Drew McWeeny’s recent article about the (over)representation of violence – particularly of sexual violence – in film is an important read for anyone who is tired of seeing the same, recycled tropes used over and over again in the movies. In this case, the societal disease that is rape has been turned into a plot device that is often tossed into a film to give it more gravity, to exploit, or to simply shock, without much regard for the imagery’s true effects or meaning.
While I agree with much of what McWeeny has to say, I offer a counterargument to one specific comment he makes regarding the abundance of rape imagery in media:
What I’m talking about is the idea that this imagery is commonplace, devalued in a world where you’ve got terrible violence, much of it sexual, raining down on young women in the “Law & Order”s and the “CSI”s. So much awful sexual violence has already been done by the time the opening credits roll on those shows that it ultimately loses its impact.
Certainly, the more that such images are shoved in our faces, the more we become desensitized to them. But we also must acknowledge that, whether by design or not, these representations reflect the unsettling reality that sexual violence is a lot more common than we would like to think. Sexual assault, sexual harassment, molestation, rape – acts of sexual violence of every degree imaginable occur far more often than even the most accurate of statistics report.
The terrible truth that we live in a world where horrible things happen to the left and right of us, although we are often not aware of what is happening just beyond our line of sight. Your neighbor may be raping his wife every other night. Your best friend might have been the victim of a sexual assault in college. Your co-worker might make suggestive comments towards other co-workers at lunch breaks. Such incidents tend to pass below our radar because they are not held up to our eyes in the way that similar events are when portrayed on film. Sure, we hear about the worst of them on the news or in non-fiction books, but it is only on film that we really get up close and personal with the perpetrators and victims. In film, emotions run high, and there is a sense of urgency that is lacking in after-the-fact news reports.
I would also like to address McWeeny’s issue with the rape of Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which he did not find essential to the film as a whole. In fact, the rape is a vital moment in Salander’s trajectory, both in the book and in the cinematic adaptation. As we see in the book – perhaps not so much in the movie – she has been taken advantage of by the “system,” by bureaucracy, and by men due to her being labeled “incompetent” for most of her life. Although she has generally been able to fend for herself thanks to a hands-off guardian, her new guardian Nils Bjurman’s legal and eventual physical domination over her seeks to put an end to her independence.
Some minor book spoilers ahead that clarify the rape scene a bit:
In the book, Salander goes to see Bjurman after the first encounter with the intention of catching him on video doing something – she figures receiving just another blowjob. But the sadistic rape occurs instead, and it forces Salander to seek retribution outside of the law due to the abuse of the system, which Bjurman and his behavior quite literally embody. More importantly, the rape pushes Salander to accept Blomkvist’s offer to go after a murderer of women to whom she has no connection. If she did not have such hatred for men who take advantage of women, perhaps the stand-offish, wary Salander would have shown Blomkvist the door when he came to her apartment.
I am inclined to agree that the film had a difficult time making these connections clear, but they are absolutely there in the book. The rape, I argue, is essential to Salander’s character, and the brutal nature of it is a necessary component of the story’s representation of the harsh abuses of powerful men.
I do, however, agree with McWeeny in his belief that artists need to be cognizant of the power these images have, as well as of the potential they have to desensitize us when we are pummeled with them in inappropriate situations. Perhaps a rape is truly essential to the apocalyptic, hellish nightmare of Xavier Gens’ The Divide, but maybe a graphic scene depicting the attack is not. On the other hand, the sadistic rape of Lisbeth Salander in Dragon Tattoo is such an integral part of her character and of the plot that I can’t imagine not showing it in some form on screen.
Ultimately, it is up to both filmmakers and audiences to be responsible. Filmmakers must be responsible with the images they choose to show, and audiences must be responsible about how they consume what they see. I am against outside censorship in any form, but I suggest this to filmmakers: like with the interplay of silence and notes in music, sometimes, what is not shown is more powerful than what is shown. Maybe that is the key to certain representations of sexual violence.