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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Why we should cheer Lisbeth Salander

Stieg Larsson's heroine is an utterly original literary character.

By Sarah Seltzer / July 28, 2010

New York

A huge number of beachgoers, many of whom don’t identify as feminists, will be carrying a book with overtly feminist content in their tote bags this summer – in the guise of an absorbing thriller.

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The book behind this bait-and-switch? “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and its sequels, properly known as the “Millennium Trilogy,” a Swedish series which has taken the trade, mass-market, and hardcover bestseller lists by storm. In between scenes of getting out of danger and chasing bad guys, the series critiques Swedish society with an agenda that mirrors late author Stieg Larsson’s journalistic targets: neo-Nazi vestiges, corruption –and the media that abets it, and the scourge of violence against women.

The wild success of the books – “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Girl Who Played with Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” – arises from their blending of classic detective-story tropes, a moody Swedish locale, and espionage done with ultra-modern technology.

But none of this would matter if it weren’t for Lisbeth Salander, the series’ heroine and titular “girl,” who makes it a point to personally exact vigilante retribution against rapists, sex traffickers, and other “men who hate women” (the phrase was the Swedish title for the first book).

A controversial figure

Salander is a controversial figure; feminists and other observers are divided over the message she sends to women today. That debate, while valid, misses a key point: We should all celebrate the emergence of an utterly original female literary character. In an action-story landscape where women are too often relegated to girlfriend, sidekick or prey in need of defending, Salander grabs the spotlight and refuses to let it go.

Salander works alongside journalist Mikael Blomkvist to solve a series of murder mysteries and intrigues – after he realizes she’s hacked into his computer. She suffers from Asperger’s or a similar disorder, which gives her genius capabilities on the one hand, and a non-emotive persona on the other. From the outset, she’s a unique creature: characters with these kinds of ultra-quirky traits are almost never women.

As a child and young woman, Salander was sadistically abused by those entrusted with her care, and since then she has been encroached upon and treated as an imbecile by organizations and individuals meant to help her.

Boyish-looking and covered with punk tattoos and piercings, her two biggest skills are an ability to infiltrate practically any computer in the world, and a penchant for hunting down and creatively punishing misogynist perpetrators.

One of her more inventive stunts involves tattooing “I am a rapist” on an abusive guardian’s stomach, fulfilling a feminist fantasy. Salander refuses to cooperate with any police or government investigation, and operates wholly outside the boundaries of the law, ethics, or social decorum.

In some ways, Salander resembles the female star of a Tarantino revenge-flick, a James Cameron film, or even a famous vampire-slayer television series; she’s a skilled female action heroine, resourceful and feisty, who has a no-mercy policy against those who have wronged or threatened her.

Not like other female characters

But Salander’s eccentric outsider status separates her from the pack – she’s not graceful but awkward, not righteous but anarchic. As critic Laura Miller, wrote, she is “vendetta personified.”