Who's On Top?: The Audience's Sexual (Re-)Positioning in Fincher's DRAGON TATTOO

columnist, critic; USA (@suddenlyquiet)
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Who's On Top?: The Audience's Sexual (Re-)Positioning in Fincher's DRAGON TATTOO

With all the nasty dazzle of David Fincher's impressive new film, it's easy to overlook how it completes star Daniel Craig's evolution into a full-fledged Bond Girl.

That's not to cast aspersions on the actor's masculinity, but rather the opposite: what's remarkable is how he functions as a perfect emblem of twenty-first century everyman manliness... while still serving as the fetching sidekick and bedmate of the title character. Like many Bond girls, he plays an active, not purely adorning, part in the story action although ultimately he is secondary in the effort to defeat the villain.

(And -- oh, yeah -- I should probably mention that spoilers abound in what follows. On the other hand, if you've seen the 2009 The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, nothing should come as a surprise.)

A Hero? Me?

By referencing Craig's emblematic status, I'm calling out his potential for audience identification by means of the good 'ol "projection" apparatus of Hollywood cinema: in the 2011 Dragon Tattoo he is precisely that reflection of the adult, straight male target audience that allows its members to see themselves up on the screen. In terms of today's post-feminist male, this means that although he is acutely aware of his limitations he still aspires to heroism (which these days itself represents a form of self-congratulatory heroism). Indeed, Craig's Mikael Blomkvist is the kind of man that apparently women would cheat on their husbands to be with, but nonetheless lives in the shadow of emotional fragility. (In originating the role, Michael Nyqvist seemed to take his body blows with much more stoicism than Craig, who at times borders on middle-aged mopiness.)

This is why, upon his initial public humiliation, the subtext has Blomkvist opt for self-exile in the guise of a freelance investigative opportunity. When his paramour Erika Berger teases him that he's removing himself "to the North Pole," an adjective traditionally applied to women comes to mind: frigid. Thus the film's proverb-derived tagline, "What is hidden in snow / Comes forth in the thaw" -- while ostensibly about the narrative's central mystery -- is really an apt metaphor for the rekindling of "masculine" sexual fire that occurs over the course of the plot. In this respect it becomes clear how the positioning of the audience started to take place well before the houselights dimmed, back in the pre-release marketing campaign: After all, those who come to the movie poster with prior knowledge of the Millennium Trilogy can't help but associate Lisbeth Salander with the phrase "The Girl Who Played With Fire."

...which in turn means that the stage is set for a tale of a, er, youthful woman (identified as a "girl" in the very title) both warming up, and warming up to, our male lead. (Yay? Yuck? Either response makes sense, as does an ambivalent one that acknowledges both the attraction and repulsion of such a theme.)

And of course the main signifier in terms of gender iconography is the casting of Daniel Craig itself: he's not only the current James Bond, but also the least effete one in decades (despite his Halle Berry moments). This implicit connection to the Bond series is extended via the hyper-stylized title sequence, which features the familiar high-energy-pop-song-plus-sexy-silhouettes formula. Yet this is also where, right from the get-go, things get problematic in terms of the positioning we the audience thought we had consented to by virtue of buying a ticket. The figures are faceless, making them somewhat interchangeable and suggesting a vaguely yin-and-yang reciprocity rather than the clearly male-privileging strategy of the Bond flicks.

To be sure, it's an exciting opening to the film thanks to its sheer aesthetics, but at the same time its ability to, well, arouse, is tricky to say the least. I mean, come on: with all that oily blackness coating the bodies in question, just who is the sexual subject and who is the sexual object anyway?

Inversions Galore

The uproar around the "nude poster" released a few months ago is another indication of the film's problematic positioning in terms of sex and gender. The contention by star Rooney Mara (who on the poster appears topless save for a fashion accessory that happens to be Craig's arm) that the image is, after all, a "teaser" misses the point, perhaps intentionally. Why an extremely conventional sexual tease -- the composition/content is of the type one would expect from a run-of-the-mill apparel ad -- for a text that is so freighted with sexuality of the unconventional sort? Moreover, whom is the poster teasing exactly, which audience segment?

