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04 July 2011 @ 07:31 pm
Stieg Larsson & Lisbeth Salander  

Feminist crusading … or an extended apology?

by Kirsten Campbell

Even if you haven’t read one of Stieg Larsson’s ubiquitous novels from the Millennium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the Girl who Played with Fire and the Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest) you cannot fail to have noticed their covers everywhere last year – peeping out at you from the laps of commuters and travellers all over the land.

Similarly, the arresting features of Noomi Rapace, the actress who played Larsson’s ‘Girl with …’ in the Swedish films glowers down from a thousand movie posters, luring even the most incurious among us to wonder: just who is this girl and what’s so fascinating about her feckin’ tattoo?

As it turns out, Larsson himself wanted to call the first novel ‘Men who hate women’, but his English-language publishers fought shy of such a confrontational title, and since Larsson died of a heart attack shortly before publication, there wasn’t much he could do to stop them. Certain friends of his insist, however, that he would have been appalled at the change, as part of his intention in writing the books was to publicise the awful effects of violence perpetrated by men against women – sanitising the title would not have been his style.

The feminist question
Was Stieg Larsson a feminist? According to his lifelong partner, Eva Gabrielsson, in an interview with Sweden’s SVT, Larsson was referring to himself as a feminist as far back as the early 70s, and she refers to him as a “practising feminist,” although she doesn’t expand on what that means. She and others have traced the beginning of Larsson’s interest in violence against women to the gang rape of a girl he witnessed at the age of 14. Sources on this are somewhat contradictory. Gabrielsson says he ‘couldn’t’ prevent the rape – others suggest he felt guilt for not doing enough to stop it. Whatever the truth of the matter, the event had a profound effect on him, an effect that can be felt through the visceral descriptions of violence against women in his books, and in the responses to it from the crusading protagonists.

Larsson’s avenging heroine, Lisbeth Salander, is a secondary protagonist in many ways. She is absent for large parts of the trilogy, while the hero Mikael Blomqvist (a more successful, more promiscuous version of Larsson himself) does most of the legwork. However, Lisbeth’s presence dominates the books and you find yourself desperately impatient for her next scene. In person she is terse, monosyllabic, uncompliant, and yet Larsson sketches her so brilliantly that you immediately understand you are encountering one of the most compelling female characters in popular fiction.

Abuse & neglect
Lisbeth’s history is a catalogue of abuse and neglect. Her father violently beats her mother, eventually leaving her with brain damage. When the authorities refuse to take Lisbeth’s requests for help seriously she tries to kill her father with a home-made petrol bomb. For her pains she is incarcerated in a mental hospital where she is abused by her psychiatrist. After her release she is made a ward of state and cared for by a kind and thoughtful guardian, but when he suffers a stroke her new guardian rapes and abuses her – crimes for which she soon takes a fantastically twisted revenge involving a butt plug and a tattoo gun. Larsson based Lisbeth on Pippi Longstocking – a cartoon heroine with a punk mentality, who, like Lisbeth, specialises in exposing the hypocrisy of parental figures. By making Lisbeth a ward of state, Larsson exposes the bureaucracy and legal loopholes that allow the vulnerable to fall into the hands of abusers sanctioned by the very system that is meant to protect them.

Unfeminine heroine
Lisbeth subverts a number of feminine stereotypes. First, she is rarely passive. Even when strapped down to the bed in a mental hospital and subjected to starvation and sensory deprivation, she stubbornly refuses to engage on any level with her chief tormentor, Dr Peter Teleborian, or with any other figure of authority. This is a choice she makes quite calculatingly, and which she later describes as a birthday present to herself. Once out of imprisonment, rather than licking her wounds and getting on with her life or succumbing to neuroticism or bitterness, she coldly and calculatingly orchestrates an awe-inspiring campaign of revenge against every man (and it is always a man) who has abused her.

Secondly, she excels in areas generally considered to be male-dominated. She is an expert computer hacker, can box to a professional standard and handle a variety of weapons. In addition, she lacks any social skills, is indifferent towards such matters as house cleaning or home furnishing and seems to exist entirely on microwaveable pizza. I have my doubts that any contemporary female novelist would have dared to craft such an unfeminine heroine.

It is these unusual characteristics that make Lisbeth Salander such a compelling character, but they also make her extraordinary. She, unlike most women who suffer at the hands of men, has the skills, the strength and the support to orchestrate revenge. We might aspire to be like her, but most of us never will be. We can live vicariously through her cartoon feminism, but we cannot hope to emulate her superhuman powers.

Having created such a strong female lead, I can’t help wondering why Larsson felt it was necessary to make her redemption dependent on Blomqvist, the hero journalist. In the end, it is Blomqvist’s help that saves Lisbeth from prison, and he who gradually ‘civilises’ her into mainstream society. There is something egotistical and unnecessary about Larsson creating this extraordinary woman and then having her become reliant on a thinly veiled version of himself. I suspect what Larsson was trying to say was ‘Hey, not all men are bastards’ but it’s a clumsy and unimaginative way to end an otherwise exceptional story, and makes me wonder if the books were not in some way an apology to the girl he failed to protect all those years ago, whose name, it turns out, was Lisbeth.

Glorifying revenge
Some commentators have argued that Larsson’s detailed descriptions of rape and torture of women are anti-feminist in and of themselves. During the course of the three books, Lisbeth is variously: strapped down, given drugs against her will, isolated from other humans, denied control of her own affairs, patronised, attacked by hostile strangers, raped, brutalised, humiliated, forced to perform sexual favours in exchange for (her own) money, shot in the head, buried alive, incarcerated, slandered in the press … The list goes on and on and on. Are Larsson’s books a kind of pornography – exactly the kind of salacious glorification of violence on women that Lisbeth herself would despise?

I didn’t find this to be so. Some scenes made for uncomfortable reading, but I believe Gabrielsson when she says Larsson wrote these scenes because he was frustrated at the lack of a forum for exploring this type of violence in contemporary Swedish society. If a criticism can be levelled here, it is at Larsson’s unequivocal glorification of revenge. The perpetrators of the ‘bad’ violence are evil fascists or mentally ill sadists. The perpetrators of the ‘good’ violence are vengeful angels, intent on righting the wrongs these baddies have wrought on women and on society. Larsson generally portrays agents of the state as corrupt, callous or just plain ineffective. Where they fail, he seems to argue, it is the duty of the individual to take justice into their own hands.

Pure escapism
This makes for cathartic reading, until you look beyond the glamour. Most abused women aren’t expert computer hackers with well-connected investigative journalists watching their backs. A compelling escapist fantasy the Millennium trilogy may be, but a searing feminist treatise it most definitely is not.

Sources and further reading
The official Stieg Larsson website
New Statesman: Girls, Tattoos, and Men Who Hate Women
The Guardian’s book blog: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo: feminist or not?

Beyond Larsson...
As Laurie Penny has argued persuasively in the New Statesman (see sources boxout), violence against women is so commonplace as to be banal.

If Larsson meant these books to be part of a solution to an endemic problem, he would have done better to emulate the approach of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, who successfully used their series of ten police procedural novels (called the Martin Beck novels) to expose the corrupt and incompetent state departments undermining the so-called socialist paradise that was Sweden in the 1960s.

Where the Millennium novels are flashy and cinematic the Martin Beck novels are dry and understated, yet they’re every bit as good, if not better.

I devoured all ten in less than a month. If you need an antidote to Larsson’s glamorous pseudo-feminism, give them a go. KC