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The Realm of ‘Should’: Some Thoughts on Violence Against Women in Storytelling

Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer


When it comes to violence against women in storytelling, I process it differently than I used to. Let me explain:

In recent years, I’ve become more aware of how misogyny can weave its way into the books we read and the movies we watch without our knowing it. It can be hard to spot, and moreover, it can be difficult as a critic to assail it without sounding like a prude.

Here’s what I mean: We will always have adventure stories and thrillers, and in those stories, characters of both genders will always find themselves in peril, and characters of both genders will always take their knocks. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I don’t want it to change.

But it matters where your heart is, I submit.

Take The Silence of the Lambs. That story features a killer who hunts and terrorizes women. Some of its most harrowing scenes depict a woman being kept at the bottom of a subterranean well. And yet – when you walk out of that movie, you leave it with a greater empathy for women than you had before you saw it. You have this empathy because writer Thomas Harris populates his original novel with a solid female lead, and director Jonathan Demme spends the whole movie shooting it in second person. Think back to all of the shots done from Agent Starling’s POV. In short, you spend the entire movie putting up with the same shit she does every day – skeevy glances from men and low-frequency sexism from her coworkers.

By contrast, James Cameron’s 90s action thriller True Lies accomplishes just the opposite, I submit. Now, I don’t like going after Cameron – of all people – in this arena. After all, he gave us such memorable female action heroes as Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor. But nevertheless, the middle act of True Lies showcases Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Harry Tasker as he emotionally terrorizes his wife, whom he suspects of infidelity, and only after she confirms her faithfulness is she allowed back into the narrative … to be a whore.

I know that’s harsh, but these images matter, and that brings me to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. W Magazine released the first photos of The Social Network’s Rooney Mara in character as the novel’s cyberpunk hero, Lisbeth Salander.

I haven’t read the books. I only saw the first movie – the deliberately made and well acted Swedish original. And I have to say, I was revolted.

Before I go on, let me address a potential straw man: By no means, and in no way am I – or would I ever – advocate for the curbing of expression, even for movies that are outright and blatantly misogynistic. The best remedy for bad speech is more speech, as they say, and I’m working exclusively in the realm of should. I believe we should strive to create art that, among other things, elicits empathy.

That said, I found Stieg Larsson’s story to be relentlessly, even comically lurid and misogynistic. I don’t know how the rape scenes play in the book, but onscreen, they played less like atrocity and more like candlelit erotica. To be sure, there were many elements of the movie that I liked – Noomi Rapace’s forceful performance chief among them – but in the end, I found my gorge rising when Rapace’s Salander apparently had to seek absolution from the movie’s leading man because she let a Nazi serial killer die in a car fire.

For what it’s worth, I don’t call myself a feminist because I don’t know if it’s entirely appropriate for a man to do so. Instead, I say that I ardently support feminist causes, and moreover, stories that elicit our empathy are good for more than just feminism. They’re good for human beings.

 

I don’t believe in souls, but anything that elicits our empathy is good for our souls.

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Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer

Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet, CC2KOnline.com, Offscreen, and Geekscape.net. He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.

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