Like many another crime fiction junkie, I’m mildly obsessed with Steig Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. I pounced on the first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, when it first appeared in the States, and was rather thrilled to discover a good crime story with a startling unique and complex female character at its heart – an unfortunately rare occurrence. All too often, especially historically, women only occupy the backdrops of noir genre tales.
But beyond the story itself, the (anti-)heroine Lisbeth Salander has also seemed to find herself in the middle of a popular criticism debate about women, violence and the representation of both in art. The graphic depiction of both the violence – extremely sexual in nature – she is subject to and the violence she delivers in return has been the justification for critics to discuss whether or not her story deserves to be taken seriously or if it’s nothing but salacious drama only befitting the pulp from which tradition it springs.
There are spoilers galore in this, so if you’re worried about that sort of thing, you might want to flee now.
Let’s say this immediately and clearly – misogynist imagery does not equal a misogynist work of art. That’s a lazy correlation too many readers, watchers and reviewers currently make about books, films and the like, and it’s simplistic and shallow. Rape scenes do not automatically mean sexual content is being using gratuitously. Descriptions of women being victimized do not immediately point to exploitation.
The impulse to label it as such is of course well-intended, and sometimes well-suited. It’s a sign of progress and, in general, a step in the right direction. But it’s not truly progress if it’s only an impulsive leap to the opposite end of the spectrum instead of a carefully considered conclusion about a terribly complicated and nuanced topic.
Let’s also be clear about this – it’s entirely possible for a book to be feminist without featuring a single feminist in it. Lisbeth Salander, for example, is not a feminist. She’s an extremely emotionally damaged individual focused on survival, although she seems to be at least on the path to improvement by the close of the trilogy. She’s a victim of systematic abuse and torture, and she’s committed to self-preservation and revenge by any means possible. She’s not a necessarily noble figure. She doesn’t have to be to prove Larsson’s point. The fact that she isn’t proves it even more successfully.
The same thing that many dislike (and understandably so) about the Millennium trilogy – its terse, journalist style, or, as some would have it, lack thereof – is what lends it its relevancy. The situations in this book are fictional, yes. But the entire tapestry is woven from Larsson’s journalistic observations and research of Swedish society, which, in many ways, does not differ much from other Western modern societies. There’s a reason each part in the book begins with statistics on violence against women in Sweden. It’s the same reason the Swedish title of the published book has nothing to do with dragon tattoos, but is simply, “Men Who Hate Women.”
The book supports this thesis in numerous way, both obvious and so subtle that people seem to miss them completely. In the first book, the killer Martin Vanger quite evidently hates women, and deliberately picks as his victims prostitutes, because he doesn’t even see them as people and believes no one cares about their safety. The truly horrifying part about this is that he’s right. Not just in the book’s world, but our own.
As the plot thickens to include Zalenchenko, we learn Salander’s father not only regularly beat her mother to the point where the elder woman sustained permanent brain damage and had to move to a nursing home to live, he is a sex trafficker who sells women like cattle.
But the most subtle condemnation of the way some men treat women is Blomvikst himself, who, while ostensibly the hero and clearly a good man, nonetheless is freewheeling and often careless with the women he creates relationships with. His marriage deteriorated because he continued his open affair with Erika Berger – the same affair that makes Lisbeth realize he’s not worth pursuing romantically. Blomvikst’s own sister, a domestic violence lawyer who represents Salander in the latter’s trial, states this matter-of-factly at the end of the third book, as a way of warning to Lisbeth. But Lisbeth, of course, already knew.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a fictionalized journalistic expose of a modern, industrialized, progressive society’s complicity in systematic abusive treatment of women. From an epidemic of sex trafficking to rape used as a tool of control to the media panic over Salander’s bisexuality to random, sexually charged attacks on the street to Salander’s own insecurity about her body which leads her to breast implants. These books paint a portrait of every subtle and overt challenge women in civilized societies still have to face down.
We praise violent and gory war movies that celebrate male sacrifice, pain and torture. Those are considered profound, and the willingness to graphically depict violence is lauded as bold and courageous. Rough and tumble gangsters and cowboys are treasured antiheroes. But when we see a book and/or movie that does the same for women, then it seems to become gratuitous. Men caught in a violent battle against larger forces are heroes. Are women in less-defined but no less violent battles simply victims? After all, the third book of the Millennium trilogy begins each chapter with a historical anecdote about the role of women in wars. All three books are about a female warrior in an urban battleground where women are physical and emotional casualties of men’s business and desires, and just because the war she fights is ambiguous, it’s no less real. Paradoxically, it seems those express concern about how women are being depicted are the ones drawing these unfortunate lines and missing the point entirely.
Essentially, I think much of the criticism leveled against Dragon Tattoo based on misogynist grounds is even more misogynist itself. Dismissing graphic depiction of this sort of violence once again marginalizes the importance of highlighting and talking about it, and covers this marginalization in a nice sheen of concern for the poor women.
Which means they also don’t get the first thing about why a character such as Lisbeth Salander is at the center of this tale. She doesn’t want your fucking concern. When it comes to my reading or viewing preferences, neither do I. I appreciate the fact there are so many people worried about these implications. But they don’t have the right to dismiss those, and further, implications because it’s distasteful to them, or deny the positive implications of talking about how women have to deal with them.
What I think people aren’t getting about the evolving depictions about women in popular literature and on screen is that the goal is not to have nothing but perfect women in perfect situations. What I want to see is complex and complicated women in complex and complicated lives. It’s not always going to be pretty. It shouldn’t be, if it has any truth in it, and the more important the truth, the messier it’s probably going to be. The whole idea is learning to see it all in a new perspective. A perspective in which women, including their challenges, failings and endurance, are taken seriously, both inside and outside the story.
When it comes to the Millennium trilogy, there is something here, and whatever crime story wrappings it comes in is not justification for denying it. Maybe, instead of looking away, it’s time to look even closer.