thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Hollywood Rape and the Foreclosure of Empathic Activism; or Musings on the Limits of “Body Genres”

In Film, Uncategorized on August 21, 2012 at 9:32 am

Sarah S.

Before we begin, I want to thank Phoebe and Sarah for their insightful comments on a first draft of this piece. Also, these are preliminary thoughts on a complicated, difficult subject. I welcome other comments and thoughts that expand the conversation.


Much has been said about the general bad-assness of Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of Stieg Larsson’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo of the Millennium Trilogy. Larsson claimed that the novel reflected his feminist politics by drawing attention to institutional violence against women. In 2011, Rooney Mara received a “Best Actress” Oscar nomination for her performance as Lisbeth in the American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Eight years earlier, critics praised the 2003 film Monster for its sympathetic portrayal of Aileen Wuornos, a working class woman, sex-worker, and lesbian. The story takes an overtly feminist perspective, showing how systemic patriarchal violence and disenfranchisement can drive a woman to murder and then to madness. However, it stops just short of claiming that serial murderer Wuornos was justified in her killing spree. Charlize Theron won a “Best Actress” Oscar for her portrayal.

The 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry also drew from real events, this time the life and death of Brandon Teena, a trans person. Following close upon the hate-based murder of Matthew Shepherd, the film was hailed for bringing attention to the rights, inequalities, and lives of GLBTQ people. Stars Hillary Swank and Chlöe Sevigny even appeared together on the cover of The Advocate magazine. The relatively unknown Swank seemingly came out of nowhere to win a “Best Actress” Oscar for her depiction of Brandon.

Each of these seemingly feminist films includes a graphic scene of violent rape. Viewers are not meant to find these scenes sexy, titillating, or pornographic. Rather, the films quite consciously depict rape as grotesque, unjust, and unequivocally unwelcome. Brandon is gang-raped by a group of “friends” when they discover he is anatomically female. Aileen is abducted and horribly abused by a trick who she ultimately kills in self-defense—her first murder. Lisbeth is first compelled to perform oral sex on her social worker in order to access her trust fund. Later, the same man convinces her to come over to his house where he ties her up and anally rapes her.

Bracketing the horror of these scenes for a moment, each movie led to an Oscar nomination or win for the lead actress. This pattern suggests that performing rape may be right up there with accents, period pieces, Holocaust pictures, and bodily transformations for tugging on the Academy’s voting heartstrings.1

Upon pondering these films, I began to see them as constituting an actual genre with recurring conventions and themes. But what to call it? Oscar-baiting rape films? Anti-violent Hollywood feminism? And what are its purposes—intended and unintended? I suspect that makers of these films, similarly to Larsson, believe they are drawing attention to violence against women and/or queer people and that, by showing rape as unequivocally horrible, they may elicit empathy and/or action on the part of the audience. However, given that components of these films—most notably their scenes of rape—fit what critics call “body genres,” I’m not sure they are successful anti-violence treatises.


I’m going to focus primarily on the David Fincher-directed version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, as it’s the most recent example and the one that prompted these thoughts. For full disclosure, I must admit I have not read any book in the Millennium Trilogy or seen the Swedish film versions. However, my primary interest lies in the depiction of rape in Hollywood film in particular, and the potential problems therein.


As I watched Lisbeth battle with every portion of her being against rape, then cease struggling in a kind of resigned horror, I wanted to look away. I felt sick to my stomach, on edge, uncomfortable. Critic Abby Ferber describes a similar reaction when reading descriptions of violence in the books: “I feel sick to my stomach and the muscles in my jaw tighten. … One minute I am reading this terrific book and enjoying it, and then all of a sudden, pow! It feels like a punch in the stomach, out of nowhere.”2 For me, this experience immediately called to mind similar scenes that had brought on related, physical reactions such as those in Monster and Boys Don’t Cry.

