Women fight back: Lisbeth Salander, part IV

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Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander

To reiterate: at the end of the trilogy, Lisbeth has her freedom — she is rich, she has the legal rights of an adult, and all of her personal enemies are dead or in jail. Stieg Larsson had a fourth book planned in which Lisbeth went to Canada, with flashbacks to explain why she got the dragon tattoo that defines her. Larsson died soon after delivering the trilogy to his publisher so we don’t know what he intended, or how he (and Lisbeth) perceived that tattoo.*

To this reader (me), the tattoo is about protection – Lisbeth wants a dragon to watch her back, to protect her from enemies. But unlike Perseus, who used the gorgon’s head to slay his enemies, Lisbeth can’t set aside the dragon when it becomes burdensome – its watchfulness is part of her. And unlike Josey Wales and Patrick Jane, Lisbeth’s vengeance can’t be satisfied and justice achieved by killing the man who murdered her family; her quest is too large for that. It’s as large as a dragon or a rainbow, and just as hard to reach — Lisbeth has the audacity to believe that women have the right to be safe from abuse. Since no one else in her world seems to be doing anything to ensure this right Lisbeth takes the sword of justice into her own hands, killing or disempowering “men who hate women” when they cross her path.

While she is willing to die in the attempt to make women safer (as when she goes after her gangster father and half-brother, who have been trafficking in women), she would rather survive and live in freedom. More like Patrick Jane than Thelma and Louise, Lisbeth uses her formidable intellect, plans ahead, thinks on her feet, and controls her impulses to achieve her ends. But since her quest is endless (the world is full of misogyny and misogynists), there’s no redemption in sight for her.

As well as the problem of an endless quest for justice, Lisbeth herself has been turned to stone by abuse. Being brutalized has shaped her into someone who can exact retribution, who can be as implacable as that blindfolded goddess with the scales. But what does that do to her human side? Actor Noomi Rapace talked about how it felt to play Lisbeth when she had to “find her in me” and then “translate her into me”, which was like having the character “move in” to her own body.

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Noomi Rapace as herself

Rapace said that her initial inspiration was Patricia Arquette in True Romance — one of Rapace’s long-time favorite films, she had watched the scene where Alabama kills the hit man at least a dozen times. After reading Larsson’s books Rapace wanted to play Lisbeth but worried that she looked too “soft”. She lost weight and learned kickboxing for the audition. When she got the part she had Lisbeth’s facial piercings done instead of faking them so her portrayal would feel more authentic. And then she descended into the character for the duration, filming the three movies back to back.

Rapace said she was glad the movies were filmed all at once (in about 18 months) because she couldn’t have managed being Lisbeth over a longer period of time. As Lisbeth, Rapace was suspicious, angry, and aggressive, and this state of mind or being bled into her interactions with friends and family. At the party for completing the films, while cast and crew drank champagne to celebrate, Rapace went off by herself and vomited. She said she wasn’t ill, she was casting Lisbeth off – literally throwing Lisbeth up and out of her body so that she could go back to being Noomi. Much as she admired the character, she was ready to end the symbiosis. The peace of mind that comes to righteous avengers only visited Rapace when she was able to stop being the girl with the dragon tattoo.

*Larsson died without a will, so the rights to his books went to his father and brother, who hired another author to write the sequel. (Due out next month, with no reviews allowed until then, and no advance copies. Seems a bit odd, to say the least. You have to buy it before you can decide if you’re interested?) Eva Gabrielsson, Larsson’s partner of 30 years, has said that the sequel is not about “continuing” the characters and story (as advertised), but about making money. She was also unhappy about the way the Swedish films were hustled into production to take advantage of the books’ popularity, but in later interviews said that Noomi Rapace “made” the films, and even that Rapace “managed the literary estate” on her own, defending the character of Lisbeth Salander by refusing to do or say anything in the film that did not match the character in the books.

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Women fight back: Lisbeth Salander, part III

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Lisbeth visits Mikael in (a pretty low security) jail.

