Can Sexual Violence in Movies Be Edifying? From Straw Dogs to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

September 23, 2011 | 14 9 min read

coverThe irreproachable way to deal with sexual violence on screen, and in art generally, is not to represent it, even if it’s your subject. Samuel Richardson originated this approach in Clarissa (1747), a 2000 page novel whose central event is the heroine’s rape—though that rape is so glancingly described that an inattentive reader might miss it. (J.M. Coetzee followed suit in Disgrace.) The idea behind this code of silence is that depicting rape graphically turns an act of violence into a sex scene. Naked bodies turn us on whether we want them to or not, the argument goes, and so to depict a rape victim’s body graphically is to turn it into an erotic, arousing object. Such depictions make readers and viewers voyeur-accomplices to the rape and inevitably teach them to take pleasure in sexual violence. And as Susan Brownmiller insisted in her then revolutionary book Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (1975), rape is violence not sex. Rape should not turn us on: It should enrage and disgust us.

So one might, quite justifiably, adhere to the position that sexual violence on screen is reprehensible, whatever form it takes; whether from the feminist perspective, that such films celebrate and promote violence against women, or from the religious, socially conservative position, that explicit representations of sex and violence are morally corrupting, that they create an appetite for more sex and violence. There’s also a growing consensus among scholarship from various fields that exposure to violent sexual images has detrimental effects on the behaviors and attitudes of the men who look at them, so one might now bolster either political position with scientific data.

covercoverBut you don’t have to be a social scientist or a man, or a feminist, or a conservative to feel the negative effects of watching rape, quasi-forced sodomy, sexual humiliation, or sexual mutilation. Many who watch Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), or Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), Pier Palo Pasolini’s Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1975), David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), Jonathan Kaplan’s The Accused (1988), Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War (1989), Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996), Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible (2002), von Trier’s Antichrist (2009), Lee Daniels’ Precious (2009), or, most recently, Niels Arden Oplev’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2010) and Rod Lurie’s remake of Straw Dogs (2011) find themselves feeling assaulted rather than entertained or enlightened: shaken, crying, exhausted, enraged—more traumatized witnesses of a crime than exhilarated cinema patrons. And then there’s the fact that many films about sexual violence that abide by Richardson’s code of silence are no less powerful for their lack of explicitness: Dracula (1931), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), The Proposition (2005), The Lovely Bones (2010).

Without being a professed feminist or a social conservative, you might just instinctively recoil from explicit sexual violence on screen. And you wouldn’t be alone: Film festival audiences walk out of these movies (Irreversible), countries ban them and occasionally prosecute their directors for obscenity (Straw Dogs, Last Tango, Salò, Clockwork), critics report feeling battered by them (Precious, Irreversible) or becoming so enraged by the experience of watching them that they feel impelled towards violence themselves (Antichrist). And that’s only among the short-list of films above, films that received much critical acclaim and have been more or less canonized.

The feeling of being assaulted is not an experience many would consciously seek out, as Roger Ebert acknowledged in the conclusion of his positive review of Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible (one of the most graphic non-porn movies ever made about rape—also one of the most intelligent): “As I said twice and will repeat again, most people will not want to see the film at all. It is so violent, it shows such cruelty, that it is a test most people will not want to endure.” Even for those with the determination to endure these films and find value in them, the experience, whatever the intellectual payoff, is inevitably tinged with a feeling of troubling complicity and fallenness: Am I self-hating? A misogynist? A sadist? A pervert? Is human nature really so ugly, so capable of ugliness? Did I enjoy that? Does having gotten something out of that movie make me a “a bad person”?

In his review of Niels Arden Oplev’s movie version of Stieg Larsson’s bestselling crime-thriller The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (also known as Men Who Hate Women), Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips wrote of the film’s graphic rape scenes, “…I’ve sort of had it with this stuff…every 10 minutes in the multiplex, we settle in for one more load of appalled, appalling evidence of what men who hate women do for their amusement. And for ours.” But it’s not amusement for some, not in Dragon Tattoo, nor in the other movies listed above.

