Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

*trigger alert for discussion of sexual violence and spoiler alert for those who haven’t read the book*

Okay, so I realize I am super-late in reading Stieg Larsson’s trilogy and that there is already a bunch of feminist discussion about it out there in cyberspace. However, I just finished the first installment (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and am excited so have decided to pull ya’ll along with me as I read and contemplate the series from a feminist perspective.

For those of you who don’t know, the novel focuses on Lisabeth Salander, a survivor of multiple sexual assaults (two of which are graphically depicted in this novel) who is an anti-social bi-sexual detective/hacker who takes revenge on her rapist. Some feminist critique has questioned whether or not she is a feminist heroine, both because of implausible and all-too real aspects of her persona.
One reviewer in particular stated that the fact that she takes on men twice her size is ridiculously unrealistic and therefore not threatening to the patriarchal status quo. The same reviewer also said that Salander’s weaknesses- her self-consciousness about her breast size and infatuation with the male lead- undermine any feminist heroism. I have to disagree on both counts.

I haven’t read the second or third book, but in the first I thought Larsson did a good job of balancing the realities of Salander’s 90 pound frame while also making her into an action hero. She doesn’t punch the bad guys out- she takes them on by thinking ahead and using technology. I found her self-consciousness about her breasts an important reminder that even sexually liberated women who actively fight against sexual assault are susceptible to societal pressures telling them they are lesser because they don’t fit into a traditional model of femininity. I also thought her infatuation Blomkivist, the much older journalist, was totally understandable considering what a dream-boat he is, but I could be blinded by my literary love there.

Another thing I loved about the book: Blomkivist is the traditional male action-hero in that he sleeps with no less than three very desirable women in this novel. However, unlike a lot of stereotypical male leads, all of these women pursue him and express their sexual desire without being described as desperate or unwanted.

In fact, all of the women we meet in Larsson’s story are active characters. Even Harriet, who disappeared as a teenager and we do not know is alive until the end of the book, is a strong female character who killed one of her rapists and became a shrewd businesswoman.

However, despite my obvious affection for the book, I do have a couple qualms with it. There are two graphic scenes depicting the oral and anal rape of Salander as well as plenty of discussion about how other women were raped. I think it could be argued that these scenes serve to display how dangerous misogyny can be and how disgusting sexual assault is. But it could also be argued that these scenes just follow in the gratuitous footsteps of authors who sexualize and fetishize violence against women. I am not sure what to think about these scenes, but I would be interested in hearing others’ impressions.

The one thing I could definitely say I didn’t like about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the title. It was originally published as Men Who Hate Women, which is a much better title considering the novel is about violence against women; meaning the book should focus on what assholes perpetrators of the crime are, not sexualizing women. I also hate how the title belittles Salander by calling her “girl,” when, in fact, she is a woman in her mid-twenties.

I will keep you all updated as I read the series. I am hoping to watch the Swedish movie soon, so hopefully some discussion of that is also forthcoming.

If you have read the book or seen the movie, please let me know your thoughts in comments.


Jade said...

In France they kept closer to the original title, it just becomes "men who didn't like women" (why the past? why "not to like" instead of "to hate"?). I was quite surprised when I saw The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in the UK and realized it was the same book. I guess it's more marketable.
I read the whole trilogy about a month ago, so I'm almost as late as you are. (BTW, the first one is the best, I think.) My overall reaction was very pleased, since it was a huuuge success in France and we don't usually have intelligent books topping the charts over here. It's great that a male writer gets to talk about violence against women, makes it one of the main themes of his book, treats this theme in an intelligent way, and gets to sell millions of books.
Apart from that and more specifically, I thought the whole "rape and revenge" thing was really unrealistic, but then... it's a novel, and even inside the novel Salander herself is not a very common character, so why not. Still... I have a problem with people in fiction fighting things on their own instead of telling the police/judges (but yes, I know, in Salander's case it's justified).
All in all, I think the fact that the trilogy was written by a man is both a strength (wider appeal for the general public, different perspective on subjects which are most of the time only talked about by women) and a weakness (rape depicted as fantasized by men, a man's vision of what a strong woman is...), but I have nothing to reproach it, really.

Victoria said...

Jade- thanks for your comment! I agree with your analysis of the effect of having a man write a feminist series. All in all, I think the good out-weighs the bad here since feminism is overwhelmingly seen as something that doesn't concern men and having a very popular series about sexual violence written by a man helps to argue that stereotype.

I hope to hear more from you as I post more about this series.

Anonymous said...

Good day : )
Why is it that women and men (society generally) still pre-judge people who have tats. women commonly?
I am a twenty six year old F, have got 9 tats, most of which cannot be spotted on my everyday travels. 5 - 6 during the warm months are pretty much constantly on display. I don't work for attention and i also have a loving boyfriend Without TATTOOS .I get the impression that many people believe that tattooed persons are blind, once we get stared at, even when we return a glance people continue looking. When will society improve?