by Roger Canaff
The suffering, revenge and eventual triumph of Rooney Mara’s character in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo over institutionalized rape is something that stands out even as a minor subplot in a fairly complicated film. And what she is able to accomplish against her abuser is nothing short of fantastic in the traditional sense of the word: It is the product of fantasy. Tragically, for untold numbers of victims placed in the situation that Rooney’s character, Lisbeth Salander is, fantasy must suffice.
I use the term “institutionalized rape” because that’s how I view what happened to the character of Salander, a legally incompetent ward of the state deemed mentally unstable. She is subjected to sexual torture by a predatory bureaucrat who controls her finances after her legal guardian suffers a stroke. He withholds money for essentials like food and electricity, releasing funds only when she endures sexual acts. Eventually he demands that she come to his home where he anally rapes her while she is strapped to a bed.
As the predator discovers, however, Salander is not what she appears to be, which is the “typical” helpless victim. Instead she is a computer genius armed with a photographic memory, intense athletic prowess, and an iron will. She has the wherewithal to secretly film herself being raped, and eventually uses that evidence to not only control the predator’s actions toward her, but also to effectively paralyze him from harming other similarly situated women and girls in his sphere of control. But not until brutalizing him justly and branding him a rapist with crude tattoos across his ample mid-section.
In short, she is a rightful, rageful hero to women and children everywhere who have experienced that kind of abuse. And believe me, abuse at the hands of a protected cog in a monolithic institutional wheel is abuse that is grossly under reported and almost never vindicated.
I suspect that what Salander endures at the hands of the all-powerful authority who holds the keys to her very survival is even more impactful in the context of a social democracy like Sweden where the state intrudes further into everyday life than it does in the U.S. Regardless, what she suffers is time-honored and sickeningly resilient despite reforms and efforts to eliminate it. Across the globe and in every possible arrangement of human organization, predators seek, find and feed.
The reason is simple. Predators infiltrate the institutions that provide them power to predate and victimize. It’s true that power corrupts, but more importantly, it attracts. Power attracts predators who will seek it as a catalyst to get the things they want. If what they want is sexual control over others, they’ll infiltrate the institutions society creates that will allow for such abuses. There is no shortage of them.
What’s wonderful and dreamlike about Lisbeth Salander is that she embodies the intoxicating if mostly fanciful notion that resourcefulness, brilliance and brutal determination can turn the tables on a powerful predator and render him limp and lame. Sadly, for most, it is only a dream.
Roger Canaff: Anti-Violence Advocate, Child Protection Specialist, Legal Expert Blog: WCSV (Women, Children, Sex, Violence: Outcry, Analysis, Discussion) www.rogercanaff.com