bechdel taser: down the trigger-hole of sexual abuse on screen
The catch-cry of this column is ‘finding the fun in fail’, but there’s one kind of film-fail (and life-fail) which is never fun. Rape. Not funny when people misappropriate the term to say their facebook was ‘fraped’, not funny when it’s the (bizarrely) critically acclaimed American remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa. Hmm, that was an extended typo caused by my ‘a’ key falling loose, but it fairly accurately surmises my internal exclamations during much of the film. I wrote few notes, but at one point ‘WHAT THE HELL AM I SUPPOSED TO BE GETTING OUT OF THIS’ appears diagonally across the page. In its wake, I summarised it to friends with the phrase ‘RAPE RAPE RAPE RAPE NAZI NAZI NAZI JAMES BOND’.
The film is two and a half hours and a good chunk of it focuses on Mikael Blomkvist’s (Daniel Craig’s) middle-class white dude problems, wherein he wrote a book and was sued for libel, rather than either the case he’s been hired to solve or on the titular dragon tattooed. As the poster suggests, Craig has much more face time than Rooney Mara. Some people feel that it was Mara’s Best Actress nomination that knocked Tilda Swoonton [sic] out of contention at this year’s Academy Awards. Passing personal criticism on young actresses is not a productive past-time, but despite publicity to the contrary, Mara’s role is rendered to support in this film. While Lisbeth Salander’s story and living situation holding much more fascination than Blomkvist’s, we’re rarely let into it. TGWTDT’s interest in Salander, or in the case, only become apparent when they can tie into sexual abuse. An especially gratuitous scene of forced anal penetration is one of our only meetings with her in the film’s first hour.
I hate rape scenes in films. I know that for some people they produce valuable discourse and debate, but all I gather is that a filmmaker wants me to feel gutterally uncomfortable and vulnerable. It’s a cheap and rarely justifiable way of soliciting emotions from an audience. As she limps, bruised, away from the scene, I wonder if the film would dare show Blomkvist in the same situation. I don’t feel favourably about men being sexually abused, either, but TGWTDT gave off deep scents of veiled sexism.
The Bechdel test is a very useful starting point for feminism-in-film, but when movies deal with sexual abuse, a new scale is necessary. I would suggest:
Does sexual abuse advance the plot in a way something else could not?
Does the film relish the sight of an abused body?
Do the events following the abuse let you into the psyche of the victim?
By this marker, a film like Boys Don’t Cry which depicts the rape of Brandon Teena as part of the real hate crime committed against a real trans person passes. Gaspard Noe’s artistically bereft Irreversible is designed to shock its audience, and make them physically ill. Rape isn’t glamorised but the brutal crime committed against Monica Bellucci’s Alex is lingered on with foul relish. In its wake (shown beforehand, as the film is played in reverse), only the actions and psychological affect on the men in her life is shown. The film also adds to anti-anal sex rhetoric, keeping it taboo and stigmatised, and contributing to homosexual sex as a topic of derision. Fail.
Here’s what it means for Fincher’s film.
While we are told Salander has significant psychological issues, resulting in her being a ward of the state, the only play they get in the film is when she is abused. Instead of exploring any of the multitude of issues – including sexual abuse – which can contribute to psychological instability, it is sensationalised by the latest, graphic abuse that we see. Rather than making her past a mystery, these scenes write off her issues ‘of course she’s fucked up, look at this shit that keeps happening to her. End.’
The case which Blomkvist and Salander solve also involves a lot of rape. A lot of ‘crime’ films do, and hell, there’s a whole Law and Order franchise dedicated to sex crimes. This means that the rape of Salander actually becomes thematic overkill. ‘If Movie Posters Told the Truth’ quite accurately renamed TGWTDT, ‘ALL OF THE RAPE. NO SUBTITLES’.
We are also shown the scene of abuse in great detail – for a Hollywood production – and much greater detail than the still-problematic-but-consensual sex scenes which occur later in the film. This suggests the film really enjoys showing traumatised women’s bodies.
Like Noe’s film, the particular anal fixation of this rape does the whole stigmatising thing—the idea that the crime against one’s anus is especially heinous is not doing any favours to societal discourse about why-we-should-just-accept-that-gays-are-people. This means that the film’s b-plot becomes an anal rape revenge which focuses on a one-to-one recuperation of autonomy rather than letting the issue stand for itself as a source of emotional and psychological investigation.
Incidentally, like many Hollywood films, TGWTDG just scrapes by the Bechdel Test, courtesy of Salander talking to a librarian late in the plot. Hardly seems to matter after everything else though, does it?
The movie doesn’t like ‘girl’s, and rather than reclaiming the word, Salander is treated as a diminutive crime-fighter. Because she has emotional and psychological problems, she is denied the marker ‘woman’, as well as lingering happiness. It’s rare to come out of a film with a heralded female action star feeling so down about your second sex chromosome.