims who have come forward have done so because they feel like the person they're saying harmed them hasn't face any kind of justice. And to me what makes this story a little bit weird is that Jimmy Bennett, unless he's the person who sent that anonymous email, which he may be, Jimmy Bennett is not exactly a part of it. He didn't really respond to The Times request for comment and so it isn't really about what he wanted necessarily. I don't know that's another element to this that makes it additionally messy. I guess. It doesn't feel like a normal #MeToo story because there's not a victim saying #MeToo because Jimmy Bennett hasn't said anything.

DM: I will say that as a reporter who's worked on these stories and edited these stories for the last year or so...I think this really does show nothing is simple and all we can do is try to continue to get to the truth. So, thanks very much guys for spending the time talking about this not very pleasant material.

AW: No problem, David.

AL: Thank you.

JF: That was Alison Willmore, David Mack, and Ariane Lange.

Push Alert — 15:11

JF: Look take it from me, a person who just reentered the notifications atmosphere and is basically a melted husk of a human being: News notifications can get overwhelming pretty quickly. So for your listening pleasure, we have breaking news editor Tom Namako with Push Alert, Tom will unpack the stories you want to know about so you can sound like the cool, informed, smart person that you are.

Tom Namako: There is one big story. Actually, it's two stories combined into one that you're going to need to know about. And that's that Donald Trump had a really really terrible nightmarish day in court yesterday.

TAPE: Paul Manafort showed no emotion in court this afternoon as a jury handed special counsel Robert Mueller his first conviction in the ongoing investigation into Russian interference...

TN: This is part of the Mueller investigation, which as we all know is the special counsel looking into whether or not the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government to swing the 2016 election. And it's not over, Paul Manafort has another trial coming next month.

Then, and perhaps most importantly, Trump's former personal attorney Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to a bunch of crimes yesterday.

TAPE: He's pleading on tax evasion, bank fraud, and the campaign finance violation is the key to this because...

TN: One of those crimes he said was that he paid off Stormy Daniels, who we know said that she had an affair with Donald Trump 10 years ago, and that she was ready to come out with this right before the election, until she received this payment. But what Cohen said in court is extraordinary. He said that he made the payment "in coordination with and at the direction of a candidate"—which was Trump—to keep the information from coming out right before the election for the quote again, "principal purpose of influencing the election."

This is all some serious stuff and the Cohen case especially comes really extremely close to the president. The Manafort verdict shows that Robert Meuller's investigation has legs. It looks increasingly like Trump is being backed into a legal corner here. On one hand you've got Robert Mueller who is actually getting convictions, on the other hand you've got Trump's former confidant and attorney saying "hey, by the way, I've got a lot more to talk about here." And then you've got Michael Cohen's own lawyer out there saying, "you know if this is a crime for my client, why isn't it a crime for Donald Trump?" The best advice I can give you is to buckle up; a lot of things can happen from here and now is the time to be paying attention.

JF: That was breaking news editor Tom Namako.

Don't forget, the question that we have for this week is:

When you heard the news about the allegations against Asia Argento, how did you feel? If you have a perspective or an opinion you'd like to share, text JoJo the words "group chat." Their number is 929-236-9577.


This episode was produced by the PodSquad! That’s Megan Detrie, Alex Laughlin, Camila Salazar, Ahmed Ali Akbar, and Julia Furlan. Our boss is Cindy Vanegas-Gesuale, and our music is by Chad Crouch.

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