Polanski, “Hounddog” and 13-year-old voices

Why was there more outrage in some circles over a fictional child rape than a real one?

Topics: Roman Polanski, Broadsheet,

Earlier this week, I was talking to a friend about l’affair Polanski, and she brought up a really good point: Remember the “Hounddog” controversy? (No? Then you might remember the “Dakota Fanning Rape Movie” controversy.) In that case, a female writer-director, Deborah Kampmeier, was excoriated for depicting a fictional child rape — via close-ups on a clothed Fanning’s face and hands, not simulated intercourse — to tell a story about, among other things, the way victims are silenced. Outrage over the use of a 12-year-old actress in a rape scene, spearheaded by conservative groups like Concerned Women for America, brought the independent film national attention — and yes, Virginia (and Carol), there is such a thing as bad publicity. Theater chains backed out of showing the movie. Protesters called the district attorney’s office in Wilmington, N.C., where the movie was shot, demanding that Kampmeier be prosecuted for child pornography. The filmmaker received death threats.

But the worst part, Kampmeier told me on the phone last night, was “the silencing and shaming.” Not just of her, and not just of Fanning’s parents (who, like all parents of child actors, are no doubt called pushy, selfish and abusive even when their daughters appear in uncontroversial films), but of the young actress herself. Fanning told the New York Times that she fell in love with the script and felt she “couldn’t not do it,” and that a scene involving several snakes was more disturbing for her to film. More important, “There are so many children that this happens to, every second. That’s the sad part. If anyone’s talking about anything, that’s what they should be talking about.” But people dismissed the then-13-year-old’s lucid opinions on the matter in favor of moralizing about her — and at her. “Dakota was so shamed for taking on this role,” says Kampmeier. “What message is that giving to our daughters who have their own stories, who need to speak up and bring their own stories into the light?”

That’s the interesting thing about revisiting the “Hounddog” controversy in light of the Polanski controversy (and the Phillips controversy, and the Shields controversy) this week. What people seemed to object most to was the idea that a 12-year-old girl was allowed to think about rape long enough to film the scene and hard enough to play the character with a degree of depth and nuance nearly every reviewer remarked upon. Fanning was never physically harmed — or even naked — during filming, and she believed deeply in what the film said about and to the “children that this happens to, every second.” But when people described her as “precocious” at the time, they weren’t complimenting her intelligence and maturity; they were lamenting that such a young girl was cognizant of sexuality at all, abusive or otherwise. The idea was that a 12-year-old has no business knowing about this stuff. Which conveniently ignores the fact that 12-year-olds all over the country are living this stuff, and “Hounddog” was one effort to give them a voice.

How much personal agency do we believe an adolescent girl should be allowed to have? Legally, we as a society agree that a 12- or 13-year-old is incapable of consenting to sex with, for instance, a 43-year-old man. This is a very good thing, in my opinion, as you might have gathered from my previous post. But is a girl that age mature enough to consent to making a movie, to telling a difficult story about horrors that some of her peers are forced to endure? Is she mature enough to consent to thinking about how it does affect her peers? Is she mature enough to empathize? Mature enough to consider her own brand-new desires and that, regardless of how her age determines her legal capacity to consent, there is also a distinct difference between wanting it and not wanting it, between asking for it and asking for it to stop?

As adults whose memories of our own adolescences grow ever hazier, we might not like the thought of it, but the reality is, adolescent girls need to think about those things. Adolescent girls not only have desires of their own, but as soon as they have breasts and hips, they become the objects of many others’ desires, forcing them to figure out how that feels and what it means for themselves. (And of course, too many children become the victims of some people’s desires long before that.) Twelve- and 13-year-old girls are already negotiating that treacherous tightrope, no matter how much we’d like to delay it and prefer not to think about it. Attempting to keep them ignorant (or remain ignorant ourselves of the plain fact that they’re not) only teaches them that there is no real difference between acting on your own desire and being forced to act out someone else’s. If our only message to young girls is “Sex is bad, don’t think about it at all, until I tell you otherwise,” lessons about agency and consent — crucial information to have a few years down the line, when they’re legally capable of making the distinction for themselves — are not part of the picture.

