Child rape in the movies

When it comes to underage kids appearing in sexual or violent scenes, where do we draw the line?

Topics: Broadsheet, Violence Against Women, Love and Sex,

The Sundance Film Festival promises to be a-flicker with outrage this year, and Christian groups are already fanning their Bibles against the hellfires of Hollywood. Word from the Los Angeles Times is that critical darling Dakota Fanning — “Charlotte’s Web”‘s own little Fern — plays a “precocious child sex-abuse and rape victim” in Deborah Kampmeier’s film “Hounddog.” Discussions of “horrifying scenes” of the 12-year old actress nude or scantily clad and a rape depicted mostly via a closeup of the child’s face have resulted in a “minor Internet storm” raining down upon the movie’s pre-publicity machine.

According to the LAT, Ted Baehr of the Christian Film and Television Commission says that although he hasn’t seen the film, he wants the movie distributors to “reject the film and report the filmmakers to legal authorities.”

But is the disapproval raining down on or simply lubricating the publicity engine?

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Writer-director Kampmeier has responded to the criticism with equal outrage, saying it’s the “height of hypocrisy for a man who bills himself as a film reviewer to pass judgment on a movie he’s never seen.” Fair enough. But — excuse the cynicism — isn’t this all nectar to the box office bean counters?

Controversy over young actresses performing sexually explicit roles is hardly new — and Lord knows such controversies have proved profitable in the past. Remember Brooke Shields wandering around in Victorian lingerie in “Pretty Baby”? And what about Jodie Foster‘s turn in “Taxi Driver”? Both actresses seemed to emerge from the experiences unmarred — these are not immature kids going into the roles, but weird preternaturally precocious products of celebrity culture. Not every child actor can handle the limelight, but if there’s damage done, it’s probably not from a single, carefully managed sex scene, complete with, as wwaytv3 reported on the “Hounddog” controversy, a bodysuit and a child-welfare worker.

As we become inured to subtlety and are spoon-fed meaning via massive acts of graphic cruelty, it’s not surprising that feminist filmmakers should find themselves bumping up against the definitions of pornography. In one film an ugly reality is depicted; in another, it’s glorified. Is this a distinction without a difference? Not on your daughter’s life. Are there limits to what we can portray without condoning? The answer is a moving target riding on history’s back.

What’s especially strange about these battles over young girls and sex is that we’re all supposed to line up on one side of the aisle or the other. I’m for freedom of speech, so films with child rape rule! I’m for Christian family values, so jail the freakin’ filmmakers! The reality is that most of us live in a netherworld of impulses tempered by principles (like a belief in artistic freedom). My impulse is not to worry about little Dakota’s future mental health and not to see the movie. Why? Another well-meaning and, yes, even feminist tale about a woman or a girl who gets raped means one more rape scene that I never needed to see.

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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