The Girl Who was in Stieg Larsson’s Spank Bank

One man's feminist is another man's fantasy.

In the film version of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, protagonist Lisbeth Salander endures a brutal anal rape for her allowance then returns for cosmic justice. (In real life, the actress who plays Salander, Rooney Mara, apparently endured a nipple piercing and awkward conversation with director David Fincher to get the role.) Keep in mind that you're being supplied with an alternate American title for your sanity; the original Swedish title is Män som hatar kvinnor (“Men who Hate Women”), and it hits closer to home than you or Larsson would ever know. Sensing you might figure this out, they’ve given you an Instagram filter.

On Partial Objects, contributor Pastabagel argues that Salander is an unrealistic depiction of a woman and, consequently, not much of a feminist heroine. But Salander is unrealistic in a very specific way: specifically, she is a male defense mechanism for coping with the world of women, in other words, a masturbatory fantasy. For the first time ever, the issue isn’t an egregious American film adaptation of a foreign franchise, but the franchise itself, or if you want to be accurate, the franchise's author, Stieg Larsson. Remember, Larsson, is a self-proclaimed women’s rights advocate and gang rape witness, a transgression for which he'd allegedly been paying penance his whole life.

In interviews, Larsson has claimed that as a teenager he witnessed the gang rape of a fifteen-year-old neighborhood girl by acquaintances but did nothing to intervene, an experience that left him profoundly traumatized and eventually inspired the character of Lisbeth Salander, the badass but cagey computer hacker who uses her considerable talents and marginal status to extralegally avenge crimes against women. (Conveniently, the victim’s name was also Lisbeth.)

Much of the biographic coverage on Larsson has focused on the purported rape. Feminists, in particular, have voiced their indignation, reflexively, like a nest of baby birds crying for worms. “Why didn’t he do something?!” Others have praised him for his ability to turn pain into art, taking for granted their compliance to the uniquely American expectation that adversity must necessarily yield catharsis. And yet no one has stopped to question Larsson's credibility. In our postmodern world, it's sacrilege to second guess the victim or, in this case, a guy who claims to speak for the victim. To deny Larsson his piece is to deny an anonymous woman somewhere her peace. 

And yet I’m willing to bet the rape never happened, not in the way he says it did. This explains why Kurdo Baski, a friend and colleague, had little luck in tracking down the identities of the rapists after Larsson's death from a heart attack in 2004. But, hey, at least he’s nice about it. Life lesson, ladies: if a guy ever tells you he’s advocating your rights, run for the hills.

Now, back to Salander. Obvious things first: She’s a suicide girl with a fleet of piercings and a potential eating disorder (a “high metabolism”). Salander’s anorexia means she doesn't menstruate, which dispenses with birth control/Freudian terrors and leaves more time for ass-kicking. Locked in a childlike state indefinitely, she's not a boy, not yet a woman. On the other hand, she rides a motorcycle, has a short fuse and will use her taser, all traits that are coded male in our society. She’s also a tech whiz who knows how to run accurate code in MySQL. Strange, because the only programmers I know are nervous Slavic dudes in short-sleeved button-downs. Plus, she's a lesbian, but only when there's cameraphones. Lisbeth’s skill for coding, cunnilingus, etc, is largely incidental, since it, like much of her agency, is usually put to work in service of someone else. Then there’s her name, which is oozing with squalid sexuality: “Lisbeth,” which sounds kind of like “whisper” or "lisp," and “Salander,” a slippery, writhing salamander. If you’re still not convinced, it's no accident that she’s the girl with the dragon tattoo: dragon = Asian and tattoo = bourgeois appropriation of the aberrant, the primitive, both textbook examples of the objectification of the Other.

By making Lisbeth a foreign entity, Larsson ensures that protagonist Michael Blomqvist (Daniel Craig) never has to relate to her humanity, with its lattice of hormonal fluctuations and unsavory emotions. But, wait, that’s right, she doesn’t menstruate. This is the basic premise of Salander’s sexuality. With all due respect for narrative constraints, one moment she’s cowering in the bathtub with a bleeding rectum, the next she’s mounting Blomqvist, himself recovering from the being grazed in the head by a bullet. With Lisbeth, there’s no rebound time for healing or meditating or going to therapy. For a person so profoundly traumatized, she’s also strangely uncomplicated.

