Why I can’t be indifferent to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
I am not among the 800 billion people who’ve read Stieg Larsson’s bestselling trilogy. But I did see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo just after Christmas. Since I don’t live on an igloo in Antarctica, I was aware that it would be a dark thriller. For better or for worse (I am a pastor and all), I enjoy such a thriller every once in a while. I think David Fincher is a brilliant director. I loved Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score on The Social Network, and had already listened to their rattling but beautiful score for The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo before going and duly enjoyed it. I very much like Daniel Craig as an actor, and I’m thrilled when Christopher Plummer gets good work in his advanced age. The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo also had, quite frankly, the coolest and best-edited trailer I had ever seen. So I had a number of reasons to be excited even having not read the books.
Watching the film turned out to be an unsettling experience for me. I actually sat down and composed some thoughts a couple days after viewing it, but never quite felt like my thoughts were clear enough to share publicly. On the heels of my last post, which had me thinking all the more about how I am to love my sisters and mothers in the faith (and in the world), as well as a conversation with a friend in our church who ministers to victims of sexual abuse, I felt like finally expressing them.
For those that aren’t familiar with the story (SPOILER ALERT): Fairly early in the film, we get a graphic scene where the lead character Lisbeth is sexually abused on screen for the first time. It was intense and uncomfortable to watch, but I assumed it set up who this character is and what makes her tick. Then came the second scene in which she is sexually abused. Her abuser chains her to the bed and gags her. The door to the bedroom is slammed shut, and the camera slowly fades from the door as she howls in terror. I expected this would establish the pattern of abuse and we are moving onto another scene—until a jolting shot takes you back inside the bedroom for a lingering, terrifying anal rape sequence. This is all of course part of the back story of how Lisbeth will team up with a journalist to find a serial killer.
I did not doubt that the intention in the film is to depict these as reprehensible acts. But through the lingering lens of the camera, there was something that felt disturbingly voyeuristic about the entire experience. Keep in mind, this is hardly Schindler’s List. For me, this felt like a popcorn thriller, an edgy nihilistic whodunit that, plot wise at least, exists at the intersection of Agatha Christie with the Dan Brown, John Grisham and Patricia Cornwell, not high art. It was fairly muddled procedurally as a thriller. If its intended to be social commentary (and I’m basing this exclusively on this film adaptation), that strikes me as disingenuous. I’m not certain that a story this superficial really gets to masquerade as subversive truth telling. The very presence of this kind of explicit sexual violence in a movie this relatively unsubstantial trivializes the issues it would attempt to “expose.” I am aware that in this era of so-called “torture porn” (Saw, Hostel, etc.), this may not be the worst thing movie audiences have been subjected to. But I wonder if it does in fact mark a shift for a film with that level of sexual violence to make it into the main artery of American culture. This is not a niche story where greasy fan boys who do little but watch horror movies and play video games come to the theater. This is a near-universal cultural phenomenon.
I have no problem with the fact that sexual abuse is a plot device, part of what makes this character who and what she is. While it wouldn’t be a redemptive story regardless, there is room to discern different kinds of stories that are unpleasant to us. Some of which, not unlike many I read in the Old Testament, will unsettle us or revolt us or make us say “I would never want to be like that,” or make us care more deeply about the plight of a discarded person. My problem is specifically with this: I think the level of explicit, graphic sexual violence on display in the film, regardless of the intention, serves the function of both fetishizing and minimizing rape—an awfully horrific scene for a movie with the weight of cotton candy. I am amazed at our inability to differentiate between what art sets out to do and what it actually does. In the same way that I think that the Church needs the reminder that means are not neutral, that is to say how we convey the message of the gospel is as substantive as the message itself, and indeed in most cases is the message—the manner in which a story is told/presented matters as much as the intended message.
I later heard that the author of the books, Stieg Larsson, had apparently witnessed a rape early in life that he never got over, and that part of what motivated him was a desire to address sexual violence constructively. If there is anything smart or novel about Girl with a Dragon Tattoo however, it didn’t translate on screen for me. (Again, I can’t speak intelligently to the novel) It was only afterward that I was able to go back and read press and listen to interviews, to find that there have apparently always been split reactions to the novel and the preceding Swedish film. Some felt that in print Larsson was successful in highlighting sexual violence in his native Sweden where many of the stories of victims had been suppressed. Some have judged that regardless of his intentions, the use of such graphic sexual violence in such an otherwise fairly conventional crime novel unravels any positive effect he could have hoped for (and that the sexual violence then plays out as misogynistic fantasy even in print). There are others who claim the books handle the sensitive subject matter well enough, that it is in fact the translation to film that is the problem. Both the Swedish film and the recent US adaptation have ran into similar criticism–that the films leave less to the imagination than the novel. (While this piece in The Guardian was focused on the earlier film adaptation, it’s a good summary of the diverse reactions to both the novel and the problems with film adaptation)
But I do not write this to give a drive-by survey of pop culture as a distant bystander, but as a pastor grappling with how we handle these issues as the Church. I think a lot of Christians are afraid to have any of their pop culture interests called into question. We do not wish to return to an over-simplistic moralism that suggests that anything with strong content cannot have redemptive value. We do not wish to make too much out of one particular film or initiate a tail-chasing “how far is too far” conversation that lends itself towards new legalism. For my part, I have no judgment towards brothers and sisters who disagree with me about the film (and am very aware that I have tastes in my own movie-watching that other believers would find offensive.)
