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

No work of pop culture is perfect. Not creatively, not anti-oppression wise. A lot of works with both good and bad elements are widely named and celebrated as feminist works, and it's worth exploring where people think the boundaries between 'feminist' and 'not' lie. These works have managed to overcome their mixed messages to be regarded by many people as examples of feminist work, and some of them come from some surprising sources.

What makes a work feminist? It's worth answering that before we begin. In some circles, depicting strong female characters resisting sexism is feminist. That's not enough for me. To qualify as a feminist work, I think that something actively needs to include an anti-oppression message, not just an anti-sexist one. A feminist work is one that challenges beliefs and attitudes about race, culture, gender, sexuality, disability, and much, much more. Not necessarily all in the same work or all at the same time, mind you, but I don't give a passing grade to works that are anti-sexist while conveying other -isms.

Your mileage may vary, and for the purposes of these evaluations, I'm looking at work that is considered feminist by society in general, not necessarily by my own standards, which means that these works might not pass my own personal litmus test. Or yours!

Up today, the Millenium Novels by Stieg Larsson. Writing about the books in preparation for the release of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, Charles McGrath at the New York Times went ahead and used the F-word, and I see a lot of people referring to these books as feminist.

There's a long tradition in Swedish literature of embedding social commentary in fiction, especially, intriguingly, detective novels. I rather love it, because I think that a lot of people pick up detective novels when they would not read serious commentary-type-books, and thus people are exposed to interesting stuff when they might have been expecting fluff.

One of the key characters in the novels is a woman, Lisbeth Salander, who appears (although it is never explicitly stated, only speculated upon) to have an autism spectrum disorder. The books revolve both around the exploitation and abuse of Salander, and larger themes about the abuse of women. Rape, human trafficking, economic control of women with disabilities, molestation, and other very feminist themes come up in the books. Ultimately, the series is in part about the redemption of Salander.

That sounds pretty feminist, doesn't it? Especially because the books include some factual information and commentary. This isn't just a personal story. There's some barely veiled criticism of the inaction of the Swedish government on issues like trafficking and active questioning of the guardianship system. Larsson wrote with claws out.

These are books that feature a lot of strong women. Women editing major newspapers, aggressive and talented lawyers, powerful academic women, sharp-eyed police women and security professionals, and Salander herself, a very skilled hacker with some other handy talents. Yet, a lot of the strong women in these books end up sleeping with Blomkvist, the male protagonist (who strikes me as a bit of a Gary Stu). How feminist is it that Blomkvist is depicted as a man with irresistible attractions that suck every woman into his sphere?

One could argue that one aspect of feminism is sexual autonomy, and it's notable that one of his partners is a woman in an open marriage, but there's also a bit about these books that sticks in my craw; Blomkvist is an iteration of the Nice Guy who is oh so progressive and Helps Women and, by golly, has lots and lots of sex with them too!

Even as the characters resist oppression, the books challenge social attitudes, and the commentary in the narratives directly questions government policy when it comes to people living in marginalized bodies, the books ultimately make me feel a little bit uncomfortable. Are people reading Blomkvist like I do, or do they think that his sometimes exploitative attitude towards personal relationships is just as feminist as the rest of the books?

And how about the extremely intense and highly sexualized violence in the books? I've actually warned some people not to read them specifically because of this content. Yes, it's included as a commentary, and it's not portrayed in a positive light, but it's still there, and some of it is salaciously and disturbingly detailed. Is this really feminist?

And I think it's notable that these books were written by a man. Larsson is not the first or last male creator to be called a feminist. I wonder, though, how these books would have been received if they had been written by a woman. Would they have been as widely circulated? Male names on the cover of mystery novels make a big difference, sometimes the difference between hitting the bestseller list or not. Obviously that's not Larsson's fault, but it is something to be aware of when labeling works by male creators as 'feminist.'

Hey Bitch fans! If this topic piques your interest, you should check out Taraneh Ghajar Jerven's article in the new Make Believe issue, "The Girl Who Doubted Stieg Larsson's Feminism." It's on page 9!

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Comments

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I didn't particularly see

I didn't particularly see the sexual violence as salacious. Yes, it was detailed - and more detailed than the consensual sex scenes - but then it was also much more pivotal to the plot. I don't want to spoil people (and I don't know the html to hide it and have it visible on mouseover), but some of the details are important later on in the series.

