“They rapin” everybody out here.” — Antoine Dodson
When I first came to college in 1985, date rape didn’t yet have a name and it was everywhere; freshman girls all came back from frat parties to my dorm the next morning, drugged, sore, ashamed, not sure what happened, until later when they’d tell me in hushed tears, when it was too late, presumably, to do much about it. Girls were terrorized on their way home in the dark by drunken football players or other louts. It was nightmarish; the school scrambled to set up protection, like those blue lights and “date rape” awareness classes. By the time I graduated, there was “take back the night,” there was political correctness, and there was lots of pre-emptive guilt. I was ashamed of being a man, enraged at frat boys (I still am). And I know I’m not alone in this seething hatred for the rapists amongst us. But isn’t there a line wherein, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, you become what you hate? Obsession with sexual violence is unhealthy, and one has to ask what’s behind it, what driving force makes us repeat these images of violation again and again?
Take The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Sin City, Irreversible or The Killer Inside Me or remakes of films once thought too shocking for general admission, like Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave. Tremble with the realization that intensely savage depictions of sadism, sodomy, rape and sexual assault are growing more and more toxic, and instead of being urged to repeat “it’s only a movie,” we’re expected to just shrug it off in anticipation of some violent revenge or retribution to the rapist/s, all in a good night’s fun. Then drive home to have dinner as if nothing happened. Nothing did happen, it is only a movie; but then again, movies are our myths. For some of us, they’re more real, more deeply felt, than our own normal humdrum lives.
So presuming most people feel a special extra-venomous dose of outrage and disgust at the mere mention of the word “rape” (most comedians know it’s tough to get a laugh when using that word, no matter what the context), it’s not a big stretch to assume that brutalization of women onscreen, or even suggested off-screen, is going to really make us hunger for revenge. So why do the movies make an ass out of them and us by ass-uming we need to see not just uncomfortable symbolic references (e.g., off-camera screaming) but traumatizing, “realistic” rapes and assaults that drag on and on? Do we need our noses rubbed in it? Or does it serve a threefold purpose?
- Make sure no critic dares hint the filmmakers are trying to glamorize or eroticize the violence.
- Pacify liberal critics who feel vigilante justice is never warranted, even in cinema, without cause, assuming one needs to show over-the-top brutality to thus shatter even the staunchest liberal position (but is there really such a person in the audience?).
- Capture the dwindling moviegoing crowd’s attention (to keep up with the ever ratcheting shock value as we become more and more jaded).
This last is a good political analogy, as “keeping up with China” is our policy excuse par excellence in the trashing of the environment (maybe someday we’ll even get out own magic toxic brown cloud).
The first two possibilities have no real merit as they presume, as Hollywood’s been presuming since the days of Dirty Harry, that a lynch mob in the movie theater will stay a lynch mob once outside, and so needs a special badge of outrage. The proper revenge formula really should be more one part crime to two parts vengeance. But to play it safe, the quotient these days is ten thousand parts violent crime to one shot glass full of last-minute revenge.
I mention Dirty Harry, and now I bring in Death Wish and all its spawn, which I suggest helped this crisis gestate to its present blood-engorged size. We’ve been made to assume that justice never gets done if you wait for the cops, all bound up in red tape. Clint Eastwood catches the killer, but the liberal judges are too happy to let the sleaziest scumbag off on a technicality — almost purely to lord it over our old-school hero. They’d rather arrest the cop for roughing up a serial killer than arrest the serial killer. Clint’s tossing his badge away at the end of that film was an act that I feel resonated with the public at large and helped create this feeling that cops are too busy stepping inside the narrow lines — terrified of lawyers with citations of excessive force — to actually stop criminals. But has that ever really been true?
True or not, it made for effective cinema. From this badge tossing arose the vigilante films of the 1980s, like Ms. 45, Ten to Midnight, Tightrope, sex murder thrillers where the cops’ hands were tied by liberals, and so killers walked loose with impunity until our heroes finally leapt into action. Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave took this notion the furthest, reasoning that the longer you spend on displaying every detail of the lurid sex crimes, the more brutal the revenge can be, the more cathartic yet also social commentary-enriching. But neither film could be accused of eroticizing the rapes, and so a precedent of sorts became that rape must be as ugly and traumatic for both victims and viewer as the skills of cinematic craftsmen can make it, which I’m not arguing against. What I am saying is that people learn by watching, and we’re paying a stiff price today for watching Dirty Harry. The price we’re paying is not unlike the hysteria that would arise in the south when a white woman decided to accuse any black man of coming onto her, an instant lynching.
