I can't watch violent movies. Which is funny, because last night I went to see the new James Bond movie, knowing more or less what would happen. I do like explosions, and espionage, and I thought maybe I would be fine.
In the first part of the James Bond movie, the pretty lady dies. You see it coming. The pretty lady is up against a rock, her hands bound behind her. Some bad men have roughed her up. There is a spot of blood artfully dabbed at the corner of her beautiful, swollen mouth. Her eyes are mutely pleading, her hair disheveled. You do not see the death of the pretty lady; there is a battle, and afterward the camera cuts to her, bent in half, her long hair dangling. James Bond has already fucked the pretty lady. The camera cuts away and the pretty lady is done with. Afterward, James Bond has many adventures; he runs about, and chases more bad men, and there are thrilling shootouts, and a spectacular scene toward the end that I don't want to ruin for you but involves a large vehicle crashing into a large environment followed by an enormous explosion, and it is all quite exciting, if you like that sort of thing, which I do.
I do not mean this as a critique of James Bond. James Bond is rather silly, honestly. I think most people can agree on that. I mean only that as soon as the pretty lady died I had a reaction so visceral that I began to shake in my seat. My friend, who knew what was happening, leaned over and asked me if I needed to leave. We were there with some people I didn't know very well and I did not particularly want to humiliate myself by making all of us give up sixty dollars' worth of movie tickets because, what, Sarah freaks out over a three-minute scene in which a minor character gets shot, so I shook my head. For the rest of the movie I cried intermittently and when the movie ended I locked myself in the bathroom and cried some more and I couldn't get my hands to stop shaking and after the movie I cried all the way to a bar and got staggeringly drunk. I feel better today, right now, except for a little bit of a hangover, but I cannot scrub from my mind the image of the pretty lady, bent in half, in high heels, in her red dress, the pretty lady with blood at the corner of her mouth.
I worked in domestic violence shelters for a decade, which is a thing I don't often tell people anymore--that was a different me, a different life. I'm sure that has something to do with it. For a while I couldn't even watch someone slap a woman onscreen without falling apart. The things I heard in shelter, the stories I could tell you. I won't, because they're not my stories, but I worked with women who had things so horrifying happen to them at the hands of people they loved that their stories altered the way I look at the world. After the James Bond movie, in the bar, I was trying to explain better to my friend what had happened to me when the pretty lady died, that when the pretty lady dies badly onscreen I see every bad thing that has ever happened to me or any woman I have cared about. My friends. The women I worked with. All of us.
This is not normal, I understand that. Frankly, it is exhausting. I would like to be able to go to action movies without scrolling through Christian movie review sites--which describe explicitly the kinds of violence depicted--to determine whether I will be able to handle them. (The death of the pretty lady did not warrant a mention in the review I looked at.) We are supposed to be able to separate the pretty lady from ourselves. I am not stupid; I do not think James Bond movies make men into rapists. It is, for me personally, somewhat devastating that highly sexualized violence against women is a routine plot device so standard that the pretty lady's death is staged simply as the setup for a joke about whiskey, but I do not think that is anything more than a symptom of a larger problem.
And men who rape, who assault, do not look like Javier Bardem, striding about campily in a white suit, clearly identifiable, ordering the deaths of innocents. They look like you, like your friends. They look like people you know. They are sometimes bad people, but often they are not; they are simply people who have the entire juggernaut of a culture behind them, telling them the pretty lady has no voice. The pretty lady wants it. The pretty lady is there for you, her eyes wide, and how fucking sexy is her terror. For me, watching that violence re-enacted onscreen throws me so far into my body that I can't get out again.
For so many of us the lines are not always clear between the people who love us and the people who hurt us. Most of us can say that if someone hits you, that's pretty shitty; that's an identifiable thing, a bad thing. When I worked in shelters even women who had had that kind of violence so inculcated into them that they would explain to me how they actually deserved it understood that it was not normal, to hit another human being. It is a thing that must be justified, explained. But there is a lot that can happen up to that point, the point of physical assault, that is not so easy to define. How many of us have traded some measure of safety for the feeling that we are loved? How many of us have seen people we thought we were safe with transformed into people willing to do us harm?
Years ago I went to see The Dark Knight in the movie theater. I am sure you can guess it did not go well for me. We are meant to see that the Joker is a bad man, and we are shown it with repeated emphasis. There was a little boy sitting a few seats down from me who was not doing very well, either. We both began to cry. He asked his mother to leave. "I paid for your goddamn ticket," she hissed, "you're not leaving, watch the goddamn movie." The Joker goes to a party, gets hold of the pretty lady, holds a knife to her face and threatens to cut her smile wider, and I lost my shit. I don't even remember leaving the theater. Outside, I had to sit on the dirty carpet, lean up against the wall, while my friend held me and I sobbed. When I looked up the little boy from the theater was sitting near me, also crying; his mom, disgusted, was nearby on her cell phone. We looked at each other, me and him. "It's okay," I said to him, "it's okay." I wanted more than anything to take him into my arms, this stranger's child, and hold him while he cried, to tell him to always remember what it felt like, the pain of watching another human being suffer. Grow up and be kind, I wanted to say to him. "It's okay," I said instead. "It's always okay to be sad."