So, the Millenium trilogy. Like Laurie Penny, bless her fierce little heart, I avoided reading them for a while, ignored the films (which I still haven’t seen, but fully intend to in the nearish future; the following rant therefore should not be taken to apply to them) and eventually picked up Dragon Tattoo on Friday. All credit to Larsson, I’d practically finished it by that evening, which takes some doing since i joined jaded and cynical professional reviewing circles. Pacy and engaging, yes. Fascinating, well-drawn and aspirational heroine, yes. Women on boards of international companies as happy ending, fair enough. Gripping plot that did, yes, hinge in a simplistic sense on ‘Men who hate women’ (although the book’s original title never made it into the English translation – too confrontational, apparently). That such men could be neatly identified by the conveniently symbolic tendency to rape, torture and murder women rather that simply disrespecting or denigrating them in countless small and belittling ways is one thing. But the numerous other ways in which for all their ostentatious claims to feminist credentials, the book/s** manage to perpetuate damaging tropes bothered me sufficiently to stay up far too late on a school night enumerating them. Viz:
1) Salander is repeatedly describe as ‘anorexic’ or ‘anorexically thin’ despite supposedly eating normally. Whilst this is theoretically possible, not only does it put her in the >0.5% of the population for whom such a body type is compatible with eating normally***, it implicitly reinforces the aspirational nature of thinness and that the exercise of female power is contingent on the possession of a body manifesting the outward signs of extreme self-denial.
2) She then gets a boob job, which made a ‘dramatic difference’ both to ‘her looks’ and ‘her self-confidence’. Because really, if you are a woman, even if you are a hyperintelligent, deadly, enigmatic uberhacker and security genius with a history of autonomous, successful and self-directed violence and chosen promiscuity, really your only source of confidence is your body, and the possession of assets stereotypically used in contemporary culture to attract heterosexual men. Heaven forbid that having miraculously possessing the skinniness and apparent fragility associated with aspirational femininity in contemporary culture, not to mention exceptional physical and mental capacities belying it, a woman might regard the possession of voluptuous breasts as unimportant and be satisfied with her body’s appearance and capabilities. Oh no, the boobs are the thing. Because a small-breasted woman can’t possibly be confident in her skin, any more than a non-skinny one can, so to be an effective aspirational heroine (and love interest for the Mary Sue hero Blomvist) Salander suddenly needs to acquire tits. Good-oh. Anorexically thin and now with extra mammary glandage. Because that bears *no* resemblance to the culturally projected ideal feminine body. God forbid any woman might be satisfied with a non-cartoonishly perfect form, whatever her other attributes (and apparent skills/priorities). Lara Croft here we come.
3) Salander’s weaknesses, like that of every woman (!), is sexuality and emotionality. She (inexplicably, conveniently, self-indulgently on the part of the author) falls for Blomvist/Larsson at the end of the first book, can’t deal with the strength of her feelings and so (implicitly endangering herself) blocks him out of her life; a development repeatedly described in terms of ‘love’ and her awareness of it as her ‘only weakness’. Welcome to millenia, hah, of literary troping, folks. Dido, Cleopatra, the female weakness is love. At least we (presumably) escape her suicide, but (equally presumably) at the expense of Salander eventually adopting Blomvist and acknowledged love for him as her weakness instead, and thus abandoning the selfhood she spent three books struggling to establish.
Further, like every other woman in the books, Salander’s sexuality is where her vulnerability lies. Blomvist aside, she – and they – are repeatedly sexually violated. Although Salander deals with the first sexual assaults with which we are narratively presented in her own imitiable fashion, by returning the favour with a giant buttplug and tattooing ‘I AM A SADISTIC PIG, A PERVERT AND A RAPIST’ across her attacker’s torso, not only does he reappear later in the series in search of revenge, in the next books we get to see her imprisonment and violation by her father and brother. Joy.
4) These scenes of sexual violence increase in detail and voyeurism as we go through the books, as if the depraved and disgusting murders in the first weren’t enough. Once again, as per thousands of years of literary history, from Philomela and Lucretia to TS Eliot, we are presented with violation as some kind of female rite of passage (from which even our ubertough heroine isn’t exempt. In fact, given her defensiveness and passion or privacy, possibly Blomvist’s own attempts to ‘tell her story’ and the centrality of her sexual ictimisation to the stories ‘in the public eye’, it’s possible to figure Salander’s supposed salvation as a very special violation all its own). In contrast, however, when Blomvist is trapped in the murderer’s lair in the first book, he is saved from rape in the nick of time by Salander herself. So it’s suitable for every woman in the book, possible exception of Berger, but heaven forbid a *man* might be similarly treated.
5) Worse, the series uses the prospect of misogynistic sexual violence as a hook, first to establish and develop Salander’s character and then to form the basis of the central mystery. And depictions of this violence are almost voyeuristic in their intensity. Possibly it’s unfair to blame Larsson for the effectiveness of his writing, but a little more attention to *male* sexual vulnerability wouldn’t come amiss.
6) I’m sure all writers see themselves in their characters to some extent. But Blomvist is so painfully obviously an idealised vesion of Larsson that it’s painful. Not only is he inexplicably irresitible to women (why? how? it doesn’t even fit with his character or behaviour as it is show to us) but from a position of effective inferiority to a powerful and vengeful Salander in the first book, by the last it is he and his writing, not her skills and qualities, that save her from wrongful conviction and imprisonment. Salander’s dynamic, genius, unscrupulous and often almost superhuman, but she still needs Blomvist, both as a companion and as a saviour. She’s ultimately more physically, socially and culturally vulnerable than he is, so he gets to save her. Ultimately, women get raped, even Salander; men get to save them, even Salander.
Social truths, maybe. But to recreate some of the most damaging tropes that have created a culture where ‘men hate women’ in supposed denunciation of it is just lazy. If all men who damaged women did it by raping and murdering them, we could all hate, denounce, fear and revile them. But unfortunately, much of the time the damage is far more insidious – it’s in presenting women’s violation as inevitable (a rite of passage marked by a tattoo ‘as a reminder’?), their subjugation as unavoidable, and their bodies as the only place from which they can properly draw ‘confidence’. It’s in declaring that all men who hate women kill them. It’s in telling women they’ll ultimately need ‘good’ men to be safe from the bad ones.