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Feminism in Film: Why 'Haywire' Trounces Torturous 'Girl with the Dragon Tattoo'

It seems that Hollywood actors and filmmakers just love to tell us how much they’re in favor of people’s rights and equality for all, especially when it comes to women’s rights and gay rights.

And most critics have adored the new American remake of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” heralding Rooney Mara’s performance as the extremely damaged character Lisabeth Salander as an ass-kicking breakthrough for actresses and exciting entertainment for adults.

Sure, the movie’s got plenty going for it, at least for most of its nearly two-hour, 40-minute running time. Adults who can handle bleakness will get to see strong performances, interesting locales and a nicely twisting mystery in return for their time and money. But the film’s most important scene, the one that shows Lisabeth driven to her breaking point, shows that Hollywood filmmaking conventions and the critics who applaud the film wholeheartedly aren’t really on the side of women at all.

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In fact, the American film, its literary source material in a trilogy of novels by the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson, beg the question of how far art can and should push the envelope. “Dragon” offers up an anal rape scene against Salander that is utterly horrifying, but then takes things even further with Salander’s multi-faceted and despicably torturous response to her attacker.

These are two scenes that take up a total of about 10 minutes in a 158-minute film. The rape and Salander’s response to it are key moments, but viewers and the society at large should ask themselves why there seemingly wasn’t any other way else to bring Salander’s inherent rage to the surface. For decades, and in much better films that will continue to stand the test of time far better than this “Dragon,” filmmakers have found plenty of other methods to motivate revenge in their antiheroes – and both Larsson, director David Fincher, and screenwriter Steven Zaillian could have done so here.

In fact, in Larsson’s books, the male journalist who teams up with Salander (played by Daniel Craig in the American film) ridiculously seems to nail every woman in sight, as Larsson obviously indulges fantasies of his own prowess while ignoring the fact that no journalist – and almost definitely not Larsson – gets that much action. It’s impossible on a journalist’s salary!

Seriously though, why is it considered progress for a female heroine to save the day and kick some ass if she still has to be anally raped to find her motivation? From Humphrey Bogart to Harrison Ford, and from Stallone to Schwarzenegger, male heroes and antiheroes have been allowed to just show up onscreen and be the hero, no questions asked. They don’t have to be anally raped or otherwise humiliated, so why should a woman have to pass through that to be heroic?

Thankfully, a new movie opening last week offers a refreshing change of pace from the rancid misogyny that actually lies at the heart of the Salander stories. “Haywire” comes from the team of writer Lem Dobbs and director Steven Soderbergh, who previously created the superb arthouse thriller “The Limey.” They’ve created a movie that is inexplicably rated R, even though its admittedly frequent violence is neither graphic nor bloody, and the film pulls off the stunningly classy move of being an action movie for adults that has only one “F” word in it.

While Soderbergh directed the two-part “Che” film biography of Che Guevara, which thankfully was a massive flop, he eschews any political message in “Haywire.” His film focuses on visceral and propulsive action centered around a female special ops agent named Mallory Kane (Gina Carano), who is described as the best in the business. The cool thing is, the audience is asked to believe this fact simply because the other characters in the film say she is the best – and they don’t have to watch her be brutally beaten, raped or otherwise assaulted in order to make her “prove” it.

As played by Carano – the world’s top female MMA star making her acting debut – Mallory knows how to shoot a gun, but is far more impressive at beating, kicking, running long distances and dismantling her opponents with stunning hand-to-hand combat moves. And Soderbergh also admirably one-ups “Dragon’s” Fincher and the rest of the falsely feminist forces behind “Dragon” by trusting newcomer Carano to hold her own against and/or beat the tar out of veteran male movie stars, including Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas and Ewan McGregor.

Isn’t the very fact that “Dragon’s” Salander has to be raped in the most degrading fashion imaginable merely exploitation wrapped up in a heroic bow? And what does it say about how this kind of film affects our minds when a good chunk of the audience laughed and cheered at each sick step of Salander’s revenge?

I’m afraid to see what’s coming out a decade from now, to see how far our thirst for new and badder ways to harm, torture, rape and kill people will take us. And even worse, where we’ll be drawing the line on what constitutes payback then as well.

But at the same time, I have hope that some filmmakers like Soderbergh will step into the muck like “Dragon” surrounding them and put out work like “Haywire” that elevates and breaks the rules that say a woman has to be humiliated or worse just to have a shot at being heroic. Thank all the people involved for the fact that “Haywire” provides such a strong female character without the nasty misogynistic undertones of “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”: Mallory Kane doesn’t need to get degraded to find her drive.

Just like Carano, she’s born that way.

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