For some, narrative art is also a means of gathering vicarious experience and coming to terms with our own experiences; it is a means of learning, in a safer way, about the world and human nature, especially its terrifying aspects. (And now cognitive criticism, an emerging field of literary theory, contends that collecting and studying stories and characters are the means by which we make sense of ourselves, protect ourselves, achieve our ends and that they are crucial to our success and survival.) From this intellectual position, watching unflinching portrayals of sexual violence can also be a way to guard against such evil in yourself, to identify it in others, to understand, in some small way, the horror that victims of sexual violence experience, and the damage that sexual violence inflicts on the lives and personalities of victims, their families, and their communities.

New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott agreed with Phillips about Dragon Tattoo. He argued that Opvel’s “feminist impulse” (to indict violence against women and to show “how one woman fights back”) “is overpowered by the unwavering attention to the vulnerable suffering, sexualized bodies on the screen.” But others felt differently. A self-identified survivor of sexual violence calling herself “Warrior” left a comment on Manohla Dargis’ more positive review of movie: “…I love the movie. I love that Lisbeth has not been broken but is a fighter and a survivor—yet still has compassion when required.” This response reflects my own sense of Lisbeth’s rape scene, which I found a portrayal of violence rather than sex. Yes, there is one brief shot of Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace) naked from the waist down and another brief shot of her rapist on top of her (his body appears fully clothed), but most of the scene focuses on Lisbeth fighting back against his attempt to subdue her, fighting to keep her self-determination.

She resists her attacker with a ferocious physical rage (one few actresses can muster and fewer films give them the chance to exhibit), a rage bordering on madness, and a rage that had enabled her to fight off a group of drunk hooligans in an earlier scene. The final shot is a close-up of Lisbeth’s face. She’s screaming, and the outrage and pain she communicates are almost emotionally obscene. The physical presentation of her body, however, is not, nor is it, as Scott contends, titillating.

Scott and Phillips also objected to the scene depicting Lisbeth’s revenge on her rapist: she tazes her assailant in his home (the site of her rape), gags, strips, and ties him up, beats him, sodomizes him, and tattoos “I AM A SADISTIC PIG AND A RAPIST” on his chest and stomach. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone pronounced this scene “graphic enough to freeze your blood,” but those more intimate with sexual violence might’ve felt something rather different.

covercoverRape survivors report using fantasies of torturing and killing their rapists as a therapeutic technique (a mental exercise to help them sleep, for example). In her autobiographical account of her rape and its aftermath, One Night: Realities of Rape, anthropologist Cathy Winkler found some relief from her post-rape trauma and anxiety in educating herself about rape, reading and watching all of the accounts and movies about rape she could find. And her reactions to these surprised her. Watching a rape-revenge scene in the movie Lipstick, in which the rape victim shoots her rapist, Winkler found herself yelling at the avenging heroine on the screen: “Don’t stop shooting until there is nothing left of him.” My sister, who was raped in 2004, was less gratified by having her rapist found guilty and sent to prison, than by the relative certainty that he would be raped in prison. I also found deep satisfaction in this—though I had forgotten it until I saw Lisbeth inflict on her rapist the pain, humiliation, and loss of control he had inflicted on her. Sometimes blood, real or fictional, is the best means of expiation. Not, perhaps, a heart-warming fact to discover about yourself, but no less true for that—which is to say that art is never just about the author’s intentions, but also about the experiences and the emotional and intellectual temperament that each viewer brings to her watching.

Sexual violence and perversion can also represent things beyond themselves with startling power. In Salò, set at the end of World War II, four Italian officials kidnap a group of teenagers on whom they perform elaborate sexual tortures and humiliations. In one scene, the fascist libertines throw a banquet: they serve the teenagers’ feces on silver platters. The libertines find this fare delectable, as they find forcing their prisoners to urinate on them or in front of them arousing. Of course, the horrors of fascism are established facts of history, but Pasolini’s representation of these men’s taste for death (excrement), their erotic pleasure in it, estranges these horrors, makes them new—more vivid and more horrible than reading the history again. After Salò, I also found myself seeing Lisbeth’s rape at the hands of her state-appointed guardian as a critique of paternalistic governments. Lisbeth’s rape is first and foremost a rape, but rape is also a symbol for the loss of self-determination, and I couldn’t help but see Larsson’s political commitment to libertarianism in Lisbeth’s repeated abuse at the hands of the agents of the democratic socialist government who are supposed to be taking care of her.