Mikael's not the only one who has sex, either - Lisbeth's later sexual relationships are talked about in a very similar vein. Not as detailed as the rape scenes, but more or less equivalent to Mikael and the various women. What I like about it is that the women who sleep with him don't lose the respect of the narrator, or of Mikael himself. He doesn't think less of the women who sleep with him, and the reader isn't directed to either, and the same with Lisbeth later on, her choices aren't at all presented as a bad thing.

me, too!

I said similar things in my review of the first book (though of course not as well), so thanks for the validation!

Salaciously Feminist

"I've actually warned some people not to read them specifically because of this content. Yes, it's included as a commentary, and it's not portrayed in a positive light, but it's still there, and some of it is salaciously and disturbingly detailed. Is this really feminist?"

Due to the fact that the author is male the novels shouldn't be applauded as feminist? Also because of the violent content that made you uncomfortable? I'm not sure these are great reasons to dismiss the series or author.

I personally feel the rape of Salander in the novels is an eye opener for others who don't know any one who has been sexually abused, raped, etc. People need to be comfortable enough with themselves to discuss these harsh topics, and these books do a great job of bringing these types of issues in to the limelight. Granted, it's hard to read them, but you must walk in someone else shoes (even a fictional one) to understand the the root of the problems and begin the discussions. I'm not advocating rape or abuse against women, but listening or reading others stories make people want to take action against them in my experience.

Also, instead of complaining about male authors being lauded as feminist why don't we try to promote more female/feminist authors instead.

Hmm...

Hi Scarlett,

Where exactly are you seeing s.e. say that ou is dismissing these novels because they were written by a man? All I see ou doing is pointing out that they were written by a man, not condemning them because of it. In fact, s.e. says ou likes the novels for many reasons.

Also, I think s.e.'s point about the salacious descriptions of violence in the novels is quite valid. If Larsson crosses the line into sensationalizing rape and sexual violence (I can't weigh in there because I haven't read them) then that is most certainly something that needs a feminist critique. And even if he doesn't, a trigger warning—like the one it sounds like s.e. has offered ou's friends—is still helpful for many readers.

Finally, we promote female authors ALL THE TIME on this website. Critiquing a male author's work certainly doesn't happen at the expense of promoting (or critiquing) anyone else's work, regardless of gender.
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As far as I can remember,

As far as I can remember, only two characters in the books have slept with Blomkvist: Salander and Berger (though I haven't finished The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest yet). That's not that many. And I think Salander prefers being with Miriam Wu than Blomkvist. Yes, I agree, sometimes he's a little too...perfect. However, he wouldn't have succeeded as much as he did with his Wennerstrom article, his case on Harriet, or even be alive if it wasn't for Salander.

One of the things about these books that make them so feminist to me is how it mentions that the men who do these horrible things to women are misogynists. I so rarely see and/or hear criminals that hurt women called women haters, that their crimes are considered hate crimes. I don't understand why the first book was retitled The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The original title, Men Who Hate Women, is perfect and it's a very blunt for those who still don't realise the bad men presented in the story are sexist bastards.

Blomkvist's list

Along with Lisbeth and Erika, he also sleeps with Cecilia Vanger in the first book, and Harriet Vanger in the second book. I haven't read the third yet, but with this track record, I can safely assume there are more women. He's certainly not a man who hates women, and he doesn't seem to have any issues with women having more authority than him in the workplace; all of this makes him a pretty desirable guy, in my opinion. His dedication to Erika and Lisbeth in particular would earn him the title of feminist in my books.

Oh, you're right! I

Oh, you're right! I completely forgot them! Okay, so that is kinda a lot. But it's not like he's insincere in order to get women to sleep with him. His character seems pretty genuine in his respect of women; so yeah, I agree, I think that makes a man pretty attractive too.

Wait, men like Blomkvist don't actually exist?

Spooky, I completely agree with you that the way Larssen makes the connection between hate crimes and misogyny so explicit gives the book a strong feminist slant.

What actually bothered me though on that front, and something I really noticed only in the second book (haven't read the third yet), is just how many men turn out to be women-haters. Not just the sadistic killers or domestic abusers, but your average man, of the sort you might work with (ie. some of the detectives). At some point, that actually started to really bother me - it's just such a dark vision of humanity, and male humanity in particular. Not surprising, given Larssen's background, and it's true - you often don't really know what people are thinking or who they are underneath. But at a certain point, it started to bug me, this focus on the woman-hate that's always lurking below the surface. I'd like to think better of humanity.

