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: 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.

Women fight back: True Romance

The second movie I saw where the woman fights back and wins was much tougher to watch than Romancing the Stone. Although it’s been described as a dark romantic comedy, Quentin Tarantino’s True Romance wasn’t up there on the laugh-o-meter. The movie follows Clarence (Christian Slater), who is such an Elvis fan he talks to Elvis’s ghost (Val Kilmer) for guidance (okay, that was funny), and Clarence’s true romance with the call girl Alabama (Patricia Arquette). In a confrontation with Alabama’s pimp Clarence kills the guy, taking a suitcase of Alabama’s clothes that turns out to be a suitcase full of cocaine. To finance their happily-ever-after Clarence decides to sell the cocaine, which leads to trouble with the Mafia and the cops.

When mobster underboss Virgil (James Gandolfini) finds Alabama home alone he beats her up to find out where the cocaine is, but also to feed on her fear. He admits that seeing his victims’ terror is the only time he feels anything, so he holds off killing her even when she fights back (stabbing him in the foot with a corkscrew), because she refuses to be afraid of him. Covered in her own blood, with his gun in her face, she laughs and points at him; when he wants to know what’s funny she says, “You look ridiculous.” Because he’s not getting a response he understands, or the rush he craves, he makes the mistake of looking in the mirror. Then Alabama has the time (and the smarts) to kill him instead, throwing shampoo in his eyes, bashing him over the head with the heavy lid from the toilet tank, setting him on fire with hairspray and a cigarette lighter. She finally shoots him in the chest with a rifle, and then, in frustration that she can’t kill him more, lifts the rifle over her head and howls. Clarence returns to find her straddling a dead killer, bashing him over and over again with the rifle.

In Romancing the Stone, once Joan Wilder has acted like one of her fictional heroines and dispatched the killer she doesn’t seem to know what to do. I haven’t seen the film in awhile, but as I remember she has a moment when she nearly wrings her hands, trying to return to the damsel-in-distress romantic script to keep Jack around, or maybe in a knee-jerk attempt to get back on solid storytelling ground.

In True Romance Alabama isn’t wondering how to behave after she kills the bad guy. She isn’t ‘thinking’ at all, but expressing fury at being threatened and hurt by a brutal man, who has killed other people and enjoyed it. Maybe her fury is even at the kind of world where this happens.