The Man With the Hero Complex… Tattoo

Spoilers for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo book and major trigger warnings for rape, both in the review and in the book. I am not a survivor of rape or sexual assault so I would happy to receive any criticism or comments of this post by survivors, either through the comments below or through our contact form.

The two reasons why I wanted to read Girl with the Dragon Tattoo were because of the original title, The Men Who Hate Women, and also because I’d heard that Larsson wrote the book in response to witnessing a rape. I’d been told from a number of (not explicitly feminist, but usually somewhat reliable) sources that the main character, Lisbeth Salander, was one of those Strong Female Characters who was emotionally detached and exhibited sexual desire and agency that was uncommon for female protagonists.

On the other hand I’d also heard the book was a rape victim’s revenge fantasy – and that was something we should be critical about, and I wasn’t sure what to think of that. So curiosity overcame my natural suspicion of popular books dealing with complex feminist issues.

After slogging my way to the final page, I closed the book and immediately thought of Kate Beaton’s comic (again). At best, the book is unspectacular and deals clumsily with the issues of rape, misogyny and abuse of power. Here is a man who witnessed a rape take place, felt shaken enough to write a book about it, yet still did the most superficial and cursory research into the subject. At worst, the book is downright offensive.

While Salander’s general detachment is refreshing – it is implied she is aneurotypical and that she’s probably autistic, perhaps the lone point of feminist interest – the book merely ends up retreading age-old hero and damsel in distress tropes. Contrary to my impressions before reading, the male journalist, Mikael Blomkist, is actually the protagonist who gets the most page-time and his character is significantly more developed than Lisbeth. Lisbeth really acts as a sidekick to his detective work and like many Strong Female Characters (TM), while she is smart and resourceful, her internal motivations for helping Blomkist are unclear and difficult to believe.

What’s more is that Salander falls in the love with the protagonist for no particular reason at all. The passages from her point of view are all tell, no show, and reading Salander wax poetic about how Blomkist doesn’t interfere with her life is utterly perplexing because this is apparently the reason why she falls for him. A man who doesn’t interfere with a woman’s life and her choices is, at most, neutral, since men don’t get cookies for meeting the basic standards of morality, even if those men are few and far between. There is absolutely no reason for her to show such an interest in him at all.

What’s made even more disturbing is that Salander is named after the victim whose rape he witnessed. And considering that Larsson and Blomkist share the same occupation, that Blomkist is the fictional representation of Larsson seems extremely likely, and then it becomes extremely disturbing that Larsson has written a fantasy where the representation of a real victim of rape falls in love with him.

As for the rape victim revenge fantasy, I’m going to completely blunt: Salander rapes her rapist to punish him. Yeah. Like, I don’t even know where to go with that. Rape culture is not solved with more rape culture. Just like sexual assault in prisons is not justice and merely contributes to rape culture, this fantasy also contributes to rape culture. Even if this were a frequent desire or reaction of rape survivors, Larsson himself was not a rape survivor (that we know of) or even someone who frequently worked with survivors of sexual assault and rape. While I can appreciate that witnessing a rape would have a deep impact on a person, to forward the narrative of a survivor raping their attacking seems pretty fucking appropriative of survivor experiences and feelings.

And if Larsson were considered a survivor, the narrative in the book is still highly irresponsible because it condones Salander’s actions as justifiable because society’s systems have failed her. Yes, it is disgusting and awful for society’s to regularly fail to protect women, but presenting society as having forced Salander’s actions as justified vigilantism ignores the organisations and activism that do exist to help women who have been victims of violence. Maybe witnessing a rape opened Larsson’s eyes to the systematic victimisation of women, but many of us have had our eyes open for years and some of us have done something about it. Rape aside, not every woman is able to physically fight  their attackers like Salander or extract themselves from financially-dependent relationships. Once again, Strong Female Character is being interpreted as physical “strength” without much regard to the mental or emotional resilience that I would characterise of many survivors of sexual assault. (Of course, I definitely do not consider “strength” or lack of it to be a moral judgement.)