I also think that even if not all the characters are perfect portrayals of what a feminist male character should be (and in Blomkvist's case, definitely veer into the fantasy/ideal realm), that doesn't detract from its overall feminism. It's just more of an imperfect feminism.

I'd be curious to see this come up again on Bitch when the American version of the movie comes out, given the differences in actors chosen for the Blomkvist role. The Swedish version works, b/c even if Blomkvist does get a ridiculous amount of women, he's also a very normal looking person (as is everyone). A bit rundown, if anything. Hollywood, on the other hand, goes for Daniel Craig...

"...how many men turn out to

"...how many men turn out to be women-haters."
That's a big reason, to me, that Blomkvist is an important character. If every single man in the book was a misogynist, then that would be sexist in itself because that implies men are evil. (One of the many reasons I strongly disliked the movie Teeth, but that's for another time...) Let's also not forget Salander's guardian! I really like him.

Fuzzy Ethics Do Not A Feminist Make

I don't think that sexual invisibility makes a work more feminist. Or that castration of male protagonist would create a moral higher ground for the book. And frankly, sermons about male sexuality that falls within the consensual spectrum is a bit antiquated as a 'feminist' critique.

I'd like to know how s.e. smith would depict a 'feminist man' - if such a thing exists, how would such character be best portrayed in a detective novel? As a gender-surfing orphaned guilt-tripping spiritualist? That could be fun. Not.

Blomkvist, in the novel, appears vulnerable and human. Having no sex at all would make him unreal; whatever his motives, it would make me suspicious. Instead of thinking 'feminist', I would wonder what prevents this adult human from intimacy? And how is it going to guide his judgements of others? Also, having sex with just one partner or with several makes no difference at all if it's consensual and drives the plot. Moralising about the number of his partners is not feminist, it's bourgeois conservativism.

Beyond Blomkvist, the vast array of violence, hatred and exploitation is consistently and sharply criticised in the books, as much as the format allows. And this, in my view, has spread the story to a much wider readership than a severe theoretical tract ever would.

Stieg Larsson, Feminist Hero?

I completely agree with Ms Smith; I found the sexual violence disturbingly detailed, to the extent that it undermines the purpoise for which it has been written - i.e. to condemn such violence. And I find treatment of the women sexist -- they are all independent and powerful until Blomkvist comes in and takes them to bed.

au contraire...

they are still powerful after that...don't you think?

Hi there. Just wanted to

Hi there. Just wanted to step in and remind folks the preferred pronoun for the blogger is "ou." Thanks!

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what if Blomkvist was a woman?...or Salander was a man?...

Wow...for people sick of being gender stereotyped there seems to be a lot of it going on in this article. And you seem to be missing the point too. What I like most about the the main characters in this book (regardless of their gender) is that they stand for things that are good. They stand for truth...and they work to reveal it. I could care less if Blomkvist has slept with lots of women...how many women can a man sleep with before he is no longer considered a feminist? Is there a magic number? And by the way, Lisbeth has her fair share of sexual diversions in the series as well...without being criticized or scrutinized. Whats up with that? No matter how you change it up, or try to find something amiss, at some point you just have to face it, there are some fabulous straight men out there...not many, but they do exist. I believe Stieg Larson and his character Blomkvist were really men who love women, and although feminist scrutinization seems a valid response to such a visceral and sexually graphic series of fiction, I just don't think there's much to criticize here...Blomkvist and Salander are equally hot...and I would sleep with either of them, regardless of their gender...and still consider myself a feminist in the morning.

A reminder

It seems as though some people in this thread have mistaken s.e.'s feminist critique of the Larsson trilogy as an attack on the books themselves, which isn't going over so great with some of you (if you're in that boat, you might want to check out ou's post on critiquing pop culture). That is not what ou said. What ou did is question the feminism of the Millennium books:

What makes a work feminist? It's worth answering that before we begin. In some circles, depicting strong female characters resisting sexism is feminist. That's not enough for me. To qualify as a feminist work, I think that something actively needs to include an anti-oppression message, not just an anti-sexist one. A feminist work is one that challenges beliefs and attitudes about race, culture, gender, sexuality, disability, and much, much more. Not necessarily all in the same work or all at the same time, mind you, but I don't give a passing grade to works that are anti-sexist while conveying other -isms.

s.e. is not saying that ou doesn't like these books, or that you're a bad feminist if you do like them. Ou is also not saying that graphic sex makes something anti-feminist, or that a man can't be a feminist. Ou is simply saying (as I understand it) that, for many reasons, there is value in questioning the feminism of this trilogy—that perhaps it's not as feminist as some people give it credit for.

