So-Called Feminism in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

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Is Lisbeth Salander a feminist heroine? According to the Internet, the answer depends on the medium in which her story plays out.

In her original form, as a character in the novel The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels, the answer readers gave is unequivocally yes. Lisbeth finds herself in a world where every man is an abuser and ever woman is a victim of that abuse, but she copes with this by becoming an ass-kicking hacker who tortures her abusers, exposes the dirty secrets of the rich and powerful, and avenges the women who’ve suffered at the hands of male cruelty.

This is what the internet considers to be a nuanced, subtly shaded “feminist” character.

The Lisbeth Salander we see in David Fincher’s film adaption has drawn a lot of criticism as being more subordinate to at least one man in the story, beleaguered publisher Mikael Blomqvist than she is in the book. In addition, criticism abounds of her being exploited more as a sex object than given the chance to be sexual without being sexualized, which is how people viewed her character in the book.

The problem with all of these assessments is that they are ridiculous not because they are wrong, but because they fall hopelessly short. The problem with Lisbeth Salander in the film is that she is too much like Lisbeth Salander in the books–completely and utterly unrealistic.

No sane woman would tolerate being brutally raped just so she could capture it on camera and hold it over her rapist. But that’s what Lisbeth does. The conclusion you should draw from this behavior is not that she is a strong take-charage woman, but that she is not sane. She is severely emotionally damaged. She is so emotionally detached from her own body that she puts herself through the worst torture just to throw it back in her attacker’s face. Over what? Money.

This is not normal. It’s is sociopathic, almost psychopathic behavior. Why doesn’t she simply kill her attacker? Because he controls her money. The money she earns working for a security firm doing background checks by hacking people’s computers, illegally tapping their phones, etc. Apparently no one in Sweden is ever paid in cash or off the books, even when they’re being employed specifically to break the law. So the story sets up an elaborate and preposterous context in which Salander has no choice but to endure a rape so that she can then use it against the rapist.

And only a few short months after this, Salander starts an emotional and sexual relationship with Blomqvist. Pay attention feminists, Dragon Tattoo is setting the clock at months for how fast heroic women bounce back from an anal rape to an emotionally healthy relationship. You don’t need therapy, or time to heal, or reflection, you just need the right guy to come along. And with any luck, he’ll be your boss too.

That’s the message of the book. The character is literally anally raped and in a few short weeks is riding her motorcycle to meet her boyfriend who is also her employer. Remember: this is supposed to be a pro-feminist story.

There is no more point in speculating whether a woman so damaged as Salander could also be a hacker and avenging angel than there is in speculating whether a rich orphan could actually become a superhero fighting crime dressed a bat. They are both equally ridiculous, equally absurd, equally artificial. But where the latter accepts the artifice as it’s premise, the former takes it as its conclusion.

The problem fans of the book are having with the portrayal of Lisbeth Salander in the film is not that she’s too sexy, or too subordinate, or anything specific. The problem is that Lisbeth Salander in the book is completely unbelievable, and rendering her in a film with a flesh and blood actress is bringing that artifice in to sharp relief.

Revenge is not functional behavior. It isn’t rational, by definition. But the Dragon Tattoo celebrates it as a virtue, defining a strong woman as one who seeks revenge when she is wronged. This is the worst stereotypical male impulse transplanted to women. Feminism can do better.

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23 Responses to So-Called Feminism in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

  1. OttomanVampire says:

    Isn’t that also the case when unrealistic stories come out as big disappointments because we are not “ready” for the characters? To be a success either film has to cover a new dimension or be experimental. Neil Gaiman has good stories, but I can’t wrap my head around his comic book series Sandman ever turning for a good movie.

    I think Zack Snyder’s take on Watchmen brought something different – (CGI dong?) thats’s why I don’t see the movie as failure – That is not always the case, therefore I think some stories, characters should stay in the medium they come from.

