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.

RooneyDragon2.1.jpg

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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Major_RagerDecember 22, 2011 1:19 PM

My problem with the US remake is the same as the original Swedish series... Lesbians will never be the star characters of blockbuster films unless they're uber-sexy model types who spend at least a portion of the film naked and/or in some steamy, oversensationalized sex scene. Not only is she still serving the unrealistic wet dreams of hetero men instead of the realistic wet dreams of gay women, but she's in fact not a lesbian at all, just a "lost little girl" who actually loves the dick but is damaged from some past experiences with abusive men. At least, that's what i got out of the films. But Im a straight male so fuck what i think.

Kurt HalfyardDecember 22, 2011 3:10 PM

I enjoyed this read a lot, Peter. I come in the side that 'Lisbeth is emasculated (if that word applies) as soon as she starts to pine for Craig's accomplice/father-figure/lover I'd have found this film more interesting if it stopped a professional respect (as in Mamet/Mann) instead of going over the usual sexual tensions...Fluidly 21st century, or no.

The film is pretty posturing for the most part. No harm, no foul. But not particularly deep.

Jim TudorDecember 22, 2011 3:53 PM

What Kurt said. Excellent piece, Peter. I'm really glad you guys found some inspiration in unpacking this dull slog of a movie. I do feel there's more there to be mined, and mine it you did! I agree that in the end, no conclusion is reached on this topic, which is perhaps the only truly interesting conversation worth having about Fincher's "Dragon Tattoo". But at least it's got that going for it - more than can be said for most U.S. mainstream films.

SimonDecember 22, 2011 4:43 PM

im just curious,after the umpteenth reference to james bond,if any other actor was in the male lead,would there be any mention of james bond because of the opening sequence????? i saw the movie yesterday and not once did i think about james bond during the opening sequence.or the entire movie for that fact.maybe if craig wouldve shown up in tuxedo fish-tailing a aston martin maybe.i just dont understand.maybe my brain is not as mediocre as you guys on twitch.im just sayin

SimonDecember 22, 2011 4:51 PM

dull slof of a movie,what did you go expecting to see??? fast and the furious?did you see the original film,WHICH EVERYBODY EXAGGERATEDLY PRAISED TO BE THE BEST SHIT EVER,did you read the book.? is it a good film or not.in this world of harolds and kumars and new years eve and incredible crap lke cowboys and aliens and shit like that.

SimonDecember 22, 2011 5:17 PM

@mr.gutierrez,..........excellent piece,dog.but i just wanted to let you know something,you're not in college anymore,so calm down with all the pseudo-psycology shit,no normal person went to go see this film to get a psychology course or to proceed to perform a psych-eval self analysis.its just a movie.i mean seriously,you guys extract way to much from a film.hes wearing briefs in a scene?the character is in the comfort of his home about to go to bed,what would you have him wearing? a hoodie footie?............you know you would be good at!.......food reviews,you would kill doing those,i mean i can see it now..........the best role reversing psychological cuban sandwich in new york city by peter ramirez, (see what i did there),i changed your entire spanish heritage.

SimonDecember 22, 2011 5:24 PM

so according to you there aren't any attractive lesbians in SWEDEN for christsakes......i mean seriously,would you have gone to see the girl with the dragon tattoo if ellen degeneres was playing lisbeth????how about james gandophini as the male lead while we at it.really,13 dollars would have left your pockets to see that?i guess not.get a grip.our lives are normal and boring and uninteresting thats why we go see hollywood films,to escape.if you wanna see boring ugly people be normal and/or "real" stay home.

hiroaki.jDecember 22, 2011 7:27 PM

I'm pretty foxy, actually.

Kurt HalfyardDecember 23, 2011 10:51 AM

Simon. Your antics grow thin, but I have one question. What is this obsession with sandwiches?

Shelagh M. Rowan-LeggDecember 23, 2011 1:25 PM

Peter, this is a very well written piece and a great examination of the gender roles as they vary in the book & films. I have not read the book, and have only seen the Swedish version of the film ( and the advertising for the Hollywood one.) Personally, I loved Rapace's Lizbeth. She owned her sexuality, and was completely independent in her relationship with Mikael. She might have had affection for him, but it did not rule her character. Nor did I ever feel that her bisexuality was merely a result of her abuse by men. She is a great character precisely because, for her work, her gender/sexuality is (for the most part) irrelevant. One of things that might keep me from seeing the Fincher version is the advertising which emphasizes Lizbeth's sexual appeal in such a typically Hollywood sexist manner. I am given to understand that this is somewhat deceptive. But the clips I have seen don't give me much hope. I've always found Fincher to be a director interested in the male psyche, and more than a little sexist and dismissive with his female characters. Given the importance of a woman in this story, I'm both curious and reluctant to see it.

Major_RagerDecember 23, 2011 2:56 PM

Ok let's pretend that you don't write like a 3rd grader for a second. I did not say that lesbians are not attractive, nor should they be when portrayed in Hollywood or Swedish film. What I meant was that she more or less fit straight male definitions of sexy, a la Megan Fox. I for one don't really find that 1 inch waist all that sexy but either way... I think naked, sexy photos on your movie poster is a cheap, unimaginative way of advertising your movie. If anything, it was almost as if they were saying "Look, our lesbian is way sexier and way more nude!"

You see Simon, I enjoy talent over beauty. I am to understand that most of America doesn't feel the same way but that's also the reason why ppl tend to hate Hollywood.

SimonDecember 23, 2011 6:09 PM

well you know what i got from the poster,since i dont allow hollywood to manipulate my perspective,and since i read the book,i got that she is naked to symbolize the she is vulnerable,and she has daddy issues thats why daniel craig has is arm around her as some form of protection.sometimes one has to look deeper into things and not fall prey to the surface message that maybe less intelligent idoits might get from a poster TO PROMOTE A MOVIE ABOUT RAPE AND INJUSTICE SHOWN TOWARDS WOMAN IN SOCIETY IN GENERAL.if you look at things thru a particular lens then everything is going to seem that way.oh and for the bla bla bla people are saying about hollywood and david fincher,david fincher didnt write the damn book

SimonDecember 23, 2011 6:10 PM

well you know what i got from the poster,since i dont allow hollywood to manipulate my perspective,and since i read the book,i got that she is naked to symbolize the she is vulnerable,and she has daddy issues thats why daniel craig has is arm around her as some form of protection.sometimes one has to look deeper into things and not fall prey to the surface message that maybe less intelligent idoits might get from a poster TO PROMOTE A MOVIE ABOUT RAPE AND INJUSTICE SHOWN TOWARDS WOMAN IN SOCIETY IN GENERAL.if you look at things thru a particular lens then everything is going to seem that way.oh and for the bla bla bla people are saying about hollywood and david fincher,david fincher didnt write the damn book

SimonDecember 23, 2011 6:13 PM

lol.all in fun,man all in fun