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touche!

I think we understand perfectly well what ou is doing here...it's just that some of us on the thread don't necessarily agree with her logic or her conclusions. There are many of us out there who are not as uncomfortable with ambiguities in these books as ou seems to be. And this is an editorial article, so we do not have to agree with her method of grading either. Diversity is a wonderful thing!

Again, I ask that you use

Again, I ask that you use the correct pronoun for ou, which is ou, not "her". Thanks!

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Did someone say Comments Policy?

Of course there's value in

Of course there's value in questioning the feminism of *everything*, but with all due respect, this article fell short of proving its point. The trilogy (in my view) does carry an anti-oppression message and an anti-sexist message while remaining within its genre.

What this review did is judge the ethics of a bigger picture ('men who hate women' and the critique of that main theme) by moralising over the lesser detail of who the male character has hetero-sex with. Would the same question arise if Blomkvist was gay, or would that default his conscientiousness? Or do we here have controversy-oriented writing?

(As an aside, it is alleged that Larsson planned to write a series of ten books. It's typical of the genre that a main protagonist grows and changes, and it's likely that both Blomkvist and Salander would have gone to become different human beings to what we encountered in books 1-3.)

Blomkvist the "Slut"

On Blomkvist's sexual antics, this is from a letter Larsson wrote to his publisher:

"...[Blomkvist's] main characteristic is that he acts like a stereotype ‘slut’, as he admits himself. I’ve also changed the sex roles on purpose: in many ways Blomkvist acts like a typical “bimbo”, while Lisbeth Salander has stereotype ‘male’ characteristics and values."

While I agree that Blomkvist's way with the ladies is irritating, and totally doesn't come across the way Larsson intended, I try to remind myself that it's a well-intentioned fail. I wish Larsson's editor had taken him more firmly in hand and persuaded him to drop the playboy stuff (along with the interminable coffee- and sandwich-making!), but I don't think it lessens the books' feminist bona fides.

Interesting that Larsson

Interesting that Larsson thought of Blomkvist as a typical bimbo. This is a character who is a journalist, and goes to jail for his investigative reporting and then tracks down a serial killer, and so on and so forth. Oh, and he runs his own publication. Doesn't sound like bimbo behaviour to me. Wonder if that's a cultural thing or perhaps just a mistranslation (I'm assuming the letter is translated).

Were these books written by a man?

Also, to complicate the question of how Larsson's gender influenced reception of the books, there are rumors that his companion Eva Gabrielsson co-authored the series. I don't think there's enough information out there for us to figure out exactly what her involvement was, but she's publishing a book about it in France this fall.

If Gabrielsson's name was on the cover instead of Larsson's, would we feminist readers be more inclined to take the series at its word on its feminist intentions? I totally understand that s.e. is not doing so, but some critics (like Jerven in her Bitch article, IMO) seem to suggest that Larsson/the media are trying to pull one over on us by calling these feminist works. Would they be so suspicious if the author was a woman?

I definitely think these

I definitely think these books are feminist and not just because there are strong female characters. And ol' mystery or suspense book can do that. You know what Larson has?

He had an agenda.

Larson covers so many feminist issues, but hardly anyone ever talks about them---

one of the characters deals with workplace sexual harrassment,
the murderer not only goes after sex workers, but immigrants.

Larson delivers a character who is not only kick ass, but shows an audience why a woman may not report a rape.

He shows how women are discredited by their looks and sexuality.

He shows how women with disabilities are vulnerable as well.

He also touches on how a rape can occur without a penis.

But everyone wants to talk about the salacious details. C'mon feminists! There's a lot in these books and if the only thing you can see are the salacious details and that's all you want to talk about, you're missing an opportunity.

i totally agree...

Exactly. And lets not forget the genre of the series...Nordic Noir...ya know, sex, crime, violence, espionage...another clever trick on the part of Larson too IMO, to play with that genre and try to turn it on it's head...even if your in the "he was a misogynist pig who liked to see females being violently raped" camp, which many of you seem to unfortunately be, you should try to keep in mind...

