Thursday, January 5, 2012

Guest Post: Men Who Hate Women

I'm starting 2012 off a little differently here at MaxRambles by featuring my first ever guest post. Back in December I went to see David Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo with my friend and fellow blogger Johanna. Based on the like-named 2005 novel by Stieg Larsson, TGWTDT shows an unusual pair of detectives investigating the murder of young Swedish girl over 30 years after the fact. In case you're not familiar with the source material, the story is primarily about sexual violence against women. The film features an extremely graphic rape scene that I've heard some say might be the most visceral depiction of sexual violence ever put on film. Either way it definitely deserves a trigger warning.

While I did know the scene was coming, Johanna did not and so was unprepared for the devastatingly brutal scene (for the record I would have warned her if I'd known she wasn't expecting it). Her piece below is a response to both the scene and the larger film from a feminist perspective. It's not my typical thing and I don't fully agree with some of the points Johanna makes, but that said I think she's largely spot on in her critique of TGWTDT and so I'm happy (and frankly a little flattered) to be featuring it here on MaxRambles.

I do want to warn you that Johanna's piece is very much a response to TGWTDT and as such is geared towards readers who have seen the film. It's brimming with spoilers and doesn't waste much time explaining things, but if you've seen the film you'll be just fine. If you enjoy the piece then please let us know in the comments, and if you want to read more of Johanna's writing you can follow this link to her contributions on (she writes under the shared name lawunion but always signs her posts). And now, without further ado...