  2. Elisabeth says:

    The problem starts with Larsson himself. He claims (boasts?) that as a teenager he witnessed a gang rape, which “marked him for life”, as his girlfriend said. There’s something disturbing about a man who witnesses a gang rape, does nothing and spends the rest of his life blaming society as a whole.

    I suspect that it did indeed mark him for life. Does he make Lisbeth recover so quickly (in effect, to get over a rape) to reassure himself that the woman he failed to protect, or get help for, is probably like, totally fine about it?

    Is his obsession with Swedish societies alleged epidemic of violence against women, really a way of spreading his own sense of guilt and shame? That way, what he did – and didn’t do – becomes a symptom of a national pathology, rather than a sign of his own personal failings.

    Larsson had many, many problems with women. He claimed he could not marry his girlfriend or have children with her because then Nazis would find them. (No, really.) This does bring the question of how exactly these enemies would not be able to find a couple who lived in the same apartment and had been together since their twenties, regardless of their marital status. If you don’t want to get married or have children, then be honest.

    And, considering the ever increasing crime rate from Sweden’s Muslim minority, it’s actually pretty funny that Larsson was so obsessed with Nazis and the white far right.

  3. botwinter says:

    But she didn’t TOLERATE the rape, did she? She went to his apartment with the video camera expecting more oral sex. I don’t think she would have gone if she knew what he actually planned to do.

    • Elisabeth says:

      But even if she only expected forced oral sex, it’s still…odd, to say the least. Willingly walking into oral rape, so she could film it?

      She really, truly, honestly couldn’t have complained to someone? Even if the authorities were completely convinced she was mad, would they not at least have changed her guardian? Maybe given her a female guardian, or a known gay guy?

      (You can’t tell me that she absolutely *had* to go through the guys who tormented her in the third book/film. Sweden has a lot of bureaucrats, and it wouldn’t have jeopardised state secrets to give her a new guardian and keep a very, very close eye on the old one.)

      If she’s truly not stable enough to make sane decisions, then Blomqvist is taking advantage of a woman who probably *does* need care and protection from the government. (Not in the way her rapist intended, of course.) Either way, Larsson has written himself into some corners. That wouldn’t be a problem if people weren’t so eager to kiss his behind.

      • Keegan says:

        I agree with you that she may be mentally ill, but from what I read it seems that she has Aspergers, not anything else. She is extremely smart, but has almost zero social skills. As for the complaining to someone, it really seems as though you did not read the books very carefully, because of everything that had happened to her especially when she was locked up in the psych ward at the age of 13, she absolutely cannot trust the authorities. If she had gone to the police and said something about Bjurman assaulting her, they would have taken one look at her rap sheet and laughed her out of the building and maybe even sent her back to a psych ward. and if Bjurman had found out that she had tried to go to the police, he would have become even more violent with her, since he obviously has sado-masachistic tendencies it wouldn’t be be a big stretch for him to lose his temper and beat her within an inch of her life. And since she has no close friends of family, what other conceivable option did she have? having to go through what she want through all her life has made her an independent and resourceful person, and as stable as anyone else. And if you were in the same situation she was in I doubt that you would have done anything different.

  4. Minerva says:

    Fortunately (or unfortunately) this is still the best trilogy to come out in the last 10 years. Swedes are great writers and even better musicians. It’s a hotbed of talent up there. Probably the long winters.

    • mugwump30 says:

      Is it really a trilogy? The first book stands on it’s own. It doesn’t need a sequel to end any story line. The second book ends at the height of action. It absolutely requires the third book to finish it. The second and third books should rightfully be considered a single story, with the first book as a backstory.

  5. lilin says:

    I won’t comment on the feminism of this character or not. I will comment that I don’t think this is anything like an accurate look at the initial incident.

    “No sane woman would tolerate being brutally raped just so she could capture it on camera and hold it over her rapist.”

    It says explicitly that she expected the rape to be a forced blow job, not a violent, hours-long rape. When she realizes that that is what’s going on, she tries to get free.

