Tuesday 27 July 2010

Violence Against Women in Sin City

Always one to move with the times, I've recently got round to watching 2005's big screen adaptation of Frank Miller's Sin City. There's little point recapitulating the plot(s) of the six vignettes that make up the film, seeing as Wikipedia's already done it. But there are a few things I'd like to say about the violence.

Um, there's lots of it. The movie is stunning to look at, even when heads explode, limbs are hacked off, and a particularly vicious serial killer is castrated. As this
hostile review points out, the violence is as copious as it is sadistic. One is tempted to say it's supposed to be. Frank Miller's graphic novels are a roid rage homage to 30s and 40s pulp crime fiction. It is a ménage à trois of redemptive violence, 1940s hyperreality, and a misogynistic/reductive view of women. Robert Rodriguez excuses his utterly faithful portrayal out of a desire to remain true to Miller's originals. For him Sin City was not so much an adaptation, more a translation. In other words, the artistic equivalent of "I wus only following orders, Guv".

And, as you might expect, the gendering of
Sin City's violence is deeply problematic. You might argue it doesn't matter, that the film is a blow for equal opportunities as men and women alike are threatened, tortured and butchered. But the misogynistic devil's in the detail. Not only does the film begin and end with the murders of women, all the violence directed at them during the two hours inbetween is tied to sexuality.

Exhibit A: Goldie (Jaime King) shares a night of passion with Marv (Mickey Rourke). There are breast shots aplenty. Marv wakes up to find she's been murdered in a bid to fit him up.

Exhibit B: After escaping the police, Marv hooks up with his probation officer, Lucille (Carla Gugino). Not only does she parade around her flat in her knickers, we are told she's gay. Later Marv winds up in a serial killer's dungeon with a naked Lucille, and shortly after she gets machine gunned.

Exhibit C: It's revealed the serial killer, Kevin (Elijah Wood!), and his mentor, Cardinal Roark (Rutger Hauer), ate the remains of the prostitutes Kevin had killed.

Exhibit D: An evening with Dwight (Clive Owen) (where it is strongly implied they had sex) sees Shellie (Brittany Murphy) getting a post-coital slapping by her ex-boyfriend Jackie Boy (Benicio del Toro).

Exhibit E: Leader of the prostitute-controlled Old Town, Gail (Rosario Dawson) is captured and tortured by the Mob, who want to clear the women's co-op out and return it to the bad old days of pimps and violence. For good measure Dwight gives his on-off lover a slap too.

Exhibit F: Nancy (Jessica Alba) who was saved by Hartigan (Bruce Willis) in the second vignette from the clutches of a serial killer grows up to be an erotic dancer. Her would-be rapist tracks her down and starts torturing her before Hartigan saves the day again.

The linkage between sex and violence toward women is reinforced when you consider the three female characters who do not suffer physical attack. The 11 year old Nancy is abducted and threatened, but is saved. Miho (Devon Aoki) is one of the few prostitutes who wears clothes, and serves as their samurai enforcer in several slick but bloody scenes (of course, a Japanese woman
must be proficient in martial arts). And lastly, Becky, the youngest and most child-like of the prostitutes (who, again, wears clothes) turns her back on her sisters and betrays Old Town to the Mob. She escapes the ensuing shoot out and having left prostitution behind, the final scene sees her share a lift with the assassin from the first scene. In contrast to the overt violence of the rest of the film, his method of killing has already been established as gentle, almost romantic.

The portrayal of women in this film doesn't send the most empowering of messages: if you're a woman and you have sex, male violence is sure to follow.

In a decade stamped by neoliberalism, big advances in biological/genetic sciences, and the mainstreaming of pornographic aesthetics, tropes and "
world views", the body in culture has been objectified and reified an order of magnitude greater than the exploitation flicks of the 70s and 80s. This is a dehumanised body that's managed and dissected. It's a body for public displays of graphic sex and violence. And it's the sort of hegemonic body likely to remain at the heart of our culture for quite some time to come.