Despite Lisbeth’s nearly total indifference to what others think of her, she is not impervious. When she falls in love with journalist Mikael Blomkvist (played by Michael Nyqvist) she is so afraid of being ridiculed for her feelings, especially after she realizes that he only sees her as a friend and occasional sex partner, that she takes off on a year-long trip. Even after he has saved her life and helped secure her freedom, she refuses to see or speak to him until her “foolish” feelings of romantic love are gone. Then can she be friends with him again. Which suggests that the ridicule Lisbeth fears comes from a harsh inner critic and is more about how she appears to herself than to Blomkvist; but this doesn’t seem to occur to her.

The last we see of Lisbeth, she is either shutting the door on Blomkvist but saying she will “see him later” (in the film), or allowing him to invite himself in for coffee (in the book). In both cases Blomkvist is relieved to have her friendship again, and Lisbeth is relieved that she only wants him as a friend.

Off the top of my head I can think of two righteous avengers who find something better on the other side of revenge – Clint Eastwood in The Outlaw Josey Wales, and Simon Baker as Patrick Jane in TV’s The Mentalist. Once the scales are back in balance (the eye for an eye) and justice restored, the character (and the society they are part of) can begin to heal.

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Patrick Jane (Simon Baker) and Teresa Lisbon (Robin Tunney), working together.

Eastwood’s Josey Wales finds love and community in an idyllic Western landscape of mountains, forests, and rivers, living in harmony with the indigenous people and the land. Baker’s Patrick Jane finally hooks up with former boss Teresa Lisbon and plans to rebuild a house so ramshackle it has no keys – like a child’s treehouse – in another idyllic setting, while family and co-workers dance ecstatically at their wedding. In both stories there is a sense of innocence regained or discovered, even if only momentarily — innocence achieved.

In the Millenium trilogy the society is saved, a hidden canker revealed and cut out – but what Lisbeth Salander might do with her life is unclear. She has been saved from death and prison, her rights have been restored, and she has piles of money. So what now?

Women fight back: Lisbeth Salander, part II

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Lisbeth taking out the bikers

As Judith Lorber noted, the discrepancy between Lisbeth Salander’s looks and her ability to defend herself is part of the story’s appeal. Although she’s been compared to Clint Eastwood’s avenger characters, Lisbeth Salander as played by Noomi Rapace appears to be a victim. Eastwood is a tall, broad-shouldered man whose body language and stone face can radiate threat; his enemies know to be wary, and only gloat when he is seriously outnumbered. But when two bikers find Salander alone at a cabin in the woods they can interpret her lack of expression to mean anything, even that she is too slow-witted to understand her danger. So they gloat all over her. The second biker continues to gloat even after she has laid out the first. Like the corrupt shrink who is trying to get her put away forever, they are so convinced that she can’t hurt them that they don’t believe it even when she does. These men perceive Salander as their natural prey – a woman barely five feet tall, weighing less than a hundred pounds soaking wet, and all alone.

But all alone is Salander’s natural state. She is not part of any group, except for an international community of ace hackers who usually connect online instead of in person. Like most good detective and thriller protagonists, Salander is a loner. In her case she is isolated by her own personality as well as the circumstances of her life – as if she has been turned to stone by forces outside her control.

It’s not that she doesn’t care about other people. There’s plenty of evidence of her feeling for those few she calls friends, like her old guardian Holger Palmgren, her friend and lover Miriam Wu, and her ex-boss Armansky. But Lisbeth is often misread (by Armansky, for instance), since she can’t show what she feels. In most cases, she doesn’t want to. Lisbeth has learned to rely on herself, and a poker face has enabled her survival. The way she stonewalls official interrogators when charged with the attempted murder of her father, by saying nothing and showing no emotion, not even making eye contact, means they can’t put words in her mouth or use her feelings against her. What helps her maintain a stone face for hours on end is its emotional equivalent – she doesn’t give a damn what the authorities think of her, only what they can do to her. She has no emotional connection to them, no stake in gaining their approval. (Many young women, in comments on blog sites,* admired this quality most – Lisbeth doesn’t need anyone’s approval.) She cannot be manipulated by fear of what others think.