But while I have no desire to make too much out of the film per se, I do think it’s an interesting moment in our culture that raises broader questions about ethics and entertainment we desperately need to engage. Sometimes I’m concerned that in the Western church we aren’t capable of having an informed enough conversation about such matters at all. The rather vapid, uncritical moralism of the past (if it’s got a dirty word or a sex scene it must be from hell) has been largely replaced with vapid, uncritical laissez-faire moralism in which the morality of our entertainment is not seriously called into question. It is possible for redemptive stories to be told that are in fact quite explicit, it does not follow that all explicitly told stories are redemptive.
It is not that I don’t think we should be open, discerning students of popular culture who are able to engage difficult content in a meaningful way. It is that I don’t think we are frankly smart enough to be open students of popular culture who are able to engage difficult content with discernment. The baseline of being able to discern popular culture in a broad, comprehensive manner is that we maintain enough detachment from the broader culture to see it what it is. Most Christians in America, quite frankly watch more than they read. And in the most broad oversimplification I’ve ever written: I don’t think you can discern media at all if you watch more than you read (and I’m not just talking about the Bible here). We are often not robust enough intellectually or formed deeply enough spiritually to even think about the higher stakes.
We do not want the church to be known primarily for what it does not do or does not watch. That would be a failure of Christian witness. We do not want to be known as people who define holiness as prudishness. We do not want to be the sorts of people who are unable to look eyeball to eyeball with deep human pain and brokenness with compassion and empathy, in real life or popular culture. We need not run from everything that is sordid or difficult or complex, because that is where the gospel is most at home.
Conversely, what does separate Christians from the world is a relentless tenderness toward human bodies. We consider the care for all earthly bodies to be directly under our jurisdiction because we believe God inhabited a human body, meaning there is nothing more holy than human anatomy. God tabernacled in flesh, then decreed that that our very bodies would be the temple of the Holy Spirit. It is why Christians, while we need not be squeamish, must in turn be protective of fragile bodies. A body taking shape in a womb, a body rotting in a prison. The body of a screaming baby and the body of an incontinent senior citizen. A body in west Charlotte and a body in Afghanistan. It is the birthright of the church to show the world what it means to cherish, value and care for human bodies on an unprecedented level, since we believe both that human beings are made in the image of God and that God touched the ground in human form. We know holiness when we see it, because the most holy people touch and regard other bodies with the greatest tenderness.
I have not yet gotten over the heartbreak I experienced when I read Chris Hedges’ Empire of Illusion, which has the most chilling (and accurate) critique of the effect pornography (and more open depictions of sexual violence) are having on our culture. These concerns are not simply academic. It is difficult for me to separate the mainstream appeal of a film like Girl with a Dragon Tattoo from the very untrivial real stories of sexual violence I hear as a local pastor. It is not that I think that everyone who watches a film like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are going to go out and become serial rapists. But rather that I think the popularization of such films calls for a robust, prophetic witness for tenderness that can only come from the people of God.
It has never worked out well for us to attempt to bury our heads in the sand and ignore the darkness or the violence all around us. I am not proposing that. I am not proposing a return to a Puritanical refusal to engage with anything that we find unsettling or disrupting. What I am wondering though, is what effect a prophetic witness for tenderness could have in the world we live in. What if we were known not for squeamishness towards broken bodies, but a protectiveness of them that not only means that we bind up the wounded—but that pushes back at “entertainment” that does not honor those bodies? It is true that many of our former markers of holiness have been arbitrary and unhelpful. But is it not also true that holiness does in fact demand markers and distinctions?
Without retreating into a new legalism, I think we should be able to say collectively as the people of God that we care enough about these issues—that we care enough about broken bodies—that we exercise discernment when it comes to how sexual violence is represented on screen. That we are attentive not only to what is intended but what is actually depicted. If in fact someone else found the film unsettled them in a way that caused them to be more attentive to these matters, then I celebrate that. But my larger concern is that in this culture of death, as accustomed as we are to a non-stop onslaught of visual stimulation, that it is possible to walk away from a film like The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo and not feel anything. That there is no amount of bodily degradation left for us to see that could not be objectively, and perhaps coldly, judged only the merit of whether or not we were sufficiently entertained without any thought to the broader ethics of what we have seen, how it affects us, and how it might affect those around us.
I heard Elie Wiesel speak in Charlotte a few years ago at an event where he re-visited his famous quote: “The opposite of love is not hate, its indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, its indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference.” The holiness that sets God’s people apart from the world is that we are consumed with the tenderness of God for broken bodies. If we become so satiated by entertainment as to become indifferent to the real horrors inflicted around us, what else do we have to offer the world?