Lisbeth is intelligent but unemotive (when she does emote, it’s only to express hostility or rage). Her second language, after passive-aggressive silence, is sex. She oversexualizes everything, even her relationship with her only real ally, the well-meaning but ineffectual Blomqvist. Lisbeth’s identity is all over the place. She’s intrepid, impulsive, low maintenance and doesn’t stop to chat, but if you make her a bowl of soup, she'll grapple your cock in appreciation. As a choice hybrid of male dominance and female submissiveness, she is the ultimate fantasy for a certain kind of male: progressive, intellectual, conspiracy theorist, whose command of the written word never quite syncs up with the consuming powerlessness he feels in his daily life (hence Larsson’s fear of Nazis and other phantoms). He is a man invisible to women, which he chalks up to many circumstances, none himself. A man whose double penchant for obsession and aggression glibly masquerades as ideology. Ever wonder why so many college professors have Asian wives?

Thus, Lisbeth only becomes a “woman” after she has successful vaginal sex with a man, recapitulating Freud's moth-worn distinction between clitoral and vaginal orgasm (Freud has a lot of great moments, but this isn't one of them). Up until now, her sexual experiences have all been rehearsals leading up to the big moment. Inevitably, they are either oral (lesbian) or anal (rape). This explains why Lisbeth shrugs off her lesbianism like it's last fall's trend. It’s not really her sexual preference, just a fabrication of her identity, which exists exclusively to provoke the ire of men aka authority figures. Lisbeth desperately wants them to make good on the authority they've been invested with and not take advantage of her but since they're not very authoritative to begin with they inevitably abuse the covenant. Like all trauma victims, she's not only doomed to return to this dysfunction in all of her relationships, she's actually programmed to seek it out.

How that's sexy, I don't know. But if you've ever read Camille Paglia, you'll see in this breakdown the typical feminist view of date rape, which is alarmingly anti-female, even utopian in its implications. Larsson probably didn't intend for this second meaning; he was also merely rehearsing old tropes. But here, in a nutshell, is the essence of contemporary womanhood, not that this kind of delusional thinking is limited to women in our society. 

By “successful," I should clarify, I mean "consensual." You could read this as Larsson’s way of “coming to terms” with his troubled past. But, more likely, if we accept the rape as another figment of his sclerotic imagination, it’s a way of crowdsourcing the male fantasy that all women secretly want to be raped by men. Hence the impossible buildup to the climax: the titillating (admit it) sodomy scene followed by a steamy lesbian sequence ("she’s just taking out her frustration"). What was Lisbeth doing going over to a creepy stranger's house anyway? Wasn’t there a more safe and transparent way to collect the money she was legally owed? Sorry, but I'm with Paglia here. 

That the man who finally succeeds in penetrating her is not a sadist or a serial rapist is beside the point; Larsson couches the internal misogyny with the abiding defense of "the good guy." That she lets him do it willingly is the whole point; the image we have is her on top of him, not them doing it doggy style. Most women prefer the latter (less work, more power imbalance) but no one wants to see a bobbing nutsack so we get the pornographic gaze. Fair enough. But what’s the bigger crime against women? Acting out against them physically on an individual level or waging an insidious campaign of contempt against the entire sex? In Larsson’s logic, female resistance is fine up to a point but nothing that a good thrashing won’t solve. This is why the most prevalent fantasy for him, and for men in general, is the forcible sex act that ends in her emancipation and ceaseless gratitude. He: "She may be fighting back now, but she’ll be thanking me later." She (in a wilting Russian accent): “Oh, Tony!” This is why men stoop to the most primitive conclusion when faced with a woman who is autonomous, outspoken, doesn’t default to sexuality, a woman who is difficult to pin. “She just needs to get laid,” says the office bro of the office bitch. 