Men Who Hate Women 

*spoiler warning, and trigger warning for sexual violence* 
I just went to see the recently released American film version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Having avoided the explosively popular books, and never having seen the Swedish films that were based on them, I knew nothing about the storyline and was completely unprepared for what happens in the film. David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo contains the most explicit, brutal and devastating scene of sexual violence that I have ever seen. Technically I didn’t really see it, because it was unwatchable, but what I did see (and hear) is burned in my brain, and it was enough to have a full picture of exactly what was going on. After that I didn’t relax for the rest of the film and, two days later, I haven’t quite gotten out from under the cloud that it put over me. While that scene was particularly disturbing, it was not a thematic anomaly within the film. It is preceded by another sexual assault that I thought was bad enough, and is sandwiched within a story about missing and murdered women, victims of a misogynistic father-son serial killing (and raping) team. Needless to say, I wasn’t too surprised when I read that the English translation of the Swedish book’s original title is “Men Who Hate Women.” I guess the publisher figured that wouldn’t sell as well. 
The trouble that I’m having, and hope to work through a bit in writing this piece, is whether or not the graphic depictions of violence against women in the film are redeemable, in that they are both necessary and useful to a discussion of misogyny and rape culture, which the film seems to be interested in having. 
TGWTDT is, in my opinion, very clear about the power dynamic that is inherent in sexual assault and other forms of violence against women. Lisbeth Salander, the survivor of both of the scenes of sexual assault that I referred to above and, it is suggested, assault by her father during her childhood, is a ward of the state and prohibited from controlling her own finances. Early in the film she is assigned a new social worker, and very quickly he takes advantage of his position of power to coerce her into performing sexual acts in exchange for the money that she needs to live, and which she should be able to access freely. The first time this happens, she is forced to give him oral sex. The scene is stomach-churning, even more so when he states that her obvious reticence is a turn-on. However, it demonstrates a number of things. One is that any coerced sexual act is assault, regardless of whether or not it is physically forced. Sure, she could have turned and walked out of the office without acquiescing, but her situation was such that to do so would have meant total impoverishment and probably institutionalization. That is not a choice, and so she was sexually assaulted as certainly as if he had physically held her down and forced himself on her (which, unfortunately, is what happens later). It also shows that sexual assault is about power, not sex (although perpetrators of sexual assault clearly derive sexual pleasure from that power). After suffering further sexual violence from this man, Salander reveals that she recorded her rape and forces him to watch it. He appears to be visibly distressed by what he sees, which could be read simply as his panic about the situation that he is in generally, but I would prefer to think that it is the film’s way of showing that, as a sexual offender, he recognizes how disgusting his actions were when he sees what it really was: one person forcing himself upon another, physically weaker, incapacitated and unwilling person. While he may have felt powerful during that act, and taken sexual gratification from that feeling of power, forcing him to watch that recording dispelled the illusion. 
If by this point the audience had not understood that there is a connection between power relations and sexual assault, the film provides another opportunity when Daniel Craig’s character faces Martin Vanger, a serial rapist and murderer of women. He explains to Mikael (Craig) that he likes to watch the hope draining from the faces of his victims, and it is only when they have realized that they have no chance of escaping their fate that he becomes aroused. In other words, he is sexually aroused by the feeling of complete control and dominance over another party. That’s what it’s all about. So, all of this is to say that the film does a pretty good job of depicting and discussing sexual violence without sexualizing it. The rape scene is not titillating in the least; there are no lingering shots of Salander’s body, no romanticization or shying away from what is going on. It is very clearly violence, and for that I give the film some credit. Does that make it redeemable? After quite a bit of thought and a few discussions with some friends, my answer is no. 
One of the problems with the film is that while one of the main characters is experiencing all of this sexual violence, the other is becoming involved in an intriguing mystery, which becomes the central narrative thread. The assaults occur relatively early in the film, and are ostensibly used as a plot device, giving Salander a motive for helping Mikael “catch a killer of women.” The result is that instead of meditating on sexual assault as a systemic problem, it simply incorporates it as just another aspect of a story that is, ultimately, about entertaining the audience. This is the point that I had the most difficulty coming to terms with because if I believe that film is an important and relevant medium through which to discuss broad societal issues, which I vehemently do, how can I reconcile my feeling that there is something inherently exploitative or “problematic” about including so much explicit violence against women in this film? 
Here’s how: film absolutely can be used as a progressive tool to comment on and engage with issues like sexual assault, however in order to do so the film’s commitment must be to that discussion entirely, in contrast to TGWTDT, which is a mystery/thriller that happens to contain a bunch of sexual violence. In TGWTDT, the climax of the film, narratively speaking, is when Mikael is captured by Martin, and facing imminent torture and death. If this were a film about sexual assault, the film would have had to centre on the rape scene. For me, and for a number of others that I’ve spoken to, it did; I mostly shut down after that happened. However, others that I’ve spoken to didn’t seem to have been impacted by it in the same way at all. This applies predominantly to the (self-identified) men that I’ve spoken to about it, and I say that not because I think that men can’t understand sexual violence, or aren’t impacted by it, but because I think that the audience is encouraged to identify with Mikael, and that it is less likely that men will resist that identification. The result is that the sexual assaults fade into the background as the plot moves forward, with the audience getting the vague sense that they have somehow “dealt with” sexual assault as an issue because for a few minutes they were forced to engage with it, and to feel uncomfortable. 
There is a rich tradition within Hollywood of churning out liberal “issue films” (see Schindler’s List, Crash, etc.) that claim to make important statements about oppression, while actually just maintaining the audience’s complacency by leaving them with the self-satisfied sense that they now “understand racism.” I would argue that TGWTDT is operating in the same way with regard to sexual assault, and that is why I ultimately cannot forgive it for its violence. 
I think that there is a lot more to say about TGWTDT, in terms of Salander’s character more generally, which has been lauded as an exceptional depiction of feminism. I haven’t read the books so I can’t speak to how she is written, but based on the film alone I’m not convinced of this. She certainly has a great deal of agency, and is remarkably intelligent and independent, I give the writers that, but I was left feeling very conflicted about the scene in which she takes revenge on her social worker. She tattoos “I am a rapist pig” on his chest, and violently inserts a dildo into his rectum, which is unquestionably sexual violence in itself, and I cannot accept the message that sexual violence justifies further sexual violence. It is a scene of great catharsis, and it is very tempting to think, “Fuck yeah,” but that is precisely what makes me uncomfortable. I don’t want her actions in that scene to be associated with feminism, because that is not what feminism is to me. There may be an argument to be made on other bases for her as a strong, feminist character, I don’t discount the possibility, but I haven’t heard one yet. I also acknowledge that there are many other aspects of the film deserving of discussion, and as a thriller I think that it succeeds; but therein lies the problem, because there is nothing thrilling about rape. 
- Johanna


  1. Hey, Max is back! with guest posts! For finding and including stuff like this, I've nominated you for a Liebster blog award for underknown blogs. Sadly, no prize money

  2. Simultaneously the nicest and most depressingly true comment I've gotten on this blog. Thanks for reading Rozy!

  3. Pleasure. Also, I forgot to link the nomination.

  4. Whoa, I totally missed the implications of your nomination the first time. Thanks for the heads up bud, not to mention the kind words/thoughts!