ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

Dogville Vs. Monster
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Dogville vs. Monster: Stardom, Prostitution, and the Difference.



Two films came out in late 2003 which raise interesting notions about female stardom and sexual celebrity. With thin glamorous blonde actress Charlize Theron gaining 20 pounds and a coating of latex ugliness to play real-life executed truck stop hooker and killer Aileen Wuornos, then shedding all the extra weight and ugliness, popping back into her million dollar Cinderella gown to win the 2003 Best Actress Oscar (would she still have won had she kept the weight on?) the whole spectrum of "woman on display" is lit up like a prism. In this light one may muse on the tortured nature of her vehicle to simultaneous iconhood and dramatic respectability, Monster, which details her character's childhood dream to become a star herself, a dream realized in the most twisted of ways (see Nick Stahl's Selling of a Serial Killer). The opening of the film consists of a devastating series of short moments from Aileen's childhood--at eight reading a movie star magazine on the couch, for example--which are then interrupted by a pair of sinister adult hands entering the frame. An ironic tone of optimism informs Charlize/Aileen's voiceover over this montage of "early Aileen" events. As she rushes forward through teens into adulthood we see her continually looking for love and acceptance via offering of her body up for the male gaze and enjoyment, which is after all what movie starlets do. As her voiceover steadfastly clings to the naïve belief that her hardships will pay off and lead to Hollywood, she sounds both more and more tragic and more and more and more deranged. She is after all, we realize, no movie star, and her manner of seduction is not sanctified by the culture.

So what is the difference? Is it that Aileen is marked by her relative unattractiveness and that she "sells herself short"? If she was attractive enough, perhaps she could be a NYC "gentlemen's club" stripper and not have to be a prostitute at all, or else go work for Heidi Fleiss and live in a comfy Penthouse with a pre-reformed Charlie Sheen. Or better yet, have become a genuine actress.

Thus the saintly elevation by contrast, of Charlize to icon status due to her "suffering" through the role of being unattractive and degraded, is that she didn't have to. To give away all your power positionining and wander off into the woods naked but for your latex bruises and false teeth is to be St. Francis of Assisi, the temporary Hollywood-sanctioned way. To be forced to do it out of economic necessity is to be a bum. But here is where Lars Von Trier's Dogville, released the same year, comes in. Dogville in a sense reverses the equation posited in Monster: What if instead of donning the pounds and false teeth, Charlize suddenly appeared in Aileen's central Florida hometown as her tall and lovely self? What if the town was cut off from the world where Charlize was recognized as a goddess of the silver screen, and what if if this tall, blonde, ethereal version of Charlize was put in the position of a dependent child, forced to submit to the wishes of men such as Aileen's string of abusive father figures in order to provided her with food and shelter?

Let us step back from this question and recall what being an "actress" meant in depression era 1932 (or whenever Dogville is set), a time when show business--as depicted in racy pre-code films--was the one environment where a girl could respectably parade her "talents" before as many men as possible without lowering her "value". After the performance the women sashay back to their dressing room and begin cavalierly powdering their noses, confident that Cary Grant will soon come knocking. Before sexual favors are granted there will be gifts of diamond bracelets and earrings. This mode of offering oneself up as sexual image is not just accepted, but respected in pre-1934 films like I'm No Angel, Blonde Venus, Waterloo Bridge, and Possession. Of course in the context of the glamor magazines that little Aileen reads, the actresses who play these roles are portrayed as vastly different than the roles they play; for they have rose to their lofty heights of stardom by being adored by the masses, through hard work and devotion to their persona and film roles, for their diversity and passion. In short, they have had more opportunities, acting classes, braces, better genes, higher cheek bones, a decent regimen of nutrition, and so forth.

Prostitution is itself "acting" as in to not just engage in sex for money but also (presumably) to seem to enjoy it. Indeed, a prostitute may actually enjoy herself during the contracted sexual act as long as she pretends she is only pretending. There may be a moment during the paid-for sexual act when the prostitute is completely "herself," that moment when one is allowed to become completely subsumed into a character, which is at the heart of good acting. For example, in the middle of Othello, the actor playing Othello may be 100% assured that no one on stage is going to break character and remind them they owe money, or are gaining weight. They are actually free for the length of the performance to actually be their character, with no one to know they aren't acting anymore. It is ultimately then, the lack of access to a camera that makes the prostitute "worthless" as an actress. For an audience of one there can be no Oscar.

