The new movie The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo based on the international best-selling book trilogy by Stieg Larson opened to lukewarm reviews (here are a few- 1, 2, 3). The movie, an American adaptation of the Swedish books and prior European movies, is directed by David Fincher and stars Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara as the two main characters. Emma Gray, of The Huffington Post, describes Mara’s character, Lisbeth Salander, as a “character that women love to love.” Despite this comment and the large woman fan base of the books, the American version of the book is having a difficult time getting women viewers interested, according to Vulture, an entertainment news site. There are many theories on why one of the prime demographics for the books is faltering when it comes to the movie version.
Lisbeth Salander is a 24 year old computer hacker with a violent past. Salander teams up with journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Craig) to solve a 40-year-old murder case. One theory for why female fans are not in a hurry to see the movie is the movie’s graphic depictions of sexual violence. Most disturbing, perhaps, is a scene in which Salander is raped by her guardian. While this event is a major point in the novels, reports indicate that the film does not endeavor to shield the offensive material from its viewers. In her article, Gray defends the movie, claiming the rape scene caused her to “burst into tears” and was “one of the most disturbing things [she’s] ever seen,” but ” it did not “glamorize rape” and did succeed in putting a “strong, complex woman on the big screen.” While I applaud the depiction of strong women in movies, it is harder for me to move past the rape scene as easily.
I have not seen the movie and until researching the movie for this blog post, I had no prior knowledge of it or the books. I only knew what I have seen in the trailers and read in articles. In the three trailers I saw for the movie, only one even hinted that such a scene would be shown. The “hint” is an older man with Salander in a bleak office forcefully turning her head to face him while a voice over suggests she “learn to be sociable”, starting with him, assumedly. Watching that moment, while unsettling, is very different than watching a scene in which Salander is raped. In the reviews mentioned above, Gray’s article is the only one which gives more than a three word phrase about the scene. While the movie is rated R, the lack of discussion and warning over the scene in which Salander is raped by her guardian–not a stranger or a lover but someone who is/was charged with caring for her– is very disturbing. You might wonder how a rape scene is any different from a graphic murder scene or an explicit sex scene. That is a fair question. While there is more than one answer, what I want to talk about is desensitization.
There was a time when saying one curse word in a movie caused an uproar. Now, curse words litter almost every movie that comes out. Violence used to be something people did not want to watch. Deaths in movies happened with one bullet shot and no blood, or just by collapsing. Now there are real-looking guns and extremely realistic wounds and violent actions. And most people don’t blink. Violence is so pervasive in our society that most people view it as white noise. Now, footage has to be especially gruesome for a violent movie scene to be noticed. The stakes continue to be raised.
Rape and all sexual violence should not be placed into the category of cursing and violence in movies. The more we are inundated with violent images, the more naturalized they become, the less we notice them. And the more we accept it as an inevitable part of life. Just as violence does not have to happen, even more so, sexual violence does not have to happen. It should not happen.
The lack of discussion over the rape scene in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, shows that desensitization toward sexual violence is happening. If it was truly shocking, more people would be talking about it. Sexual violence is seen as sad, tragic possibly, but an unfortunate circumstance committed by sick individuals, not a by-product of desensitization. It is tragic, but it’s more than something that happens, it’s something that our society allows which is committed by ordinary people. Sexual violence is not something people are born with a desire to commit, like domestic violence, it is a learned behavior. It is learned through the media, through social opinions on women and men deserve, through the idea that sexual dominance is the ultimate dominance, that violence is a way to secure what is “yours”.
It is the same with interpersonal violence. We see someone pushing their partner and write it off. We hear partners screaming at each other, but decide it’s just something couples do. We hear about one partner slapping another, but it was in the heat of the moment; they didn’t mean it. A person is raped but he/she invited the person in, they were having a good time; it wasn’t rape. All of these excuses stem from an acceptance on some level of what is happening. One reason why this acceptance happens is because of the desensitization of the actions; because we have seen or heard about people committing acts of sexual violence or acts of interpersonal violence so much we feel it is a natural part of life. Movies are not the only way we become immune to atrocities happening around us, but it is one vivid and easily accessible way in which we do.
I have not seen The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, so I will not comment on the quality of the movie and whether or not you should see it. But if you go, I want you to be aware that it has a graphic rape scene which may disturb you. I hope that it does disturb you. Follow Salander through her journey, which I read in reviews includes payback for her rapist, but also be aware of the majority of people who have experienced sexual violence do not get revenge or justice or any kind of action. Be conscious of the fact that rape is not only something that happens in the movies, and do not let a movie depiction numb you to the real life ways in which the effects of sexual violence live on, and the ways in which you can act to help change the rape-prone culture in which we live.
Some ways to help include never excusing any act of violence whether it be within a relationship or not. Always ask consent before engaging in sexual acts and understand that consent is permission freely given and is not a one -time deal. Be an advocate for survivors of interpersonal violence and/or sexual violence. One way to be an advocate for survivors is by volunteering with FVPC, click here.