Trailer of Miss Representation
by Jennifer Epps
The summer’s mortifying advance poster for David Fincher’s remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo crossed my path a few months back after I had just seen the limited-release documentary Miss Representation.
Fresh from Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s harrowing exposé of an insidious undeclared war on women in U.S. mainstream media, there was no way not to be deeply disturbed by the sight of Rooney Mara as the world-famous detective Lisbeth Salander — the formidable, fierce, headstrong genius at the heart of a trilogy of Swedish crime novels — attired essentially only in body piercings, with an older man’s arm firmly wrapped around her chest. The fact that he’s Daniel Craig and her co-star didn’t resolve whether his glowering embrace was menacing or protective, but one thing was clear: what’s on display was not the tattooed lady’s remarkable mind. This image has little to do with an expert computer hacker whose photographic memory and lightning-quick insights are matched only by her self-sufficiency and gutsiness.
The supreme irony is that the late novelist Stieg Larsson went to great lengths to fashion a complex, idiosyncratic, and ferocious heroine in Lisbeth Salander (within the limits of the commercial thriller genre), and to craft plots that indict the abuse of women. He saw a feminist mission as the chief among his left-wing causes in writing this series of mysteries. But the early publicity for the Hollywood Girl with the Dragon Tattoo automatically dragged out the same old sexual objectification of women (and then some). It could be the promo for virtually any tale of a damsel in distress.
In Siebel Newsom’s essay-style documentary Miss Representation, media clips evincing rampant hostility against females share the screen with an eclectic mix of interviews: a host of scholars and analysts; entertainment and news figures like Katie Couric, Rachel Maddow, Jane Fonda, Geena Davis, Margaret Cho, Catherine Hardwicke, and Paul Haggis; and political figures like Nancy Pelosi, Condoleeza Rice, Senator Dianne Feintein, Dolores Huerta, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and California’s Lieutenant-Governor Gavin Newsom (also the filmmaker’s husband). Movie clips pile up of young women jammed into sexually provocative outfits, whether they are trained killers or Disney princesses. Media pundits mock the most powerful women in the U.S. — including presidential candidates and the Speaker of the House — with jibes about botox and implants. Reality TV dotes on the “cat fight’, showing women as each other’s bitter rivals for men.
The sense that things have gone deeply wrong on an immense scale builds with these clips and interviews and with the accumulation of sobering facts: only 26% of TV characters are women over 40; a mere 16% of movie protagonists are women; 97 % of the top positions in entertainment are held by men; 93 % of major film directors are male. Further, Miss Representation argues that the way the pop culture depicts women makes their sole worth seem to rest on their physical attractiveness, then links this to deplorable outcomes: 65% of women and girls show eating disorder behaviors; only 17% of the U.S. Congress is female.
The emotional wallop of this documentary feature is intense. Like Michael Moore at his best, the scope of the documentary expands as it goes, bringing in violence against women as a very real and very serious result of all this noxious imagery, and finally pointing a finger at corporate power and capitalism itself.
These associations make sense. Siebel Newsom ties the homemaking feminine characters of 1950s TV with a national push to sell appliances and thereby goad the Soviets. She also shows that the beauty industry is so out of control, physical standards of female beauty are actually impossible for anyone to achieve — photo-doctoring in women’s magazines being all too common. And since Miss Representation was made, a news story about clothing giant H&M has revealed that things have gotten even worse: this fall the retailer, coincidentally based in Sweden just like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo , took to using fake humans to market its fashions on the H&M website. Its clothes were photographed on mannequins, then computer-modeled to create the illusion that we were looking at actual people. So a woman who feels bad about her own body while shopping online is comparing herself to a cyborg.
Clearly, the problem extends beyond U.S. borders. Swedish novelist Stieg Larsson’s original title for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first in his “Millenium’ series, was Men Who Hate Women. In it he draws attention to ongoing violence against women in Sweden by citing current stats on it at the beginning of each new section. He also engages in a novelist’s affirmative action program. First off, he creates indomitable female characters. (Not only is heroine Lisbeth Salander an ass-kicker, but several of the women who seem like sorrowful victims surprise with their strength, and the series’ invented Millenium magazine is run by a savvy, competent, and sexually independent middle-aged female editor.) Secondly, by making his Millenium journalist Mikael Blomkvist both a crusader who tries to stop predators of women and a muckraker hell-bent on exposing swindler-tycoons, Larsson intrinsically links misogyny with corporate wrongdoing.
The whole framework of Dragon Tattoo overtly links corporate power with fascist fanaticism and psychopathic hatred of women. Larsson does take the correlation to the most lurid extremes, and his books are undeniably blunt-edged pulp fiction, but he also comes from the vantage point of decades as an investigative journalist of right-wing extremist groups. (He was considered enough of an expert to lecture Scotland Yard on the topic.) In fact, he kicked so many hornet’s nests, he ended up living his last years under constant threat.
Ironically, though Larsson’s common-law wife of 32 years, Eva Gabrielsson, alleges she helped write the best-sellers that have sold tens of millions of copies in dozens of countries, she was barred from any inheritance rights after a heart attack led to his death — Swedish law made his father and brother the heirs. (She also claims to hold the only version of what could be the 4th volume in the series, and she’s refusing to give it up without being awarded control of his literary estate. It’s the kind of tactic Salander might use.)
Though Hollywood is often vilified prima facie while foreign films are often seen as having more integrity by birthright, it should be noted that the Swedish film adaptation of Dragon Tattoo is not inherently superior. First of all, it does make some alterations to Larsson’s plot, one of which is to end on a feel-good note. Secondly, the Swedish actress who plays Salander, Noomi Rapace, is certainly a believable vigilante who howls like a banshee and never gives up no matter what comes at her. But her close-ups are also lit to set off her cheekbones, and she’s a very fashionable punk: her jeans are tight, her hair becomingly coiffed, and she must spend a lot of her part-timer paycheck on make-up.