    She’s also not doing it to hold it over her rapist. Her rapist controls her life. He doesn’t just control her money, he can throw her back in the loony bin if he wants to. She’s not controlling her rapist, she’s controlling her life. She explicitly tells him how he’s going to give back her money and petition to have her released from custody permanently. The tape was going to be her ticket out of everything. If she goes public with it, or kills him, she won’t have the same chance.

    The relationship between Lisbeth and Blomqvist was widely criticized, but I’m not so sure. I’ve only seen the first movie. In that, it was made clear that Lisbeth was a little attracted by the partnership and also looking to experiment and have sex with a man she perceived as safe. Lastly there’s the sting at the end – Blomqvist using Lisbeth’s data to ruin the evil millionaire and Lisbeth skimming off the money and skipping town. Not sure what to make of that. It could signal that Lisbeth was using Blomqvist all along, or it could be that she saw an opportunity and took it.

    • mugwump30 says:

      True, she “just” expected forced oral sex, not the brutal rape she received. But that doesn’t explain why she performed the same act on her attacker as revenge. You’re right in pointing out her goal was the tape. That was her ticket to freedom. And then she got it. She didn’t need to use rape as revenge, as she did.

      You could definitely argue that her initial visit to his apartment may have made some kind of sense. I won’t agree, but I’ll definitely concede the case could be made. But not her second visit. To be extremely generous, that was an extremely irrational decision.

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  7. Where the analysis goes wrong is in assuming that Lisbeth is the feminist hero. She’s not.

    There are a million examples, I’ll give you only one: “May I have permission to kill him?” she asks Mikael.

    Note that every single relationship depicted in the movies (I didn’t read the books) is premised on infidelity. Everyone is cheating on their spouse, good guys, bad guys, everyone.\– and no one minds.

    The cheating is taken to be completely normal. Don’t tell me this is European sensibilities. Blomkvist has been exposed as having an affair with his editor, “ruining his marriage, but not hers” and in the very next scene, he is at a party with her and her husband. He’s okay with it.

    That’s not simply infidelity, it tells you something else about the human connections: no one really cares about anyone else. Everyone is merely a diversion, a break.

    It is impossible– swingers take note– it is impossible to love your spouse and be okay with the fact they have an ongoing sexual relationship with someone else. You can only do that in a) fantasy, where you are permitted the illusion that the fantasies are “wrong” and therefore sexually exciting, and can indulge in them “safely” and hornily; b) when you’ve reduced the status of the spouse to… partner.

    The mistake is in assuming a man as broken and damaged as Stieg Larrson understands feminism. He doesn’t. What he understands is guilt– he witnessed a gang rape and did nothing– so the book isn’t about women being empowered, but about men failing, or not failing, to do the right thing. The women are merely props. All of them. That’s why the book is originally called “Men Who Hate Women.” Sure, the Vanger men hate women. but does nayone in this movie actually like women? Enough to treat them as other than tools?

    The surprising feminist character if we must have one– and I doubt this was intentional– is Blomkvist’s daughter, who is deceivingly portrayed as a naive Christian convert. Here me out. She is the only one who accepts people’s flaws and loves them anyway– e.g. mom’s greed and dad’s infidelity; and is self-sacrificing enough to visit her Dad even though it’s out of the way. She has somewhere to go, but she comes anyway; he has nowhere to go and simply can’t be bothered. She’s a Christ in a world of narcissists. Good narcissists, maybe– trying to do good, but ultimately filming a movie from their perspective only. Lisbeth actually films a movie.

    Pernilla is the character of salvation, she isn’t broken and she can’t be broken. Lisbeth is completely self-sufficient, yet falls inexplicably for Blomkvist, only to find she was just a tool to him. Pernilla doesn’t get caught in that emotional trap– she is completely aware of the limitations of love, of her father love even for her– and rises above it, loves him unconditionally anyway. It’s an impossible love, perhaps, but the only kind worth aspiring to in the whole movie. What turns off feminists is her innocence and Christianity, but how is that less real and authentic, let alone empowering than, say, tattoos and lip piercings?

