Despite all I have seen and read, I still have pages-long lists of movies and books that I’m eager to discover. Sometimes I’m excited by the fact that there is such a vast uncharted territory waiting for my brain to map it…or perhaps waiting to be mapped in my brain. Other times, it seems daunting—so much remains! Even if I dropped all other pursuits, I’d be dead before I crammed it all in. This sends me into a sort of panic, and I have to calm myself down and remember that the whole point of the endeavor is to enjoy the experience and meditate on it…not to tick it off the list and move mechanically on to the next item (I get the same way when eating chocolates. Somehow, I cannot be at ease until the box is empty).
So it might surprise you to know that when faced with a critically acclaimed foreign film, that Roger Ebert had given 4/5 stars, I made the conscious decision not to watch it.
The movie in question is The Stoning of Soraya M. Soraya, the movie’s eponymous protagonist, refuses to divorce her abusive husband b/c she fears the fate that awaits her daughters. The result is that her husband, keen to marry a nubile 14-year-old, fabricates an adultery case against her, and based on these false charges, she is sentenced to be stoned. Why her husband didn’t just engage in the charming local custom of sigheh, or temporary marriage, is not explained.
Soraya is beaten by her spouse, castigated by her community, and finally stoned to death by a crowd that includes her immediate family members. I really wasn’t looking forward to witnessing this, but I thought perhaps I should…why?
Is it not enough that this happened, and that I’m aware of it? Do I really need to force-feed these images to my brain?
I like to read and watch w/ a purpose. Even when my literary fare is trite and saccharine cliché-ridden hogwash (why, hello Twilight), it’s doing something for me, fulfilling a need (in this case, the need to vicariously experience supernatural love). But this movie…what would it accomplish? It would shock and disturb and FRUSTRATE me, but to what end? Is there anything that I, a penniless young American woman, can do for Iranian women? Well, perhaps there is, but is there anything that would be immediate and devastatingly effective? No. All I could really do is pray to a god I don’t believe in to smite all the men in the Middle East and thereby end the suffering of the women.
Bleak, horrible stories like this need a glimmer of hope: a change of heart, a daring rescue, a last-minute escape…some indication of cosmic justice. Otherwise, all you have is a tableau of callous, pointless, human cruelty unabating–more proof of the worthlessness of our species, the tragedy of our existence. Who would want to watch minute after minute of such crimes, unless it is someone who dreams of perpetuating them himself?
For this same reason I have not read Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy.
Isn’t it interesting that many of these blood-soaked films/book featuring women tend to be made by men? Lilya 4-ever, a movie about human trafficking that follows a similar vein and ends (*SPOILER*) w/ its main character killing herself, was written and directed by Lukas Moodysson (like Larsson, a Swede), and then there’s Irreversible, which revolves around a particularly brutal rape, by Gaspar Noé.
Why should this be?
“But Larsson is really against rape and abuse,” someone assured me, when I expressed my misgivings about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. He may be against it, but I would venture to say that he is perhaps fascinated by it. That there is a certain satisfaction to be gained in watching–or in the case of movie directors, actually facilitating the playacting of–heinous acts that a man would never, ever let himself actually commit, w/ the added bonus of rendering it more palatable w/ a veneer or moral outrage. Why else protract the agony, if it isn’t filling some need?
I’m not squeamish. I love scary movies, and will happily watch people get stabbed, or bisected w/ chainsaws, or have their heads ripped off. But there is something about the explicit and prolonged torture in these films, coupled with the utter hopelessness and helplessness of the female victim, that seems far more sinister than your average psycho-killer murder spree. Furthermore, I reject the argument that it is “important” to watch such movies in order to make ourselves aware of the depth of evil in the world, if only b/c there is evidence to show that there is an inverse correlation btwn the amount of suffering witnessed by an observer, and the sympathy they feel for the victim.
In the 1960’s, Melvin Lerner conducted an experiment in which one person (“the victim”) was apparently randomly selected from small groups of college female students–but actually a co-conspirator–and led away to do a series of learning tasks. “The remaining subjects were told that they would observe the victim…and that each time she made an incorrect response, she would receive an electric shock. The experimenter adjusted some knobs said to control the shock levels, and then a video monitor was turned on. The subjects watched as the victim entered an adjoining room, was strapped to a ‘shock apparatus,’ and then attempted to learn pairs of nonsense syllables.
During the task the victim received several apparently painful electric shocks for her incorrect responses. She reacted with exclamations of pain and suffering. In reality the victim was acting, and what played on the monitor was a prerecorded tape. At first, as expected, most of the observers reported being extremely upset by their peer’s unjust suffering. But as the experiment continued, their sympathy for the victim began to erode. Eventually the observers, powerless to help, instead began to denigrate the victim. The more the victim suffered, the lower their opinion of her became.” (Mlodinow, 211-12, emphasis mine). If this is true, we may be in fact doing ourselves a disservice by watching films like The Stoning of Soraya M.
There is a lot of lady hate in this world. Instead of limiting ourselves to graphic representation of it in extremis, why not question it or–here’s a thought–even combat it?
P.S. If you’re interested in watching a poignant film about the plight of women (as people, not martyrs) in Iran, I highly recommend “The Day I Became a Woman,” directed by Marzieh Meshkini.
*Cited: Mlodinow, Leonard. The Drunkard’s Walk. New York: Pantheon Books, 2008.