Now take this illogic and apply it to the relationship between star and fan, between Aileen and Charlize before they swapped roles. The fan idolizes the star, but what is involved in this idolization? Does the fan imagine some sort of life together with the star? Do they want to "become" the star and have a glamorous life, or is there a by-proxy thing going on; the star experiences life so I don't have to, her victories are mine (a similar thing occurs with sports). Whatever the answer, there is a deeply buried, glowing red vein over which these fantasies are only the topological flow of relative decency, the hardened magma from a dormant volcano. We eye this parade of tall well-dressed women stepping up to the Oscar night podium as some collective dark God of the mountain, sluggishly stirring in our slumber at the presence of the maiden whose death would set us free. They come out one by one, each taller and more lovely than the last, bedecked with jewels and finery they stand and make a small speech, and then walk off the plank into the crater. The award for best achievement in sound editing is of no interest to anyone but a handful of sound editors, yet billions of eyes are on the presenting maiden's dress, her hair, her makeup, her figure. If all the strip clubs in town are the base, this is the pinnacle but don't assume for a second it's not the same licentious tower of seduction and sacrifice.

It is then the line of "consumability" that separates the actress from the truck stop hooker. The one is beautiful because she is unobtainable, and yet already attained, for she exists only "to be seen." The other is not beautiful in that she is obtainable; she exists "not to be seen" but hidden as she gratifies an aspect of the male character he himself finds repulsive. The fact that she is still present after his orgasm is a source of shame, as if he just ate a meal, yet the meal is still there, the dirty plate he pushes into the corner while having his cigarette and coffee. The goddess however, vanishes the moment he looks away.

This line of necessity and "price" becomes one of the many interesting subjects explored in Dogville. Nicole Kidman’s character comes to the small town to be sheltered from gangsters. The ignorant, dirty locals at first revere her as a goddess. She is taller than they are, beautiful, classy, educated, and since Nicole Kidman is cannily cast in the role, a sense of "celebrity" is already implied. She offers to help them do odd jobs as a reward for their hiding her, but as time wears on and the threats "from above" to those who would harbor her grow more severe, the town’s true nature is gradually revealed. The women exploit her as a slave. As for the men, their platonic love and admiration soon turns to lust, then to rape and then remorse and shame "as if she was an animal in the barn." The Nicole/Charlize icon is here "reduced" to the Aileen level in the townspeople's eyes. Aileen in Monster is similarly treated like "an animal" by johns and the sexually abusive cops she’s been servicing all her life. The sexual violence towards these two women stems from (heterosexual) man’s own self-hatred, as if by linking her female body to their masculine selves via sex, they reduce her star wattage to a dim flicker. Like Frankenstein’s monster, they are forced to the realization that their touch "destroys" life.

But in each narrative arc the goddess rises again from the ashes of the abused/dried body of "mud" woman. In Dogville this moment comes when the townspeople finally call in the gangsters for an expected reward. It turns out she is the daughter of a Capone-style godfather, who is even played by James Caan. Thus she is transfigured back from punching bag whore to unattainable goddess who holds the power of life and death—the mighty Oscar—over their heads like a trident of flames.

In Monster this transfiguration occurs off screen, following the credits. Perhaps Von Trier could have made an interesting movie of it: Theron removing her Wuoronos make-up, orange jumper and handcuffs, hitting the pool and the sauna, shedding the extra pounds and then stepping into her Versace gown to dazzle them at Oscar night and take the statuette home. Instead of killing them, she merely leaves the pathetic rapist truck drivers of central Florida far behind, adrift in their loserhood and Sunday night beers, gazing up with at her angelic radiance on the bar television, realizing they will never ever in their pathetic lives be invited to the Oscars.

