Consent, Violence, and Popular Media

I finally made it to see “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” over the weekend. I’d read the book, so I knew there would be violent nonconsensual sexual content, and was concerned to see whether or not this violence was glorified. I’m always uncomfortable being stuck in a movie theater full of people cheering on a rape scene, so going to the movie during the bargain matinée several weeks after the film first opened was a good idea – the Methuselah sitting next to me snored his way through the whole three-hour run time.

I wouldn’t say that the sexual violence was glorified by the film; if anything the point of view of the film is clinical and nonjudgmental, allowing the viewer to draw their own conclusion. But this is a film (and novel) about multiple men who take advantage of, rape, and assault multiple women, and the promo materials gloss over this theme. Ms. Magazine wrote about this in advance of the US release of the Swedish film, under the provocative title “The Rape of ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo'”. I was pleased that there was no effort to gussy up central character Lisbeth Salander, who has crafted an all-too-familar exterior designed to repel and repulse the male gaze. She is gritty, dark, intentionally unattractive, and though she is victimized, she retains inner strength and autonomy and doesn’t become a “victim”.

I am always a little concerned about glorification of violence, especially that which takes advantage of those already disadvantaged by society, in mainstream media. Even when intended as social commentary, images of violence are often decontextualized and celebrated by viewing audiences. I recall a personal experience of watching “Natural Born Killers”, a film designed to highlight and skewer the media’s glorification of violence and violent offenders. However, this commentary was lost on the largely young, largely male audience, who merely wanted to watch the main characters beat the crap out of everyone. Even with a montage of actual news footage at the beginning, a grotesque sit-com rendering of Mallory’s brutal home life, and disjointed postmodern film techniques, all intended to bring the audience’s attention to the twisted nature of our own society, it was possible to view the film as a violent narrative rather than commentary.

I don’t think that the spare, cold eye of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” allows itself to be similarly read as a glorification of violence. The disaffected gaze of the camera and the detachment with which it portrays its various subjects does not permit celebration; the film is subdued and muted even as it deals with extremes of human nature. Yes, viewing violence may inure us to viewing more violence, but in comparison to, say, “Captain America”, the violence is much more realistic and therefore unsettling. The brutality with which certain characters deal with others is shown under stark lighting as a serious flaw in their being. And the nonconsensual nature of sexual violence is clear; there is also some beautifully depicted consensual sexual activity, and the lines between them are not in the least blurred. Mainstream media contributes so much to a rape culture, where sexual violence and aggression of men toward women is celebrated; it is good to see a mainstream film depict rape not as a natural outgrowth of female sexuality but as a violent, violating act.

I exist often in a world where there is a little more gray area around consent and nonconsent, and where “consensual nonconsent” (CNC) is a core concept. I’ve had people ask me how I can be ok with that, both as a person who believes in ahimsa and as someone with a history of sexual assault. In many ways, a world in which consensual nonconsent can exist is the antithesis of a world celebrating rape culture. I’m comfortable with the gray only when everyone understands the black and white. It’s like teaching things to toddlers – they have to understand the rules before you can start making exceptions, because if they don’t understand the rule, they can’t understand the concept of waiving it.

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