Reclaiming Our Space

Where do we draw the line as filmgoers between a good entertaining scare-fest and crossing the line into voyeuristic sadism -- without resorting to censorship?
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This week, the Los Angeles Times featured an interview with horror master Stephen King "on the artistic merits of torture porn" -- those incredibly gory, explicitly violent slasher flicks in which grievous harm comes to all but a few plucky souls at the hands of some crazed murderous madman. King admits such material makes him uneasy, but defends the genre because "good art should make you uncomfortable."

Some of us might be hard-pressed to find the art in something like Hostel: Part II, in which one nubile young woman is literally cut in half. I'm willing to make allowances for personal taste; I happen to find movies that leave the details of the violence to the imagination far more compelling, but there are plenty of perfectly normal people who enjoy a good slasher flick as a form of classical catharsis. And anyone who thinks audiences today are more bloodthirsty than in the past needs to re-familiarize themselves with Jacobean drama.

Still, where do we draw the line as filmgoers between a good entertaining scare-fest and crossing the line into voyeuristic sadism -- without resorting to censorship? King seems to be saying that it's okay to depict graphic scenes of torture if we care about the victims and are rooting for them to survive, whereas if we're going specifically for the pleasure of seeing a young women get carved up, "that puts you in the same position as some psycho out there cruising the interstates of America looking for roadkill. And that to my mind is immoral." And if we "care" about the victims and still feel a naughty frisson at their bloody demise? What then? Clearly, the issue is hardly cut and dried.

It doesn't help that some of the most gruesome acts in such films are committed upon women. Sure, "it's just a movie," and the audience is usually pretty distanced from the plight of the characters up on the silver screen. But what does that say about our society, when such things are offered up as "harmless entertainment"? Even King has professed to being uneasy about the forthcoming film Captivity, in which a top fashion model is abducted and brutally tortured.

Among the most vocal critics is Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who posted an essay at Whedonesque comparing the premise of Captivity with the all-too-real "honor killing" of 17-year-old Dua Khalil in May. The girl had been seen keeping company with a Sunni Muslim boy, and was kicked and stoned to death by more than 20 men for her transgression -- some of them family members. There were hundreds more looking on approvingly, some of whom filmed the stoning with their camera phones from the front row, so to speak, "which means whoever shot it did so not to record the horror of the event, but to commemorate it.... Because it was cool," Whedon writes. That sounds an awful lot like King's description of immoral torture porn.

The entire premise of Captivity tilts the scales toward torture porn. Most troubling is the fact that as the young model is being tortured by her captor, "the first thing she screams is 'I'm sorry.'" Sorry for what, exactly? For being beautiful enough to attract a crazed psycho-stalker? I'm with Whedon on this one: it's just one more reinforcement of the cultural message that women are somehow to blame when bad things happen to us. It's the reason women don't report rapes, don't leave abusive partners, are reluctant to ask for pay raises, and are always urged to subsume their own wants and needs to the Other -- or else they will not be loved.

That one line -- "I'm sorry" -- struck home with me, because I've always struggled with a tendency to devalue my own worth and apologize for things that, quite frankly, were really not my fault. It's a tendency that arises out of modesty more than a sense of inferiority as a woman, but still -- it's something I wanted to change.

Fortunately, much of that self-deprecating instinct was drummed out of me when I took up training in jujitsu, at a predominantly male dojo in Brooklyn, where the focus was on practical self-defense. Every time I uttered "sorry" -- whether it was in response to a botched technique, or striking a fellow student too hard in a much- too-sensitive area -- my instructors would drop me for pushups. "Don't apologize!' they'd bark. "This isn't a ballet class!" And it worked: by the time I earned my black belt, I thought nothing of swinging full-force at a fellow student, and "sorry" rarely left my lips. The guys didn't take it personally: they gleefully dubbed me "the headhunter," and made sure to wear protective cups. If anything, I earned their respect.

Jujitsu also taught me a lot about reclaiming my personal space. It's a form of close-in fighting, and to properly execute many of the techniques, you literally have to push your opponent out of the way to break his/her balance, and step into his/her former space -- with no apologies, and no mercy. That's something most women struggle with: the fact that we're allowed to take up space, whether it be psychological or physical. When I packed on an extra 35 pounds to meet the grueling physical demands of my advanced martial arts training, many of my female friends were horrified. Women are supposed to aim for a Size 0, to aspire to be nothing -- if not less than nothing. I've since de-bulked down to my normal weight, but truthfully? Sometimes I miss being that physically strong. It gave me a very real sense of power.

The psychological strength I gained, however, is still with me, and has made an enormous difference in my confidence, in my willingness to ask for what I deserve, with no apologies. It's also changed how I respond to the endless minute indignities inflicted on women every day, as well as blatant exercises in misogynistic titillation like Captivity: proactively, not reactively Yes, it's distressing that such films exist, but along with the tortured supermodels and helpless damsels in distress, Hollywood also offers genuine heroines like Thelma and Louise, and the divine Ripley from the Aliens franchise, not to mention everyone's favorite vampire slayer. Better role models are still out there. So maybe there's a small glimmer of hope for our society after all. (By the way, this photo is of me teaching a little girl a jujitsu hip throw as part of a Science Street Fair held last summer in New York City.)

King tells the Times interviewer that he's not especially interested in what motivates psychotic killers, in fiction or in reality: "What interests me is how we deal with the fact that there are monsters like that in our lives." Whedon offers one solution: Pick a cause and do something. Anything. Because "it's no longer enough to shake our heads and make concerned grimaces at the news. True enlightened activism is the only thing that can save humanity from itself." That's good advice, and I'd just add this as a message to women and young girls everywhere: don't be afraid to be strong, to take up space, in whatever arena you find yourself in life. The best defense against the monsters is to face them head on, and show no mercy when reclaiming your space.

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