The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Why we should cheer Lisbeth Salander
Stieg Larsson's heroine is an utterly original literary character.
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Although Salander eventually succumbs to social pressure and gets a breast augmentation (to the chagrin of feminist readers), her largely androgynous physique is a canvas for body art and a vehicle for revenge. As feminist film expert Melissa Silverstein has noted, she’s an anomaly among action heroines, even feminist ones, precisely because she’s not built for the male gaze.Skip to next paragraph
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Salander’s refusal to come to the aid of victims in any way other than wreaking vengeance on their tormentors renders her one of contemporary literature’s most uncompromisingly rebellious women – a genuine female antihero.
But does a such groundbreaking character – even combined with the socially-conscious background information tucked into the book by Larsson – a true feminist agenda make?
Salander, after all, is partnered with Blomkvist, a middle-aged muckraking journalist without much of a personality, who seems to inspire instant sexual interest in every woman he meets, including, for a period, the otherwise-impervious Salander.
It’s hard not to see a very basic male fantasy of the author himself at play. Several bloggers have claimed that Blomkvist, whose career parallels that of his author, is Larsson’s “Mary Sue,” an alter ego too beloved to be truly flawed. What seems like a glaring intrusion of the author’s psyche undermines his anti-sexist cause.
And then there’s the manner in which some of the rape and revenge scenes are staged – with secret torture dungeons and strapped-down, helpless women, like S&M gone wrong. These psychopath-planned, graphically-detailed attacks, many of which are enacted on Salander, have disturbed some readers and belie Larsson’s (and Salander’s) belief that garden-variety misogyny is at the root of these complex, perverse crimes.
“It’s not an insane serial killer...it’s a common or garden bastard who hates women,” Salander says to Blomkvist in the first book. But of course, the novel’s villains aren’t normal bastards, they’re outsized exemplars of evil. How would they be interesting otherwise?
The Millennium series, then, isn’t 100 percent successful as an explicit feminist project, and it doesn’t have to be. It consists of mystery novels, not tracts.
Instead, Larsson simply plants a seed that will grow in readers who are open-minded: There are people out there who hate women and the authorities too often ignore them. There’s a flourishing message board on the novels’ home site devoted to the issue of gender-based violence.
Furthermore, Larsson’s novels achieve something perhaps more difficult than advancing a social-justice cause: introducing an utterly original female character to the world, one who avoids the tired archetypes of helpless victim, lovelorn and needy single female, karate-kicking babe, ferocious tiger mother, or deranged scorned mistress. Lisbeth Salander is a fascinating mess, a real piece of work, but she’s active and human, more than one can say for than insipid Twilight heroine Bella Swan.
Salander’s triumph as a well-drawn character is a gain for women, because as casting for the Hollywood adaptation gets underway, it’s clear she’s not going anywhere.
Sarah Seltzer is a freelance writer. Her work can be found at sarahmseltzer.com.