Sin City might be zeitgeisty. It may swim with the cultural stream. And the box office takings (plus imminent sequel) suggest there's a ready audience for it. But none of this excuses its positioning of female sexuality as the source of male violence. Sin City's neither edgy or clever. It's a misogynist's wet dream.


Garibaldy said...

I think it's wrong to say that women's sexuality is the source of male violence in the film. In fact, there's a good case to be made that it is often male sexuality that is the source, and beyond that the pervasive moral corruption of Sin City. I would argue the sexuality and its damaging effect is a symbol of the broader point about corruption.

So the paedophile is driven by his own, perverse, male sexuality. And the violence he suffers is driven by the affront that it is to Hartigan, and his own sense of manhood. Adult Nancy is hunted down as unfinished business and a means of gaining revenge on Hartigan, not because she is an exotic dancer. Jackie Boy v Dwight also has two different versions of masculinity at its heart - the woman beater and the woman's saviour.

Are the prostitutes targeted because they are prostitutes, or because they are victims about whose fate no-one will care? Goldie is killed explicitly due to her line of work, but beyond that it is unclear.

The female Irish terrorist, bored of bomibing airports and churches without shite to show for it, is no different than the male ones. She just happens to be female.

So I think the link between sexuality and violence, and the portrayal of women, is nowhere near as clear cut as you are suggesting.

Which isn't to say that Sin City is an icon of feminist thinking, because it clearly isn't. But nor is it as unabashedly misogynist as you are suggesting.

Jim Jepps said...

I think the problem here is that it is not possible to name a character in the film that is not either a victim of or perpetrator of extreme violence - usually both - so to say it singles women out for it's misanthropic hate is a bit of a stretch, it hates everyone.

Personally I found Sin City a deeply adolescent film which seemed to have an obsession with castration. It looked lovely, but was unedifying and vacuous - but whether it's specifically misogynist, I'm not sure, I don't think the makers of the film were capable of thinking that deeply.

milgram said...

Yeah but Jim - can you name a female character in the film who isn't a sex worker?

Is unthinking violent misogyny better than thinking violent misogyny, I wonder.

Jim Jepps said...

Milgram: seeing as it's a couple of years since I saw the film I had to go back and check... but the wikipedia page is organised in such an annoying way I can't tell you.

However, I do know that almost all, if not all, the male characters are psychopaths and are all involved in violence against each other.

So it's a violent film where all the characters are victims of violence and almost all the characters are perpetrators of violence.

That's why I'm not sure about calling it specifically misogynist because women are not singled out for poor treatment although slightly less of them are violent - which makes them slightly more likable than the male characters I suppose.

It's a stupid, puerile, misanthropic little film with nothing of interest to say, despite the fact it says it in a very pretty way. No stars out of ten from me.

ps nothing wrong with being a sex worker of course.

Garibaldy said...


Both the probation officer and the female Irish terrorist are not sex workers. Whether an exotic dancer is a sex worker, I'd have thought was a matter for debate. Brittany Murphy is a waitress, and not a sex worker in the film as well.

Becky's mother doesn't appear on screen, but we know she would be opposed to her daughter being a prostitute. Similiarly, the probation officer's unseen girlfriend is a shrink. And then there is Hartigan's wife, Marv's mother. So the existence of non-sex workers is clearly part of the film.

Phil said...

But the non-sex workers tend to go unseen.

Re: Britanny Murphy's character, she clearly isn't a sex worker. But the violence toward her happens after she's had sex. Carla Gugino - again, no sex worker - gets killed after its been established she's a lesbian and we've seen her parade around with little on.

I take your points about masculinity. But again, Nancy is only subjected to physical violence after her gyrations down the bar and coming on to Hartigan.

The link between female sexuality and violence isn't explicitly made, but it's too frequent to be regarded coincidental.

Garibaldy said...

The non-sex workers do tend to go unseen. I think though that that is because it is set in a deliberately overdrawn and seedy underbelly rather than misogny. The only decent male in the film is Hartigan - Dwight is a criminal. It is a misanthropic view rather than specifically misogynist I'd have thought.

I agree the Gugino thing is pointless titillation.