Women fight back: Lisbeth Salander, part V

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Lisbeth thinking, thinking…

Since Stieg Larsson died before he could write a fourth Salander book, and the upcoming “sequel” by another author seems shaky at best and mercenary at worst, I looked to the trilogy to see where Larsson and Lisbeth might go, and thought about the weight of the dragon tattoo.

Metaphorically the dragon tattoo has Lisbeth’s back; it protects her from her enemies. Literally the tattoo is a reminder that she has enemies so powerful that she needs a dragon’s power to defeat them. The tattoo is a constant warning, imprinted on her skin, to be wary, to watch out for those who can sneak up behind her, to be on the lookout for betrayal. 

Lisbeth seems to regard her own feelings for Blomkvist in this light, as a kind of self-betrayal, since she let down her guard long enough to imagine a romantic future with him. Blomkvist saves her life at the end of book 2, fights for her acquittal throughout book 3, and she avoids him. For some reason this makes for a more interesting story — maybe because Blomkvist works better as Lisbeth’s sidekick, her friendly neighborhood investigative reporter, than as a love interest.

At the very end of the third film Lisbeth is floating in her bathtub, mostly underwater and contemplative, having just brought down the last of her enemies without even implicating herself. The doorbell rings, she answers it dripping wet, thanks Blomkvist for all his help, and sends him on his way with the muttered “see you” that is a promise of renewed friendship. Her immersion in water looks like a cleansing and a rebirth, now that she is finally free. She no longer needs to fear her enemies and she feels only friendship for Blomkvist, which frees her of that other fear, as well. Where is she headed in a human sense?

Larsson left indications. In the books Lisbeth also stopped seeing her friend Miriam Wu, in this case out of guilt for putting Mimmi in harm’s way when Niedermann, looking for Lisbeth, nearly killed Mimmi. In the 2nd film Lisbeth sneaks into the hospital to see Mimmi before going after the men who hurt her friend. In the books Lisbeth is so upset by what she has unwittingly done that she stays away from Mimmi until months after her own trial and acquittal. At the end of book 3 Lisbeth is visiting Gibraltar when her crooked lawyer MacMillan asks her, greatly daring, what is upsetting her. Surprisingly, Lisbeth answers, telling him that Mimmi was hurt because of her, adding that she isn’t “in love” with Mimmi, but they are friends and the sex was good — as if to denigrate her feelings, whatever they are, since they don’t fit the conventions. But MacMillan argues that “friendship is the commonest form of love”, and Lisbeth flies to Paris to see Mimmi. In a funny, stilted, just-the-facts conversation, Lisbeth struggles to tell Mimmi what their friendship means to her, beginning with “I’m not in love with you, but…” Mimmi thinks Lisbeth is funny, and says the feeling is mutual.

In book 2 Lisbeth tries something similar with her old boss Armansky, showing up to say hello after a year away, but unlike Mimmi Armansky feels taken for granted at Lisbeth’s long silence and abrupt return; and Lisbeth gets distracted when Armansky says that her ex-guardian Holger Palmgren is still alive, recovering from his stroke. Armansky doesn’t know that Lisbeth has been watching over his business from afar (having hacked his computer), and prevented one of his employees from wrongdoing; and Lisbeth never enlightens him.

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Lisbeth feeding Holger Palmgren

Holger Palmgren, more than anyone, understands how frightening it is for Lisbeth to care for someone, and gives her the space to show her affection however she can. He accepts her completely and has her whole-hearted trust in return. In the films we see Lisbeth feeding Palmgren, even joking with him, and so enlivened in the presence of the one person she doesn’t need armor with that she appears both older and younger than usual.