Such films fit the definition of “body genres,” films designed to elicit visceral responses from the audience. These genres tend to exist at the margins of taste in our society, and critic Linda Williams suggests this might be true because of our general ranking of body below mind. She examines three genres. First, horror, designed to cause physical responses to fear and trepidation—flinches, cringes, gasps, chills, etc. Second, woman-centric melodrama, what she dubs “women’s weepies,” designed, clearly, to incite tears or other sadness-induced responses. And third, pornography, the most obvious and marginal of the bunch, designed to cause physical, sexual arousal. The emoting figure in each of these genres is generally a woman, one whose physical expression, even when in the grips of a “negative” emotion, evokes excitement or rapture. Williams embraces body genres, seeing them as mediating complicated, gendered social problems and allowing for complex play between subject positions.3

All of the critically acclaimed films mentioned earlier include features of specific body genres, and this hybridity of Oscar-worthy drama and body genre may explain why they receive applause instead of scorn. As a thriller, Dragon Tattoo calls forth many of the responses of horror while Boys Don’t Cry clearly functions as melodrama and Monster colors melodrama with tinges of horror.

Even more importantly, their scenes of violent rape draw upon all three body-genre modes—they incite the flinch and nausea of horror, the emotional suffering of melodrama, and the objectification of the female body in pornography. I am not suggesting viewers are, in general, erotically titillated by these rape scenes, or that these scenes are essentially pornographic. Rather, because they fall under the rubric of body genres—the purpose of which is to elicit visceral response—they fail to evoke empathy that leads to action. As with all body genres, the scenes allow the viewer to experience a strong reaction by gazing at the experience of the female body on the screen. This emotional and visceral response leads to a cathartic release that ultimately separates the experience of the viewer from the suffering of the character. Therefore, these “Oscar-baiting rape films” cannot meaningfully critique, reject, or imply a change to systemic violence against women.

My concern about the violent rape in Dragon Tattoo and others stems from the connection between visceral response and entertainment. Yes, after watching one of these grotesque scenes I receive the message that rape is sickening. But I do not receive the message that I can do anything about it. The passivity of the viewing experience encourages just such inactive responses. I feel something in my body but that does not translate into anti-rape action. It’s this do—taking an action—that seems key to an effective political statement, not only in terms of stopping all rape forever (activism) but also in reaching out to and connecting with victims (empathy). (I must acknowledge that I have never been the victim of sexual assault myself; I have been close to those who have and I would be interested to know if victims have a different read on these scenes.) Because body genres seek for physical emotive experience leading to cathartic release in the viewer (often through the literal expulsion of fluid or sound), I suspect that scenes of grotesque rape also cycle through an expected pattern that leads to satisfaction (rather than action) on the part of the viewer. (Consider, in example of this satisfying drive to resolution, the positive emotional charge that comes from Lisbeth’s revenge against her rapist.)

I think now of other memorable scenes from these movies. These ones haunt because they make me want to reach out my hand to that character on the screen, to hug her or hold him or share the burden of her experience. Aileen murders a good man, her final victim, in a tragic act of insanity and desperation. A brutally beaten Brandon describes what happened to him to a doctor, forced to acknowledge his having a vagina, his being technically female, an admittance that further damages his traumatized sense of self. After her rape, a visibly bruised Lisbeth kneels in her shower, perhaps trying to cleanse away her victimization, perhaps caring for herself as she wraps her arms around her damaged body. For me, these scenes evoke an empathy that makes me want to take an action; they tug at my brain and my emotions even more strongly than they incite a physical reaction.

Note how this scene highlights the titular “dragon tattoo” as if implying an important peak at Lisbeth’s essential self.

But these are not the scenes, the big scenes that cause celebration and conversation and community. Instead, they are undercut by the imprinted physical and emotional response to the rape scene. Undoubtedly, these empathy-inducing scenes constitute part of the sentence in the film’s stated feminism or (possibly) intended activism. But the rape remains the italic, the bold, the ALL CAPS, the exclamation point! that characterizes the overall tone of the film. There is no political statement without the disturbing rape scene, a scene that inevitably undercuts activist potential.