The book also engages in victim-blaming and fails in any complex consideration of the psychology of rapists. On one level I understand this is meant to be a crime/thriller novel where the crime needs to be sensational in some way, but I am so sick of rapists being painted as psychopaths who kidnap women and set up basement torture chambers. That happens in a tiny minority of cases and then it becomes easy to dismiss rapists as “monsters” without humanity, and also for Salander’s acts of vigilantism to be more easily accepted (ie. it is acceptable to rape “monsters” if they have no humanity left). Furthermore, Salander is shown having no compassion for her fellow female survivors (I think it would be far more realistic for her to experience strong feelings here than with Blomkist) and in fact blames one of the victims for not speaking up earlier. Blomkist is then the one who mansplains a rape survivor’s psychology to her, another rape survivor, and at this point I decided that someone should give me an award for continuing to turn the pages of this book.

What’s also disturbing is how the acts of rape are described in detail and in a way that made the scenes feel like spectacles rather than crimes that are deeply scarring and emotionally damaging. The women who are the victims of the crimes are, on the whole, faceless, and described as prostitutes, immigrants and generally marginalised people in society whose bodies have been tossed into the oceans. We have no emotional connection with them. Salander is an emotionally detached character and remains so regarding her rape, and another character’s rapes occurred 30 years ago so she’s not about to recount it all. Because there’s no real focus on the impact on victims/survivors the focus becomes the acts of the violence, the rapes themselves. When Salander gets her revenge on her rapist, I have the feeling that this is the end of the matter for Larsson because justice has been served. Even if her actions constituted justice, the reason why rape is such a heinous crime is because the psychological and emotion scars it leaves on its victims. It’s very convenient that Larsson wrote a protagonist who just so happens to be completely detached from the world.

I can imagine that this would have been a very cathartic novel for Larsson to write, and obviously because it was published posthumously he had no say in the matter of its publication. But honestly, this should have never been published. We really did not need another white dude’s account of horrible things done to women, even if his heart was in the right place. None of the narrative, characters, mystery, ANYTHING provided anything that was particularly helpful in forwarding the feminist message. The fact this was labelled feminist in the first place has me worried. The most “feminist” part the novel I could find is how each part opens with a statistic about violence against women in Sweden. Old hat to hardened feminists, but might be why the mainstream seems to think it’s so revolutionary.

In a completely unrelated area of criticism, I found the writing quality to be abysmal and almost unreadable. I’ve been told that the writing is equally pretty bad in Swedish and it wasn’t just the translation that made everything painful to read. For the first few hundred pages I was so distracted by the writing that I couldn’t stop myself from mentally editing everything and the last time I did that was with a Laurell K. Hamilton book.

I would not recommend this book to anyone. It is a bit of a page-turner in the sense that I wanted to know what happened next when I didn’t want to throw it across the room, but that’s about it. Unfortunately I’ve bought the whole series already so I suppose you’ll have to look forward to more long ranting book reviews from me.

18 thoughts on “The Man With the Hero Complex… Tattoo”

  1. I don’t agree with your interpretation of the book as not being feminist but everyone is entitled to their opinion.

    The character of Blomkist is very much a mary sue but Salander is not in anyway a damsel in distress. She can take care of herself and doesn’t need saving.

    One of the strongest female characters in the book (though come to think of it she isn’t as prominent in the first book) is Berger. You rarely see a strong female character who is so comfortable in her own life.

    I do recommend the next two books though, they delve much deeper into Salander and focus much more on her back story and puts into context her actions and the way she deals with things. Don’t write her off as a character just yet, she may surprise you. The more you find out about Salander the more you realise why she would like someone who doesn’t interfere with her life.

    Salander is not a role model. That should be clear. I see her as an amazing character like Omar from the Wire. I don’t agree with the way they achieve their ends but they have a very strict moral code which you can understand the logic of and how it came about.

    View the first book as an introduction.

