'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' trilogy: Did Stieg Larsson have a problem with women?

Stieg-LarssonImage Credit: Britt-Marie Trensmar; Knut KoivistoStieg 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


Comments (93 total) Add your comment
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  • DM

    wow – great article. I have to agree with you. I read the first 2 but not the last one (yet). Not sure if I will read it. A lot of mixed signals in these books. And I agree that it is really a shame that the author is not around to discuss it all. Would be so interesting to hear his take.

    • KS

      The Swedish title of this book is “Män som hatar kvinnor”, which roughly translates to “Men Who Hate Women.” US publishers realized that this literal translation might have some backlash on sales, etc., so they changed it to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Knowing that this is the title that Larsson specifically chose, perhaps this changes people’s opinions on what Larsson may have intended…

    • philip freeman

      the third book is just awful. with or without the needless boobs. I advise anyone who has read the first two to borrow the third and read the first 4 chapters (all you need to know) and give it back, it is boring!

  • juju

    I haven’t read the books, but I found the movie version (the Swedish one) absolutely abhorrent. The graphic rape scene(s) and the serial killer were way too much for me, and yes, very misogynistic. Even without Lisabeth getting a boob job (SO ridiculous), I think Larsson had a lot to answer for.

    • La

      The books and the movie were amazing. Lisbeth gets back at the SOB; she is my hero.

    • DenMas

      This is the best arlcite I have read, thank you, I have learned a lot of knowledge in this area.

  • alex

    i don’t agree with your general premise. i think the REASON that Larsson’s books are so intersting is that his characters don’t fit into a mold. the fact that salander gets her boobs done despite the fact that we already see her as a “type” speaks to how complex these characters are. they aren’t easy to pin down. i’m sorry but the last book has SEVEN strong female characters compared to like three men. i think that is amazing. i think these characters speak to realities.. if blombvist was NOT a sort of playboy character, we’d be wondering why not.. it would be too neat and tidy to the story. it wouldn’t make the story or the characters are interesting.. it wouldn’t be why these books are such a huge phenomenom.

    • Rosy

      I agree with you! Missy Schwartz is too into the “American Happy endings and morals” to get this book, she should have waited until the Hollywood version is released.

      • anonymous

        The funny thing is that you think it’s Missy who wants trite endings when you are the one who obviously sees things in black and white to come to that conclusion. Learn to cope with a critical analysis of something you like, even if it doesn’t mesh with your own interpretation.

      • Steve

        oh Anonymous – u need to chill out, maybe you should stand behind your critical review of rosy’s OPINION by posting your name for starters and Missy is all about the American happy endings she works at EW and is all she reviews day in & out

      • Richard

        Yeah, because “Steve” is any less anonymous than “anonymous.” I’ve got a gift for you, Steve. Here you go: “.” It’s a period, use it wisely.

      • Amy

        I totally agree with anonymous. Just because Missy makes a perfectly valid and fairly obvious critique of the book doesn’t mean she doesn’t get it or just wants it to be a happy ending. Because someone does not agree with you does not make them stupid or inferior.

    • Karen

      I also agree. I have completed the first two books, and I am 200 pages into the third. I love them. I love the complexities of the characters, the fact that they are not perfect, and the fact that they have many, many layers to them.

  • alex

    and if salander “accepted her imperfections” as you suggest Larsson should have written her, she would not be Lisbeth. She’s vulnerable- all the characters are. that’s the point.

    • anonymous

      And yet that ‘vulnerablity’, well-intentioned or not, contributes to the culture that causes the problem in the first place. Authors aren’t perfect. Words meant to say one thing can easily say another.

  • Kat

    I completely agree with you. I can’t actually read the series for that reason. It seemed that even Owen G, who reviews lots of violent films, had trouble getting thru the Dragon Tattoo film adaptation. I think there’s a way to depict darkness and perversion without going to such a repulsive place.

    Is there some way that ppl are able to get around this? Lots of ppl are avid fans of the series, after all.

    • La

      Gee, rape and serial killers are repulsive. Sorry Larsson couldn’t sanitize it enough for you. For the rest of us, it worked.

      • alex

        thank you.. you summed up what i was trying to get at exactly.

    • Rebecca

      It’s not exactly a nice walk in the park in the springtime. It’s a violent rape. The director could have toned it down, but the film wasn’t produced in the US. It’s an import from Sweden. Just wait for the Americanized version. You’ll get a nice R version.

  • Martin

    You miss the point. When the book was published in Sweden in 2005 the title translated to, “Men Who Hate Women”. It’s fiction, not a manifesto.

    • Diggity

      I agree with you Martin. And if you didn’t see the film, you should.

  • ellen

    This is really insightful, and probably true. Thanks for pointing this out. I’m halfway through the first book, and it’s harder to be brainwashed if I’m on the lookout for this attitude. (BTW: You could tear the Twilight books apart if Entertainment didn’t pander to their fans so much for $$$.)

    • smb

      So true. Twilight is much more harmful to women. Making them believe in a sick princess fantasy, with the great male protector. Lisbeth saves herself over and over. She doesn’t wait for a man.

      • ellen

        I don’t mind the male protector in Twilight. A man who can stand up for his loved ones is great. But the man in Twilight actually does the abusive behavior/beatings/controllingness. Twilight makes the abuse look GOOD, unlike in this, where it is horrific.

      • Lisa Simpson

        SPOLIER ALERT: She also saves Blomkvist.