Grace (Nicole Kidman)waits to hear the verdict of Dogville's residents

Much has been written about actresses winning Oscars by playing prostitutes, but critics tend to focus on how patriarchal and shortsighted it is to have so many prostitute roles for women instead of "real" roles. What they perhaps don't see, is that the prostitute is the "honest" woman of our century; the fallen, last gasp of the Lacanian "real," the man, in fact. The prostitute is a male fantasy figure not in the assumed mode of sexual object, but as a straight man in a woman's body, for whom heterosexual sex then becomes a grueling chore. Here again the sense of self-repulsion comes in, and helps explain the superior dress sense and self-image of de-closeted gay men. Being attracted "to themselves" allows a gay man to play dress up with his favorite doll-- his own body. He is granted the private space to obsess over his appearance. The only time a straight male has a similar opportunity is if he happens to be James Stewart in Vertigo. Unless he has internalized perhaps Queer Eye for the Straight Guy or The Metrosexual Handbook, he is essentially a closeted lesbian prostitute disgruntedly sleeping with himself.


We see this clearer in the film Boy’s Don’t Cry which again won a beautiful young actress an Oscar for playing a white trash woman raped in the midwest. In this instance the assault occurs because they find out she is a girl, a discovery which packs an unusual erotic charge thanks to Hillary Swank’s curvy body. Being caught naked in the bathroom and held there for all their dirty eyes to see she becomes a gender reversed Norman Bates, a supermodel under flannel and codpiece (instead of an extra 20 pounds and latex). This sexual transformation upsets the other males’ symbolic identification with each other-- their sense of "brotherhood." If they were women then sex would be an unpleasant experience due to their being straight; thus, to re-inaugurate Hillary’s character back into their ranks, they feel they have to rape her, to punish her with violent heterosexual attacks as if to say "you see how unpleasant it is to imagine yourself as a woman? That is why we do not." Once this is done, all is apparently forgiven. The men are somewhat gentle with her; they bring her to their house and allow her to shower off, explaining through the closed door that "they are even now." The threat that womanhood poses to men is essentially this then: (straight) men are cowards because they shrink from having violence inflicted upon them. The sex act, with its thrusting, penetrating, etc. is a violent act directed at/into the female. A (straight) man is unable to "receive" energy in this way. For a straight male such a thing seems horrific, degrading. Thus, by violently raping her, the boys in effect "re-masculinize" her. Inverting the "punking-out" of a man in a prison cell, she becomes "de-bitched." A woman then is just a man who has been made into a woman via sexual assault, and vice versa. One might read Carol Clover’s "Men Women and Chainsaws" for another example of how men deal with this anxiety via the slasher and rape/revenge film. She writes: "Paradoxically, it is the experience of being brutally raped that makes a ‘man’ of a woman." In regards to victimized women taking a sort of revenge "that would do Rambo proud." (p. 159).

Actresss Chloe Sevigny plays Hillary’s girlfriend and in
Dogville is "the closest thing to a beauty queen" before Grace’s arrival. In that film, when all the sexual exploitation pf Nicole begins, Chloe becomes furiously jealous. She now covets the unwarranted male lustful gaze that before she was thrilled to be rid of. Conversely, in Boys Don’t Cry the passing of the male lustful gaze over to Chloe’s boyfriend/girlfriend now causes her to value him/her both as a boy and as a girl. Having got her start being herself raped in her sleep in Kids (and having her old testament celebrity revenge by presumably infecting her attacker with AIDs), it’s an interesting triumvirate for Sevigny. The Chloe persona always manages to stay below the radar of the sacrificial volcano (see also demonlover for another instance where she plays near the fire, but is not consumed). One can’t help but imagine Sevigny in the Christina Ricci role in Monster, where she would have fit like a glove. This niche of the "best friend" or handmaiden to the sacrificial virgin role suits her very well, trapped as she is in a sort of eternal girlish tomboyishness like Ricci. She is sexy and desirable, but still able to pass herself off as "one of the guys." Thus the patriarchy bends and envelopes her without causing so much as a scratch to either party (in the Kids rape scene, Chloe never even wakes up from her druggy slumber). Thus she is respected as "totally" a girl, because we as males do not identify with her, ironically because she is not feminine enough.


This "butch" quality is what constitutes Carol Clover’s "final girl" in the slasher films of the 1980’s. While that female model provided men with the ability to inhabit a woman’s body and fear penetration (See her essay "Her Body, Himself"), the prostitute film provides adult males with the chance to get relatively used to being penetrated, violated. What made many of the pre-code films so great was that the prostitute or gold digger never had to suffer for her "crimes." She often wound up with Clark Gable or Cary Grant at the end and lots of money to boot. Thus, more than the final "victory" at the end Clover’s slasher cycles, the male viewer could essentially leave the body of the prostitute, at last confident that she will be taken care of, fine without him.