What we can glean from all this is that Lisbeth will continue to take those risks in the name of friendship, “the commonest form of love”, that may result in rejection or misunderstanding. This means enduring pain without recourse to vengeance, since rejection and misunderstandings come with the territory. As does empathy — if your friends are hurt, you hurt with them, and the cause of their pain may not be anyone’s fault, no psycho-killer to take down. Although the slow, awkward steps that can lead to closer connections with the people she cares about don’t add up to an idyll, the willingness to reach out, to let the dragon sleep, looks like Lisbeth’s path to redemption.

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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.

Women fight back: Lisbeth Salander, part I

MV5BMTc2Mjc0MDg3MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMjUzMDkxMw@@._V1_SX214_AL_In 2008 Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was published in English and Larsson posthumously became the second best-selling author in the world; a year later the Swedish film version of this first book in his Millenium trilogy was released. The subject of these thrillers about “the girl” named Lisbeth Salander is finally, as journalist Mikael Blomkvist says in the third book, “not primarily about spies and secret government agencies; it’s about violence against women, and the men who enable it.” To emphasize his point Larsson added statistics on male violence against women to his first book.*

The Millenium trilogy “phenomenon” has been discussed at length, in print and online, since the books first appeared. While David Walsh (at the World Socialist Web Site) saw the trilogy’s popularity as a sign of the degraded state of the left-wing point of view, with its simplified world of black and white, villains (who are always men) and heroes, and no shades of gray, fans of the trilogy claimed that the vivid, anarchic, and complex character of Lisbeth Salander was more the point. Sarah Seltzer (at the Christian Science Monitor) pointed to Salander’s uniqueness as a female protagonist who is “a genuine anti-hero”, adding that Salander is in no way male-defined, being neither “girlfriend, sidekick, or prey”.

Lisbeth is a Goth-punk computer nerd, a brilliant hacker with few social skills. She cares deeply for her few friends and seems to care very little for anyone else, but she fights against the abuse of women whenever she comes across it, in whatever ways she can. In book 2 she saves the life of a stranger whose husband is trying to kill her by killing him instead under cover of a hurricane; and in book 3 she helps catch Erika Berger’s stalker, even though Berger is something of a romantic rival, and Lisbeth herself is basically imprisoned in a hospital, with a cop outside the door. Throughout the trilogy Lisbeth takes personal responsibility for stopping the perpetrators of violence against women — she is furious at Harriet Vanger for simply escaping, and then allowing her brother to continue to abduct and kill women — and near the end of book 3, finding the dead women in the factory where her half-brother is hiding, Lisbeth thinks that she should have dealt with “this” (her male relatives’ trafficking business) sooner. She is a self-appointed justice system of one.

As an avenger Lisbeth is bloodthirsty without being particularly sadistic, confining her torture of the guardian who raped her to the eye for an eye variety, and tattooing a warning to other women on his torso. She is a vigilante who will use any means at her disposal to destroy those she has decided deserve it, hacking into their computers to ruin their reputation (as happens with the pedophile psychiatrist) or taking an ax to them (as she does to her gangster father). But filmgoers and readers tend to agree with Salander’s champions in the trilogy that her actions are just, even though they are outside the law; and that these men get what they deserve, even when that is death at Lisbeth’s hands. Judith Lorber (at Dissent) called Salander’s physical violence “the guilty secret of Larsson’s phenomenal success. We know it is fiction, so even if it isn’t properly feminist, we exult over Salander’s successful physical battles with men twice her size. It may be a vicarious purging of the constant threat of violence that women experience from men.”

Larsson himself was thinking in terms of misogyny: in Swedish, the first book was baldly called Man som hatar kvinnor or Men Who Hate Women. According to his longtime partner Eva Gabrielsson, Larsson had a personal stake in his story in the form of a guilty conscience for not trying to stop a gang rape at a party when he was 15. Although another friend of Larsson’s said the story was apocryphal, it has served as a media backstory to the trilogy, in which Larsson made sure that Lisbeth Salander, a small, fragile-looking woman, who had been subjected to violence and sexual abuse from childhood on, got to fight back and win without anyone’s help.

*Thanks to Kelli Corrado for this observation.