    1. I don’t want to sound confrontational and honestly, I’m not that emotionally invested in the book, but you’ve basically only stated that you disagree with my views without providing evidence or reasons or arguments to refute my points. Obviously you’re entitled to disagree, but I’m just not really sure how to reply. I’ve already stated my reasons for finding the book terrible for feminism.

      1. The problem I’m having is that in order to provide a rebuttal I would have to give away major plot spoilers for the next two books.

        You say that Salander’s actions are viewed as justified in the book. I would disagree. I would argue that Salander’s actions are not shown as acceptable in anyone but Salander’s eyes. No other character at this point knows anything about Salander’s rape or the retribution that she used. Also without knowing Salander’s back story which is explained in the second book the context of societies failures and how deep they are are not yet understood. The way society failed her I can understand why she used those actions.

        Salander’s ‘justice’ is an eye for an eye from my interpretation of the book her actions are viewed as wrong but understandable.

        I do agree that the first book has a large amount of rape revenge fantasy in it but the second book is mainly about Salander’s back story and the way the media portrays women. The third book mainly deals with the political corruption regarding the sex industry and individual rights. The third book was in the subject area that Larson made his name as a journalist.

        1. Hmm, well your comment has really hooked me. I’d set aside the Millennium series because I thought the next two books were going to be more of the same, but I’d be willing to give them another try now. I think the first book has major issues that would be really difficult to counter regardless of how good the subsequent books were, but I’m willing to revise my views if it’s proved otherwise.

  2. My exposure to The GIrl With the Dragon Tattoo is solely through the movies (the first two sweedish versions and the american remake, I have not seen the third sweedish film). So I’m curious about your description of Salander as a damsel in distress interesting, as there were no scenes in the movies where he resuces her in any shape or form, in fact she rescues him, twice (once in a physical confrontation, the other using her hacker skills). This carries through to the second film where Blomkvist only shows up in time to call 911 after Lisbeth had successfully defended herself from a physcial assault. From what I’ve read, the third film does not, but than, I have not seen it. Or am I misinterpreting your comment about retreading age old here/damsel in distress stereotypes, where you meant Lisbeth and Blomkvist are the heros and the other woman are the damsels in distress?

    Regarding your comment about Lisbeth being the sidekick. I always interpretted the characters less as Blomkvist being the hero and Lisbeth the sidekick but more like, he’s Watson (the one who records the story) and Lisbeth as Holmes (the brilliant detective who does all the heavy intellectual lifting and in the movies, she does pretty make all the major connections, save for one in the American remake that goes to Blomkvists daughter as it was in the book). Ask yourself this, what does Blomkvist do, besides observe, keep notes, and get rescued (twice) by Lisbeth?

    As for the realism, what happens in the films is not realistic, but the I thought the backstory is a lot more “typical” in terms of what actually happens regarding sexual abuse and assualt, as compared to what happens in the first film, which obviously is not realistic, as far as the revenge element is concerned.

    Other than that, I would say, while I might not share your concerns particularly, mosf of them have gone through my head at one point or another. I mean, while I am a fan of the movies, I do realise that there are many issues and problems with what is going on.

    Also allow me to ask a hypothetical question, while obviously revenge/vigiliantism are huge problems in real life, do you think that there still could be value in exploring them in a fictional realm? Note how much popular fiction, each with it’s own set of issues such as the ones you’ve raised does this. Batman (particularly the more recent Nolan films), Inglorious Bastards, Kill Bill, Watchmen, Revenge (the tv show), etc. In short, is catharsism possible through fiction (not necessarily through TGWTDT, but I thought I would ask as a general principle) or is fiction that uses revenge against perpetuators of violence not an appropriate medium for a victim of violence to try to achieve solace through?


    1. To be completely honest, I actually wrote this post several weeks ago after immediately finishing the novel, and now, rereading it, I’m not quite sure what I meant by the “damsel in distress”. I suspect that I meant Blomkist is posited as the hero and the other women as damsels in distress since I don’t recall a time when Blomkist rescues Salander.

