Torturing Women

[Alyssa Rosenberg]

So, I went to see Public Enemies last night, and ended up being far more deeply touched by it than I expected.  It's certainly the best movie about banks, or bank-related malfeasance I've seen since the financial crisis started (for more details, see this piece just up on The Atlantic's homepage about Hollywood and the financial crisis.  Some spoilers if you don't know much about John Dillinger, I guess).  But there was one scene in particular that got me thinking in a way I hadn't anticipated.

In that scene, a loutish young F.B.I. agent is beating Billie Frechette (played by Marion Cotillard) to try to get her to give up information about where the Bureau can find Dillinger.  Her lip is split, her face is bruised, and the agent won't let her leave to go to the bathroom, and hits her again when she wets herself.  It's a horribly uncomfortable scene, relieved only when Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), the man in charge of the Chicago F.B.I. office returns, other agents stop the young man from hitting Billie, and when she can't stand to walk out of the office, Purvis picks her up and carries her, urine-soaked skirt and all.  It's meant to be gentlemanly, except that earlier, Purvis and his agents were beating a man injured in a shootout at a bank, who had a bullet lodged above his eye and was screaming for painkillers, to find out where Dillinger and Machine Gun Kelly were staying.  Clearly, Purvis has different standards about torture when it comes to ladies, even if they do have big eyes and questionable tastes in boyfriends.

In pop culture, depictions of torture often seem to focus on the victim's (who are usually men) fortitude, rather than the torturer's depravity.  Take Star Trek.  When Eric Bana and his henchmen shove a slug down Bruce Greenwood's throat that will manipulate his brain, we already knew Bana's character was a monster, so the takeaway from the scene was Greenwood's bravery.  In "War Stories," the episode of Joss Whedon's sci-fi Western in which two of the show's main characters are tortured by a sadistic crime lord, the villian isn't much of a presence: the focus is on how the two men keep each other alive. 

Waterboarding someone 183 times in a single month is--and ought to be--horrific no matter their gender.  But I do wonder whether the public debate in America over torture would be different if there were prominent female victims who had been identified and were part of the conversation.  I'm not sure I think that would be a good thing; relying on women's perceived delicacy to say that torture is wrong, or saying that it's worse for a woman than for a man to be pushed into a wall repeatedly, at minimum relies on faulty logic, and at maximum reinforces dangerous gender stereotypes that could be used to say it's all right to torture men, because they can take it.  But I do think that moving the debate over torture away from the fortitude or lack thereof of a person who suffers it, and towards the morality of the person who commits it, is an important shift to make--and more difficult to make permanent than we might think.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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