August 3, 2007

Caught in Hollywood’s Latest Captivity Narrative

Making women into sex objects is one thing, but making violence against women attractive and titillating is another.

That’s just what the marketers of the recently released thriller “Captivity” have done, however. The film chronicles the abduction and torture of a young model. We’ll let the the synopsis from the official film website take over from there:

Everyone wants her. But someone out there has been watching and waiting. Someone wants her in the worst way. Out alone at a charity event in Soho, Jennifer is drugged and taken. Held captive in a cell, Jennifer is subjected to a series of terrifying, life-threatening tortures that could only be conceived by a twisted, sadistic mind.

Captivity narratives” actually have a long history in American culture, originating with tales of “proper” white women being kidnapped by Native Americans. So it’s unfortunate but not surprising that we see Hollywood once again perpetuating the cheap thrill that this scenario provides.

What is surprising though is the shameless way the film is being promoted. As Ann at Feministing described last week, the original, jaw-dropping billboard for the film prompted a number of critiques, including this piece in The Nation by Annabelle Gurwitch and Jill Soloway’s commentary at the Huffington Post. Both women happened to be driving in cars with young children when they saw the billboards.

“I was driving a carpool of third graders to school when my son pointed at a large looming advertisement and asked, ‘What’s that, mom?’” writes Gurwitch. She continues:

I craned my neck — it was pretty high up, but still visible from the car — and glimpsed some extremely violent and disturbing images. What was being depicted exactly was hard to make out …. A woman crying, maybe; someone encased in a mask with tubes inserted in the nasal passages; and finally what looked like a female body lying inert, her body draped over a bed. The poster read: “Abduction, confinement, torture, termination.” Naturally, as a left-wing liberal, I assumed it was detailing abuses at Abu Ghraib and the anguish this has inflicted on the spouses of the prisoners. But no, it was advertising a movie.

To the children, however, I replied, “That person has just found out she’s very ill. She goes to the hospital and is placed in a full-body cast, and when she gets home she sees her medical bills, which are so exorbitantly high that she passes out.” Were they convinced, confused, politically indoctrinated? I’m not certain, but the rest of the ride to school was very, very quiet.

Gurwitch is obviously trying to bring a little bit of levity to the situation here, but her responses inspires Ann to pose a serious question directly to her readers — “How do you talk to your kids (and others’) about sexist images in the media, particularly disturbing or violent ones like the Captivity ads?” The extended discussion that ensues is valuable.

Joss Whedon, creator of “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” and other feminist narratives, called out the same posters as well as the trailer for the film back in May. While he doesn’t discuss its effect on children specifically, he does see the marketing campaign as insidiously playing upon embedded sexist attitudes in American culture.

Interestingly, Vanessa at Feministing had already written — several weeks before Ann — about how disturbed she was by the film’s marketing campaign. But she was criticizing the revised version of the film’s advertising — not knowing anything about the original billboard campaign.

The marketers of the film apparently got the message, but they didn’t learn the lesson.


One Response to “Caught in Hollywood’s Latest Captivity Narrative”

  1. Rhea Says:

    I’ve been seeing posters for this movie on the Boston subway cars for what seems like months. I see a woman in a cage, crying. I am sick of torture of women as a subject of entertainment.

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