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.