Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Two Theories on the Representation of Rape (Inspired by Dragon Tattoo and Precious)

As I mentioned in my last post, I saw the first showing of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that I could. In general, I liked it.  I didn't think it was amazing, but it certainly wasn't bad.  It was a good thriller, and I think Fincher made some general good choices about what to cut and what to keep.  I have a lot of little, minor questions, but one big one is bugging me.  Obviously from this post's title, it's about the representation of rape and sexual assault, so I understand many will not want to read it.  But I would love comments because this does bug me.  Also, I will be giving major spoilers of the book and the two film versions of it.  If you want to know nothing, stop reading now.

My question has to do with how the rape of women and the rape of men are treated and why those differences exist.  I'll start with the book since it all starts there.  It is about the sadistic torture of women.  We see that in multiple ways.  The entire mystery ends up being about a father and son who tortured women their entire lives, and that is a separate storyline from Lisbeth Salander's own rapes.  In the book, we get graphic descriptions of these rapes.  Personally, as I've noted before, I think the book does a pretty good job of balancing how much to say.  On one hand, Larsson does not shy away from the subject, which is good.  I think too many books, films, and TV shows say too little and allow audiences to continue denying the severity of rape (though this is changing and not true with all examples, of course).  At the same time, he does not say everything he could.  When Salander suffers her tortuous rape at the hands of Nils Burjman, we know it goes on for ninety minutes, but we don't get a full description of it, which would be too much, but we do recognize how horrible it is.

In the book, a few men rape a lot of women.  Each of the three men is punished, though not within a legal context.  The Swedish film and the American film include each of these men and what they do.  The final man who commits the most assaults over several decades is the one that Blomkvist and Salander end up searching for.  Blomkvist shows up at this man's house and ends up trapped in that man's torture chamber.  In the book, this man makes it obvious that he is about to rape Blomkvist as well: he cuts his clothes off with a knife and then grabs Blomkvist and gives him an aggressive kiss.

Neither film shows this kiss.  The American film does show Blomkvist strung up and partially stripped, and the man comments that he has never had a man in this torture chamber or been with a man since he himself was raped by his father.  The kiss is gone.  And I wonder why?  The films have no problem depicting the rape of women, and they have no problem showing Salander's rape of the man who raped her.  But they pull back when it comes to representing the rape of a man who is not a sadistic pig.  Why?
Theory One: It is always okay to depict the rape of any adult woman by any adult man, but it is rarely okay to show the rape of a man unless he clearly "deserves it."
This got me thinking of another film that centers on rape, Precious.  In that film, Precious is raped her entire life by her father.  But she is also raped continually by her mother.  In the film, that is only alluded to in one scene when her mother calls Precious into her bedroom.  I can't remember the exact words she said, but it was something general about coming in to help Momma, and her mother is in bed.  I know many intelligent people who did not read this scene as the rape of a daughter by her mother because they expressed shock when I mentioned it or when they read it in the book.  I've taught the book the film is based upon, Push, several times.  Students who have seen the movie before the book are often shocked when we get to the two scenes that mention the mother's sexual abuse of her daughter.
Theory Two: It is always okay to depict the rape of a child of any gender if that rapist is a man, but it is rarely okay to show it if the rapist is a woman.
Why does this matter?  We live in a culture that often does whatever it can to ignore the severity of rape and sexual assault.  We think we are a culture that faces it, but I do not see a lot of truth in that.  It is very, very true that a strong, strong majority of rapes are committed by men on women.  I want to repeat that to be clear: a strong, strong majority of rapes are committed by men on women.  But not all rapes happen that way.  When I talk in general about rape, I always try not to use gendered language because rape is not just something men do to women.