But it’s still true, that for some the horror will be all. And intellectual quibbling can’t diminish or deny that. It is the fate of the intellectual quibbler to find herself a devil’s advocate, and sometimes I think that questions such as whether and how sexual violence should be portrayed ought rather to be a debate about whether hyper-intellectual aesthetic criticism has any real redeeming social value—or if it too is a form of pornography (look at that big, throbbing…brain).

In an attempt to be intellectual and anti-intellectual at once, I’d say that a hard and fast general theory of the value of sexual violence in film isn’t possible. Viewer temperament, historical mood at the time the film is made and watched, personal history—all these mean that my Last Tango won’t be yours. Nor will or should yours be Pauline Kael’s (she loved the movie with what now, to me, seems a curious effusiveness). If horror is all you’re left with (if you can’t get beyond the content) the finer points of the cinematography, the script, the acting—don’t really matter.

Last Tango, like Straw Dogs, features a rape-like sex scene. Both movies offer sensual, flirtatious, petulant child-women as their heroines and because neither film presents any other substantial female characters both seem to offer their slight, silly, half-sketched heroines as emblems of Woman. The fact that these heroines seek out, accept, even seem to enjoy forced sex has to be, at the very least, troubling and provocative.

Rape scene aside, Straw Dogs is a chilling, deeply convincing portrayal of the Hobbesian potential that lies within even the most cerebral and confrontation-averse of human beings (a mathematician, David Sumner, played by Dustin Hoffman). The rape scene begins by mimicking the structure of the classic porn plot: the lady of the house, Amy Sumner (Susan George), wearing a robe, opens the door for her day-laborer and invites him in for a drink. What starts as a rape (she resists, screams “Get out!”, is grabbed by the hair, pulled to the sofa, slapped, her clothes torn, a look of stricken terror on her face) becomes a scene of pleasurable, consensual sex: she sighs and quivers, caresses her rapist’s head and neck, pulls his face to hers. When the day laborer’s buddy shows up with a gun to have his turn, the scene becomes rape again, but it’s a sex-scene from start to finish. I dare you not to find Susan George sexy in this scene (even if you won’t ever admit it publicly).

Uppermost in my response to this scene is shock and disgust. I imagine, rape-porn fanciers aside, that that’s the average viewer’s response. But I also can’t decide if I am more angry at Peckinpah for bolstering the myth that women invite sexual violence and enjoy it (Bertolucci can be accused of this in Last Tango’s famous forced-sodomy “butter scene”), or at the possibility that there really are women like Amy, women who enjoy sexual violence. Plath believed it—”Every woman adores a Fascist,/The boot in the face, the brute/Brute heart of a brute like you”—but the idea feels more sinister coming from a male director (whether Peckinpah in Straw Dogs and Bertolucci’s Last Tango, David Lynch in Blue Velvet, Lars von Trier in Breaking the Waves and Antichrist; women don’t seem to make movies about how they punish themselves sexually). Amy’s character throughout Straw Dogs (like Jeanne’s in Last Tango) is unsettled and unsettling: she is by turns coquettish, masochistic, bored, spiteful, angry, easily amused. As with the rape scene, I can’t decide if Amy’s shallow, erratic character is an insulting reflection on the nature of women or if it’s a critique of her type. Do I know any Amy-ish women? Is it the faintest tinge of Amy-ishness in myself at certain moments, shameful to recollect, that makes me so angry? Or the idea that men who hate women hate them because women want them to? Or the idea that men who hate women (these filmmakers?) think women want to be hated?

Of course, the feminists, the conservatives, and the gentle souls may all be right; and the social scientist may soon prove that lessons about life and self learned from buttered sodomy and scissors applied to tenderest parts are not the sort of lessons anyone ought to learn. As I come to the end of this piece, I feel it myself. But I also can’t deny that I have learned a great deal about dark, fallen things from “brute hearts.”

is a staff writer for The Millions living in Virginia. She is a winner of the Virginia Quarterly's Young Reviewers Contest and has a doctorate from Stanford. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Times, In Character, VQR, Arts & Letters Daily, and The Daily Dish.


  1. This was an amazing piece! I really enjoyed reading it and learned a lot from it. I rarely read long articles like this from start to finish – but this was just so interesting and insightful.