      The Watson/Holmes interpretation is an interesting way to view it, but the novel is written from both characters’ points of view. Doyle employed the technique to “hide” Holmes internal monologue from us (with the exception of one story) but Larsson hasn’t done so here. In that case, there’s no reason for why the the novel shouldn’t be told primarily from Salander’s point of view.

      I think there is value in exploring fictional revenge, even if it is problematic. In the case of GWTDT my point was that I felt Larsson used revenge in a way that detracted from his intended message. If Salander had not raped her rapist and merely tattooed him, then yeah, I would actually be okay with that scene and over all concept. I don’t condone it in real life, but I wouldn’t find it so absolutely revolting. I think the difference is that sort of physical violence has always been viewed as unsavoury and generally criminal. On the other hand, sexual violence is not something that has been historically considered a crime; for example, it was only very recently that the common law Courts have considered marital rape an actual crime (previously rape in a marriage was supposedly impossible because a spouse had a “right” to sex). Even now there’s very little public understanding about rape and sexual violence when there is no physical violence present so the media needs to be very careful when presenting revenge and sexual violence today. I would say I’m generally okay with revenge narratives as long as they stuck to physical violence and that they would need to tread very very carefully when it came to sexual violence.

  3. I think it’s also important to note the way in which the book(s) were published. Because they were all published posthumously, I’m not sure he wrote them with the intention to publish them. (He did try to publish them shortly before his death, but I think that may have been an afterthought.) I do not see this series as feminist. It lacks the kind of awareness and complexity of thought that moniker describes. I believe it is not a book/film series for everyone, and at it’s core it’s a thriller, not a revenge tale. I think that for people who have a feminist background, its easier to identify the problems with the book (particularly the way in which masculine coded solutions are given to practically every problem in the book) but for people without a background, it’s easy to misinterpret. I’m not saying that I “hate” this series, but that I feel like the series lacks tact. (I’m going to refer to the post about liking problematic things for this one) I think that the series is a reflection on a very particular kind of rape and one that is not very understood by the viewer.

    1. I did actually note that the books were published posthumously in the post. I don’t know whether Larsson intended for his work to be read as “feminist”, but I felt like I needed to write this post in response to a lot of popular media labelling it “feminist”. Obviously I don’t hold it against someone if they enjoy the book, I just hope that they don’t think they’re enjoying an amazing feminist narrative either.

  4. I haven’t read the books, but I have seen the first of the Swedish films. What disturbed me was, as you pointed out, “presenting society as having forced Salander’s actions as justified vigilantism.”

    I have been following the development of Swedish legislation on sexual crime for a few years – they have some of the toughest laws in the world regarding rape or coercion. (Some might remember the Julian Assange case, in which two women accused him of pressuring them emotionally to have sex with him.) In fact, what the rest of the world would call sexual assault or coercion is called rape in Sweden. There’s a lot of anti-feminist movement declaring that Sweden’s laws are too harsh against men – technically the accused can be sentenced if they fail to provide evidence of consent.

    However, Sweden has by far the highest rate of reported cases of sexual assault in Europe. This doesn’t mean that rape is more common in Sweden than elsewhere – it means women actually trust the cases to be handled sensitively and efficiently, and their rapists to be punished. They report the crimes because they know that they will not be shamed or blamed for what happened. Sweden also has an extensive support system for victims of sexual assault. I’d say that rape victims in Sweden are better off than anywhere else in the world.

    These laws were instated in 2005, before Larsson wrote TGWTDT, so obviously the lax pre-2005 legislation would have made Salander’s situation considerably more difficult. It is entirely possible that she would have been left without help and support after being raped.

    However, what troubles me is that Larsson promoted her taking revenge on her rapist in such a violent way, when Sweden was buzzing about the proposed legislation while he was writing his novel. If Larsson had truly researched the issue, if he truly understood it, he would not have presented Salander’s form of revenge as a rational cause of action, as something society forced on her. I also can’t really understand why TGWTDT was published in 2005, the very year rape victims’ situations in Sweden were completely transformed.