Those defenders of the poster who insisted that it depicts Salander as a "strong" woman, a survivor of rape and abuse who is now "confident" in her own body somehow neglected the fact that the image is of two people, and that its iconography must therefore be evaluated in their differing status as sex objects. Those who did raise this point, often invoking the specter of typical Hollywood sexism, will be glad to know that the film (which they are probably avoiding) by and large does not stay true to the teaser poster's straightforward subject/object schematics.

With this in mind, it's tempting to predict that in the end Dragon Tattoo will divide audiences not just along the lines that have so far gotten the most ink -- the Anti-Remakers vs. the Fincher Fans -- but according to those who expect one thing (from either of these camps) and yet receive quite another. Some folks will be pleasantly surprised, others quite the opposite, while a third contingent may be confused by all the gender re-positioning and purposely avoid thinking about such elements, choosing instead to focus on, say, the film's effectiveness as a thriller (this was actually my response until my own confusion started to annoy me).

What Craig brings to the role of the crusading journo Blomkvist is the same slightly fatigued idealism that Nyqvist did. What he brings in addition: his hunkiness. If that observation seems somehow tangential to the proceedings, consider the calculated shot early on of his sitting and turning to face us while only in his briefs -- yep, Fincher's direction (and Steven Zaillian's script?) seems to be saying, he may be a pencil pusher, but he's built. In any case, I don't seem to recall an analogous shot in Niels Arden Oplev's Swedish-language adaptation.

Later on in the new film, we're even treated to a drooping-underwear shot of Blomkvist's derrière, one that's almost ridiculous in terms of pandering to Craig fetishists. It's also, by the way, another sign of the actor's achieving Bond Girl status; after all, in how many mainstream movies do we see the female lead gratuitously saunter about in skimpy underwear? The answer: plenty. Here Fincher has just reversed things... which is not terribly astounding by itself because cinematic beefcake in general is hardly new; rather, what's notable is that Craig/Fincher/Zaillian seemingly get away with this without losing the (predominantly hetero) fanboy contingent that usually flocks, or at least would like to flock, to see Craig in fare such as Cowboys & Aliens, and is already making much of the upcoming Skyfall.

The filmmakers accomplish this by making the moments of Craig-as-visual-object as fleeting as possible and by covering their tracks with as much self-deprecation as possible without risking disbelief. This is most evident in the disingenuousness of Craig's feeble (but amusing) protest of "I'm old" to Mara just before bedding her. What better fantasy for the aging male viewer to reaffirm his own innate appeal: "Hey, the young hottie really doesn't care that I've got inch-deep crow's feet!"

The way this plays into Salander's psychology -- he's a father figure fit to redeem the Evil Fathers who have ruled her life -- is a topic beyond the scope of this post. Yes, Blomkvist represents "Men" so that Salander can experience her thematic rapprochement with the opposite sex (one that's made bittersweet in the closing minutes)... but that doesn't mean that his feminization isn't subtly reinforced by giving him the "victim" attributes that are usually gendered as female. Consider his wild run through the woods when being shot at, and how many times you've seen women in slasher films similarly take flight. Better yet, recall that, while monologuing, Stellan Skarsgård remarks on how easy it was to lure Craig into captivity: in essence he's referring to susceptibility to verbal seduction despite what should be an instinctive awareness of danger -- a trait that, again, the movies usually ascribe to women. Finally, in case we haven't gotten it yet, Skarsgård's Martin Vanger comes right out and tells us, in a chin-stroking moment, that Craig would be his first non-female victim and isn't that, um, interesting... but since Martin approaches this particular killing with the same methods as the countless preceding ones, we're actually getting a latent message that no, things haven't changed: Craig is just another female victim, one that only happens to be in a male body.

Of course the reason the male demographic in the theater doesn't balk at this gender reversal is that by this late stage of the game it has already transferred its allegiance to Lisbeth Salander, she of the cool bike and action-hero slide down an escalator's side ramp. Yes, we have seen her sexually violated twice, acts that highlight her female vulnerability, but when she enacts her revenge -- a counter-rape in the form of sodomy -- she appropriates, for better or worse, the masculine trait of penetration. In this way, then, the long arc of Dragon Tattoo's central gender swap becomes clear: while Craig gradually, almost imperceptibly, becomes more "female," Mara becomes more "male."