Many, many people who study the rape of men point out that a major reason men who are raped do not come forward is because they worry that they will not be believed, that they will be laughed at, or that they will be thought of as less than a man.  The continued invisibility of the rape of men and boys plays a major role in these feelings.  We are also hearing more and more stories of women playing roles in the rape of children either in engaging in rape themselves or in creating situations that allow men to abuse children.  Again, those who study these cases say that the survivors often do not report it because they think they will not be believed.  Yes, there are a few cases of women who rape men, but that is incredibly rare.  That does not mean it never happens or it should never be represented or discussed.  But I am most curious right now about the rape of men by men and the rape of children by women because 1) it seems like I am continually hearing more and more stories of such cases in "real life" and 2) I am rarely seeing the depiction of such cases in mass media.

My two theories allow society in general to remain in denial about certain forms of rape and sexual abuse.  This is the worst thing to do to survivors of any age or gender.  This is why I speak up the way I do.  Rape is always wrong.  Murder can sometimes be okay such as in cases of self-defense and perhaps in certain wars.  Rape is never permissible, however, but I am not sure we have moved much further than where we were as a society once women started speaking out clearly and strongly about their own rapes by men.  That is still difficult, and we still live in a world with much blaming the victim and slut-shaming.  It's changing slowly as long as many of us refuse to shut up about rape and sexual abuse in all of its forms.  In general, though, these two theories seem to be coming truer and truer over time.

Do my two theories ring true to you?  Do I just need to accept that this will change over time and not focus on things like a kiss between a rapist and a journalist in Dragon Tattoo and focus instead on the bigger story?  Anyone prompted to have any other thoughts by what I've written?  Obviously, I care about these issues but know my perspective may be limited as all perspectives are.  While I may never "get it right," I certainly want to try to be, and I'll take whatever help any reader can offer.


  1. I have a few half-scattered thoughts. First, while I have admitted how much I loved the entire trilogy and did watch all the foreign films (with my whole family including hub who almost nearly always falls asleep in dubbed films but didn't in these), I had to put the first down after the first brutal scene of Lilsbeth. It was clear in the book leading up to the scene that Burjman's next move would be a graduated level of abuse after the first inthe office and the second overture to be in his personal residence, but I was not prepared (can one be?) for the brutality of that rape. I did put the book down and I remember saying at the time (probably a snippet on fb which I was on at the time or something) that I would not be seeing that film after all. I picked the book back up though, and I guess it was only the fact that Salandar was able to so -- I'm trying to choose my words carefully - satisfying label him for what he was - that as a reader, I could move forward. I also think the scene itself and her very clinical treatment of herself and her recovery and seeing that angle of it from a reader's point of view helped propel me through a section which otherwise would have been difficult for me to return to. (I am, after all, a person who first read the rape scene out of Bastard out of Caroline while unwittingly pickign it up in B&N having no prior knowledge of Allison at the time and wound up like a stunned animal in the cookbook section waiting for my husband to bring my then-kids back from a toy store).

    Even though as you pointed out, the book has evidence of multiple occasions of abuse, it is Salander's that I remember. I think that for me as a reader, that was due to the brutality of it, the strong sense of need for her to defend herself against Burjman as she had been a potential victim for him in just about every way that a minor can be a guardian, and the fact that as a reader, I did not find myself fully vested in Harriet. There was too much for too long which was unclear, and I found myself seeing all through Lisbeth's eyes, and let's face it: she was not too sympathetic to Harriet, far from it.

    I saw the first film after reading the first book, so I think it was sometime in 2010. I don't remember every scene as vividly, and while I do remember the basement scene, I did not remember the omission of the kiss. Probably since I knew that he was going to be safe and not raped, any potential lead-up there may have been not as closely scrutinized by me at the time. Would the inclusion of the kiss have tempered the anticipated violence of the rape any or woudl that have been a thought for the audience's interpretation? (?)

    I *do* remember being very shocked at the way the rape/incest scenes were interpreted in the film version of Push. Those were difficult scenes to read. They completely omitted one of the more difficult aspects of the father's rape which included her own orgasm during the act. The mother's acts were conflated with this other self-abuse of over-eating to the point of not be able to move, and that sleep state that was at play as a result was a mental check-out for Precious. All of those factors were important in that dynamic, and they were rolled away and what we got instead was momma and her posters, masturbation, which had nothing to do with the realities introduced in the book, and as you said, the call to Precious could easily have been ignored for what the film writers tried to pass it off to be (a substitution for their omission of the book's scenes).

