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.
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.”
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.
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.