Fanning the child abuse controversy

Both the makers and critics of Hounddog, a film that depicts child rape, reveal America's unhealthy obsession with paedophilia.

Nancy McDermott

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Even before it hit the Sundance Film Festival, Deborah Kampmeier’s Hounddog, also known as ‘that Dakota Fanning rape film’, was generating enough sanctimonious sermonising to give any Southern, snake-kissing, Pentecostal preacher a run for his money. Set in Alabama in the 1950s, and featuring many snakes, it tells the story of Llewellyn, a motherless young girl (played by Fanning) who finds relief from the indignities of life with her bible-bashing grandmother and abusive father in her obsession with Elvis Presley. It includes a scene in which Fanning, aged 12 at the time of shooting, dramatises Llewellyn’s rape at the hands of the milk delivery man.

When a copy of the script was leaked to the New York Daily News during filming it sparked calls for Kampmeier to be prosecuted for making child pornography, for Fanning’s mother to be arrested, and for the film to be banned. Though the scene lasts barely 30 seconds, Fanning never appears nude and the violence is only suggested. Yet critics like Kevin Jackson of the Christian Post believe that simply depicting a child rape is ‘taking the worst parts of human behavior and putting them up on the big screen and desensitizing the general population to them’ (1). Furthermore, Paul Peterson, a former child star and self-appointed advocate for child actors, says: ‘Young performers who do this sort of work are like bugs stuck in amber…Pretending leads to reality. Intellectually, kids feel it, live it, express it. Children can’t shrug it off.’ (2)

Meanwhile, for the film’s defenders and those involved in making it, Hounddog is important. Kampmeier says: ‘When you go to the theatre and you see the truth, you feel less alone in the world’ (3), and ‘Women want to see their truths up there on the screen. (4) Fanning’s agent, Cindy Osbrink, describes it as ‘a story that needs to be told’ (5).

It is an all too familiar scenario: brave filmmaker challenges taboo, breaks new ground, makes the film that needed to be made exposing some injustice – child sexual abuse in this case. Conservative critics charge brave filmmaker with moral depravity, lowering the cultural tone, encouraging people to commit these acts in real life.

Except that, on closer observation, there’s something else at work. Certainly the battle lines are familiar and the arguments are well-rehearsed, but both sides are strangely out of touch.

For one thing it’s very hard to argue that the American public is either unaware of child sexual abuse or desensitized to it. On the contrary, the topic has become something of a national obsession. At least a dozen websites make it possible to track the numbers of convicted sex offenders by zip code and sometimes go as far as to offer photos, home addresses and details of their offences. ‘Amber alerts’ are broadcast on radio, television or on signs along the highways to warn that a child has been abducted.

Television shows like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit regularly deal with themes of rape, pedophilia, incest and the legacy of child sexual abuse. It’s become almost expected that any drama involving children must include some reference to these themes, whether it is the implied threat or an actual element of the story. Even plots that aren’t explicitly concerned with the sexual exploitation of children often rely on it to explain the motivations of characters. A history of abuse explains the actions of the villain or makes us love the hero even more for overcoming it.

So while depicting a child’s rape on film is new, it is simply a more explicit version of what’s already commonplace within America’s popular culture – the notion that child sexual abuse is ubiquitous.

More interesting is what the controversy reveals about film-making today. It is completely understandable that artists should believe in their vision and defend their work in the face of those who dislike its content. But the cinéma vérité of the past is giving way to a new, self-important ‘cinéma gravité’ that grossly overstates its role in changing attitudes. This air of moral superiority and self congratulation was epitomised by George Clooney in his acceptance speech at last year’s Oscars: ‘And finally, I would say that, you know, we are a little bit out of touch in Hollywood every once in a while. We’re the ones’, he gushed, ‘who talk about AIDS when it was just being whispered, and we talked about civil rights when it wasn’t really popular. And we, you know, we bring up subjects. This Academy, this group of people gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in 1939 when blacks were still sitting in the backs of theatres I’m proud to be a part of this Academy, proud to be part of this community and proud to be out of touch.’

The notion that the audience needs to be enlightened, that film is not simply art but a powerful tool to be wielded by the film-maker, ideally one worthy of the grave responsibility that comes with power, is not just patronizing but shares many of the assumptions of the people calling for films like Hounddog to be banned.

For conservative critics, film has the power to validate and encourage the public’s most depraved impulses. Kathleen Parker, of the Washington Post Writers Group, says of Hounddog: ‘It’s hard to get enough of tasteful rapes, I admit. Unless you’re a real child rapist, the bunch of whom doubtless will be sufficiently stimulated by Fanning’s rape-face, as well as her panty-dance and her little visit from bad Daddy.’ (6)

In an almost mirrored response, the film’s co-producer Kelly Tenney believes that the rape scene will reach those people in the audience who have somehow missed that child rape occurs and inspire them to take a stand against it. ‘It’s something that happens and, unfortunately, it happens to children… It’s important to get the message out, and the only way to stop it is to show it.’ (7)

Whether Hounddog is a good film remains to be seen. Though not on general release, at least some of the reviews from Sundance suggest it is a mixed bag with a few good performances, but flawed in other ways. The pity for Kampmeier, Fanning and the others who worked so hard to bring their story to the screen is that it is likely to suffer the fate of other ‘important’ films, namely that it is never quite clear whether it’s being praised for its substance or The Message. But whatever the final verdict on Hounddog, we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that the rape scene will be telling Americans anything that they aren’t already reminded of in countless other ways on a daily basis. Ironically, the film that interrogates America’s obsession with child sexual abuse may be the one that needs to be made most of all.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Film

(1) Christian Post, Sundance Film Fest Accused of Helping Porn Industry, 25 January 2007

(2) Quoted in No more kid stuff for Fanning, Premiere

(3) LA Times, ‘The Fanning fury and now the film’, 20 January 2007

(4) Ibid LA Times

(5) Ibid Premiere

(6) Katheen Parker, Washington Post Writers Group

(7) Support the movie Hounddog, The PetitionSite.com

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