Girls, Violence and Dragon Tattoos

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.


Jen is a writer and web designer/developer in Columbus, Ohio. She spends too much time on Twitter at @antiheroine.

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  1. I agree wholeheartedly. Probably the most ridiculous example of criticism I heard of the books from a feminist was her complaining that the relationship between Blomkvist and Salander was “typical Hollywood fantasy between a greying older man and an attractive younger woman.”
    I wonder where she got the idea that Lisbeth was supposed to be mainstream attractive. She’s described as frail, menacing, and punkish, not like a Zooey Deschanel or Mary Elizabeth Winstead manic pixie dream girl type at all. Plus, their relationship went beyond the “Hollywood” boundaries, making them more collaborators than anything, and Lisbeth saved Blomkvist’s life more than once.

  2. The books were amazing. Movie was difficult to watch. Anyone else find figuring out who was who in the first book to movie confusing? Too many names!

    Gripping story though. Shame he died, does he have any other books? (In English)

  3. @Smiles302: As far as I know, all that is published is this trilogy, although I think there is also a manuscript for a fifth (yes, fifth, skipping four!) book in the series that his estate may release. Not sure.

  4. Yes, I am halfway through the second book and I like the fact that Salander is certainly not hooked on how people perceive her and lives her life they way she sees fit.

  5. Thank you! I thought these books were so good, because not only did they tackle the violent ways in which women are treated badly by society, sex trafficing and rape and torture they also tackle the subtle social ways. Erika Berger’s treatment at her new magazine is such a great example of how women in the business world struggle, even when just voicing their opinion in a meeting.

    I was surprised that so many feminists were decrying these books, that was really disappointing. I certainly think the books get MORE feminist as you go on, which I appreciate. The first book is not unfeminist, but the third book very clearly tackles multiple feminist issues.

  6. @shinobi42: Thanks for pointing out Erika’s treatment – I know I missed mentioning a lot, and that was one I should have remembered. Excellent example. I also think you’re right about the third book – Annika kicks ass in that.

  7. I also loved the books. Here in Poland the first book had the true title (“Men Who Hate Women”), which I really appreciated. That dragon tatoo marketing bull goes so strongly against Larsson’s matter-of-fact quasi-documentary approach (btw, was I the only one strongly reminded of The Wire and Generation Kill while reading this? Larsson seemed to me very David Simon-ish in his delivery).

    I think it’s fantastic to see women on a blog like this writing in defense of the trilogy. Sadly, too many of my supposedly progressive female friends eagerly jumped on the “mysogynistic imagery = mysogynistic message = mysogynistic author” bandwagon. (Possibly fueled by the unfortunate spectacled nerd-pedophile photo of the author on the back of the cover), the average interpretation seems to be that Stieg Larsson is a huge freak living his sick fantasies through prose – like some kind of amplified Stephenie Meyer, with even more stalking and child rape.


    I don’t know, personally I really adored how human the books were. Salander’s dualistic nature struck a note: opinionated and dedicated on the one hand, but on the other burdened by the fact that her instinctive courage to act was long ago beaten out of her. All that pacing for dozens of minutes at a time before doing anything big certainly struck a note. And the talk about consequences. Real consequences. I hate all this typical empowerment vs. repression talk, as if all you needed was power in hand and after that it was smooth sailing. I also liked the depictions of Armanski’s fumbling. Or Mikael’s compartmentalizing assholery vs. professional white-knightism. Or that lawyer’s disgusting and entirely believable train of thought. All that stuff coupled with the fact that it wasn’t judged in any way (these are just things that people DO)… mmm, I want more.

    And you know what’s even better about “Millenium”? It was written without a hint of hideous apologetism by a MALE author who seems to *get it*. There’s hope, you see :).


    PS. Seriously, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”? :D Damn, that’s just sad.

    PPS. It’s really, definitely, totally Stieg.

    [EDIT: fixed some typos]

  8. Great post!

    I noticed that whenever men threaten women in these books, they almost always start with sexual intimidation, as a matter of course: Teleborian starts off by asking Salander intrusive questions about her sex life; the motorcycle gang, upon discovering her at Bjurman’s summer house, fully intends to rape her as a first measure; when Erika agrees to lead an important newspaper’s news department, a disgruntled male journalist immediately resorts to heavy-handed sexual intimidation.

    And then there’s the whole orc-vs-elf treatment Larsson treated his readers to: how characters treat women serves as an almost black-and-white shorthand for distinguishing the good guys from the bad guys, much like the “bad guys” tend to live in posh areas of Stockholm, and the “good guys” on the more artsy or bohemian island.