So on to the revenge aspect; is there some catharsis intended by making us feel the intense sense of powerlessness, pain and trauma? Or do the writers and directors feel we need a kind of highway safety film intentional trauma effect, a Pavlovian conditioning not unlike that undergone by the original unrepentant sadistic rapist of artsy cinema, Alex in A Clockwork Orange?
As we know, Kubrick regretted that film and got it banned in England, as apparently a copycat sang “Singin’ in the Rain” during a home invasion. No matter how unattractively you paint a traumatic rape, someone will no doubt get inspired by it. In the days of pre-code cinema, Clara Bow could be raped and impregnated by her alcoholic husband in the brief time between falling backwards and landing in a chair. We were still outraged, but we didn’t lose sight of the rest of the story. The violence in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) on the other hand, is such a gut-punch it’s all but impossible to concentrate when the action cross-cuts back to some old writer shuffling through papers on the trail of a 30-year-old disappearance case.
I wonder if maybe those anti-pornographic feminists were right all this time when they warned that sexual imagery leads to harder stuff; it has to get progressively more brutal and violent for you to feel “the burn,” so speak. Titillation falls by the wayside as mere foreplay to the big narrative magnet, viewer trauma, hypnotically induced repetition-compulsion. We keep replaying the awful scenes in our mind, first in abject horror, and if you’re a male, self-hatred by association. After that, who knows? After enough years go by you might remember it for the purposes of arousal, some shocking image of power and control you only bring into your mind when you need something strong to send you over that edge. And it’s perhaps this realization that makes us hate it that much more, for daring to show us that ugly reptilian core of desire that we’d hate to have to encounter alone in a dark alley at 4 a.m.
What counts is, we end up talking about it, to get it off our chests, and hey, free publicity for the filmmakers. It lures in cinemagoers looking to prove their courage to one another, like slasher movies were in the 1980s — a girl or younger kid was considered very brave if he went to see one of those films. Now to recreate that apprehension, you need to drum up some pretty shocking stuff. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo comes to us as a mere thriller, not a shocking spectacle not for the faint of heart. In fact, the only place I read anything at all about the uncomfortable mix of brutal violence with “ho hum” archive research was on the Tenebrous Kate’s blog:
The original Swedish title of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo isMen Who Hate Women, a title that really reflects the spirit and content of the movie. While the abuse suffered by Salander exists in both the novel and on-screen, there’s a savagery to what she endures that’s stomach-turning when put into visual form. Her voice is present in the book, as the reader begins to understand why she reacts to situations the way she does, but on-screen, she’s made into a victim — a victim who gets suitably brutal revenge, but that doesn’t erase her victimhood. In the novel, Salander’s suffering sets up a chain of escalating suffering on the part of other women in the story, but the personalization of this violence on film makes what happens to her feel worse than the comfortably-distanced-by-time murders that are later revealed. Perhaps Salander’s character, with her emotional volatility and extreme appearance, is Other enough for audiences not to resonate with her. I’m honestly a little surprised that more people don’t react more strongly to this thread of storyline.1
Since Silence of the Lambs (Stieg Larsson, author of the novel on which Dragon is based, clearly worships Thomas Harris — Lisbeth is a brilliant mix of Hannibal, the Red Dragon, and Clarice Starling), there’s been a precedent for the sort of film Dragon emulates: low-key eerie ambiance, paranoia, sunless wastelands (a lot of filming in Vancouver), and a lone woman avenger navigating a terrain of male dysfunction. But the key aspect of Silence that made it palatable was that Buffalo Bill didn’t rape his victims; he was making a garment with pieces of their skin, something built to last, something he could wear at certain offshore parties, and thus his torture method (starvation) had a purpose to that effect, rather than simply for his own temporary sadistic gratification. Clarice has three days to rescue her, but in those three days at least she has a mattress and isn’t being continually brutalized, which would make every second of Clarice’s hunt unbearable to watch. Also, at the time of its release, Silence was considered a very strong, dark movie, not for the timid. Audiences were expected to exit wobbly, hands clammy. It wasn’t billed as a mere “mystery” involving a 40-year-old disappearance.
The details of horrific serial rape are stabbed into our minds, and then we’re expected to forget them as we cross over to the old archive file hunt. It seems almost insulting to the victim that we could care about something so trivial after witnessing such stomach-churning violence, and the details that abound that imply these predators do and have done these things many times before and will again. Now if that was the point — if, for example, we cross-cut between a brutal assault and our hero maybe a mere mile away blissfully taking his time walking toward the crime scene — then that would have a suspense-ratcheting purpose. But in context of the Dragon, with these two characters not having even met yet, this brutal rape is really just mere “character development.”