I don’t want to fall into the old pitfall of favoring mind over body. Nevertheless, in the case of Hollywood rape scenes, I cannot help but sense that their mingling of body genres limits their political or feminist potential. Their conscious intention to incite a visceral response to an embodied female experience undermines their political viability for a couple of key reasons. First, it engages in the cathartic tension followed by resolution through release that attends body genres. Second, because it relies upon excitation in response to the violated female body, I seriously question whether rape scenes can avoid being exploitative, whatever their ideal intentions. In the case of the hybrid genre, the spirit really may be willing but it reveals the flesh (both the victim’s and the viewer’s) to be unavoidably weak.

1 For further examples, see American History X (1998), for which Edward Norton, the male protagonist/rape victim, received a “Best Actor” nomination, and Precious (2009), which received a slurry of Oscar love, including a nomination for breakout star Gabourey Sidibe. Intriguingly, the performances by Mara, Theron, Swank, and Norton involved significant bodily changes while much was made of newcomer Sidibe’s body—dark skinned and plus sized and, therefore, highly unusual in mainstream film. Surely, the attention paid to the actors’s bodies in these films is relevant to this discussion, although it’s outside the purview of this current and initial cluster of thoughts.

2 See Ferber, Abby, “Always Ambivalent: Why Media is Never Just Entertainment,” in Men Who Hate Women and Women Who Kick Their Asses: Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy in Feminist Perspective (2012).

3 See Williams, Linda, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, Excess,” in Film Quarterly 44.4 (Summer 1991).

  1. “This pattern suggests that performing rape may be right up there with accents, period pieces, Holocaust pictures, and bodily transformations for tugging on the Academy’s voting heartstrings”

    Yes. I think it even exceeds those others (add Jodie Foster in The Accused), and films with rape scenes seem to get nominated pretty frequently for best picture (A Streetcar Named Desire, The Virgin Spring, A Clockwork Orange, Deliverance, etc.).

  2. It makes me wonder: does Hollywood use rape as a shorthand for, or the ultimate signifier of, “bad,” thereby making its use even more problematic? Would it conceivably ever be okay to have rape (or something similar) used as a symbol or archetype?

    • I’m not sure, and I don’t know that I’ve seen enough prestige-type films that get Academy nods to make an informed comment with regards to your question. I do, however, think that the poster below is correct that most films with rape scenes are less concerned with domestic violence or abuse than the revenge plot that inevitably follows. There are exceptions where I think the aftermath of such violence is more thoroughly detailed (The Accused and the courtroom proceedings in it again stand out as one), but the bulk move into a mode similar to often hyper-violent, revenge-driven action films that look for audience catharsis (and a bodily response) in vengeance (Gladiator and Oldboy come to mind). Most of those films deal with the murder of a loved one, which is in some manner the same kind of motivator for violence/revenge as rape in film.

      In either, this switching of a victim to an avatar of vengeance is an obvious simplification of any such traumatic situation in the films in question. It puts characters’ actions in a very dualistic frame of right and wrong that is easily resolvable for the capable victim-turned-avenger but disregards those not able/willing to take such a role on. Not that this is inherently bad as a storyline (sometimes that is what is called for and is enough for a specific story), but it doesn’t get at the reality of such violence and the fact that so few victims are actually able to retaliate.

      In my viewing of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (US-version), I was annoyed by how the rape/revenge story was a subplot for what I found to be a less engaging central plot. I didn’t care to watch the main story unfold after seeing those scenes because I felt a lot was left out that I would be more interested in them working out (that really needed to be worked out). Where many stories/films gain from lack of interiority, I thought Lisbeth was short-changed in this respect and deserved more. Her rape/revenge was merely backstory and character development, which seemed unfair. Not that this is the director/film’s fault if it was what the source material gave, but still.