    The roles that women characters have in the Section is limited to those of almost-unmentioned wives and daughters, or secretaries who serve coffee and who type letters. Evildoers are, almost without exception, rapists, traffickers, paedophiles and/or utter misogynists who thrive in conservative, patriarchal circles. The “good guys” groups, by contrast, will always feature assertive women in key roles, often in leading positions (Milton Security, the various police groups, the Millennium board, the Australian farm, Annika, Dag & Mia). Some of the male characters who are on the good side are homosexual, and are explicitly mentioned to not pose a threat to the female characters (Salander’s Gibraltar lawyer, for instance).

    That’s great and all, but to me it smacked of lazy characterisation — beautiful = good, ugly = evil.

  9. I haven’t read the books yet. I just got notice from the library that my hold for the first one is ready to pick up so I will be starting it tonight. I watched the first two movies last month and thought they were amazing. I thought that Lisbeth was in control of the relationship with Blomkvist. She initiated it and she made him get out of bed when she was done with him. But she seemed to be very fond of him. She was the hero of the movies.

    I’m more worried about rumors that these are going to be re-made as American movies. I could see them turning Lisbeth into a man and calling them “The boy with the dragon tatoo.” Making him a southern badass who has a nerdy friend to do the computer work and a frail female reported who needs him to protect her. That would suck on so many levels.

  10. Fantastic post!

    I’ve come across the occasional link to a post of yours, but just started reading the blog. I’m floored by the quality of your writing and the thought that goes into it.

    Thanks :)

  11. I am an author writing a book somewhat similar to this book — and I am getting a lot of criticism from my colleagues in my Writer’s Circle because of what they conceptualize as gratuitous violence. My main character — the spiritual center of the story — was raped as an an eleven-year-old by her father, and, while I don’t go into anatomical detail, I DO describe the violence because it ends up being the source of the anger that drives her to succeed and to her ultimate death in trying to save a group of women who have been sexually enslaved. I am delighted to know that there are people like you all who can understand that dealing with this society’s will to violence towards women is not an act of mysogeny but an attempt to mirror the ugliness of male attitudes towards women with the hope of making some people really aware of what is happening to so many women.

  12. @Petroglyph: I see your point, but not all the villains are sexually aggressive; in books 2&3, Niedermann is portrayed as completely asexual. Also, as the original post pointed out, Blomqvist’s own attitude towards women is somewhat problematic.

  13. I have not read the books. I did watch the first two movies, with subtitles, and enjoyed them. I have been leery of reading the books because violence against women is a painful thing for me to handle. My first hand experiences have been “mild”, but becoming a mother of an adorable daughter has only intensified my squeamishness when it comes to sexual violence.

    I read this blog post, written by the Rejectionist ( and I must say she’s rather convincing. But then I read what you have to say and I’m swayed the other way.

    Perhaps it’s time to read these books in order to find out what I think of them first hand.

    I’m always up for debate and I’m more than willing to listen to other sides of the argument if it’s presented reasonably. I’m glad I read this, you’ve given me something new to mull over.

  14. @HACautrell: I couldn’t ask for anything better to hear than giving someone something to think about. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece, and I would encourage you to read the books, if only, as you said, to make up your own mind. :)

  15. It should also be pointed out here that while the Blomkvist character sleeps around and isn’t a great catch, he does so in a very classically feminine way. Erika Berger carries on a relationship with him while she’s married – the stereotypical relationship of that variety has the man who is married and the woman on the side. Monica Figueroa and Lisbeth both proposition him rather than the other way around. I believe that is also the case with the long-lost Vanger daughter who buys out Millenium magazine. While one reading of this is “hey, this is the ultimate guy fantasy! The girls are practically throwing themselves at this dude!”, the effect the author was going for – and I believe Larsson was explicit in stating this in one of the few interviews he gave – was to portray Blomkvist’s sexual liasons as “female” in nature.

    And yeah, there are some problems with that, and it’s not as cut and dried as I’m making it sound (for example, the open relationship between Berger and her husband introduces a dynamic that’s generally not present in the stereotypical cheating-husband situation). But I really do think that on top of being a set of great potboilers, this trilogy is a win for feminism, not pro-misogyny.

  16. @Talisker

    True: it’s not entirely black and white. But the examples you cite do not really invalidate my point.

    Niedermann is asexual. He’s also a henchman who carries out orders and shows limited capacity for initiative.

    And while Blomqvist’s attitude towards women (and towards sex) may be problematic, that attitude is continually couched in pc declarations of the sort “who I/you sleep with is none of anyone’s business except my/your own”; “Erika and her husband and me are absolutely fine with this affair; Cecilia Vanger is absolutely fine with it; so why should it concern anyone else?” I don’t think that Larsson was trying to say anything in particular about feminism here but he did have an axe to grind about privacy and society’s attitudes towards casual sex and non-mainstream fetishes and relation types.

    I agree with Johnny Slick’s post: “[I]t’s not as cut and dried as I’m making it sound […]. But I really do think that on top of being a set of great potboilers, this trilogy is a win for feminism, not pro-misogyny.”

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