Rape is the most awful of crimes for decent men to imagine, for one thing, that any man could be capable of such an obscenely selfish act, traumatizing another human being, for, presumably, a few minutes of his own sensual gratification. Also, we all know girls who have been raped, and/or molested as children, and unless we got to shoot their assailants or in some way exact revenge on their behalf, we live with lifelong resentments that are then triggered when rapes show up onscreen. Our friends and wives were abused, and we could do nothing to help. We’re like the woodsman in Little Red Riding Hood, arriving too late, long after the wolf is gone, and all that’s left is a security cam video of her savage devouring.
There’s also a big blurry grey line — which many men never see — between the kind of manly aggression girls like (being swept off their feet, thrown against a wall and ravished, etc.) and pushing too far and taking any female rejection as an affront that escalates. So most of us guys err on the “nice boy” side; we don’t want to be too manly and make the girl feel threatened, and then we feel stupid for being so timid when some foul-mouthed douchebag intrudes on our sensitive discussion, throws her over his shoulder, and marches off as she laughs delightedly. Seeing a rape onscreen, then, is a kind of justification for our continued good name (provided we’re innocent of such things) as well as a slap in the face for not being more aggressive. Girls want us to be aggressive, but then we’re expected to back off the moment they change their minds or say no. Girls reproach boys for not just grabbing and attacking them, sometimes, though always after it’s too late! It’s maddening, and to my shame I recall a moment of schadenfreude triumph upon learning a girl I’d long pursued but been too timid to bust a move on had grown weary of waiting and gone off with her ex-boyfriend at a bar we were all at. I remember she shot me a “you had your chance” look over her shoulder while dancing with him. Then I saw her the next morning in the hallway looking ravaged and tired, only to learn later, at a party, that her ex had brought her home and had sex with her while the rest of the frat watched through secret panels and then — the story varies — came out and gang-raped her. My feelings were so mixed that a weird sense of empowered triumph swept through me. Somehow I felt vindicated in my timid approach. Looking back now I’m a bit horrified by my reaction. But it was my reaction; there was no external shout for joy. I mention it here only to illuminate the big blurry grey line between the male animal force girls seek and the excessive violence they fear.
In an online article called “The Heroine Is Being Beaten: Freud, Sadomasochism and Reading the Romance,” Stephanie Wardop writes of the three-phase process of a child’s sadistic fantasy:
With this concept of oscillatory identificatory positions, we turn to Freud’s study of childhood s/m fantasies, “A Child is Being Beaten,” in which children receive “genital” and “onanistic gratification” (101) by fantasizing about seeing another child being beaten. Significantly, Freud noted that some children — he deals with female cases only — developed these fantasies through books and stories, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and very rarely through firsthand experience. It is very important to clarify that for Freud’s subjects — and by extension the modern reader — an imaginary beating can give pleasure whereas real brutality never can.
Through this model of the “child is being beaten” fantasy, as illuminated by Wardrop, we may get a clearer window on the desire to see “fictional sexual abuse” vs. the horror and dismay at imagining real acts of sex abuse are going on all around us, always outside our realm of vision:
In the first phase, the fantasizing subject imagines watching a child — usually a sibling — being struck. Freud considers the fantasy at this point neither masochistic nor sadistic, for the fantasizing subject does not participate and there is no constant relation between the gender of the fantasizing subject and the fantasized child. Though a girl can thus imagine a boy being beaten and vice versa, she or he usually imagines a sibling seen as a rival for affection and power within the family dynamic.
So far so good. This first phase seems to be the root behind a child’s testimony of Satanic abuse, a desire to avoid punishment oneself through the non-identificatory fantasy of blaming and projecting onto others.
In the second phase, the fantasizing subject imagines him- or herself being beaten by the father. Masochism enters now because the child, undergoing the oedipal stage, experiences sexual pleasure in this fantasy and thus initiates an incipient sense of guilt. Consequently, this fantasy never becomes conscious.
The roots of modern hysteria can be found between this phase and the third, the repressed masochistic desire to hear tales of the abuses committed by other parents against other children. The fantasy then changes from hearing of punishment inflicted on innocents to our desiring for revenge catharsis, a return to the first phase, “neither masochistic nor sadistic.”
