Double Rainbow: On Lisbeth Salander

TRIGGER WARNING FOR DISCUSSION OF VIOLENCE AND SEXUAL ASSAULT

Just to get it out of the way: I have a great big crush on the character Lisbeth Salander. I really enjoy the original Swedish film trilogy (or the first two movies, anyway) and I liked the American remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I have not yet read any of the books. 

Lisbeth Salander, a white woman with short black hair, looks just off camera. She is wearing eyeliner.

 When I first conceived the idea for this blog, I knew that I had to write a post about Lisbeth Salander. For the most part, any discussion of queer autistic sexuality in fiction must focus on lack, on the absence of representations, but Stieg Larsson's lurid Millenium novels and the films based on them feature an antiheroine who is both queer and (probably) autistic.

When I was about ten years old, I read (let me just don my hipster glasses for a moment) a rather obscure young adult novel called Snake Dreamer, by Priscilla Galloway. The book revisits the myth of Medusa, one of the most recognizable and enduring monsters in the Western canon. In it, Medusa herself repeats the phrase "In me, victim and killer come together." She is referring to her mistreatment at the hands of the gods—the book only obliquely refers to Poseidon's rape of Medusa—and to the murderous rage she feels as a result of their injustice.  Snake Dreamer portrays Medusa as both a powerful and dangerous monster, and as a wise and loving guardian. She is a source of strength for fellow victims because she resists her destructive impulses and re-directs her monstrous power in order to nurture and protect.

In the larger cultural context, however, Medusa is still very much associated with the petrifying, "castrating" power of female rage. Ovid's retelling of the Gorgon myth introduced the idea that Medusa was originally a human woman who was raped by the sea god Poseidon in Athena's temple, and in an act of egregious victim-blame was subsequently transformed into a deadly, snake-haired monster. Given the tremendous influence of Ovid's Metamorphoses, the dual motif of rape and rage has stuck firmly with Medusa, from her mention in John Milton's Comus as a guardian of chastity (the central argument of Comus is that women should not be blamed or considered "unclean" as a result of sexual assault) to the present day.

Now, again, I have not read Stieg Larsson's books. From some comments I have seen made about them, I suspect that the movies may actually be better, at least in the sense that they seem to have toned-down Blomkvist's possible Mary-Sue qualities and, more importantly, preserved Lisbeth's penchant for brutal vengeance while excising certain qualities and actions that might sully the viewer's enjoyment of that brutality. In a recent Slate piece defending Lisbeth's status as a kind of "feminist heroine," explicit reference is made to Lisbeth's "blend of victim and killer." Indeed, Lisbeth is something of a contemporary incarnation of Medusa and, unlike the Medusa of Snake Dreamer, she does not resist or sublimate her rage. She is actively and extravagantly murderous, making full use of her Gorgon-like power to terrorize the men who have assaulted and abused her.

To me, this constitutes the films' most interesting quality: they subject the viewer to the cognitive dissonance of both condemning and cheering on sexual violence. Although Lisbeth's victims arguably "deserve it"—she reacts to and seeks revenge for truly hideous abuses—she is still brutal and sadistic. She returns murder for murder, and rape for rape. I know that when I watch the films, I do cheer Lisbeth on. For me, at least, she embodies a deep-seated and viscerally satisfying fantasy. She's like a feminist version of The Punisher. But, no matter how I do feel about Lisbeth Salander, how should I feel about her? It's an age-old conundrum: What does it mean to punish violence with violence? Is there something to be said for women reclaiming the capacity for violence, rather than hewing to the tired association of femininity with peace and nurturing verus "masculine" violence and destruction? After all, we do have to contend with rape culture and we live under a state that is regularly violent to its own citizens. Then again, does appropriating the tactics of the patriarchy constitute "stooping" to its level? Does it perpetuate an endless cycle of violence?

I have similar difficulty with pinning-down the significance of both Lisbeth's sexuality and her apparent autism. Does Lisbeth's bisexuality make her strong queer protagonist, or is it a device meant to titillate straight male viewers? As for her autism, whether or not the character is "actually" autistic is a matter of heated debate. It gets no mention in the films, though in addition to the symptoms of trauma she exhibits fundamental social deficits and appears to be a savant—the trademark quality of autists in fiction. In the books, the possibility of Asperger syndrome is briefly discussed by characters who know and care about her. (Her "official" diagnosis, according to records compiled by abusive doctors paid off to confine her, is as a paranoid psychopath.) It is difficult to separate the effects of lifelong abuse from "inherent" attributes, but to me it seems as though Lisbeth has pre-existing social and cognitive traits that suggest she might be on the spectrum. She is very literal and appears to think very concretely, she seems to have an affinity for sameness and routine (manifested prominently in her eating habits), and she has narrow areas of strong interest and skill. Psychological trauma doesn't cause autism but it certainly doesn't preclude autism, and to me Lisbeth looks, talks, and acts like an autist. It comes down to interpretation.

