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.