    Pernilla brings her father his favorite CD– Eurythmics, which contains the song “Sweet Dreams”, which contains the a propos passage:

    Everybody’s looking for something
    Some of them want to use you
    Some of them want to get used by you
    Some of them want to abuse you
    Some of them want to be abused

    Everyone except Pernilla.

    • durand says:

      I haven’t seen the remake, so I don’t know anything about this daughter/Pernilla character. But I’m having trouble seeing how any of the traits or acts you named are in any way feminist. I realize you said “if we must have one,” but then you just fired off a bunch of non-sequiturs. Accepting people’s flaws, self-sacrifice, unconditional love–these are admirable traits, but they’re just orthogonal to feminism. Obviously, one can be a Christian and a feminist (although it’s fair to say that Christianity as a historical phenomenon is in deep tension with feminism), but nothing you say here makes it seem like the character is any way feminist.

      • Elisabeth says:

        You’re making an interesting point.

        Maybe we need to let go of the feminist question, and ask which characters in the book are simply good people and well written, believable characters.

  8. operator says:

    Feminism can do better.

    Perhaps that belief, taken at face value, is the problem for feminism (itself a rejection of masculinism – which my spell-checker refuses to believe is a real word) or even transgenderism (which my spell-checker, oddly enough, accepts).

    Defining an abstract concept (to include gender – read above) by what it is not is folly – an exercise in exhaustive lists at best, puerile name-calling and myopia at worst. The desire to project the nobler aspects of humanity onto a subjugated class of person presupposes and even invites subjugation (else the Magical Negro must represent the first generation of a rising master race).

    In this sense, Lisbeth is a Magical Femme – but (hopefully?) only those stuck in the mindset of sanctimonious self-subjugation and reflexive definition by opposition actually believe in this back-handed “magic” of faint praise.

  9. Minerva says:

    You mention Feminism, the most loaded term in the entire world.

    Basically it’s what you want it to be. For the early feminists it was we are human beings too, no better and no worst than you are, and we want the same rights, same pay.

    Somewhere along the line this was perverted to working full time, yet expected to do all the household chores & raising of the children, but still look like a photoshop whore for the bedroom please; while the man may or may not work while he spends all his free time on porn & Xbox.


    Compared to that sad state of affairs Lisbeth is quite the feminist.

  10. MikeWC says:

    I think all the discussions about feminism in the novels and movies goes wrong from the very start: feminism is only a peripheral theme in the stories. Put it this way: the overarching theme is less the oppression of women than it is sexual and economic (the movies, especially, elide this element) exploitation.

    Of economic exploitation: in the novels, it is clear that Blomqvist’s field is economic journalism. He does not simply track down scheming and corruption, he is after a corporation that uses violent child labor in Thailand. This is an element in the Swedish movies, but did it appear in Fincher’s movie? Of course not.

    Lisbeth’s predicament with her attacker, in the novels and to an extent the Swedish movies is clearly premised on the idea that her situation is systemic. The Swedish legal system is opening her up to this sexual exploitation. The whole point was that no one was going to help her. Fincher’s version makes it seem like the rapist is a lone, corrupt individual.

    But people see a “strong” woman character, and so assume the stories must be judged and criticized from the perspective of feminism.

    There’s one critical point that I think a lot of the internet’s reception of these stories has missed. In the first book (I think) Lisbeth is reading a book on psychology, and after reading a certain passage, she realizes how men see her: as a victim. After this, she begins carrying various self-defense weapons. —— But look at many of the criticisms of the book: that the story revels in the suffering of women, that the the female characters exist only to be victims. Why is it that so many (feminist) critics share the rapist’s perspective on Lisbeth?

    Yes, I liked the books quite a bit, so in that vein…

    There are a million examples, I’ll give you only one: “May I have permission to kill him?” she asks Mikael.

    I want it known that this odious line does not exist in the novel.

