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Sex Week: Cinematic Rape and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Written by: Clarissa Olivarez, Special to CC2K


CC2K contributor Clarissa Olivarez talks about how films such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo exemplify a new motif in cinema: the rape victim getting revenge on her attacker.  Does this signify an empowerment of women, or is it merely another form of exploitation?


WARNING: THE VIDEOS IN THIS ARTICLE ARE NOT WORK SAFE.

It seems that when asked to recall the most horrific sexual moment in cinema, one automatically turns to the famous nine-minute rape scene in the 2002 film Irreversible. Yet rape and torture have been present in many films before the 2000s and, in fact, seem to be headed in a completely new direction. With older films that showcase either a single man or a group of men raping a female, or even, in the case of Pulp Fiction, a man raping another man, we have seen a clear power dynamic of strong males using their physical power to exploit and abuse others. In the movies I can recall with vivid rape scenes, most rapes are avenged by those who knew the victim(s), like in Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, or else not avenged at all, as in Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas.

In looking at the films of the past five years, it seems that some films have turned the tables on rape scenes and torture themes. These films include the 2005 film Hard Candy, and, most recently, the novel-turned-film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In these two films, although only the latter features actual penetration of a man by a woman, it is clear that Hollywood has become bored with the previous pattern of man rapes woman, woman must be avenged.  Following the lead of foreign films like Audition, it is now the woman who uses her wits and femininity to entice, manipulate, and torture her male victim.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mXS_Q2Ga7PM

What makes The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo different from all these films, including Audition and Hard Candy, is that unlike the previously noted rapes of women by men, the audience sees the acts of the protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, although heinous, as justified. The sadistic and perverted male rapist gets “a taste of his own medicine.” The question is then, what is it that films like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo aim to teach us about ourselves, as viewers?

In a round-table discussion with Charlie Rose, Stieg Larsson’s editor-in-chief, Sonny Mehta, states, “Stieg Larsson has produced a heroine for our time, I think, an extraordinary figure.”  Later in the interview, Mehta states that Lisbeth is such a compelling heroine because “she’s a doer…[and]…she’s without self-pity.” Although I do not intend to delve into the specifics of the book, Mehta makes a relevant point. In the following scene, shown after Lisbeth, herself, is raped by this man (her new guardian), she takes matters into her own hands and rapes, tortures, and tattoos her victimizer, while simultaneously making demands of her guardian regarding finances and boundaries. The following clip is only partially subtitled (though this does not detract from the effectiveness of the scene) and is rather graphic as there is implied rape of a male with a dildo:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3QMYhxmYq6c

What is most interesting about this clip is not only its departure from earlier, more “traditional” rape scenes, as seen here in the 1972 version of The Last House on the Left

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OQG9UFx3VWE

…but, rather, the YouTube user comments that stem from the posting of the rape scene itself. Viewers are cheering on Lisbeth and are “smiling” at the excerpt. Smiling or laughing at earlier cinematic rape scenes, regardless of the gender of the victim, or the circumstances, is unthinkable. Scenes in Irreversible and The Last House on the Left are brutal, ugly and savage; yet, the scene in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo excites its audience and conjures up thoughts of women’s rights and female vigilantes. It depicts the female’s one solution to biased legal systems and male exploitation.

Eva Gedin, Larsson’s editor, stated that Larsson “had a name for the [Millenium] series in the beginning who said the books were manuscripts and the folders were named ‘Men Who Hate Women one, two, and three.’” The original title remained in place, in Sweden, for the first book, which American audiences now recognize as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. These “men who hate women” refer to the Nazi rapists in the Vanger family (Gottfried and his son, Martin), who viciously targeted, raped and murdered multiple women throughout their lifetimes. In an NPR piece by book critic Maureen Corrigan titled “Super-Smart Noir with a Feminist Jolt,” the author states:

The social vulnerability of women is the underlying Mystery with a capital “M” here; specifically the abuse — psychological and sexual — that’s perpetrated against young and dependent women. Very late in the novel, one of our main characters, a reporter named Mikael Blomkvist, asks a serial murderer whose victims are often female emigrants to Sweden the simple question: “Why?” The monster calmly answers, “Because it’s so easy.”

These anti-Semitic rapes of women by Gottfried and Martin Vanger are purposefully juxtaposed against Lisbeth’s own desire to not become another “easy” victim. For it was Lisbeth who helped Mikael Blomquist solve the mystery of the dead women and their rapists and it was she who watched Martin Vanger as he burned to death after crashing his vehicle. These two incidents both display the female in an advantageous position of power.

So upon examining the role of rape and sexual torture in recent films and watching the power dynamic shift to that of the female “victim,” it only seems natural that the audience’s reaction would shift as well. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, we surprisingly sanction the rape of Lisbeth’s guardian with fervor. Lisbeth, as well as Hayley in Hard Candy and Asami in Audition, are not your so-called “average” women. They are calculating and are always several steps ahead of their male counterparts. But, Lisbeth allows us to do two things that Hayley and Asami fail to: 1) she gets us to love her and 2) she makes revenge-rape (and/or torture) acceptable to her audience without her viewers even giving a thought to her mental stability. I can only hope the upcoming Hollywood version of this film continues along the lines of this rather revealing psychological study.

Author: Clarissa Olivarez, Special to CC2K

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