In the third phase, a father figure beats a child — not the fantasizing subject again — and other forms of punishment and humiliation may be substituted for the beating. Freud labeled this phase sadistic, because the fantasizing subject appears as a spectator. But with the victimized child positioned as a surrogate for the fantasizing subject, the “gratification derived from it is masochistic” (“A Child Is Being Beaten,” 109).2
Freud figured out the root chord of this issue, one which has haunted mankind since the Middle Ages and is undoubtedly connected to accusations of witchcraft in that period, through to 16th-century Salem, and onwards to Texas and all the U.S. in the early 1980s: all extreme pendulum swings of sex and repression uproot the primal anxieties, like digging a hole to bury some new body mandates that now the previously buried body, in this case the sadomasochistic urges of childhood, is unearthed in the process. I myself have distinct memories of this age (first through fifth grade), my long nights of pre-onanistic non-genital-related sexual fantasies involving being enslaved to, or having as slaves, various female classmates or babysitters. The idea of being spanked or “paddled” always loomed (or it did before the Satanic Panic of the early 1980s, based on my own experience as a ’70s child), especially involving someone else’s parents who may be more prone to corporal punishment then your own. “Paddling” with a wooden spoon or ping pong table paddle was the punishment most to be feared/desired in all our kid minds back then. Even now the word carries a queasy charge of excitement for me. I never was paddled. If I had been, perhaps the idea would lose its dizzy luster, for as Freud points out, “an imaginary beating can give pleasure whereas real brutality never can.”
Now you don’t remember these moments, you didn’t then either, repressing them even in the crib, “this fantasy never becomes conscious.” But when tales of lurid “enjoyment” come to you, as in rapes on campus, or in the movies, any reaction other than surface horror will be suppressed down with that second-phase repressed fantasy in the child is being beaten scenario. This is the ultimate “won’t somebody please think of the children!” Somewhere, at this very moment, every eleven seconds or whatever, a woman is being raped and tortured, and there’s nothing you can do about it except hate yourself. And at the same time, way down in the bottom of your hideous unconscious, you’re masochistically jealous of the attention she gets, and of the sadistic thrill the attacker may get. It’s a closed circuit that doesn’t include you; you don’t even get to be a witness, except via the obscene scenarios deep down in your repressed oedipal libido. All the most horrible tortures and abuses you can imagine spring to mind, with the caveat that you must condemn them. The more vile images you mentally paint, the more you project an external outrage and shock. These crimes are going on around you all the time, so how come no one invites you? God, you’re such a loser!
Since there is such a fundamental blindness to this problem, our national gross oedipal complex tumbles out into the most literal expression of this condition: pedophilia, a crime that’s always been around but that, starting around the early 1980s, became a point of national hysteria. You could say that the pedophile is mired in stage two of Freud’s child is being beaten fantasy (I’m beating/being beaten), while the public and prosecutors are mired in stage three (child positioned as a surrogate for the fantasizing subject, the “gratification derived from it is masochistic”). For several years the papers ran wild with tales of mass child-sex rings, and while most of it turned out to be unfounded, for a while we were all sure that right outside our door, nearly everyone we knew was a sexual predator, all based on the testimony of children, presumably themselves mired in phase one, though then again they’re supposed to be; the adults are supposed to have grown out of it.
The hysteria never quite subsided, and those of us born before the 1980s remember when children had much more freedom and liberty to stroll around unmonitored, even as early as three or five years old. There’s a good documentary about the Satanic Panic of the 1980s called Witch Hunt (2004), which would make a good disturbing double feature with Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009).
Nothing is more horrible to imagine than child sexual slavery, but that’s just what rabid press-mongering politicians, police, therapists, and others whipped up out of confused child testimony in Texas in the early ’80s, launching a hysterical witch hunt that led to countless daycare investigations and resulted in our current trend of over-parenting, monitoring our child’s every move, and putting many male pre-school teacher out of work for no reason other than that seeing them makes parents uncomfortable.
Witch Hunt leaves it to us to connect the ironic dots, to implicate the Texas lawmen of the moment who projected a hysteria-creating conspiracy in order to be re-elected and thought of as “tough on crime.” They peddled a depressing portrait of a nation so committed to evil that nearly everyone — but presumably said lawmakers and thou — was getting it off in orgies of blood and depravity, and if the liberal machinations of normal legal procedure had their way, as they do in Dirty Harry type movies, the evil perpetrators would be let off scot-free on loopholes like lack of evidence.