Tellingly, it's "the villain" Martin Vanger (Stellan Skarsgard) who has the only worthwhile dialogue in the entire movie. Vanger, who is, equally, a corporate scion and a serial killer, knows that people would rather ignore their instincts than run the risk of seeming impolite. That’s how he gets his victims, without even trying. On the surface, Lisbeth defies this impulse. She is paranoid, combative and alienating by nature. It doesn't occur to her that affecting a more pleasant veneer might actually get her further in life and with less effort. In spite of gender and trauma, she's a woman uniquely deprived of feminine intuition. But as a character, she's extraordinarily willing and pliant, a one-size-fits-all, ethnically-ambiguous techno gamine, a fiction writer's pet.

Larsson’s rape lore starts to make sense. It wasn’t regret that kept him coming back mentally to the scene of the crime but arousal, a socially unacceptable shame sublimated into a socially sanctioned ideology. He was the puppet master holding the strings to her salvation. Larsson, aware of how deeply reality contradicts reputation, rebranded himself as a postmodern civil servant, a so-called feminist.

The Millenium series was also supposedly inspired by two real-life events that played out in the Swedish media at the start of the decade—the spousal murder of model Melissa Nordell by her boyfriend (2001) and the honor killing of Fadime Sahindal, a Turkish-Kurdish immigrant, by her father (2002). Along with being victims of narcissistic male rage, both women were exotically beautiful, so Larsson, susceptible as he was to delusions of reference, filed them away as mementos in his psychic spank bank. Christian morality and common sense kept Larsson from identifying with the attacker so he claimed possession of the victim. In another world, he could have been their savior; in death, their memories have come to be irrevocably associated with his mythology.

If you’re having a hard time buying this (“you’re just projecting”) look closer. Immediately after Lisbeth has her first sexual encounter with Blomqvist, she becomes the antithesis of herself: cheerful, reciprocal, responsible. She starts paying attention to the requirements of baseline femininity, looking after herself and tidying up around the house. She cooks Blomqvist a nourishing breakfast (note the reversal—it was he who first brought her “nourishment” in the form of a happy meal). Even her usually sallow skin is flushed, luminous. This is demonstrated not only by the outward change in Lisbeth’s behavior and appearance but in the way others relate to her. Whereas Nils Bjurman, her sadistic state-appointed guardian, repeatedly used physical insecurity as a tool of psychological intimidation (“You think this looks attractive?” he says, referring about her piercings), Blomqvist, her new spiritual chaperone, compliments her looks unsolicited and without manipulative intent (“You look good,” he tells her casually, as you might a cousin or a coworker).

When Lisbeth initiates sex, he doesn’t resist, but doesn’t reciprocate either, at least not initially. In fact, he seems surprised given what he's learned to expect. But neither does he, nor anyone else for that matter, recognize Lisbeth’s emotional needs. (After all, she’s not real, right?) Larsson bypasses the issue: Salander wants to confess her love but there is another woman, faced with Blomqvist’s non-commitment, she doesn't indulge her jealousy. Instead, she throws it out with the expensive looking leather jacket she bought the other day. Doesn't Sweden have eBay? This is Larsson’s way of dealing with the complexity of female emotional states. In his world, they are binary, motivated alternately by sexual desire or sexual competition, which is why woman either pines for man or wants to destroy him, so as long as the intense psychic connection remains. The irony is lost on Larsson, and most feminists.

In this capacity, Lisbeth is more realistic than we give her credit for. There are real life women who kiss girls to get boys. There are real life women who have practically walked, ran, rollerbladed into sexual assault. There are real life women who still blame the mistress before they blame the man. There are real life women whose entire existence is basically a protracted state of mean-spirited sexual provocation. But we've been taught that it’s much easier to see them as unwilling wards of the patriarchy because it strikes their/your accountability from the equation and preserves everyone's moral alibi. This is the common ground of feminism and misogyny. Women are never accountable and always empowered, too much or too little depending on whom you ask. The most unrealistic elements of Salander’s character are those we already know to be for effect: gun-toting, ass-kicking, computer-hacking, things women, but also men, don't really get around to doing much in real life. If Larsson really wanted to create a positive feminist image, he might have made Salander less "badass," though then she’d have 99% less sex and no one would watch. But, you know, men who hate women.

This essay was originally published on Disorientalism