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Archive for June, 2010

The ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ Hits Close to Home

June 26, 2010


I first saw the book in my 16-year-old grandson’s hands. The cover image and colors—blazing yellow and orange with a lime green dragon—caught my attention more than the title, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I didn’t ask my grandson about the story, but I assumed that since his mother writes young-adult fiction, it was perfectly okay for him to read.

The next time I heard about the book—the first in a trilogy by Swedish author Stieg Larsson—was when my 42-year-old son-in-law raved about the novels, adding how sad it was that Larsson had died shortly after turning in the third one, never living to see his work’s international success. I was puzzled as to why a 42- and 16-year old would be reading the same books.

I began to focus on the first book and comments from my adult friends who’d read it. Most said The Girl was “a page turner” that you couldn’t put down. Then I finally woke up and realized that it had been a New York Times bestseller for 43 weeks! Certainly, I’d been asleep at some switch.

When a friend who’d read the book told me that the movie version was playing at a local theater, I immediately made plans to see it with my husband and neighbor. As I bought the tickets, I asked the young man at the box office the movie’s rating. (Because my grandson was reading the book, I assumed it was probably PG.)

“It doesn’t have a rating, but if it did, it would probably be R,” he said.

“Oh, some sex and violence,” I replied, and went into the crowded theater.

Sex and violence indeed.

About 30 minutes into the two-plus hour film, the scenes of graphic sex and violence began. Twenty-four-year-old Lisbeth, the central character, is forced by an older man, who has newly become her “guardian” and controls her money, to perform oral sex on him in order to get the funds she needs to buy a new computer. She needs this computer, because she had been violently attacked by some young male thugs in a subway tunnel who smashed her laptop. The computer is the most important object in her life, because she’s a brilliant hacker and techie.

After she is coerced into oral sex with her guardian, he writes her a check for a sum far less than what she needs to buy a new laptop. We view her washing the semen out of her mouth.

The young woman—who we later discover is the girl with a dragon tattoo down her entire back—is forced to have more sex in order to get the balance of the money. She goes to her guardian’s apartment, where he throws her on the bed, manacles her hands, gags her with duct tape, and proceeds to perform what looked to me like both vaginal and anal sex on her nude body. We see her afterward, barely able to walk to her own apartment and away from the scene of the rape.

What surprised me is the next scene of sexual violence, where Lisbeth gets revenge on her attacker. Returning to his apartment, she uses a Taser gun to stun him, removes his clothes, gags him, manacles his wrists, and inserts an object into his anus. She goes one step further by applying tattoos to his torso that read (correctly), “I am a sadistic pig, a pervert, and a rapist.”

Sex and violence are equal-opportunity employers in this film.

We learn that the film’s focus is the investigation of a series of unsolved murders of seven women who were sexually and violently tortured before their death. We also discover that Lisbeth grew up watching her father repeatedly abuse her mother.

When I asked my friend why she recommended the movie to me, she said it was because the subtext of The Girl was Larsson’s deep concern with violence toward women in Sweden.

I discovered that Larsson put a fact about violence against women in the beginning of each section of the book: “Eighteen percent of women in Sweden at one time have been threatened by a man,” “thirteen percent of the women in Sweden have been subjected to aggravated sexual assault outside of a sexual relationship,” and “ninety-two percent of women in Sweden who have been subjected to sexual assault have not reported the most recent violent incident to the police.”

As we all know, violence against women knows no boundaries. Here in the states, one in four women experience domestic violence.

After seeing the film, I asked my son whether he knew about the many scenes of violence and violent sex in the book his son was reading. He said he didn’t know about them while his son was reading the book, adding that his son had told him that he wouldn’t like the book, because “he knows how adverse I am to violence, particularly in the movies.”

However, later when recovering from a virus, he did read it in order to learn what his son had read.

My son said that he and his wife had talked independently to their son about the violent sex scenes. “I told him that the author was trying to make a strong point about how abhorrent he found sexual violence toward women to be – and that the author chose to be very graphic in making that point,” he said.

He added, “I asked [my son] a rhetorical question, ‘Did the author need to be so graphic?’

I told him ‘perhaps not, but he was the artist, the creator, the writer, not me, and he may well have felt that he needed to shock Swedes, who may have been unaware about the high incidence of sexual violence toward women in that country.’ Then together we discussed the power of fiction.”

I thought about older teens that might see an R-rated movie like The Girl without their parents. What messages about sex and violence would they came away with, if they couldn’t process what they had seen with a parent or other trusted adult? If my grandson got his hands on the book, what was stopping other 16-year-olds from doing the same?

How many teens are reading this book and seeing the movie without benefit of clarification or discussion?

I realize that many teens have seen online pornography and may be somewhat inured to scenes that seemed so shocking to me. I don’t want to discourage teens from reading books, and I don’t believe in forbidding them to read adult books with violent sex scenes.

I don’t advocate censorship. But I would urge parents to make sure they talk to their adolescents about the scenes they may be reading and viewing.

Parents and educators should talk to young people about sex and violence, which tragically often intertwine, and not shy away from the subject. They can acknowledge that violent sex exists in novels, films, and the world at large—just as evil does. But they should make clear that sex should include tenderness, love, and affection, and we can work together to lessen sexual assault here and abroad.

As I mulled over the film’s graphic content, I remembered that June 6th was the 42nd anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy’s death. A favorite quote of his came to mind: “Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

His wise words might form the basis of a parent-teen discussion about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

I imagine that Stieg Larsson would have liked that take-home message.

