The Dakota Fanning controversy.

Examining culture and the arts.
Jan. 24 2007 12:51 PM

Dakota Fanning

All shook up over Hounddog.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

If all you knew about Dakota Fanning was that she starred as Fern in Charlotte's Web, I suppose it could come as a shock that her controversial new film, tentatively titled Hounddog, isn't a movie about charming canines, but the story of a pre-adolescent girl caught in a cycle of abuse who, in the most talked-about scene, is raped by an older boy. Before the film debuted at Sundance this week, it ignited a firestorm of debate, with protesters registering their distress that Fanning had been exposed to such provocative subject matter. But the truth, as anyone who has recently been to the cinema knows, is that Dakota Fanning has been making dark and creepy movies for years. Over her seven-year career, she has become a small, blond embodiment of America's fond hope that scarred children can be restored to childish innocence. It was only a matter of time before the trauma she faced would be rape.

From the start, Fanning has played the preternaturally mature child who could toe the cold waters of trauma but just as swiftly retreat to the broad sands of innocence—with a shiver, perhaps, but nothing more enduring than that. In films like The War of the Worlds, Hide and Seek, and Man on Fire, she became an emblem of button-cute purity threatened—but not overcome—by the ordeals and evil that are, more properly, part of the adult world. They are roles that enact our voyeuristic curiosity about how far the boundaries of innocence can be extended. In the intensely violent Man on Fire (2004), she is a neglected, love-starved child who is kidnapped for ransom money, and watches her beloved bodyguard (and only true friend) get brutally shot in front of her as she cries his name. She is later rescued, but he dies for her. In Hide and Seek (2005) she plays a troubled 9-year-old whose mother has recently died; terrible things happen, but in the end, she appears to find some relief from her emotional suffering. ("Dakota Fanning is the most SCARY thing i have ever seen," a viewer posted on IMDB, in apparent approval.) In The War of the Worlds (2005), she watches as aliens destroy her world, transforming it into a landscape literally flowing with blood, and her father kills a man in order to save her life, while she sits nearby. She is brutalized and subdued, but by the film's end—when she reaches the cozy brownstone where her mother is—she appears ready to be absorbed again by the consoling rhythms of domesticity; one feels that even her toys are intact.

What complicates the trauma in the Hounddog is Fanning's decision to portray a rape victim at precisely the juncture in her own life we're uncertain how to conceptualize: pre-adolescence. Had the news arrived that a 9-year-old Fanning were flouncing around in her underwear in an upcoming movie, protesters who are alleging that the film is unmistakably "pedophilic" might have had a firm leg to stand on. Had the news arrived that a 15-year-old Dakota were doing the same, her defenders (including her mother and her agent, who are reportedly hoping for an Oscar nomination) might more persuasively have been able to argue that she made the choice with full autonomy, taking it on as a substantive artistic "challenge," as her agent put it. But she is 12. In her press pictures, she still looks like a scrawny child, gap-toothed and big-eyed. (Little wonder, then, that bloggers have posted outdated photos of her, playing up the contrast between her childishness and the supposed brutality of the film.) Protesters of the film may be genuinely concerned that acting out a rape scene in a film is traumatic to Fanning. But what some are presumably also anxious about is that watching Dakota in a rape scene is traumatic to them; in today's world of hypersexualized celebrity adolescence, can a fling with a creep or tawdry table-dancing be far away?

The strangest thing about the pre-release debate may have been observing Dakota Fanning herself defending her choice with the savvy articulateness of a child raised in Hollywood's echo chamber. In curiously perfect sound bites, she winningly explained her decision to play the part to the New York Times ("The bottom line was, I couldn't notdo it," she remarked. "I was the perfect age"). Elsewhere, she pointed out what seemed to her a puzzling failure of logic, noting that Hounddog is "no darker than Hide and Seek or Man on Fire! I still am going through difficult things in those films as well, and nobody seemed to talk about that!" She's right that the new film isn't truly a departure from her earlier work. But it is a resolutely unambiguous extension of her child-actor roles into the realm of the adolescent. And it's this lack of ambiguity that has stirred controversy: She's crossed the sexual Rubicon. Taking on this character is a violation of the subtle enactment of anxieties about survival and innocence that had formerly gone—quite pleasingly—unstated. Whether or not she is fully aware of it, Fanning, the actor, is officially leaving childhood behind in the eyes of the public.

And she may not be fully aware of it. Take, for example, the fact that in the Times she defended her choice to play the role of the young girl, Lewellen, by reassuring her interviewer that Lewellen "is still very innocent, she's still a child, but she's also a little bit wise beyond her years." There's an odd paradox at work. Fanning invokes Lewellen's innocence as a way of comforting us that she herself has not yet reached the realm of sexuality and still stands at the brink of it. But to know to do as much is, in a way, to be out of the garden already. That she comprehends the various dimensions of the role is not reassuring proof of her childishinnocence. It only makes it all the more impossible for the viewer to imagine her going back to the cocoon of childhood, rather than moving forward into the trials of adolescence.

From this perspective, whether or not Hounddog is a film about redemption and healing doesn't exactly matter; nor does it matter whether Fanning wore a bodysuit while filming; or whether Jodie Foster and Brooke Shields, two child actresses to play sexually graphic roles in the 1970s, survived their experiences whole. Such niceties are beside the point (and the announcement of them, not surprisingly, didn't reduce the pitch of the protests). The problem for an American audience weaned on this waif, and chock-a-block with repressed feelings about adolescent sexuality itself, is that Dakota Fanning the actress (if not the character she plays) has chosen to take on this graphic a role. She has opened Pandora's box. Once she has become part of the sexual economy of adolescence—about which Americans are so clearly conflicted, living as we do in a hypersexualized era that is also peculiarly hyperprotective of children—she can't go back.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.

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