Stieg Larsson considered himself a feminist, and the Millennium Trilogy reflects that philosophy: Those who perpetrate violence against women suffer severe consequences. Well, hey, that’s a message I can get behind. So why am I not pumping my fist in praise of Larsson’s pro-woman opus?
Because I have a hard time reconciling his ostensibly feminist agenda with all the male fantasy coursing through the books. Take Mikael Blomkvist, the series’ hard-charging journalist (and apparent stand-in for the author). He’s a walking aphrodisiac — a Swedish James Bond, only without the dashing hotness. Powerful women, rich women, married women, and even the fierce cyberpunk hacker genius Lisbeth Salander — they all want to bed him. Lisbeth (played by Noomi Rapace in the Swedish film adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, pictured here with her guardian played by Peter Andersson) even falls in love with him.
This macho make-believe doesn’t negate Larsson’s professed feminism. But it does cast a shadow over how I read the many, many scenes of horrific violence inflicted upon female characters. One victim is choked to death with a sanitary napkin down her throat. Another is tortured, then decapitated with a saw. Lisbeth is raped. The crimes are unspeakable — which you could argue is the point for an activist like Larsson: Bring it into the open, try to prevent it from happening again. Still, Larsson seems to want it both ways: to condemn such savagery while simultaneously exploiting it in graphic detail for titillating storytelling purposes. And that makes me uncomfortable.
But what about Lisbeth?, Larsson fans might ask. She can knock out murderous thugs with a flick of her Taser; isn’t she ample proof of Larsson’s feminist intent? Yes…until you get to the part in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo when she decides to seduce Mikael (of course!) and we learn that she finds her “skinny body” “repulsive,” her small breasts “pathetic,” and that, overall, she does “not have much to offer.” Okay, so Lisbeth has body issues. We all do. Yet instead of allowing her to accept her imperfections, Larsson betrays her by having her succumb to an arbitrary standard of female beauty: She gets a boob job. And going up a few bra sizes, we’re told, “improved her quality of life.” Really? This superhero in steel-toe boots sees progress in two lumps of silicone? Sorry, I just don’t buy it.
Sadly, Larsson isn’t around to discuss these potholes in his politics. By all accounts, he was passionate about his beliefs. I think he would have relished debating whether a heroine needs Lara Croft’s measurements to kick some ass.
For more about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, including Hollywood developments and a possible fourth book, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on sale now.
More ‘Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’:
This week’s cover: The secrets of ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’
Stieg Larsson’s sci-fi manuscripts he wrote as a teenager
Why Young Stars All Want a Dragon Tattoo