The Pill that Changed the World Turns 50

June 9, 2010
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If some imaginative person had made a birthday cake for it, she—it would have had to be a she—might have put 100 million candles on it. For that represents the number of women around the world who start each day by swallowing it.

No, it is not a vitamin pill. It is a birth control pill—known generically as the Pill—and many celebrated its 50th birthday on May 9th with justifiable gratitude and fanfare.

May 9, 1960, is one of those days that will shine bright in American history: it is the day that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the sale of the tiny pill that gave women control over their fertility. The FDA’s “blessing” attested to the safety of hormonal contraception, or “birth control,” in the words of Margaret Sanger. The Pill changed the world.

When it was approved, 500,000 women in the U.S. were already taking it, according to the recent Time cover story. This number would continue to swell rapidly, leading The Economist magazine at the end of 1999 to predict the far-reaching and wide-ranging impact that the scientific discovery had on women’s—and men’s —lives. In her book When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women From 1960 to the Present, author Gail Collins called the Pill “the one invention that historians a thousand years in the future will look back on and say, ‘That defined the twentieth century.’”

A recently released National Survey of Family Growth study found that the Pill is “the most popular method [of contraception] in the United States, used by 10.7 million women between the ages of 15 and 44. The Economist’s crystal ball seems to be working well. The early years in the life of the Pill were relatively easy ones. Millions of women “embraced” it, whatever the public arguments were for or against its use. It was an effective and convenient way to avoid pregnancy.

Most saw its promise in offering a different life beyond child rearing. More women were able to imagine a life that included both children and job. The results soon became plain: more companies, no longer afraid that women would leave as soon as they conceived a baby, eagerly opened their doors. Congress passed Title IX in 1972, ending not only discrimination in college athletics for female undergraduates, but also throwing open the doors of law, medical, and business schools to women.

But in the 1990s, the recent cover story in Time reported, when the Pill was about 20 years old, a backlash developed. The impetus for the counter-revolution started, or was ramped up, by organized religions and conservative political advocacy groups. The Catholic hierarchy consistently opposed the Pill from its inception, even though in 1970, “two-thirds of Catholic women were using birth control and more than a quarter were on the Pill.” Many Evangelical Christian denominations followed suit, framing their disapproval in the context of what “God intends in marriage.” Church leaders proclaimed that “using contraception can weaken the marital bond by separating sex from procreation.”

These pronouncements—and funded public policies like abstinence-only-until-marriage education school programs, which denigrate the use of contraception—may have had a serious effect on the Pill’s current use. A National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy study recently found that 86 percent of young men and 88 percent of young women “say it is important to avoid pregnancy in their lives right now.” But the same study showed that “63 percent of this group says they know little or nothing about birth control pills, and much of what they think they know is wrong.”

On the eve of its 50th birthday, Katherine Spillar, Ms. magazine’s executive editor, summed up the precarious situation in which the Pill currently finds itself: “We’re still fighting those battles in Congress [like allowing hospital workers and pharmacists who have moral qualms about contraception to refuse to fill prescriptions]. To think that in 2010, 50 years after the birth control Pill, we still have to fight for access and effective family planning—it’s painful.”

If women gaining access to the Pill is painful in the U.S., it is infinitely more painful for women in the developing world. Investigative journalist Michelle Goldberg writes of this dilemma in her book, The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World. In her concluding chapter, “Sex and Chaos,” she paints a frightening picture of what will happen if we do not provide women in the developing world with the family-planning help many so desperately desire.

She reports that 6.7 billion people share this planet and its dwindling resources of food, water, and energy. She writes of an increasing number of food riots, because of hunger and continued lack of clean water. “Despite falling fertility rates in many parts of the world, global population is still increasing by 78 million people a year,” and it will add a number close to this one through 2020 if no interventions are planned. In 2050, adding only two children to every family, the population will reach 9.2 billion. If fertility remains half a child higher, there will be 10.8 billion people vying for the fundamental resources of life.

In developing countries overall, 15 percent of married women, and “seven percent of unmarried women have … an unmet need for contraception,” Goldberg writes. “This means they are sexually active, do not want to become pregnant, and yet are not using birth control.” In sub-Saharan Africa, the number of unmarried women with an unmet need for contraception is 24 percent and in many Latin American countries, “more than 40 percent of births were unwanted.”

The director of the population program at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation tells Goldberg that “in some ways, contraceptive access is worse now [particularly in urban areas of Africa] than it was in 1979.” Goldberg concludes by saying nothing less than “a massive investment in women’s education, birth control access, and income generation would lessen the danger that the world’s population would outstrip the planet’s resources.”

To honor its first 50 years of existence and plan for its future, perhaps we need to consider mounting a second revolution for the Pill: a revolution of access. First, we must get the message out in the U.S.— especially in school programs and health clinics in poor urban and rural areas—that the Pill is effective, safe, and does not cause cancer, strokes, or blood clots, as many of its opponents claim.

Then we need to stand shoulder to shoulder with our sisters around the world in their quest to gain access to the Pill. Perhaps our goal should be that in another 50 years, when the Pill marks its 100th birthday, every woman on the planet who wants it should be able to start her day by swallowing the tiny tablet.

Indeed to reach this goal would be historic, and a success that The Economist in 2099 might say “defined the twenty-first century.”