when i first read the girl with the dragon tattoo, i was really on the fence about it. i thought for a book that featured an almost impressive amount of violence against women (and bore the title ‘men who hate women’ before changed to suit america’s super-sensi feminist resistant palate) the fact that it’s over all message was anti-violence against women was sort of weird. i was interested enough about why that was to read more about steig larsson himself and discovered the story that he had watched a group of peers gang rape a girl when he was fifteen and felt powerless to stop them. his former partner said that he was consumed with guilt over the incident, really haunted by it, and this story was his way of exercising the demon. or attempting to. and after that the book made more sense to me.
what surprised me is how much lisbeth really stayed with me even though i felt luke warm about the book. i went to see both movies as soon as they came out in theaters, i pursued images of lisbeth, curious about how she was being portrayed. i wondered why i felt so strongly about her, especially when i felt angry or confused about how much of the books and films were spent on her sexual violation and unsure if they were glorifying it. i’ve been thinking about it for a few years now.
and i think the reason why lisbeth has become such a worldwide icon is because of her sexual violation and the time spent on it and how horrible, squirm in your seat it is. i think that steig larsson, in his deep, incredible, consuming guilt over what he did and what he saw, did not shy away from the subject but instead amplified it. “LOOK WHAT HAPPENS TO WOMEN!”. and he is right, these things do happen to women. they happen all the time. and as women, we know how horrible and abysmal it is. if we’ve been lucky enough to be spared rape, we know plenty of women who haven’t. and by witnessing her go through what we ourselves have gone through, her baptism by fire so to speak, and seeing her become an avenging angel, avenging herself against her violator, we ourselves feel avenged. we feel the power, the capability of avenging ourselves, even if only in a flash of camaraderie with lisbeth; we feel it.
i don’t think without lisbeth’s rape we (women) would have bought her as a hero, as our hero. without her rape, and living with her through the horror of it, she would have been lara croft. she would have been bella swan. a heroine on a pillar, above our petty bodies, above our petty concerns about rape and violation. above sticking her keys through her fingers while walking in the dark. and we never would have embraced her. her rape makes us believe in her as a woman.
i recently read a quote from rooney mara (the new lisbeth featured above) saying that she doesn’t consider lisbeth a feminist and that lisbeth is acting solely in concern for herself. i don’t think this is a very astute reading of the character. steig larsson invented lisbeth as a conduit for female vengeance in a world of ‘men who hate women’. this is how blomkvist is able to hook her into the missing girl case. “i’d like you to help me catch a killer of women” he says. and lisbeth is in. whether or not lisbeth is out at take back the night rallies or whatever limited way rooney (and the general public) sees feminists, is debatable. but lisbeth lives in a patriarchal world, a world we recognize as our own, and she takes action to protect herself, and other women, against the men who feed off the vulnerability of women in such a world. this basic characterization, i would argue, is in and of it’s self a feminist one.
lisbeth in the american version of the film (where she is predictably a little nicer and sexier, though rocks the coolest hair cut ever) has a controversial line towards the end of the film that was not in the swedish version, either the book or the film. *spoilers ahoy* after lisbeth has helped mikael blomkvist escape from martin vanger and mikael lies broken on the floor, lisbeth picks up a gun. “can i kill him?” lisbeth asks mikael, mikael nods just barely and lisbeth races out of the room. some people have interpreted this as lisbeth asking ‘permission’ from mikael in a submissive way. i think this is incorrectly viewed, as lisbeth asking such a thing would be so totally out of character, i doubt it would have made it through a first draft of the script. what i think is happening here is lisbeth, having lain broken on the floor at the hands of an abuser, is acknowledging mikael as a victim himself and is offering him first dibs on the man who assaulted him. i loved this line, actually, as i thought it was a uniquely female one. i think the shoe were on the other foot and lisbeth were a man, a male character would pick up the gun and go racing off for a bought of heroics in defense of the abused woman without a second thought. but lisbeth, being a women and i would say a feminist woman, offers mikael the chance to avenge himself. and this is why lisbeth is going to be a character with incredible endurance in terms of popularity; she understands where we come from because she’s been there herself.