The original Swedish title for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, translating to “Men Who Hate Women,” boldly announces the overarching theme of the book series and the films that have been adapted from it.
Lisbeth Salander is a truly fascinating character and the misery she faces through the series represents an attempt by the various men, representing patriarchal society, to punish her for not fitting feminine gender norms. She is an active rather than a passive female. At each point in her life when she or those she cares about face abuse, she fights back rather than shrinking away as society expects.
In the book, Mikael speculates that Lisbeth has Asperger’s Syndrome and this lines up with two aspects of her character that contravene gender expectations. AS afflicts social functioning and to an outside observer, this is often interpreted as being not nice. Women in particular are expected by society to be nice, to be obliging in their social manners. Lacking this or the real natural desire to form strong social bonds puts her out of place with those around her. The other aspect is her brilliance, her photographic memory and skill with computers, that contradicts the historical condescension toward the intellectual capabilities of women, especially in technical fields.
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of Lisbeth’s story is the way in which the legal system conspires to strip her of her independence. From a young age she is institutionalized and then placed under the guardianship of a man. Because she does not comport herself as desired by men, she is labeled hysterical, incapable and dependent. The allegation that a woman is at best illogical or irrational and at worst mentally unstable is one that has long haunted women and been exploited by men to discredit challenges to their power base.
There is one other aspect of Lisbeth’s story that is important. Upon finding herself with a new guardian, he has one particular line of questioning about her sex life, implying she is promiscuous and not practicing safe sex. While he may be right about her promiscuity, the fact that he asks the question in a way to imply that it is part of the broader assumption of being her morally broken is trademark slut-shaming. Further, the fact she isn’t virginal seems to make him less guilty in abusing her, because there is the notion that once a woman has had sex, her sexual discretion no longer has value.
Any film that includes a depiction of rape is going to come under a fair amount of pressure. There is a fine line that must be walked to avoid glamorizing or exploiting the sexual violence as a means to a narrative end. The film Irreversible probably has the most notorious scene of this sort, a close to ten minute, single shot depiction of an absolutely brutal rape. Many have accused director Gaspar Noé of mere provocation, shock for shock’s sake, but this is misguided as the true horror of the scene does justice to the horror of sexual violence and explains the violence of the response that comes before it within the film’s reverse chronology. That said, it is easy to sympathize with those who can’t get past it to embrace that film.
In The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, that visceral horror of sexual violence is again central. To a degree, Lisbeth offers coerced consent; she is made to prostitute herself in order to get access to her own money. Still, while it is evident she goes in expecting to be abused, he goes further than she had counted on and we experience the horror with her. There is absolutely nothing sexy about it.
The actual subject of the film’s mystery, a string of brutal murders of women, takes on another aspect of patriarchy, the way religion has fed into violence against women. Each woman is killed over a violation of Old Testament provisions and killed according to the biblical punishment. That each woman was Jewish and the perpetrators fascists draws stronger parallels between religion, far right political ideology and all this violence and degradation of women.
The most problematic aspect of the series from a gender perspective is probably Mikael’s string of sexual relationships. His relationship with Erika Berger is a strong point. It is rare to see such a calm, non-moralistic depiction of a non-monogamous relationship, with Berger’s husband accepting her extra-marital activity. Mikael’s relationship with Lisbeth has value more for how it speaks to Lisbeth’s character, one with sexual needs but without much overt emotional connection. In Fincher’s film, it also provides a great moment where Mikael seems to be finished and wanting to talk and Lisbeth shuts him up while she makes sure she gets off from the sexual encounter as well before asking him to go on. She isn’t someone who’s going to let herself be denied what she wants in a relationship.
However, the handful of additional relationships, generally so meaningless that they get cut from the film adaptations, seem a bit more like Stieg Larsson’s wish fulfillment. Mikael doesn’t abuse or take advantage of the women, but by reducing a lot of the female characters to sexual side-plots, it feels like a diminishment of women that stands in stark contrast to the broader narrative. Or perhaps it is an intentional notice that even Mikael, our noble male feminist, cannot escape his problematic maleness.
Whatever one ultimately thinks of the series’ quality, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a refreshing critique of the legacy of violence and exploitation of women that continues to the present too often without acknowledgement.