If Lisbeth is autistic, what does that mean? She's a very visible and well-known queer autistic character, then, but what comes of that? Her role as an avenging Fury is that much more magnified, since disabled people are far more likely than non-disabled people to be victims of violence and sexual assault. Lisbeth is not just acting against the violent force of misogyny, but against ableism and homophobia. Her interactions with her odious financial guardian demonstrate the intersection of those two forces: he makes it clear that her same-sex relationships are part of her overall inability to function like a "normal" person. For a woman who is disabled or otherwise deemed "unsound," non-heterosexual and/or non gender-normative behavior is considered part of her pathology. The very fact that she is considered mentally unfit and is therefore a ward of the state goes from being a plot device (it's part of a conspiracy to control and silence her, connected to her father, a former Soviet spy under the protection of the Swedish government) to being "too real." It becomes a commentary on the systemic denial of disabled people's agency and autonomy.

As critics and writers have pointed out again and again, it is Lisbeth's contradictory and mythic nature that makes her so compelling. Ambivalence endures. We love our towering heroes and monsters, and we can't resist a character who is both. Like Medusa or the Furies—or, since she's Scandanavian, the Valkyries—Lisbeth can be read as either a patriarchal construct (certainly it should not be forgotten that she was created by a straight, white cis man) or as a symbol of feminist resistance. I believe she is both.

Related:

Push(back) at the Intersections: Stieg Larsson, Feminist Hero?

Is Lisbeth Salander a Psychopath?

Previously: Double Rainbow: Navigating Autism, Gender, and Sexuality

Comments

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Another take on Lisbeth

Thank You! This article

Thank You! This article articulates my thoughts exactly when I saw the American poster. The American version seem so far away from the original book. I´m Scandinavian and I´ve read all the books in Swedish. I saw the first Swedish movie and thought that Noomie Rapace really understood the character she is playing. The American Lisbeth seems to be always naked in posters which I find almost offensive-- with that James Bond man (forget his name) hovering behind her like her powerful protector. Really annoying! and so totally misrepresentative of that strong character. I don´t even want to see the film now, as I am sure, also after reading the article posted above, that it is a total miss.

Ugh, REALLY?! Automatically

Ugh, REALLY?! Automatically equating bisexuality with "appealing to straight male viewers" is both insulting and degrading to those of us who do identify as bisexual.

Thank you!

Thank you!

The question is for the creators

As I understand it, Caroline is wondering whether the (straight, male) creators of the book series and movies made Lisbeth bisexual in order to titillate straight male audience members. She is in no way implying that a real-life person should or would identify as bisexual for that reason or that there's anything wrong with Lisbeth's bisexuality.

____________
Kelsey Wallace, contributor

Ask me about our Comments Policy!

Yikes!

Correct, Kelsey!

I'm so sorry--I did not mean to be biphobic and I should have been more clear.

Of course being bisexual does not mean that a person is somehow performing for a straight male gaze. There is nothing inherently wrong with Lisbeth's sexuality or with any bisexual character. I was speculating about the author's intent and his character's relationship to the prevalent and damaging stereotype about bisexual women.

Again, my apologies.

Well, considering the

Well, considering the character was written (and in the films, produced and directed) by cis white men, probably all of them straight... I am inclined to conclude that, unfortunately, Lisbeth's bisexuality (and most of all ofher naked scenes) had at least some intention to titillate. Unfortunately, this is the movie industry. Famously patriarchal. I'm sure the author meant no offense to real life bisexual people.

The question of "should"

Wow! I think this is a pretty good touchstone for a character who I have difficulty reconciling my feelings about. I ended up watching the original Swedish "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" kind of by "accident" on Netflix, without any idea whatsoever what I was in for. As in, totally unprepared for that level of sexual violence. I actually had to stop the film several times and call a friend for advice on whether I should even continue watching the it. Eventually, I decided that I couldn't let Salander stay a victim in my mind forever, which is basically how it would be for me if I had stopped the film after that.
And I must agree-there was something really cathartic in the way it played out. I'm sick to death as anyone else of the "Rape-and-revenge" trope that been around since the dawn of humanity, but I felt like the film managed to stay mercurial enough to escape being cliche. I felt like the manner in which the films address just how vulnerable a woman with a documented disability is vulnerable to horrific and widespread abuse, and the at times violent rejection of the system that perpetuates it, makes an important statement.
No, it's not perfect, and neither is Salander. I tried reading the books, and for the first time in my life, found the experience much more lacking in comparison to the films. I gave up about 50 pages into GWTDT. It seems like the films are much more from the perspective of Salander, where she seemed viewed through the lens of white-cis-male in the books.
The depiction of her queerness is a little salacious, but much less so than many similar scenes I can think of.
As a queer, female-bodies autistic, I think I have to come to the same conclusion as you: I'll just go ahead and feel the way I feel about her, without getting too caught up in how I "should" feel. Salander's character really stands alone.
Good on her.