On the other hand, as a society, we do seem to believe that 13-year-olds are capable of knowing whether they wanted it, at least under some circumstances. Like, for instance, when a famous, powerful 43-year-old man says they did. At that point, many of us will happily take his word for it that it wasn’t “rape-rape.” According to him, she said yes, so never mind what she says about it. Never mind what she said under oath to a grand jury. If she’s post-pubescent, and there’s a question of “he said/she said,” plenty of people just stop at “he said.”

I mean, that’s what’s so fascinating to me about the pro-Polanski arguments here. In many cases, there’s overlap between two of the most common defenses of him: “He only pled guilty to sex with a minor, not non-consensual sex,” and “We should listen to what the victim says — she doesn’t want him prosecuted!” We should listen to what the victim says now, as a 45-year-old woman, when it fits with the narrative that Polanski’s already suffered enough and shouldn’t endure further indignities. But what about listening to what the victim said then, at 13? What about listening to her testimony that she said no, that she asked him to stop, as he raped her orally, vaginally and anally? Some people are making very curious arguments about when, exactly, it’s important to listen to the victim.

And when I consider that alongside people’s refusal to listen to what Dakota Fanning said at 13 about her decision to play the lead in “Hounddog,” her reasons for doing it, her distinct lack of traumatization, and her pride in providing a voice for actual victims, I can only conclude that as a society, we’re just not much interested in listening to 13-year-old girls’ thoughts on what they do with their own bodies, and what’s done to them. If a young actress decides to do a movie with a fictional depiction of the very real horror of child rape, we say it’s impossible that she had the maturity to make such a decision for herself. But if a young girl is raped by a much older man, after he’s given her alcohol and drugs, we’ll take his word for it that she consented. I mean, you know how those blossoming girls can be, flaunting their sexuality, teasing, asking for it! Who among us wouldn’t be tempted?

Speaking of which, the rape scene, which is less than a minute long, was not the only controversial one in “Hounddog.” Kampmeier told me, “There’s a scene in my film where Dakota’s character is singing ‘Hound Dog’ on the bed, moving her legs back and forth in a very innocent expression of her love for this song.” As Kampmeier tells it, Fanning wasn’t intending to play it as sexual in any way, nor was she directed to — but in the film, a 17-year-old boy is watching, and projecting his own interpretation onto it. Says Kampmeier, “I had men in audiences watch that and say, ‘Well, she’s asking for it.’ Women say, ‘No, she’s just being natural, being herself.’ Why is a young girl seen as asking for it when she’s just exploring the experience of being alive in her body?” It would seem to come down to whether you identify with the 12-year-old girl or the 17-year-old boy watching.

This is what too many people fail to understand about adolescent girls when it comes to sex, rape and personal agency: The experience of being alive in their bodies makes them sometimes sexual, sometimes curious, sometimes desirous, sometimes totally innocent — and at all times vulnerable to other people’s interpretations of their behavior, of their decisions, of their very existence in bodies equipped with brand-new womanly features. And all they have to counter those interpretations are their own voices — voices that are routinely ignored, dismissed and silenced. What does a kid that age know, after all? At least until an older man says, she knew damn well what she was doing.

Five minutes after we ended the interview, Kampmeier called me back to say she wanted to add one more thought: “When you rape a girl, the problem is not that you’re taking away her purity — which is what gets the religious right up in arms — it’s that you’re taking away her wholeness. And trying to keep her ‘pure,’ repressing her sexuality, silencing her voice, also takes away wholeness. It’s two sides of the same coin.

“I don’t want my daughter to grow up pure,” she said. “I want her to grow up whole.”  

Kate Harding is the co-author of "Lessons From the Fatosphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce With Your Body" and has been a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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