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Posts Tagged ‘violence against women’

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.

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