Feminism and Stieg Larsson’s ‘Millenium Trilogy’

***Warning, as this piece contains discussion of emotional, mental, physical and sexual violence against women.

Stieg Larsson’s The Millenium Trilogy, and its punk, edgy, ruthless, cyber-hacker female protagonist – Lisabeth Salander, the ‘girl with the dragon tattoo’ – have undoubtedly made their mark in the global literary scene. Swedish author Larsson died before his manuscripts for his trilogy could be published. They were subsequently given to the family he by all accounts hadn’t spoken with in years, and they then published the trilogy, reaping the monetary rewards while Stieg’s long-time partner Eva Gabrielsson received no credit in the wake of her lover’s death. Death has rendered this author’s inability to confirm his intent with the trilogy and its either feministic or misogynistic portrayal of women. Although Stieg’s friends have been outspoken about his active participation in feminism and his experiences that grounded the events chronicled in his novels, much of the interpretation of Lisbeth Salander and other female characters as they become victims of abuse and violence has been left up to Stieg’s audience – and in the wide world of feminism, this interpretation has been – in quite an encapsulating manner – conflicting.

The main argument amongst feminists seems to stem from two dominant conclusions: 1) Stieg Larsson presents a story where readers witness graphic sexual, emotional and mental abuse against women to the point where it can be seen as a type of rape-fantasy. (These conclusions have undoubtedly been reinforced by the Swedish The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo film’s graphic rape scene – but it must be stressed that I’m trying to present the feminist views that are entrenched solely in the novels) and 2) Stieg Larsson presents a revenge-feminist character who literally beats the crap out of the patriarchy and eventually rises above them all, both morally and legally, to become the most powerful character in the series.

I believe that both of these points are quite well founded and easy to believe; the story of the first book, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (in Sweden it is published as ‘Men Who Hate Women’) centres around a man, Blomkvist, who is quite lucky with the ladies and ends up investigating the brutal rape and murders of women – and the explicit descriptions of these murders, as well as a scene where Lisbeth Salander is raped, certainly cement the idea of a ‘rape-fantasy’ narrative. The Rejectionist, a contributor to Tiger Beatdown, sums up the alleged misogynistic representation of Lisbeth perfectly. “[She’s] the super hot (“with the right make-up her face could have put her on any billboard in the world”) damaged skinny white chick with a bunch of tattoos (“in spite of the tattoos and the pierced nose and eyebrows she was…well…attractive. It was inexplicable”) who kicks ass. Boy is that a new one in the universe: the super hot damaged skinny white chick with a bunch of tattoos who kicks ass (1).” The Rejectionist’s further notion about Lisbeth repeatedly labelling herself as a victim also proves for a compelling argument. In Stenport’s academic reading of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which argues both positive and negative gender portrayals of the novel, she argues in terms of the resolution to the plot, “All bestial crimes actually committed against women in the novel are suppressed and never brought to public awareness or trial, whereas corporate crimes get exposed and corporate inefficiencies rectified (2).” Once again in literature, violence against women is swept under the rug. There are undeniably aspects of the trilogy that undermine a feministic approach.

The notion that Stieg Larsson presents a story world and set of characters that reflect current society is one that is the predominant view of fans of the trilogy. As writer Megan Kearns blogged, “Larsson also provides an interesting commentary on gender roles with his two protagonists.  Despite Blomkvist’s social nature and Salander’s private behavior, they both stubbornly follow their own moral code.  Both also possess overt sexualities. Yet society views Blomkvist as socially acceptable and perceives Salander as an outcast (3).”

I myself took a favourable, feministic approach as I first read the series. The second dominant interpretation, as aforementioned, is that The Millennium Trilogy is a piece of feminist literature with a feminist heroine. I would argue that this positive conclusion about Larsson’s writing seems to be more compelling in terms of contextual evidence – but no more compelling in terms of feminism interpretation. I had the chance to hear Larsson’s partner Eva Gabrielsson speak about his writing at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival this year while she was promoting her memoirs – and honestly, Gabrielsson, Steig’s partner of over twenty years, makes a great case for Larsson’s feminist attitudes in Stieg and Me and his plot concerning depictions of violence against females. “Stieg saw no excuse for male violence and has Lisbeth say so in no uncertain terms. Martin Vanger was raped by his father, true, but he had ‘exactly the same opportunity as anyone else to strike back. He killed and raped because he liked doing it.’ Later Lisbeth adds: ‘I think that it’s pathetic that creeps always have to have someone else to blame (4).”

Feminist reviews of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo praise the whole set of female characters, not only Lisbeth and her portrayal. “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 (5),” writes Victoria over at Feministing.

There are many other integral facets of the succeeding novels in the trilogy that give weight to the conclusion that this trilogy is feminist literature. This is seen particularly in the third novel, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest. Lisbeth wins against all of the men who had emotionally, mentally, physically, sexually abused and victimised her: (warning: spoilers) for example, she leaves the half-brother intent on killing her left for dead in a warehouse, and legally wins against her abuser Teleborian thanks to chilling evidence that she helped hack from his computer. In the resolution of the novel, Lisbeth is finally given legal status – she becomes a person in society rather than a ward of the state. She is liberated thanks to her own actions, morality and intelligence. A stylistic aspect of the third novel also entrenches the supposed feministic intent of the author, and therefore underlying morality, of the trilogy. Preceding the two sections of The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest is a part on female warriors, lending a strong heroine allusion to the protagonist Lisbeth:

“It is estimated that some six hundred women served during the American Civil War. They had signed up disguised as men. Hollywood has missed a significant chapter of cultural history here – or is this history ideologically too difficult to deal with? Historians have often struggled to deal with women who do not respect gender constrictions, and nowhere is that distinction more sharply drawn than in the question of armed combat (6).”

The trilogy therefore can be seen to be filled with often blatant feminist references, ideas and characters purposely constructed and portrayed by Larsson for this intent.

This all leaves me pondering many questions. Would less emphasis on looks and less graphic detail of violence change interpretations? If Stieg Larsson was alive to tell of his intent, would you believe him? The intent and impact of The Millennium Trilogy will undoubtedly still be debated as time goes on by feminists. It seems to me that it’s about how a reader reads the novel: do they focus on the negative undertones, or take to heart the positive overtones? Ultimately, no matter what the author says, or how or what they write, it seems that as with all literature, the legacy will be determined by reception.

~ Emma Di

Sources:
(1) The Rejectionist. The Girl With Lots of Creepy Disturbing Torture That Pissed Me Off: On Stieg Larsson. http://tigerbeatdown.com/2010/07/29/the-girl-with-the-lots-of-creepy-disturbing-torture-that-pissed-me-off-on-stieg-larsson/

(2) Stenport, Anna Westerståhl. Corporations, Crime, and Gender Construction in Stieg Larsson’s: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Exploring Twenty-first Century Neoliberalism in Swedish Culture. http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.library.uq.edu.au/docview/215674795/fulltextPDF?accountid=14723

(3) Kearnes, Megan. Rebel With A Cause: A Feminist Hero Emerges in film ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’.  http://opinionessoftheworld.com/2010/07/08/rebel-with-a-cause-a-feminist-hero-emerges-in-film-girl-with-the-dragon-tattoo/

(4) Gabrielsson, Eva. Stieg and Me. Allen and Unwin, Sydney. 2011. Page 78.

(5) Victoria. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo: Yet Another Feminist Review. http://community.feministing.com/2010/08/09/the-girl-with-the-dragon-tattoo-yet-another-feminist-review/

(6) Larsson, Stieg. The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest. Maclehose Press, London. 2009. Page 3.

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