I’m not saying these horrors don’t really happen and shouldn’t be expressed in film, but there are limits and purpose. Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Killer Inside Me, and even Sin City perhaps cross those limits with overkill. Simultaneously they fall victim to the child is being beaten scenario and at the same time seek to distance themselves from it via “de-sexualizing” the violence, making it as ugly as possible. It’s not enough to show a trail of serial murders or indicate a series of child rapes — there has to be mention of countless horrific details and an utter lack of sympathy or regret on the part of the killer. A social order must be sketched out that protects the guilty and punishes the innocent, all to justify the use of excessive force. In Gone Baby Gone (2007), for instance, the hero discovers a set of boy’s underwear with bloodstains in a big industrial sink, the boy naked and dead on a table, and this justifies his shooting of the unarmed pedophile sitting in the corner. It’s not enough that our heroine is raped by her parole officer in Dragon; she has to mention later that it went on for two hours, and we see by his drawer of handcuffs that he does this thing all the time, with impunity, and probably will again after she leaves. And he’s just one of many other horrific rapists in the story.
See, I obviously obsess about this stuff. It traumatizes me to see and to hear about it, and to hear an evil serial rapist say “I’ve lost count” when discussing his number of victims, or to mention not that the last victim was merely killed but that he had her “chained up for a month” of nonstop torment (as in Wolf Creek or Devil’s Rejects, both 2005). The villain could have killed only one, quickly and painlessly, and we’d be cheering his prolonged shit-kicked-out-of-him death, but it’s as if we’re so numb from so many “child being beaten” scenarios that we need more and more grisly detail.
And yet, almost to mock us, the liberal wishy-washiness lingers on. In Dragon, when Lisbeth comes back from wreaking vengeance, the first thing her reporter boyfriend asks is “could you have pulled him to safety?” as if the film actually expects us to take that tired anti-liberal capital punishment horse seriously after all the brutality we’ve witnessed. In modern cinema, liberal decency is just another sign of weakness, another masochistic response, the urge to let the rapists loose because it’s more humane; better more women be killed than compromise a single liberal ideal.
And I say this as someone who was as horrified as anyone else in the early 1980s during the day care molestation hysteria. I believed every word, and when the lights of humanity went out in all our eyes, we took it as a good thing. It was not the way any pre-teenager should have to grow up. But who is to blame? In the end, it is the newspapers, the sensationalists, the Stieg Larssons that are to blame. What would a rapist think now but “when in Rome”?
The kids in Witch Hunt who testified against their parents and then retracted as adults in these early 1980s molestation cases now say the real evil was the prosecutors, and our nation’s faith in the ability of men to be loving parents was shaken to the core by the dirty imaginations of a few misogynist Texas lawmen (it’s heartbreaking to hear one of the boys in Witch Hunt confess that due to all the lurid accusations he made, he’s terrified to personally bathe his own infant son). In a way, that was the price of siding with Dirty Harry back in the 1970s. A feeling that lawmen were letting legal mumbo jumbo become more important than “the children” led indirectly to children being made more important than legal mumbo jumbo. A child was being beaten, that was what mattered, and “we” weren’t able to stop it. The first gunman that rode into town who could put an end to it for all time, he would surely be made sheriff five terms in a row. And so he was.
In a way that’s the deal with Stieg Larsson too. His hatred of injustice and liberal-supported misogyny becomes an obsession that in the end does damage to us all; the revenge aspects just provide a temporary catharsis; the slime still leaves permanent stains, which eventually grow up and continue the cycle. And as a result, his books are runaway bestsellers, right up there with the rest of the violent thrillers.
I know it’s a powerful tool because I used to buy into it like anyone, especially after the deluge of date rapes I heard of firsthand in my freshman year of college, and when I see someone getting all high with righteous anger about this kind of thing, when I see film after film of the “not without my children” and “you’ll never know what it’s like to lose a child, I know!” and “My daughter is missing, do you understand? DO YOU?” variety, I always remember that it’s that old “Somewhere a child is being beaten” syndrome, or try to, so I can sleep at night. At any rate it’s quite an effective narrative device, but by now, it’s also a cliché.
But, that a nation of critics and audience members can see a film like Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and not flinch, not write about what a gut-punch trauma it is, says something too. Maybe we’re innocents, but thanks to the endlessly multiplying pervasiveness and numbing effect of the child is being beaten scenario, we’ve become awfully jaded. When such images no longer fill us with trauma and loathing, when we need to amplify the concept above and beyond into torture porn just to get a rise out of us, then we’re in serious trouble.
- Tenebrous Kate, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2009). [↩]
- Stephanie Wardrop, “The Heroine is Being Beaten: Freud, Sadomasochism and Reading the Romance.” (Style, 1995). [↩]