Saturday 20 March 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Feminism

When it comes to over-hyped books I am the Ebeneezer Scrooge of readers. Bah humbug, I declare. You won't catch me reading that! I proceed to shun said hyped book until it has been forgotten by the rabid media dogs or it gets proven to be a genuinely good book by those with a half-decent opinion of what a good book looks like. Some might call me a book snob, but I just know what I like to read and don't fancy wasting X amount of hours on a book just because everyone else is reading it unless it's actually worth it. If you could see the size of my "To be read" pile you'd understand.

The Steig Larsson trilogy were firmly in the "Over-hyped" category for me so I decided to wait until the melee calmed down. Once it did and it was voted in as the April Book for our bookclub, I thought what the heck and bought it.

On the surface, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It kept me amused through two long and tedious flights from Hong Kong to Sydney and back again which is a fair achievement as planes are one of the only places on earth I find it nearly impossible to read (or sleep, but that's another story). It absorbed me. It scared me. It grossed me out. It was, all in all, a damn good thriller.

But there was something bugging me about it... Each new section of the book was marked with some proclamation about violence against women, for example Part One states that "eighteen percent of the women in Sweden have at one time been threatened by a man." Which made me think that the late Steig Larsson must have something to say about violence against women, but throughout the book the women were subjected to an near unbelivable amount of horrific violence, both physical and sexual. Something didn't sit quite right for me.

Indeed, I'm certainly not the first to point this out. A quick search of reviews showed that this issue has divided critics between claims that Larsson was a closet mysogynist and those who believed that Lisbeth Salander was a sort of feminist avenging angel that righted the wrongs of those who were abused. This article discussing these claims got me thinking.

Photo Credit: Here
Having studied feminism and long been a feminist I wanted to throw my hat into the ring. I don't want to accuse Steig Larsson of being a closet misogynist exactly but I think the problem is that this book doesn't entirely understand the truth about violence against women. Although there are undeniably psychopaths out there who do unspeakable things, the majority of violence against women is not perpetrated by these sorts of people. Those who beat, rape and intimidate women are, on the whole, not crazy - they're your average Joe Bloggs who come across as being very nice and normal sorts of people. Absolutely, they're the scum of the earth but they're not lunatics. On the whole women are not tortured in custom-built basements but in the spaces where you and I live out our daily lives.

By choosing to portray men who are violent towards women as psychopaths is essentially unhelpful. It hides the truth of the situation all over the world and does nothing to make us question why it happens and why nothing more is done to stop it. Lisbeth Salander is without question an ass-kicking woman who takes matters into her own hands but her actions are unrealistic. It's a cathartic read but she is the stuff of fantasy.

I wonder whether choosing the way this story played out was politically based or driven by what would make a 'better story'. Domestic abuse is not sexy in the same way as a serial psychopath with incestuous tendencies is - it's a depressing reality. Although the women who have survived the abuse and violence in this book do seem to get their revenge, I don't think that this book can be seen as feminist. It is too far outside the realm of reality and plays into the hands of necessary genre cliches. Women who have suffered the day to day actuality of abuse are offered nothing of use other than a few hours of escapism into a world where the normal rules don't apply and 'avenging angels' can inflict justice on the monsters of this world. The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo is a ripping read but nothing more.

**If you or someone you know is being subjected to any kind of abuse, please call your local Women's Shelter, Rape Crisis Line or relevant agencies.**


  1. So I'm still on the fence on this one. Partially for the same reason that you put it off. But partially because of the abuse part. I just don't know that I want to read about that kind of thing.

  2. @Lisa - I know what you mean. I'm glad I read this book and overall I enjoyed it but the sexual violence was very hard to read. For this reason I don't think I'll be reading any more of these books. I read an excerpt of the Girl who kicked the hornet's nest and it looked like more of the same. Which is fine, but really not my cup of tea.

  3. I loved this book while I was reading it - I found it thoroughly entertaining.
    It's weird, but I didn't really think the men in this book that were sexually abusing the women were supposed to be seen as psychopaths. It could be because I read all three books one after the other and am getting confused, but I thought there was only one man that was portrayed as slightly psychopathic and the others really were just normal, scummish dudes.
    Anyhow, it's interesting to think about though. When I was reading, despite Lisbeth Salander's obvious hatred of violent men, I never ONCE thought of this book as feminist, and it's certainly not a book that I would recommend to women who have suffered from abuse. Just the opposite, even.
    I guess in the end, I agree with what you say in your last paragraph.
    And I almost feel ashamed that it's not actually something I really thought about while reading these books.

    On a side note, I thought the books just got better and better, and if you happen to have time and happen to have a copy, I would urge you to give them a chance. :-) The third one is wonderful!

  4. I respectfully disagree with you this. Let’s take Salander’s new ‘caretaker ‘who she has to report to (sorry about the vagueness of details but I read this last year and I can’t remember his exact title). He’s described as being a stand up guy, with a wonderful public facing image and a nice guy in private. He gives to charity – there’s a paragraph that lists his virtues, which are part of the reason why Salander can never go to anyone about his behaviour, as they simply won’t believe her because of the image he projects and the image she projects. He is in fact your average Joe character in public, as well as in private with friends and family, but when given unspeakable power over his charges he reverts to the bestial nature he keeps hidden.