    • rapscallione says:

      “Of economic exploitation: in the novels, it is clear that Blomqvist’s field is economic journalism. He does not simply track down scheming and corruption, he is after a corporation that uses violent child labor in Thailand. This is an element in the Swedish movies, but did it appear in Fincher’s movie? Of course not. ”

      Yes, God forbid that Fincher doesn’t include, in a movie about the first book, a plot line from the third.

      And yes, that line does exist. I’m not going to go digging for page numbers, but it’s right after Martin runs away after being beaten by a golf club.

  11. stellachiara says:

    As far as I could tell, she was supposed to be severely emotionally damaged. I thought that was made abundantly clear in the film. In any case, you have to assume someone who successfully burned their father alive at age 12 has got to be severely emotionally damaged. Also, someone who has been sexually abused their entire life probably doesn’t see one more incident of sexual abuse as something unusual – why not use it to her advantage, since apparently it just happens to her in any case? (And as another commenter pointed out, she didn’t walk in there expecting to be bound and anally raped.) What’s a blow job to someone who’s been forcibly fucked all her life by men with power, especially if it will get her freedom from an inescapable, sadistic master who literally controls her life?

  12. Satanforce says:

    Fortunately (or unfortunately) this is still the best trilogy to come out in the last 10 years. Swedes are great writers and even better musicians. It’s a hotbed of talent up there. Probably the long winters.

    Yes. What splendid writing! Just check these examples !!

    “I think you are grasping at straws going to Hedestad.”


    “Ricky, that story is dead as a doornail.”


    “You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that these events were somehow related. There had to be a skeleton in one of their cupboards.”

    These are just three examples out of hundreds. And there are also a lot of clumsy descriptions, like this one:

    “She looked like an ageing vampire — still strikingly beautiful but venomous as a snake.”

    So is she a vampire or a snake? Are vampires venomous? And there are even clunkier sentences, like this one:

    “Harald Vanger had gone back to his cave by the time Blomkvist came out. When he turned the corner, he found someone quite else sitting on the porch of the cottage.”

    Ummm, Pastabagel. is it too late for me to write my own Dragon Tattoo review?

    • Guy Fox says:

      Why are you citing English passages to comment on the quality of the writing in a Swedish book? Many idioms aren’t very portable from one language to another, and translators often take tired, old, but familiar metaphors in the target language as the best semantic equivalent to the original, even at the expense of sounding like utter hacks, because the readers just wouldn’t get it otherwise.

      E.g. The phrase “Slow and steady wins the race” is painfully cliched, but it would still be preferable to writing a direct translation of the German idiom “Mühsam nährt sich das Eichhörnchen”, which would be something like “The squirrel feeds itself with difficulty.” Would you prefer reading the cliche you understand or some totally cryptic message about rodents?

      I don’t know if that’s the case here, but I’d give the translator the benefit of the doubt.

  13. Satanforce says:

    I don’t know if that’s the case here, but I’d give the translator the benefit of the doubt.

    I don’t buy that excuse. Thousands of German, French and Swedish fiction and non-fiction books (like Smilla’s sense of Snow) have been translated, yet maintain all the nuances of the language. One only need compare Camus’ “The Stranger” in its English and American translations. Both are different yet excellent, for example, the legendary opening phrase about the protagonist’s mother’s death is conveyed with detached indifference in the English, and glib indifference in the American. The character still retains his sense of anomie.

    Why I believe that the original Swedish was just as cliche’ filled as the English translation is not merely the separate phrases as above, but what phrases like those are used to describe. The countless listings of square footage of rooms, coffee drinking, computer specifications and the temperature are so tedious and dull that I am sure that this book could have had been translated using Babelfish, and none of the nuance would have had been lost, nor any idioms lost in translation.

    The descriptions become surprisingly lush and nuance, however, when describing anal sodomy. Hell you can almost smell the soap the way Lisbeth’s oral rape is described. That descriptiveness also remains when Blomquivst is having sex, or whenever dead girls and parakeets are involved.Makes you wonder.

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