The Harlot Shall Be Burned with Fire: Biblical Literalism in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

(warning: spoilers ahead)

Against my better judgment, this past weekend I went to see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, directed by David Fincher, who’s best known for Fight Club and The Social Network. I didn’t like the book; it unsettled me that a novel filled with sexual violence against women—a novel that seems to take pleasure in the violence, to offer it up for readers to consume—became such a sensation. But I’m a sucker for a trailer and a good soundtrack, and I was curious, so I bought a ticket.

The plot revolves around a missing girl and the serial killer believed to have murdered her who uses the Bible like a handbook. He takes passages from Leviticus—21:9 for example: The daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by playing the harlot, she profanes her father. She shall be burned with fire—and enacts them on women’s bodies. On Jewish women’s bodies.

His actions represent literalism taken to its terrifying end. The killer burns women, stones them, cuts off their arms, cuts apart their bodies. His crimes are described in vivid detail and, just in case words don’t suffice, the viewer gets images too—photograph after photograph of dead women, dismembered, raped, decapitated, covered in animal blood, skulls smashed, and almost always naked.

In the film, this religious violence is supposed to be resisted (after all, it is the bad guy, the Nazi, who engages in it), but it’s also violence that the audience is being asked to look at. Over and over and over again.

Does a Badass Hero Make it Feminist?

I must admit that part of me is relieved to have these disturbing passages out in public. These bloody verses that insist women be punished with violent death—often for perceived or imagined sexual transgressions—are usually overlooked, downplayed, skipped over, ignored. Most people like to pretend they aren’t really in the text. Especially people who claim to take the Bible literally.

Passages like these should render biblical literalism impossible. Their existence illuminates that literalists always engage in selective literalism, choosing the passages that support the arguments they want to make. And what is the rubric for selective literalism other than convenience and the maintenance of oppressive power relationships? When faced with such verses—or even passages about keeping kosher or not being around women who are menstruating—many a literalist will argue something like “that was then and this is now,” while in the very next breath (I’m talking to you, Rick Santorum, and you, Michele Bachmann) they’ll insist that homosexuality is an abomination or that women should submit to their husbands. Why? Because it’s in the Bible.

The film could, in fact, be read as an argument against biblical literalism; a warning about the misogynist violence embedded in the biblical text. It could be interpreted as a popularized version of Phyllis Trible’s Texts of Terror, as if someone finally took her feminist argument to the big screen.

But The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo isn’t a feminist film—even if the main character is a badass hero who does all the saving.

The passages from Leviticus aren’t in the movie to raise much-needed questions about what happens to women’s bodies in the Bible. The passages are in the movie because they make the killer seem weird and spooky, because they add an aura of mystery, of the occult. We’re running out of creative ways to kill women in movies and books, it seems, and the biblical passages trope hasn’t been used too often.

We’ve become used to seeing dead women on screens. I asked my “Art, Society, and Mass Media” students to watch one hour of television, to count the number of dead bodies they saw, and to keep track of who those bodies belonged to. On television, the dead bodies were women’s; on the evening news, they were the bodies of people from other countries, and usually they weren’t white.

Judith Butler argues in Precarious Life that whose dead bodies we are allowed to see, and whose remain hidden, tell us something about which lives are understood to be grievable, mournable; about which lives count as lives. At one point in Dragon Tattoo a cat is killed, its mutilated body left on the front steps. Almost everyone in the theater gasped when the cat’s body was on screen. People turned away, horrified. I did, too. I’m trained. But when the screen was filled with photographs of a woman—raped, naked, her mutilated face unrecognizable—no one made a sound.

What are We Being Asked to See?

The main character, Lisbeth Salander, is raped twice in the film. In the first, Lisbeth is forced to engage in oral sex, which, according to the Department of Justice’s new definition, counts as rape. During the second, which is even more brutal, the discomfort in the theater was palpable. I was uncomfortable, not only because I was terrified by watching someone raped, but because it was unclear what I was supposed to make of the violence. It was unclear what kind of gaze the camera was asking me to assume.

Yes, Dragon Tattoo makes it clear that rape is wrong. The film also makes it clear that Lisbeth resists, fiercely, as much as she can given that she’s been tied and cuffed to the bed. She screams. She cries. She thrashes her body. And when the time comes, she exacts her revenge.

But it’s her naked body on which Fincher’s camera focuses. The backside of her naked body. For a long time. During some moments of this terrible scene, the camera asks us to look at her the same way the rapist looks at her.

What is Fincher asking us to see? How is he asking us to see? Is the violence being eroticized? What exactly is the audience to do with the image of Lisbeth’s naked body?

And what are we to do with Lisbeth’s naked body when it continues to show up? The rapist violently rips Lisbeth’s clothes off, but Lisbeth also takes her own clothes off several times during the course of the movie, and everything depends on this careful distinction between agency and victimization, between consent and refusal, between sex and rape.

But it’s confusing. Which is troubling for a film being shown in a country in which 1 in 5 women will be raped in her lifetime, in which 84,767 rapes were reported nationwide in 2010.

The violent images weren’t necessary. The rapes could have happened behind closed doors; or with Lisbeth’s clothes on; or the camera could have been kept on her face rather than on her lifted backside. To communicate the terror of the rape scenes all you need is a good actor, and the director surely had confidence in Rooney Mara, whom he’d worked with a year earlier on The Social Network. Every frame, every camera angle, every scene in a feature film is intentional, which leads me to wonder what Fincher wanted us to make of these scenes.

He knows how to create tension with clothed characters, which is apparent not only in the films already mentioned, but also in Seven, Alien 3, and Panic Room, among others. For example, when Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is captured by the serial killer and hung in the torture basement, he isn’t naked. He gets to keep his pants on, and he’s rescued the minute the knife-wielding killer starts to unbutton them.

Earlier this week, just days after seeing the movie, I walked by the magazine rack of my local grocery and saw Rooney Mara on the cover of Allure magazine. The caption: “The Girl with the Pierced Nipple.”

Granted, fashion magazines are seldom known for their courageous stands, but the caption could have said any number of things. The Woman Against Rape or The Woman Who Kicks Ass or The Woman Who Fights Back—I’d even settle for A Girl Who Fights Back. But nipple piercing? Really? When there’s all that other material?

Which sums up the problem with Dragon Tattoo, the movie: not only does it participate in the sexualization of the violence it seems to resist, but it also asks the viewer to join in.

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