*P.S. I re-found the site, which had been discontinued. It was at unputdownables.net, and the article that prefaced it, written by a young woman whose name I can’t find, was called “Why is the girl with the dragon tattoo so damn popular?” A good article, if anyone else can find it, let me know.

Women fight back: Medusa, Thelma, Louise, and Salander

The image of Alabama’s fury in the movie True Romance made me think of another visual image, Carvaggio’s Medusa (see below). His painting of the beheaded Gorgon shows that her horror and pain are mixed with rage at what has happened to her. This Medusa is not a vacant-eyed trauma victim; even the snakes that have become her hair seem to writhe in anger as much as agony.

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Medusa by Carvaggio

In Ovid’s version of the myth Medusa was not born a monster, but a human female. She was a good-looking teenager, and happened to be admiring her hair in some reflective surface in one of Athena’s temples when Poseidon sneaked up on her and raped her. Furious at the sacrilege and insult, Athena turned Medusa’s hair into snakes and the girl into a Gorgon whose look changed men to stone. (Talk about ‘Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.’) While Athena’s reaction hardly seems fair when Poseidon was the perp and got off scott-free, it’s about what could be expected from a goddess born out of Zeus’s forehead after Zeus ate her pregnant mother. Athena is supposed to be the goddess of wisdom and justice, but as the head trip of the father of the gods she was born to be a man’s woman, and a token goddess. But I digress.

In the 1970s and 1980s, feminists took the myth of Medusa as a metaphor for female rage, but also for female power and freedom. No coincidence that this was also when public discussion began about such taboo subjects as domestic violence and rape, including date rape and sexual abuse within the family. (The first modern-day battered women’s shelter opened in London in 1970; the first rape crisis center in the U.S. opened in San Francisco in 1971.*)

But depictions of female rage and power in mainstream movies, in a more-or-less ‘reality’-based context (not comic book, spoof, or spy-fi) lagged behind. The first one I remember was in Romancing the Stone in 1984 (see earlier post). Later there were other film depictions of women who fought back when threatened or hurt. The indie romantic comedy Desperately Seeking Susan in 1985, for instance, has Roberta (Susanna Arquette) whacking Susan’s (Madonna) and her own would-be attacker on the head with a wine bottle and knocking him out.

thelmaandlouiseAs a more comprehensive example, Thelma and Louise in 1991 was also one of the great female buddy movies. But while the plot of Thelma and Louise hinges on female rage at male violence against women, with Louise (Susan Sarandon) shooting a man who is about to rape Thelma (Geena Davis) in a parking lot, it can’t be said that Thelma and Louise fight back and win. Instead of seeking ‘justice’ in a system that, Athena-like, excuses a rapist, the women turn outlaw — Louise in one unguarded moment of fury, and Thelma after she’s been ‘freed’ sexually as well as financially by a ‘polite’ robber (Brad Pitt). Turning outlaw seems to be the only real choice Thelma and Louise have got, and they make it knowing at some level that it will cost their lives.

But in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy Lisbeth Salander (played by Noomi Rapace) is going for a different kind of justice. Lisbeth is willing to die fighting, but she’d rather make her own justice however she can and survive in freedom; and she plans accordingly.

Before I take on the trilogy about Lisbeth Salander: There have probably been many other women in movies who fought back and won. These posts are a somewhat random sample based on movies I happened to see, with characters I enjoyed (which is why I don’t cite La Femme Nikita) who overcame their opponents by more or less ordinary methods like being quick-witted and fast on their feet, instead of through any special training or superpowers (although Salander’s hacker skills verge on a superpower). Science fiction and maybe horror movies (about which I know zip) were likely way ahead in their portrayals of women who fight back against male violence and win, since science fiction, fantasy, and mysteries (genre fiction) were years ahead of mainstream and literary fiction in alternative scripts for and portrayals of women. For a recent recap of women ‘warriors’ in movies that span the genres, see Lesley Coffin’s “17 Most Badass Women in Movies, 2014”.

*Click on ‘myth of Medusa’ and scroll down to ‘Feminism’ for books and articles on Medusa imagery and women’s rage. For a history of the battered women’s movement, click on this link.