    I think Larsson’s book is attempting to react against the perceived misogyny of a mass of crime novels, which depict women as victims and show explicit scenes of rape and violence against women. Larsson is saying ‘violence against women happens’, which it would be untruthful of a crime novel to obscure. Violent crime very often occurs against women and you can’t draw a sheet over the violence and go from creepy attacker to dead girl anymore, because of allegations thrown against crime writers that to do so would encourage violence, as it avoids showing the graphic consequences of violence. Would I like to see a more balanced crime novel industry where half the victims are straight men – yes, but in my opinion it is not always misogynistic to show women as the victims of extreme violence, because it happens.

    Salander is certainly a creature of fantasy, but I don’t necessarily think that makes her problematic. Salander is there to counterbalance the violence and victimhood of women that Larsson shows through his explicit scenes. The fact that in order for her to do so she has to be almost a fantasy character, acting in a way readers will see as unrealistic is troublesome – why couldn’t one of the more typically feminine women have exacted revenge against attackers by going through the legal system?

    I think that’s something Salander is used to address when she later brutally critiques Hannah’s strategy for escaping her abusers. Why doesn’t Hannah choose another way, she asks, and in asking raises the question, why are women who suffer domestic violence almost conditioned to believe that they can’t fight back? Instead of retailiating Hannah must escape, desert her life and her loved ones rather than finding a way to retaliate. What societal systems make this the way that women have to react? Why does the culture of silence prevail, even when women have other support networks they can turn to (Hannah for example would have had the head of the family on her side, but decides to leave his protection rather than appeal to it).

  5. Salander shows the potential of women, she shows the possibilities which gaining strength and bucking the societal norms that reinforce the idea of female as naturally weak can offer – although she absolutely does this in a fantasy way (if Salander could have gained her justice through the legal system perhaps the book would have offered more of a model, rather than a fantasy representation of justice for women). You talk about her being an intervening angel, but she never intervenes between another woman and her attacker, instead she saves herself. Who better to be shown as the agent of change than the woman put in a victimised position? Salander has so much potential to be a victim, she’s in a position of extreme legal and mental weakness, yet she refuses to accept that status and recrafts herself. But of course applying her to real life is complicated, most women aren’t going to be able to effect such a physical revenge on their attackers, but I think Salander definitely encourages women to explore their options, to try to come up with some kind of plan.

    I also don’t think Larsson’s book ignores the reality of domestic violence. The facts he uses in his section breaks are real and they reoccur in the book (for example all the main characters who are abused are abused by someone who they know). He definitely over emphasises the horror of abuse and violence against women by making his villains insane, incestuous etc, etc, but how is that different from say a soap opera’s treatment of a domestic violence story line? And soaps are often commended for opening up conversations on the big issues, by creating exaggerated versions of real life situations.

    On the other hand I wouldn't hand it out to women who have experienced domestic violence, because it has so many trigger points.

  6. @Brizmus - Thanks for your comment! It's interesting how different people see completely different things in books which is what makes discussing them here all the more interesting! I think I will give the others a chance, to finish off the trilogy at least!

  7. @Jodie - Thank you for your detailed and thoughtful contribution! I love a good debate about books like this!

    Re: your comment that Salander's caretaker was a publicly upstanding guy, this is very true - he was. However, I thought his 2nd rape of Salander was excessively violent, pushing it beyond what really happens most of the time and into the realm of the extreme, making it unrealistic.

    Given that, as you say, Larsson appears to be wanting to raise awareness of violence against women, falling into the same traps of other crime novels that you say he is trying to react against. If he really was trying to react against this why is he also depicting excessive and extreme violence against women? I've read many a book and never before have I read such a violent rape scene as the one perpetrated against Salander.

    Although he does gesture towards the more common and taboo issue of domestic violence and incest with the story of Harriet and her father, he detracts attention from this by making her father a lunatic serial killer who not only rapes BOTH of his children but trains his son as his sick apprentice.

    Essentially my issue with his depiction of violence is that he appears to want to expose the issue of violence against women but ultimately doesn't as the violence is too much, too sadistic, too lurid to be seen as something that happens commonly. He starts off on the right track but veers wildly off into the extreme.

    On the question of Salander as role model/realistic depiction of survivor of violence, I pointed out that others had portrayed her as an avenging angel (not intervening) but this wasn't something I necessarily agreed with. Although I agree with you that she's a very useful counterpoint to the violence against women and a great antidote to the usual victim status of female characters I actually feel that Harriet is a better representation of the potential of women. Salander may have been critical of Harriet's decision to flee, it wasn't weakness that drove her to leave but strength. It wouldn't have been easy for her to make her way, even with help from her cousin, yet she does and is a successful, well-adjusted woman. Ultimately though, both Harriet and Salander must resort to solutions outside of the law which is, as you say, indicative of the culture of silence around these issues.

    Although Salander makes for a good female lead, I would point to Harriet as the better and more realistic example of how to survive abuse and flourish. She returns to the site of her earlier horror, triumphant. She is now in charge and calling the shots.

    Maybe, as you say, an over-emphasized version of real-life is what is needed to raise debate and awareness but I think a more subtle and realistic treatment would be more hard-hitting. I'm not sure if you have heard of "Once were Warriors" (it's a New Zealand novel by Alan Duff, later made into a movie) that deals with domestic violence and it had a huge impact on New Zealand's public debate about violence against women as it showed it as it really was in far too many homes around not only NZ but other countries. I wonder if this novel has had a similar effect in Sweden?

    Anyway, thanks again for your response! It's been fun to debate the point with you :)