Stieg Larsson’s _The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo_ and _The Girl Who Played With Fire_
Recently, Nigel picked up Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire, in English translation (since I don’t read Swedish). We’ve yet to get The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest. I was thinking of writing something about them, but only finished the second book a few days ago and have needed some time to mull things over. Today, I was prompted by Nigel’s bookmeme entry, and some comments there.
They’ve gotten some criticism, including a review at the f-word, Feminist or misogynist?: “But I have difficulty squaring Larsson’s proclaimed distress at misogyny with his explicit descriptions of sexual violence, his breast-obsessed heroine and babe-magnet hero.”
My take on it? Larsson strikes me as remarkably clueful, probably largely due to his background in journalism, and the threats he and his partner received for years from right-wing nutjobs. Somehow I doubt that Swedish nutters shied away from the classic wétiko, patriarchal tactic of trying to get at him through offering to do sick, sadistic things to his female partner (possibly while he was forced to watch). I get the idea that Larsson could not escape the knowledge that there really are a lot of “men who hate women” around, as the first book’s original Swedish title translates.* If nothing else, being a serious journalist, it would be harder to completely ignore the numbers of murdered (and just plain missing) women and girls, getting far less attention than would seem warranted.
He may have been approaching the theme from a position of privilege, and still didn’t overtly make some connections that seemed obvious to me, but I was still tempted to hand him some posthumous cookies.
The section headings of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (a.k.a. Men Who Hate Women) include statistics, such as (just picked flipping through) “46% of the women in Sweden have been subjected to violence by a man” and “92% of women in Sweden who have been subjected to sexual assault have not reported the most recent violent incident to the police”. These serve as themes tying together strands of the story, and continue to drive a lot of plot into the following book even if they are not explicitly stated. I can only hope that some of the illustrations get through readers’ resistance; one prime example being Salander’s observation that probably no girl she’s known has managed to reach the age of 18 without being forced or coerced into doing something sexual that she didn’t want to do. That agrees with my experience, and very few people want to think about that any more than the 46% figure.
Abuse of power–and the real damage it can do to people’s lives–is also a major theme in both novels. Various types of institutions are particularly implicated.
As for specific criticisms, I didn’t find that the author approached the violence demonstrating these themes in a salacious manner. They came across as highly plausible developments, not like material for Law & Order: SVU. This impression is only reinforced by the only two characters depicted as pornsick weasels also being sadistic mysogynists who hurt people; violent porn may be specified in those cases, but less overtly harmful types are still not normalized. As for the “babe-magnet hero”, it didn’t strike me as a misogynistic treatment at all. Blomqvist may come across as a bit of a horndog, but he manages to get by without obviously using other people, nor considering them “conquests”. I was actually impressed by the author’s matter-of-fact depiction of poly relationships as actually working for some people, and sometimes being the mature option.
The title character (in the English titles), Lisbeth Salander, is rather hard-bitten, and shows some serious behavioral quirks. It’s only speculated once in each of the first two books that this might have anything to do with her undiagnosed ASD, though. Throughout, the character’s experiences and life circumstances are presented as more than enough to explain “odd” behavior and cynicism. She’s had a hard life by about anyone’s standards, and has been abused in many ways. It’s also made obvious that she has been shown very little reason to trust many other people, much less to trust those in positions of authority to do anything but harm.
I didn’t see Salander’s later choice of breast implants as dodgily gratuitous, but more as the character’s rather sad approach to getting by in this world. Who would expect her to have a great body image? It may be a shame that she felt a need to grasp at an ultimately false promise of control over her circumstances and satisfaction in her own skin, but an awful lot of women do IRL. I know I’ve done some ridiculous things out of similar motives, before I learned what a load of BS the promised rewards are. If anything, I interpreted that (along with some other things) as commentary on the prevalence of hypersexualization, and what options we see open to us. (Though I doubt it was explicitly thought out that far.)
The main quibble I had with the way things developed in The Girl Who Played With Fire was that, IME, no conspiracy is necessary to get someone starting out with neurological differences interpreted as batshit crazy, institutionalized under the control of sadistic people who get off on abuse of power, and declared incompetent. Up to that dénouement, I found Salander’s situation very triggering. Still, I hope I never get suspected of multiple murders, because I am sure that the media could dig up people and incidents from my past which could be easily presented as evidence of my similarly dangerous craziness.