hang in there with the books

really you didn't read past 50 pages - it's a shame nobody explained to you that the first part of the book sets the scene and can be hard going (I certainly found it so) but then gets really good! I have read all the books watched the first Swedish movie and none of the Hollywood ones (I find it really arrogant that Hollywood feels the need to remake good movies that aren't American (or are old), Infernal Affairs being a case in point). Having read comments by Stieg's former life partner I sincerely doubt he was writing from a 'titilate men' pov. The book in Swedish is called "Men who hate women" and he was making the comment that even in an egalatarian society like Sweden where women enjoy relative equality, misogyny actually still runs rife. His partner is of the opinion he wouldn't have liked the English title of the book - which weakens the message, or the Hollywood films (don't know about the Swedish ones), especially the marketing where the actress who plays Salander refutes Salander's feminism.

Män som hatar kvinnor

Yes, the Swedish film kept the original title of "Men Who Hate Women", and the title of the third which was "The Castle of Air That Exploded", I believe. I don't plan on watching the American remakes, since I tend to hate American movies in general. Who knows, maybe I'll give the books another try sometime.

Dear Caroline Narby

Hi, I just was wondering something. People say that aspergers and NLD are very similar. I have severe NLD but not all the typical traits, for instance I have strong writing skills, but it was suggested when I was very young that I was autistic. I told my resource helper this at school and others at school and they basically laugh with disbelief and say I am not "stupid" or "retarded" enough. I find their attitude towards it so offensive but I believe I am on the spectrum. For one I am a "flapper", for my whole life when I get really excited I flap my hands and wrists really hard. I still do it now I'm almost 17. I'd be embarrassed if someone saw me do it. My family even makes fun of me so I try to do it when no one is around but sometimes I cant help it.

Thank you for your really unique series, you give a voice to a very unheard minority.
I am also a lesbian so I might be a double rainbow too! ;)

What strikes me..

What strikes me is how different the discussion about Salander's revenge would be if her character was male. I remember really noticing when I read the books how Salander never asks anyone for help with her problems. Even as she begins to befriend Blomkvist, she doesn't reveal to him that she has been (and continues to be) assaulted and victimized. Instead, she goes about responding to the problem in her own (albeit violent) way. She is someone who has been totally abused by the system and has zero trust for authority - so in that sense, her actions make sense, as you can see why she would believe violence to be the only avenue open for her.

Revenge is a theme that has been done to death in Hollywood, and when the character seeking vengeance is male, it is clear that the audience is supposed to applaud their efforts. I don't recall seeing any discussions of the vengeful violence perpetrated in movies such as "Taken", for instance, in which Liam Neeson's character does truly unspeakable things (some of them to innocent people) in order to rescue his daughter. Hollywood makes it clear: a man standing up for a women (especially a pure and innocent woman) can do so by any means necessary and it is right and just. However, as soon as it is a female character taking revenge, these discussions crop up about the appropriateness of it. I can't help but feel that all these discussions stem from society's discomfort with strong, tough, aggressive women, and that we wouldn't have blinked if the fate of Salander's abusers came at the hands of one of the book's male characters.

Just a thought...

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo/Lisbeth Salander

Larsson's novels are not "lurid". They are well-written and deal with a serious subject. They are realistic and need to be to make the point. What I cannot understand is how your reviewer feels she is able to draw any conclusions when she only has the two film versions as reference and confesses to have not read any of the three novels. Her article is deliberately sensational and does little for the cause that inspired Larsson' writing.

I would never say Lisbeth

I would never say Lisbeth Salander was autistic. I though the reason why she was so withdrawn and reserved towards other people, was because she simply didn't want other people to know much about her. I think she was ashamed of being Incapacitated, having a guardian, etc. At the end of the film (and the first book) she dresses herself up and goes abroad to steal money from Wennerström, and is fairly convincing. An autistic person couldn't do that. I think you'll share my view on that if you read the books.
Anyway, that's a fairly interesting article. Best regards!