Of course, glamming Salander up a bit did work wonders for the international box office. Moreover, Rapace is now a star and is, coincidentally, in multiplexes everywhere as the female lead opposite Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows — just down the hall from the screen showing the new Dragon Tattoo. But it’s a mistake to think the Swedish movie industry treated her in a particularly feminist way. Toned and compact like a gymnast, in the first Dragon Tattoo she pads around her apartment wearing midriff-exposing tops — or not infrequently, stripping them off entirely. Meanwhile, the poster for the second Swedish movie in the “Millenium series’ has her dolled up and lounging in a bra-less, sultry pose. Neither the pose nor the outfit actually appear in the film.
And yet, there’s good news.
Columbia Pictures moved to a new ad campaign for the U.S. Girl with the Dragon Tattoo . The ubiquitous billboard is a much more elegant and even more creative design that still blends an image of the two principals (this time literally) and is still cold, grey and brooding (this time even more mysteriously). Yet no-one has to disrobe, and the new ad positions Mikael Blomkvist as if he is growing out of Lisbeth Salander’s head. In fact, the only part of her that’s included this time is her head, and this silhouette dominates the composition.
And so it should be. For besides misrepresenting women, the original poster gave no inkling of the female empowerment and filmmaking brio that director David Fincher would deliver. Fincher’s track record is terrifically well-suited to the material, not only because he has made computer geekdom riveting (in The Social Network ), nor only because he has conveyed underground culture convincingly (in Fight Club), nor even because he has explored serial killers with grand visions in terrifying thrillers (in Se7en and Zodiac ), but above all because he has pumped up tough action heroines (in Panic Room and Alien3 ) without turning them into, as an interviewee in Miss Representation terms the trend for latex-squeezed action heroines, “fighting f*ck toys.”
Indeed, Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo has given punk misfit Salander the full attention she warrants: she’s more central than in the first novel and Swedish film, as intercutting keeps her prominent even when Blomkvist’s detective work is in the foreground, and scenes are directed so that if she walks into a room, people around her instinctively react — not to her Mohawk or body piercings, but to an inherently unique personality. Thanks to a sly sense of humor that pervades Steven Zaillian’s script and an extraordinary breakout performance by Rooney Mara, who, with a hunched-over walk and a sullen scowl is moody, coiled, and ready to lash out at any moment, this Salander is utterly compelling. She burns a hole in the screen. From her baggy, low-rise khakis and her uncompromising hair to her simmering intelligence, Mara portrays an oddball so stubbornly her own person she is one of the most indelible screen heroines in many years.
Meanwhile, it surely was not an unconscious choice that Salander’s partner in crime-fighting is the current James Bond. It’s part of the joke that in this film Craig is soft-spoken, unsuspecting, and frequently needs to be rescued, while it’s Mara who behaves like 007 — exploiting high-tech gadgets, carrying out elaborate subterfuges, roaring around on a motorbike, and scaring grown men away in hand-to-hand combat.
At the same time, Fincher, rather surprisingly considering the stomach-churning morbidity of Zodiac and Se7en, keeps the depraved murders of women more on the periphery than Larsson did. They’re still disturbing, but he doesn’t work to make sure we feel it, and he skips very quickly through the goriest photos. This doesn’t just keep the pace lively (and the film’s brisk momentum is a welcome adjustment to the 300 pages the book takes to uncover even the first clue), it also prevents Dragon Tattoo from turning into yet another movie in which women are treated like meat and brutalized without concern for the effect such iconography has on viewers.
The American film simplifies the book’s intricate plot somewhat but hangs onto the key points, and even reverses some of the changes that the Swedish film had made. Most notably, Zaillian’s script foils the reputation of Hollywood product as pat and trite by returning to the novel’s original bittersweet ending — and thereby keeping Salander’s outcast status as intact as that of a stoic cowboy in a classic western.
One area that does give pause is the number of times Mara is nude in the film — though it’s on a par with the extent of Rapace’s nudity in the Swedish version. To the film’s credit, the nude scenes come across as much more from Salander’s own perspective than we are used to seeing in mainstream entertainment. When she has sex, she stays firmly in character–so much so in one scene, she even gets laughs for it. Still, considering the lack of central heating in an old cabin and the twenty degrees-below weather for much of the story, isn’t it likely that she would need to keep some layers on, even during sex?
Also, it is worth a mention that though the trio of titles which Larsson’s books have taken on in English have appealing color and symmetry (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest ), for its 25-year old heroine to be labeled a “girl’ when she’s well beyond the age of majority is sending a mixed message to say the least.
Obviously, there is much to discuss when it comes to the depiction of the female gender on screens large, small, and hand-held. It is encouraging to know that Miss Representation , which premiered in 2011 at Sundance, has reached a wide audience on the Oprah Winfrey Network, and that it is scheduled to appear on DVD in February. The filmmakers clearly care about making significant change; they have several activist campaigns underway and their website boasts a blog, a media literacy curriculum for students, and polling on new TV shows.
It is also, all things considered, a positive development that the Rooney Mara Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a hit with both critics and audiences. Even if Lisbeth Salander is sometimes misrepresented, misappropriated, or misperceived, we’ve been given an Amazonian warrior who is a potent antidote for business as usual in media depictions of women.
Jennifer Epps is a peace and social justice activist in L.A. She is also a film producer, scriptwriter, stage director, and former film critic.