      • Respectfully Disagree

        Actually smb I disagree. SPOILER ALERT – Lisbeth doesn’t save herself. In the first book she doesn’t protest the first rape and she willingly returned for the second (even if she wasn’t expecting the brutality and had a plan.) She gets her revenge but it doesn’t actually solve the problem, it just angers Bjurman into seeking out Zalachenko to kill her. In the second book she doesn’t lift a finger to defend herself against the murder allegations. You could argue that she doesn’t talk to cops but she has the ability to tell Micke everything confidentially and doesn’t do that either. She chases down her father and fails (for the second time in her life) to kill him. Then she spends the majority of the third book in the hospital while all the men in her life, (Micke, Dragan, Paolo) try to defend her. Bjurman is a problem and he is killed by Niederman, Zala is a problem and he is killed by SAPO, Niederman is a problem and he is killed by the MC (even though Lisbeth has the perfect opportunity to do it herself) Teleborian is a problem but Micke and Giannini take care of him. Lisbeth, for as strong as she is, really doesn’t solve any of her own problems.

  • Kelsey

    I get what you’re saying, and I somewhat agree. Yes, Blomkvist is obviously a self-insert on the part of Larsson (both journalists for magazines, roughly the same age and physical characteristics, etc.). But that’s something I realized and moved on from. And yes, I too rolled my eyes at all the tail Blomkvist was apparently landing.
    The way I saw it, Salander didn’t let herself become a “victim” (even if other characters saw her as such) and took a proactive, if brutal, stance against her tormenters. I thought that was the point. Salander is also said to look like she’s 14. If Larsson had described her young-looking body in more “womanly” terms, would you be accusing him of pedophilia?
    I’m also disappointed that you neglected to mention the numerous other strong female characters in the books: Berger, Modig, Harriet Vanger, Figuerola, Malin, even Mia Johansson from what little we know about her. Berger herself in the third book has to take matters into her own hands against a tormenter. Also remember that a good 80% of what Blomkvist knows or achieves comes straight from Salander or another of the women.
    Finally, violence should be appalling no matter whom it’s against. Does it make it any worse when it’s against women and not men? Many men die in various painful ways in the books. Do you have anything to say about that? Remember that feminism isn’t saying that women are superior to men, but rather equal to men. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Larsson doesn’t shy away from equal violence.

    • ellen

      WOW^ This is an excellent retort. Thanks for posting it.

    • Lisa Simpson

      I agree, Kelsey. Larsson knew how atrociously violent the world was, and he didn’t sugercaot it. He also made his women strong, unlike many male writers who give their female characters superficial strength but still have them rescued by men. Salander saves herself. And Blomkvist.

  • MartinSA

    I’m currently going through the second book and I’m finding the male protagonist annoying in his relationships. It’s like he’s living out all his fantasies with the ultimate one being dominated by the meekest looking girl he finds (despite her bad girl image). I’m around 100 pages into the second book and it’s still set-up with emphasis on exploration of who’s screwing who because they can.

    It’s annoying.

  • Zombie Jesus

    So Missy’s complaint is that the female character in a book has flaws?

    Oh the humanity!!!! For shame that a writer can be so bold as to create a character that is imperfect. It sickens me, because no male characters have flaws. And that’s what makes them interesting.

    End Sarcasm.

  • Alicia

    Annoyed now. I just wrote a really good comment which appears to have been lost in comment purgatory. Oh, well, I’ll try again.

  • Jane

    I totally agree with this article – I thought i was the only person who felt this way. Definitely a current of misogyny in the first book – i was so bothered i did not read the other two.

  • Yes

    I do find the odd fact that every women finds him so irresistible to be to the point of ridiculous. I think that is more of the vanity coming out. It’s a male fantasy. But I don’t think the books are anti-female.

    • Karen

      Who are “all these women?” Berger is on and off for 20 years. Then there are two Vangers and Salander. Is that a lot of women over the course of two plus years? Really?

      • anon

        It isn’t a lot of women in total but it’s most of the women in the book. There is Berger, Cecilia, Harriet, Salander, and Figerola. It’s ridiculous because Berger risks her marriage to get back with Micke, Cecelia sleeps with him a handful of times and falls madly in love, Salander sleeps with him for a month or two and falls in love, Harriet, who has only slept with her husband outside of the rapes sleeps with Blomkvist whenever she’s in town and then Figurola risks her job to start sleeping with him and promptly falls in love with him. Not to mention that all of the encounters (with the exception of Berger) were initiated by the women.

      • Evie

        I’ll harp all i want, thank you very much!I still blvieee the actress should have portrayed her in a nice, summer dress, with a pink bow in her hair.

  • shawshank

    This is one of the most intelligent pieces I’ve seen on ew. Good work. Totally agree.

  • M Cakes

    I saw the movie and had to leave the theater during the rape scene. Some depictions of onscreen violence are so punishing, it’s hard not to feel bruised by what you’re seeing. On the one hand, I understand that the brutality of this scene helps to justify Lisbeth’s later actions; on the other, the sheer cruelty shown–and the realistic way it’s presented (this is not cartoonish violence)– seems sadistic on the part of the director. But I don’t know if there is a way to depict sexual violence without someone in your audience feeling victimized.

    • ellen

      Yeah, they say 1 out of 4 women has had some experience with unwanted sexual touching/molestation/rape. So that means 25% of the women watching are going to feel horrible during the film. Can’t it be offscreen? Why do we have to feel that horror, even as people without those experiences. Do we have to viscerally, visually know what it’s like for the story to be told?

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