    I can think of two movies which did include as part of the abuse of a child the abuse by a girl/woman/maternal figure: Antone Fisher

  2. and then, not abuse perpetrated by a woman, but by another male: The Kite Runner. I read and saw The Kite Runner, and while the scenes in it were teen on teen (pre-teen?), the rapist ultimately was proven to be a pedophile by the relationships he established later in the book/movie.

    (I typed a lot more and then went forward and lost it, but I see that I already wrote a lot, so I'll leave it at that but I do want to say that I agree with you very much about the importance of the inclusion of the details of these crimes regardless of how difficult they are for us as readers or watchers.)

  3. Shell, thanks so much for all this detail! I'm nodding as I'm reading. And I'll be honest. I saw Antoine Fisher on DVD a few years ago and completely forgot about the abuse, and I am someone who is usually attuned. And I never say Kite Runner, but I remember seeing the previews, and they now list on that green screen before a preview why it earned that rating of R, and I remember that preview said the rating was partly for "rape of a child." That may be why I actually haven't seen it.

    And that is very true about Precious. The orgasm is something that students often want to discuss but are afraid to mention, but we talk about the biology of orgasm and the psychology of a girl who truly has been abused her entire life.

    And I think you're so right about Lisbeth. We do know that it's going to get worse after. This might be where gender as a viewer comes into play. I knew it was going to get worse, but I also knew Lisbeth was going to get revenge. It was already clear that she would never stand down. And I was cheering a bit when she got her revenge. Then I stopped to think about that, cheering someone who embodies vigilante justice while also knowing Salander has reasons that become clearer as to why she does not trust the legal system. As I kind of say in this post, I don't think rape is every okay even when it is used against a rapist, but I admit to feeling pleasure, and anticipating that pleasure Tuesday night in the theatre, when Salander gets revenge.

    This is where Larsson deserves some praise. Lisbeth Salander is one of the contemporary literary characters who is worth deep discussion. She's a feminist hero and a scary vigilante.

    I may come back and have more to say. These are my gut reactions typed fast, too.

  4. As I read your post, I found myself flashing back to The Prince of Tides (1991). Nick Nolte's Tom Wingo describes being raped (along with his mother and sister) by escaped convicts. He says in a small voice, "I didn't know it could happen to boys." Until that movie, I didn't know it could happen to boys, either. Of course I knew that women get raped: it's on the news, on TV, in the movies. And murder is a regular occurrence on TV (a daily event, if you consider how often Law and Order is shown). But when rape is depicted, it's always upon women, so I agree completely with Theory 1. It's also a measure of how squeamish the public is that we don't call it "rape" when the victim is a child. We call it "sexual abuse," as the media demonstrates over and over regarding Penn State. In regards to Theory 2, I haven't read Push and I have to admit that I haven't heard of IRL instances of women raping men. The only one that comes to mind is the most recent season of True Blood, when Jason--the stud of Bon Temps--is kidnapped and forced to have sex with the women of a small town to impregnate them. Although the character's best friend identifies it as rape, Jason doesn't talk about it and the tone of the show makes the situation seem like karma.

  5. Jennifer, I loved Prince of Tides, and that is one of the few films that does show us the rape of a boy as it is described in the novel. I remember seeing that in the theatres and the audience getting so quiet. And True Blood really plays with all of these theories. In a way, whenever Lorena commanded Bill to have sex with her, she was raping him because he didn't want to do it but was compelled to do so because she was his maker.

  6. Nels, Thanks for reminding me of the Bill/Lorena relationship. You're right, that was rape, too, although it played out in the weirdest way ever. Turning her head 180 degrees? That's just an awful image to associate with rape.