    1. Thank you! I don’t know much about the Swedish laws so I didn’t bring it up, but your comment’s certainly added an extra dimension to the discussion.

    2. Yes, for anyone other than the character of Lisbeth Salander going to the police would have left her with support and justice. When other people find out about the rape in later books they are displayed as shocked to the point of not understanding why she didn’t go to the police, especially with all the evidence she had.

      But for Salander justice would not have happened, for reasons explained in books 2 and 3. The next 2 books puts into context why she doesn’t go to the authorities and they are very good reasons (not to give any spoilers). I can, if you want, say why but it does give away a lot of major plot points in the next 2 books.

      1. I have no problems being spoiled. That said, I’m probably going to sit out on giving an opinion on anything until I actually read the books.

          Lisbeth Salander grew up with her mother and twin sister. Her father was a former Soviet agent who defected to Sweden and was given lots of legal protections due to being a russian defector.
          Lisbeth’s mother was regularly beaten and raped by Lisbeth’s father throughout Lisbeth’s childhood and no matter who Lisbeth told be it police or teachers or any member of authority Lisbeth’s father was never prosecuted or stopped because he was too much of an asset (also a very manipulative person with few morals).

          Lisbeth’s mother was the raped and beaten to the point of brain damage by the father so Lisbeth filled a milk carton with petrol and threw it into her fathers car with him in it and set him alight. When the ambulances got there they helped her father but not her mother who Lisbeth kept telling them was severely injured in the house. (Lisbeth was around 12)

          Lisbeth was then put into institutional care where she was kept isolated and strapped to a bed most of the time and no one ever listened to what she said so she stopped talking to authorities because in her opinion they never listened.

          There is more detail in the books, especially around her treatment in the institution, but that is a basic history of Lisbeth Salander’s early life and may put some of her actions into context.

          1. Okay, thanks for clearing this up. As I said, I’ve not really looked into this series as a whole and I don’t plan to, so Salander’s background was unknown to me.

  5. I have had no exposure to this storyline, whether through the books or the films, so I know next to nothing about it, but after reading your post, I’m confused about one thing. If Salander is completely detached from the world, why would she want to seek revenge in the first place?

  6. Thanks for putting into words why I felt weird watching the film based on the novel. In the film the rape scenes were a bit too explicit and traumatized me as a viewer. Everything you say makes sense to me!

  7. I don’t get the part about Lisbeth’s rapist being a psychopath? I didn’t think that he was painted as a psychopath at all, in contrary he was an ordinary, smart official (a criminal that we aren’t that used to seeing in dramas).
    What you wrote about Lisbeth being unattached from reality e.g.; I think that the others have answered very well, it is all explained in the second and third novel. One shall not forget that it is a novel, not a report on feminism (and this has made us talk about the subject hasn’t it?) She might have been given her characteristics in order to create a good novel, not in order for feminists to be able to appreciate it. I believe that it is a great novel, having a spand of characters that is interesting and brings forward the novel (I think that after reading all three novels you would agree with me that Lisbeth is considered to be strong, just as Erika is) Stieg is also comparing Lisbeth to Pippi Longstrump, the strongest and most special of them all.

    Thank You in beforehand for your answer,

    1. I have no idea whether the author intended for the books to be “feminist”, and honestly, his intentions don’t really matter, but this post was originally written in response to a lot of people who seemed to claim that it was. Which, I have argued, it isn’t. Certainly you can appreciate the text from a literary point of view rather than a feminist one, but this is not a literature blog. I’ve now read the sequel (but not the third book), and while I understand more about Lisbeth’s background, she’s ultimately a fictional character. Her characterisation may be consistent with her background, but she didn’t have to have that background – an author with biases and beliefs wrote her to have that background.

      I refer to Lisbeth’s rapist being a psychopath, because he’s presented as sort of having a hidden second life. The parts of the book from his POV are dramatically villainous, which is fine, but I don’t think the mindset is an accurate portrayal of the most common type of rapist from my knowledge of the area. But I’m not an expert in this area either so I may very well be wrong.

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