"let's not forget the genre..."

agreed! not that we should necessarily let authors off the hook for the dictates of their genre, but these are thrillers. and thrillers are about sexualized violence.

i make the same argument when folks turn their noses up at the Twilight books because they're about Bella "needing a man",* or at Gail Simone's Birds of Prey because of the sex-ified way the characters are drawn. well, they're romance novels/superhero comics. romantic obsession and ginormous breasts come with the respective territories.

* not that there aren't other legit reasons to diss Twilight

exactly

there IS more than one oppression being addressed, and thus in theory that would pass the "litmus" test described above - gender, disability, race/nationality/immigration status, religion (seeing as Jews and immigrants were targets at various points in the plot, and racists-as-rapist-misogynists is heavily underscored as all being interconnected problems). i was actually quite impressed by that, that it wasn't limited to one topic. and honestly, as a sexual abuse survivor i empathized a lot with lisbeth's revenge motives at the same time as seeing the horrifying violence of it and what came before it. so whatever others have decided about this series (and its movies, et cetera), i am very very impressed.

i was also pleased that the

i was also pleased that the whole point about the misogyny, racism and other forms of violence and hatred being TAUGHT from one generation to the next, no matter what "progress" and niceties are on the surface, was made so incredibly clear.

I just finished listening to

I just finished listening to the first book yesterday and I'm glad to find several of the points that made me somewhat uncomfortable with the feminist laurels mentioned here. This will probably remain a minority perspective, but the strong hint of Marty (or Gary) Stu-ism in Blomkvist alone kind of undermined the message for me. I mean, he's a great journalist, honest, smart, has strong principles, treats women well and sleeps with 3 of the 5 female characters that play a more substantial role in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo...

Maybe Salander plays a bigger part in the other two books, which I would applaud as I found her an intriguing heroine, but I personally won't be reading them because the 'torture porn' aspects made me too uncomfortable (maybe more so because when listening I couldn't skim or skip the parts that bothered me).

Thier silence

I just finished the first book and I only have one comment about the descriptions of violence. I found it a striking contrast to the fact that so many of the strong female characters in this book that refused to talk openly about their abuse. I wanted desperately for any of the character to be able to tell someone about their experience but knowing that they inevitably felt unsafe and silenced for whatever reason. I don't know but some how the depiction of the violence suffered by these women vs the silence that followed made it feel that much more heavy and real. It made a statement in itself.

What can and can not be written about?

Hey,
So I have read all three books. I have also read countless feminist critiques and praises of these books.

The two main complaints I see for the series are the same ones mentioned above. There are intense descriptions of sexual violence and Blomkivist sleeps with everyone.

I actually take huge issues with these complaints.

The first one (TW for discussion of sexual violence in novels) does have some validity. A trigger warning would have been great, just as a trigger warning would be great on family guy in episodes where Peter punches Meg or Quagmire is being Quagmire. Our mainstream culture does not do trigger warnings so yes it would have been nice, but odds are of that ever happening in the near future are slim.

With that out of the way, Larsson's depiction of sexual violence was graphic. However, for me, it worked. It showed people the complete and utter dehumanization, violence, and terror associated with rape. There were no overtones of passion or sexiness. As a survivor, it matched my experience.

TW: description of graphic sexual violence in next paragraph

I remember reading crime novels when I was younger and there would be depictions of sexual violence. The last one I ever read, I was 16 and the author inclueed this detail, "[The victim] orgasm as [the rapist] slowly dismembered her." This is from a best selling crime novel by a best selling author. That is what I consider sensationalizing sexual violence. Larson did the complete opposite of this IMO.

As far as Blomkivists sexual exploits are concerned, he was portrayed as a little too perfect, but that is an issue of craft rather than feminist values IMO. He sleeps with a lot of the characters. Sometimes he approaches them, sometimes they approach him. He never sees the women he sleeps with as just a sexual objects. The sexual interests of the women he sleeps with are not limited to him. Berger has Greger, it is mentioned she has interests in Kink and loves her husband's bisexual tendencies. Listebeth's relationship with Miriam is also freely independent from Blomkivist.

Blomkivist as a "Nice Guy" critique also falls flat for me. Blomkivist is someone who has a strong moral compass, you see it also when he tackles Wennerstrom. He cares about the people in his life, part of his motivation in Hornet's Nest is to pay respect to his friend Dag. The way I read the critique was, "Blomkivist is nice, progressive, helps women but he has sex with them so it cancels out everything else." IMO his attitudes are not exploitative, he protects Lisbeth's and Hannah Vanger's privacy at the expense of his safety and his moral values.

The series is not perfect, but it is a cut above the rest.