Although somewhat late to the party, I recently viewed the American adaptation of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara. Like many viewers, I found the unapologetically graphic and confrontational rape scenes to be troubling. Popular blogs such as The Stir echoed a commonly-held sentiment that the scenes were too graphic or too disturbing, making it difficult to enjoy the film as entertainment. My initial reaction to the scene was similar. It is difficult to participate as a spectator when watching the scenes in which Lisabeth Salander (Rooney Mara) is raped or coerced into performing sexual acts in return for government support. The revenge scene is equally disturbing. Although Lisabeth subjects her tormentor to the same torture she endured, there is no sense of triumph and the victory feels hollow. Moreover the passive audience feels implicated for “enjoying” a movie with such intentionally disturbing material.1
Having never read any of Stieg Larsson’s novels, I cannot speak to the ways in which the text differs from its cinematic interpretations. However, after reconsidering the ways in which the scenes affected me as a viewer, I could not help but feel manipulated. At the end of the film, Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and Erika Berger (Robin Wright) rekindle their extra-marital relationship and Lisabeth is left to watch coldly from afar. My initial impulse, in writing this reflection, was to discuss the use of rape as a plot device that simultaneously evokes feelings of guilt, pity, fear, and shock in the name of entertainment. Knowing that Lisabeth’s moment of revenge is fleeting, and she is ultimately left alone at the conclusion of the film, the viewer is not afforded the opportunity to think of Lisabeth beyond the context of her treatment by male characters as an object of exotic eroticism and sexual subordination.
Piqued by my own anxiety over the aforementioned scenes, I decided to get a better sense of how others reacted to the scenes. I noticed something disconcerting when I performed a Google search “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo rape scene,” the first two results yielded by the search are far more troubling than the scenes in the movie.
The first link brings visitors to a sequence of spliced footage from the film which includes: Lisabeth in the shower after an encounter with her tormenter Niels Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen), Lisabeth in bed after a one night stand, and Lisabeth and Mikael having sex. The second links brings visitors to an uninterrupted shot of Lisabeth and Mikael engaged in consensual sex. Google’s algorithimc conflation of rape and consensual sex, as well as the removal of any of the power dynamics apparent in the relationship between Mikael and Lisabeth obscures the way in which the dynamics of sexual power function as essential aspects of the film. The ability for viewers to reduce Rooney Mara to the same type of sexual objectification endured by her character is shocking. The scenes are described as “hot sex scenes” or opportunities to see the real Rooney Mara nude and on film. When enveloped in the plot and engrossed in the filmic experience, the scenes have a profound effect on the viewer. However, when scenes are decontextualized and removed from the film, it becomes all too easy for the scenes to be reduced to their most base attributes – namely nudity and eroticism.
What disturbs me most about the recontextualization of the scenes online is the way in which viewers are able to subject Rooney Mara to the same reductions suffered by her character in the film. In considering the context of one’s viewing, and the position of the viewer with respect to the work, I am reminded of a comment made by ethnographic filmmaker David MacDougall. In describing the multiple positions occupied by the audience, he writes, “as members of an audience we readily accept the illusion of entering into the world of film. But we do so in complete safety, because our own world is as close as the nearest light switch.”2
Although MacDougall is speaking specifically about observational cinema in the context of ethnographic film, our experience as viewers of popular cinema is largely similar. We identify with characters in a way that allows us to be affected by the things that happen to them. Our emotions become very quickly tied to theirs. However, we are granted safety through distance. We are not bearing witness in any tangible sense, but our desire to suspend disbelief and engage in a particular mode of viewing allows us to oscillate between reality and fantasy.
What happens to the rape scene when its reproducibility decontextualizes it to the point where it can become an erotic snapshot on the internet? If something so profoundly disturbing to many audience members can be so readily reduced to an opportunity to see Rooney Mara naked instead of Lisabeth Salander being raped, how can filmmakers continue to use sexual violence as a plot device? Is there something inherently manipulative and problematic about such an employment in the first place?
What began as a meditation on a film became a curiosity about of the travel of the disembodied scene and how such decontextualizations can impact our reading of the films from which they are poached. It is also important to think about the ambiguous representation of sexual violence in popular cinema, and its impact on viewers. Moreover, we need to consider the ways in which the filmic experience is no longer relegated to the multiplex and home theater. Now that scenes can be removed from the larger body of work, they more easily function in unintended and problematic ways.
Chris Patrello, PhD student in the Program in Visual and Cultural Studies at The University of Rochester