It didn’t initially sit well with me, when two of her allies decided that she really was dangerous in certain circumstances, blaming it partly on her real neurological differences (as opposed to the cooked-up mental illness). It seemed a little too close to the “dangerous, crazy” sterotypes addressed more appropriately earlier. But, especially dealing with PTSD from layered-on life circumstances, I know I don’t have a lot of brakes. Neither do a number of my relatives who have had a hard time of things. If I hadn’t learned a little too much self control, I would have problems with turning violent–nay, vicious–given sufficient provocation and low expectations of help in dealing with a serious situation. Most of that is down to the PTSD and tail pulling, part really is down to just not having a lot of brakes to begin with. It’s uncomfortable, but when everything is too intense, I think a lot of us do have to learn more control over our reactions than average, as happens on a slightly different level with Tourette’s. Salander has spent too much time living in crisis mode to have much chance to do so.
Overall, though, Larsson does a good job at pointing out–to paraphrase Thich Nhat Hanh–that we are all the way we are because other people are the way they are. Whether we want to look at this or not, it’s all interconnected. Not thinking in those terms, he also demonstrates how different threads of the wétiko illness interweave. I particularly enjoyed the media depictions of scary “Lesbian Satanist Anarcho-Feminist” gangs, based on leaks from a disgustingly racist and misogynist cop.
I may have more to say about this later, but that’s my writing limit for now.
Edit (wee hours 10/31): I totally forgot to mention that a major plot element in The Girl Who Played With Fire is an investigation into human trafficking, mostly from the Baltic states. Initially a PhD candidate started interviewing the victims for her dissertation, and her journalist male partner gets into the investigation with the idea of co-authoring a book. They both get killed over it. (I would have liked to have seen the human rights angle gone into in more depth, but the focus turns to the murders.) Larsson presents this as a serious human rights problem, which nobody in authority really wants to look at, much less deal with . Especially given the number of powerful people who, in this story, risk being exposed as “clients”. He makes it clear that the people involved on both the “lure poor women into prostitution under false pretenses” and the “rape and abuse them once they’re enslaved in Sweden” ends are Not Nice People At All. Besides presenting a couple of plausible examples of blatant abuse (and self-justification of the dehumanizing “filthy worthless foreign whores deserve what they get” variety), Larsson clearly presents the punters as caring more about their own orgasm than about other people’s lives, and specifically getting off on abusing the power imbalance. Their actions are openly characterized as sick and abusive.
This also leaves me less inclined to lumping the depictions of sexual violence into the prurient category we do see so much of in entertainment.
Another edit: An excellent post turned up through the “Possibly Related” feature: Give National Attention to End Violence Against Women-Is Gang rape Becoming a Spectator Sport?, inspired by the recent two-hour gang rape of a 15-year-old girl outside a high school dance in Richmond, CA. At least 20 people were involved or watched this happen.
* Actually, I thought it was rather telling that the English-language publisher apparently did not think that a book called Men Who Hate Women would sell in the UK. Which also has a distressing record of rape convictions (up to 7% of reported rapes at last check, from 5.6% in 2002).
Come to find out, “Sweden had a conviction rate of 8 percent from 1993 to 1997, according to data collected by the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit at London Metropolitan University. That compares to Finland’s 17 percent conviction rate, Norway’s 15 percent, Germany’s 17 percent and Czech Republic’s 22 percent in the same years.” By another report (from figures released in 2003, apparently) Sweden and the UK are about even. That did surprise me a bit.
The higher U.S. conviction rate for rape is attributable both to the higher U.S. police-recorded rape rate [all these are per 1000 population] and to a United States criminal justice system that catches and convicts rapists at a higher rate than England’s system. According to the most recent statistics on crime (1996) and the justice system (1994 in the United States, 1995 in England), the U.S. police-recorded rape rate is three times England’s (figure 5), but the U.S. rape conviction rate is over eight times England’s (.212 versus .025) (figure 20), indicating that a rape in the United States is more likely to lead to conviction than one in England.