So at the climax when Skarsgård fails to see her slow encroachment both on himself, in a literal sense, and on the social construct of "male agency" metaphorically, he's not the only one who "never saw it coming" -- the same is true for all of Hollywood and the audiences it typically targets. Unless, of course, they have already seen the Swedish film...

When Glamor Muddies the Waters

...which brings up the most problematic aspect of the new Fincher in terms of audience positioning: It pulls the rug out from under the (presumably large) segment that's familiar with Oplev's film and still predisposed to like the glossy Americanized version.

In both films, Lisbeth Salander is, to reduce things to the glaringly obvious, a "feminist hero." Yet with the casting of the willowy Mara and all the attendant creative and marketing decisions, we have a striking change in terms of viewer desire and identification: her Salander is a sexpot goth (if this isn't immediately evident, just recall those posters and magazine covers). Noomi Rapace's portrayal, by contrast, was not only far more butch, to put it somewhat crudely, but her attractiveness stemmed largely from the fact that she wasn't positioned as attractive to the mainstream. She was beyond caring what anyone thought, and therefore came across more as a force of nature. As such, the dragon tattoo itself -- the "scar" that one intentionally chooses, thus transfiguring victimhood into defiance -- boldly stretched across her entire back. Mara's, in contrast, resembles a little off-the-shoulder number, not a maximized effort of self-assertion. No, she doesn't care what others think either... except that her eyes sometimes tell a different story.


The script of the Swedish film underscored these points by having its long, drawn-out resolution (involving payback against the financier Wennerström) play out almost as a form of professional courtesy extended from Salander to Blomkvist -- not an overt gesture of burgeoning unrequited love, as in Zaillian's text. Likewise, Nyqvist, a talented actor, is, let's be frank, very average physically: he doesn't come with Craig's larger-than-life sex appeal, let alone the Bond signifier. We certainly pick up on Rapace/Salander's affection for Blomkvist, even with the attached psychological undercurrents, but there's no pronounced element of aborted romance as in the Fincher film. We sense that Rapace uses Nyqvist sexually whereas Mara, although initially displaying the same matter-of-fact, almost hardboiled attitude toward their sexual relationship, eventually succumbs to Craig's charms on a far deeper level...

And why not -- since he's Daniel Craig?

In short, the Fincher film trades amplification for personalization: Nyquist and Rapace came across as immanently real. Therefore, audiences eventually found themselves in the characters through the skill, and mundane texture, of the performances. Scott Rudin's production, on the other hand, gives us movie star aura from the outset (even before we see the film we're nudged to look for Mara's "breakthrough" or "star-making" turn). In this approach, we see human figures that map to our non-real but fantastically powerful internal conceptualizations of what is desirable, and the energy released when such non-conscious or sub-conscious content is projected outward casts a powerful spell over us. Indeed, that's one reason why Hollywood movies have always kept us in their thrall. But there are other reasons for going to the movies, which is why I feel that audiences' reactions to Fincher's Dragon Tattoo will derive primarily from what kind of cinema they prefer.

Admittedly there's nothing new in the industry's over-the-top glamorization of content -- but in a story that hinges on questions of sex and gender, you risk losing the audience with a single false step. Here we have the subject becoming object and vice versa until, libido-wise, we don't know which way is up. Case in point: Mara is emphatically on top during the film's explicit sex scenes, but she's also the one whose nudity is conspicuously on display. So, again, where's the subject and where's the object?

Just to be clear, though, there's no implied judgment on my part. You can find Hollywood's approach to everything, not just matters sexual, either mythically grand or sickeningly superficial, depending on your taste or the artistic gifts of any given filmmaker. Indeed, some might argue that this new Dragon Tattoo charts undiscovered territory, presenting a just-ask-and-we've-got-it pan-sexuality in which sublimation, bisexuality, role reversal, and feminism/patriarchy all fluidly flow into each other.

Then again, others might view it as incoherent mishmash of conflicting desires and crisscrossing gender vectors (e.g., Craig becomes a "man" again even as he's increasingly equated with the feminine). When I'm being cynical about Sony and Fincher's motives, I might agree with such critics, seeing in the film a shotgun approach to sexuality that provides a little "something for everyone." The rest of the time, though, I'm content to smile at this idea as life itself is full of shifting, and clashing, desires, and mainstream movies can certainly be counted on to reflect this messy churning of eros in our depths.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is now playing wide across the U.S. and Canada.

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