It is then, the male viewer’s inhabiting of the female body that initiates the process of her masculinization. The male sexual gaze throws the woman into adulthood via a traumatizing experience (rape, a sexual advance, her father trying to sell her to a beer hall patron as in Stanwyck’s Baby Face) which then changes the identification from lustful spectator to total identification. We inhabit the female body to feel her pain, since we as males brought it on her as a means of bringing it on ourselves. We can then feel her pain for her, and also "go get the bastards that did this" imparting to her via telepathy our rage, fury and ability with a knife (our death drive whispering to itself again). Of course this is man’s way of trying to manipulate nature via taking credit for the onset of menstruation. The Native American Indians achieve this through the male initiation ceremony of hanging by antlers pierced through their chests. We eventually have to launch CNN-style wars or fight clubs to get the same rush but in the meantime we squeamishly watch rape-revenge movies, as if trying to atone by proxy for our guilt over evading nature’s relentless punishment of the female body.

With adulthood this same guilt/identification drifts into the realm of the pre-code prostitute film. Our depression era economy has forced these poor girls into this situation, and it’s up to us to get them out. Rather than a single traumatic sexual violation, the violation is nine to five and rewarded with a paycheck. And when we try the schematics of the rape revenge film now, in the mundane reality of the workaday world, things go horribly wrong. We see this in the confusion, the hunted animal eyes of Theron’s terrific performance. In the movies Aileen grew watching and fantasizing about this sort of thing worked; you got rich robbing banks, then died out quickly in a blaze of glory. What Aileen can’t figure out in her haze of alcohol and wounded animal rage is the problem of "real-life" time. When the outlaws hide out in the movies, weeks can flash by in a single dissolve. For Aileen and Selby there is the question of food, of running out of beer, of the slowness of wounds to heal, and of the patience with which the cops pursue cases presumed long since closed. After Aileen convinces Selby to run away with her, the first thing they do is check into a hotel with a six pack of beer. "What now?" Selby asks. Aileen looks at her like it’s a crazy question, but then realizes she doesn’t know; she hasn’t thought beyond this point. This point is not covered in the movies. In Aileen’s imagination, this whole section of her life is occurring after the "happily ever" credits. For her (and the audience) there is the lingering memory of that deliriously romantic roller skating scene. Why can’t we get that back? For Aileen, they should either be enfolded in a sea of money or she and Selby should drive off a cliff holding hands. Instead, slow steady time wears everything down until it all grows as unfocused and relentlessly gray as her pre-murderess life.

Our sense of collective masculine guilt for Aileen/Charlize then unfolds like a magnolia flower in all directions. It is "man" who violated her as a child and "man" who rewarded her financially for being a prostitute, and "the male viewer" who then encouraged her to fight back and kill her first attacker. Conversely, we then judge her when she goes too far and kills an innocent old guy who gave her a ride. So when she is then arrested and judged by men of the jury, we as viewers know the noose is woven from our celluloid tampering. With Monster then, the rape/revenge film is essentially itself violated. We as male viewers can no longer assume that our catharsis via the female experience will not have destructive consequences for the very subject we seek to empower.

Happily, to assume too much power over these matters is to risk appearing as stupid as the character of Thomas Jefferson in Dogville. Though he is shocked and horrified over Nicole’s treatment, Jefferson-- Dogville's self-appoited moral leader-- can still only comment from the sidelines about how wrong the others are in their mistreatment of Grace. Yet, like the viewer, he considers his "presence" in her life as somehow nurturing and guiding. If this character were in Monster he would first advise her to start killing and robbing, and then later he would deny saying it or take the blame only in private when he was certain no one was wearing a wire.

So the male desire to crucify women becomes the flip side of our desire to save them from crucifixion. The witch is always presented with the chance for "confession," to tell us the lurid tabloid secrets we long to hear, and thus save her soul. If she turns to Jesus and sheds black mascara tears on Barbara Walters’ shoulder, she is elevated back to Charlize status. We bring an Aileen/Charlize hybrid like Courtney Love into court just for the thrill of wondering which way she'll fall, into the Versace gown (where we revere her), or back into the gutter...where we loathe and identify.

--Erich Kuersten, 2004

C. 2004

C. 2013 - Acidemic Journal of Film and Media - BFG LCS: 489042340244