      A notable, and non-Hollywood, counter-example to the justified, chronological violence-as-catharsis (which I’m reluctant to mention and will not exactly recommend) would be the horrific Gaspar Noe film Irreversible, which shows the violent vengeance scene (vengeance by proxy) prior to the horrific rape scene . . . the initial violence terribly disgusts the viewer prior to learning the reason for it. As presented in this film, the concept of justified violence (revenge) is more difficult to simply shade into a category of “right” or “justified.”

  3. The reason Lisbeth Salander is my hero is because of her rape revenge on her guardian. His was not easier to watch than her’s, and believe me if I could have crawled into my couch, I would have in an instant, twice. And I knew what I was getting myself into: I read book 1 & 2 while I waited for book 3 to hit the shelves.

    The reason I don’t go from feeler to doer is because of her rape revenge on her guardian. Our rape heroines exact justice, so, we don’t have to. How would we feel if movie rapists walked away punishment free? Would the audience be more inclined to act if more Hollywood victims were also left with that sick feeling that their attackers got away with it? Who would the nominating committee notice then, the rapist or the victim?

  4. Reblogged this on Deliberate Donkey and commented:
    Rape and the lead actress Oscar syndrome: stop the infection of rape revenge and infuse some real life.

    An issue highlighted here is the rape scenes in Oscar nominated Hollywood features “fail to evoke empathy that leads to action”, and I agree. Why don’t we all leave our viewing of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and go out and buy tattoo guns then start tattooing rapists with the words “I am a rapist pig”? Because that’s illegal and most of us couldn’t hold a tattoo gun long enough to finish a word much less an entire sentence. So why don’t we immediately dial the police when someone has been raped? I don’t know, but I suppose some of this has to do with the Hollywood-ingrained notion that the victim will take care of it herself.
    (in case you don’t know…she won’t)

  5. Intriguing and insightful responses, Tending Weeds. Thank you!

  6. Sarah, Tammy wrote a really great article about the whole rape-revenge genre and how it has changed over time. It was in the January 2009 issue of Bitch.

    I agree with Sarahsss that rape is used in movies not so much to talk about rape, but rather to show the audience that they are allowed to feel the euphoria of justified vengeance when the perpetrators are destroyed later. Child-killing is another one of these ultimate crimes that are used to justify the harshest punishments.

    So yeah, I agree with you. I have only watched the Swedish version and couldn’t deal with it. Watching that rape scene was a bad time for me, and I don’t want to watch any sequels. But I do enjoy other revenge movies that use rape or some other horrible crime to set the hero on a path of vengeance. But these movies are about revenge, and not about sexual violence or its consequences, in my opinion.

  7. […] was inspired by Sarah S at Girls Like Giants as she reflected on rape in movies and the trend towards Oscar nominations for the actress victims. One part in particular struck me; […]

  8. Thanks everyone for the insightful comments! Such an interesting conversation! The revenge component was one I had not really considered, although it seems to even further deflate the need for real world action. I think I did not zero in on it because it does not apply to Boys Don’t Cry, although it applies in a rather intriguing way to Monster.

    Nightwork, I completely agree with you about Dragon Tattoo. In the end, I felt that a far-fetched thriller involving multiple generations of serial murderer-rapists and dazzling feats of self-erasure seemed like an odd way to draw attention to “violence against women.” I’m curious about ‘Irreversible.’ On one hand, it sounds intriguing but, on the other, using this plot as a vehicle to make the case that “violence is bad” seems irresponsible, possibly even flip. Interesting.

    Tending Weeds, thanks for your excellent post and comments. Thoughts on when the victim does not get revenge? (Boys Don’t Cry, American History X, Deliverance–I’m sure there are others.)

  9. […] Hollywood Rape and the Foreclosure of Empathic Activism; or Musings on the Limits of “Body Genres… […]

  10. […] how, further, these tropes can be read as constant infantilization. A while back, I wrote on how depictions of rape in critically-acclaimed Hollywood films function as body genres that foreclose em…. This post builds on these discussions with a reading of the representation of dead female bodies […]

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