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The Girl With The Lots of Creepy Disturbing Torture That Pissed Me Off: On Stieg Larsson

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: you have all no doubt heard a lot about this book, which has been out for a while, and was made into a movie, and has sold about a bajillion copies in many languages, and also carries with it the deliciously tragic legacy of Stieg Larsson’s untimely death and estranged family evilly stiffing his longtime partner of her share of his (now enormous) estate, etc. etc. People love this book. They love it. They love Stieg Larsson. They love his noble anti-fascist politics (which are indeed noble, don’t get me wrong), and I lost count of the book reviews I read that basically went like this: HUZZAH FEMINIST STIEG LARSSON, FEMINIST PENNER OF FEMINIST THRILLERS FOR FEMINISTS LISBETH WHAT A BABE.

Well! For me, this thriller was not so thrilling. There are some problems with Dragon Tattoo, and let’s talk about the main one: There are a lot of dead ladies in this book. Literally: hundreds. There are other beefs I have with Dragon Tattoo, on the level of Literature: the plotting is sloppy; the sentences are decidedly unlovely; the villainous family is SO BAD they are Nazis AND serial killers (yes, plural) AND rapists (yes, plural) of their sisters/daughters/many murder victims. But the bottom line is not so much that of a Reviewer, but that of a Lady: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo creeps me the fuck out. In my gut, right there, the place that is like GET ME OUT OF HERE AND FIX ME A DRINK AND START TELLING ME ABOUT UNICORNS AND KITTENS OR SOMETHING. The novel’s original title in Swedish was Men Who Hate Women; but reading the book, you start to get the feeling it’s not a polemic so much as a manual.

Our Hero, Mikael Blomkvist, is what we might refer to as a “breast man”; when he is not hunting down depraved serial killers, he spends a lot of his time resting his head on the breasts of the lady he is sleeping with, kissing breasts, noting when ladies are not wearing bras, and commencing his sexual endeavors by “stretch[ing] out his hand to touch her breast.” Blomkvist comes into contact with a lot of breasts, because a lot of ladies want to sleep with him. At one point Blomkvist takes a time-out from his liaisons amoureuses to read the “sensational debut of a teenage feminist,” after which he wonders “whether he could be called a feminist if he wrote a novel about his own sex life in the voice of a high school student. Probably not.” Cute. (A not super-normatively-attractive middle-aged anti-fascist journalist writing a novel starring a “very good-looking” middle-aged anti-fascist journalist whom ladies line up to get breast-grabbed by does, apparently, get to be called feminist.)

And then, of course, there is feminist heroine Lisbeth Salander, 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. Lisbeth has a penchant for Doc Martens and body art (as we all know, an immediate indicator of profound emotional disturbance). She is, of course, the best computer hacker in Sweden, and she spends some time torturing the man who raped and tortured her. Also she hits a serial killer over the head with a golf club in an effort to save Blomkvist, with whom she has fallen in love despite her general inability to feel emotional connections with other people. That’s badassery for you. Despite these unassailable feminist credentials, Salander repeatedly describes herself, and is described by others, as a victim: “Bjurman had chosen her as a victim. That told her something about the way she was viewed by other people”; “…this was the natural order of things. As a girl she was legal prey”; “he had never been able to shake off the feeling that Lisbeth Salander was a perfect victim.”

We are also told a lot how much she hates herself: “She had no faith in herself”; “She was convinced that her skinny body was repulsive…She did not have much to offer.” After she is raped by her social worker, Salander goes home and eats some sandwiches, and Larsson makes the startling observation that “An ordinary person might have felt that her lack of reaction had shifted the blame to her–it might have been another sign that she was so abnormal that even rape could evoke no adequate emotional response.” What an adequate emotional response to rape might be is lost in translation. Hysterics? Fainting? She does not go to the police, also unlike a normal lady: “Salander was not like any normal person…Visiting the offices of those visor-clad brutes to file a report against Nils Bjurman for sexual assault did not even cross her mind.” (Ironically, one of the supposedly real-life statistics Larsson cites at the beginning of each part of the book asserts that “Ninety-two percent of women in Sweden who have been subjected to sexual assault have not reported the most recent violent incident to the police.” That’s an awful lot of abnormal women for one country.)

So, feminist heroine? Maybe not so much. Salander reads more like masturbation fodder for dudes who want to pretend they aren’t sleazy; Tomb Raider for manarchists, if you will. She hates herself, she “look[s] fourteen,” and she has “high cheekbones that [give] her an almost Asian look.” I don’t even want to touch that last one, honestly, but I am not the first person to note that there are some especially inappropriate tropes of Asian ladies currently circulating in our culture, and they are not, shall we say, feminist. Reading Salander as a feminist icon for our times is a pretty challenging endeavor. About the best thing you can say about her is that, unlike Larsson’s other characters, she at least has some depth.

People who write about dead ladies make a shit-ton of money (see: Patterson, James; Cornwell, Patricia; Koontz, Dean; &c ad nauseum). Even more people want to read about dead ladies than want to write about them; which, as a lady, stresses me out. I like murder mysteries and I like thrillers. But I am getting fucking tired of those stories revolving solely around rape and torture. Packaging that nastiness up as feminist is icing on an ugly cake. There are men who hate women: I am aware of this. Anyone who has ever tried living as a woman is aware of this. I don’t need a ten-page explicit rape scene to bring this point home; I need only to leave my house.

I am certainly curious, as I think are many ladies, as to why some men hate women so much; that, I believe, is a question worth exploring. And since ladies have had little success so far in answering it, perhaps it is time for the gentlemen to start doing some of the heavy lifting around here. But here’s a hint, fellows: writing a story about a father-son pair who dismember hundreds of women in a “private torture chamber [contrived] with great care” is not a successful answer to this question. Adding some specific details (nice touch with the parakeet in the vagina, Stieg, but Patterson beat you to it) just makes you seem like a fucking creep. The violence women negotiate every day of our lives doesn’t look like having our hands burned off over a slow fire. It looks like being assaulted by people we know; being denied access to legal medical procedures; being paid less for equal work; all the hundreds of little garden-variety inequalities that add up to a great big pile of shit. Most of us will never be abducted by a sadistic serial killer, thankfully. But all of us will, at some point, be told we are less because we are female. The worst thing about this book is that it seems to be saying the only violence against women that counts is the kind that ends up with us dead. The rest of us, I guess, are just complaining.

[The Rejectionist is an anonymous assistant to a New York literary agent. She blogs at]

One Comment

  1. Conor wrote:

    Reading this article and all the responses has restored my faith in people, as I’ve been horrified at all the praise these books have had. I gave up after 25 pages as the writing was so dead, but was persuaded to try again. This time I was incredulous at how bad it was: cliched, crudely visualised, unrealistic and phoney. I hope this is the last sex-and-Nazis novel I’ll ever be expected to read. I do worry about the people around us who think these books are good.

    Thursday, August 26, 2010 at 5:22 pm | Permalink