  2. What a gutsy, complex, erudite, and honestly articulate piece. You really take on some ghastly and politicially fraught subject matter and make it accessible, multi-faceted, and resonant. Great writing! Thank you for going there.

  3. I really enjoyed this essay. The depictions of violence in both film and literature raise complex and interesting questions about how we are, as consumers of these texts, implicated. The case could certainly made that in many instances, implicating the viewer or reader is deliberate. Irreversible, which I agree is such an intelligent movie in how it approaches both rape and violence, is one of those movies where you really cannot avoid the awkward questions about who we are in the face of appreciating such incomprehensible depictions.

  4. Very interesting about the revenge fantasies of your sister and rape victims in general. I think that makes a lot of sense. The truth is, I loved all of those movies when I was younger and enjoyed, more or less, the Dragon Tattoo movies recently. Although, I think I was as silly as to think that violence of any kind was “cool” when i was younger. Now that I’m older, I just don’t have the stomach for it for the most part. I think I’ve seen so many horrible things in real life, I just can’t tolerate it in movies. Books are different. It’s not the same. I can handle a lot more on the page- it’s images that I can’t take.

  5. Great essay. I’ve struggled with this a lot in my own work and reading/watching. I do have an instinctual recoil away from sexual violence. Even though I am a man, it seems uniquely terrifying.

    However, I’m loathe to try and mark off any territory from art’s view. And while I do think that sexual violence is unique and perhaps the most terrifying form of violence, I find it quite hard to accept at all the conservative or feminist arguments you lay out. Because logically, why would this stop at sexual violence? Why not all violence? All darkness?

    And what would art be without darkness?

  6. Nice piece, but it’s a pretty fundamental misreading that leads to seeing Larsson’s books as a reflection of libertarianism. He was a Trotskyist.

  7. I saw ‘Irreversible’ and I believe that is a perfect example of why it is never a good idea to depict actual violence in a literary work. If the author/actor is sifficiently skilled then they can properly describe the aftermath of a violent act without describing the act itself.

    Monica Bellucci is a beautiful woman, but not a very good actress. She was not able to portray the aftermath of the rape. So all we got was a horrific rape scene followed by an unmemorable sequence of post-rape events. If the movie had begun after the rape then it would have been impossible to know by Bellucci’s actions and facial expressions that she had been raped.

    If she was a decent actress then we wouldn’t have needed to see the horrific rape. We could have experienced it on her face and in her subsequent actions. But she was incapable of achieving this.

    Violent acts for the shear gore are great for genre pieces: spy thrillers, crime dramas, sci-fi & fantasy battles, horror, etc. I think literary fiction should strive to depict the emotional aftermath and the events leading to the violence without wallowing in the violence itself. If you’re a good author/director/screenwriter/actor you don’t need and shouldn’t even want to depict the violent act itself.

  8. @ DAS;

    Irreversible is told in reverse. All of the events after the rape scene are the previous experiences leading up to it. Notice ever “scene” is one long take, and ever time there is an edit, it is implying we are going “back in time”, so to speak.

    So no, she was not portraying a woman who has just been raped, more, is portraying a woman going about her life unaware of her fate.

  9. Mirek,

    Thanks for the explanation/correction. I really enjoyed Memento. Somehow it was more obvious in that movie that the scenes were in reverse. I still had to watch that a couple times to make somewhat complete sense of it.

    I guess I would have to watch Irreversible again to give it a chance, but I’m very reluctant.

  10. I just finished watching the new Straw Dogs, and I found myself perplexed by Amy. I think you have captured a lot of my issues with her in this essay. I hate to say that she invites sexual violence because the mere idea of it is insane. And yet. It is as if the director wants you to scream at her “Amy, what the hell are you doing?!” The rape scene I had difficulty watching. I found Amy’s portrayal confusing, and that made me uncomfortable. The fact that she starts off with no, and then ends up kissing Charlie baffles me. What is happening here? And why am I confused by it as a watcher? And is that the intent?

  11. “Sometimes blood, real or fictional, is the best means of expiation.”

    I can’t agree with this. The death penalty, carrying out revenge, taking pleasure in others miseries–these things all help to contribute to a culture of violence.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.