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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Can You Stomach Onscreen Rape and Torture?

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Can You Stomach Onscreen Rape and Torture?

It isn't necessary to have read or watched the versions of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo already in existence to be aware of their reputation for extreme violence. The latest American interpretation of the bestselling book hit theaters last week, and the abuse in this feminist revenge saga has in turn been called "graphic," "sadistic and twisted" and "unwatchable."

My fellow Art Attack blogger Pete Vonder Haar explored the topic of rape violence in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo the other day. I thought I'd take my shot at it.

The original Swedish title of the book translates to Men Who Hate Women, and I never saw the European film because there really was never a moment when I was in the mood to be traumatized. I'd rather turn on the latest Parks and Recreation, thanks.

If people don't want to see it, then why is it being depicted in films? The question isn't whether the story of rape victims should be told, but rather how graphically. Does rape in film have a moral purpose (assuming art and entertainment are required to have one)? And if the intention is there for us to learn something, do we need to be that sad?

Jennifer Aniston and Clive Owen in Derailed.
Jennifer Aniston and Clive Owen in Derailed.

The answer to that is the same as it is for any sort of violence in films -- sometimes it intends to serve a purpose (more on this in a moment), other times it's pointless, or worse, it's cheap.

In 2005, Jennifer Aniston and Clive Owen starred in Derailed, in which a criminal rapes Aniston's character while Owen is beaten and tied to a chair to watch. During the scene, Aniston's character cries and struggles and it is very difficult to watch. By the end of the movie, however, [SPOILER] the viewer learns that Aniston and her supposed rapist are actually in cahoots -- the rapist character is actually her boyfriend and they acted out the rape as part of a complex scheme to extort money from Owen. Both the characters and the producers of the film trivialize rape and use it as a means to a selfish end.

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander
Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander

The abuse in The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo is not like this. Lisbeth Salander is a victim of horrifying violence, but also performs violence on others and the film illustrates how power is given and taken between people on a basic physical level and beyond. Rape is the story, but also serves a greater one. Just as war movies draw an experience nearer and make it relatable, so might Dragon Tattoo. But if art is to create empathy, I feel empathetic enough on this particular issue.

Clearly, the success of the book points to a large audience not afraid to confront plotlines with rape and torture, but seeing it on screen is an entirely separate undertaking. It's not one I'm willing to commit to. It's not a puritanical refusal to acknowledge these acts exist, it's just that if I don't need a movie to inform me, then why bother?

Commenters, anything you'd like to say? Do you plan to see the movie?


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