Lisbeth Salander is a badass, Tom Matlack writes, and she turns the Hollywood hero ideal on its head.
“Fuck You, You Fucking Fuck”
—T-Shirt worn by Lisbeth Salander, played by Rooney Mara, the first time she meets Mikael Blomkvist, played by Daniel Craig, in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
(Spoiler alert: If you haven’t already read the books, read a review of the books, and want to see the film but have yet to get to to the theater you might want to skip directly to the comments)
The last time I wrote about the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, (“Can Dragon Tattoo Help Real Rape Victims?”) it was in the midst of a national obsession with the books. I pointed out that author Larsson “himself once witnessed a gang rape of a young girl that he was unable to stop—an event that shaped him as a feminist and as a novelist.” I interviewed rape and domestic abuse professionals to try to understand why we as a country loved the books but seemed to be unable to connect the dotted lines to what the author seemed to be getting at.
With the release of the film, I’m back to thinking about why this piece of art is so upsetting and ultimately compelling to us and frankly to me.
When the tattooed and heavily pierced Lisbeth has to kick her female companion out of bed to deal with Blomkvist for the first time, who arrives with coffee, bagels and demands for her sleuth services, the t-shirt worn by our protagonist (quoted above) made me laugh out loud. Something about it just struck me as just right. As did the Lisbeth’s comment earlier in the film when being cross-examined about Blomkvist’s personal life. “Sometimes he performs cunnilingus,” she says and then takes a beat before adding, “not often enough, in my opinion.” Again, laugh-out-loud funny. She’s talking about Daniel Craig of James Bond fame, of course.
One of the things I loved about this film, and there were many, was the way it takes the conventional Hollywood role models and turns them on their head. Bond has forever had, as part of its plot, nameless and personality-less women as eye candy who cannot resist Bond’s powers. Well, here we have Bond himself certainly with a character to play, but very much in the background and serving as eye candy to the main event, which is Lisbeth.
She uses her supernatural techno-photographic-memory powers of reasoning to solve the crime and figure out that James Bond is strung up in some basement about to get sliced from stem to stern. She breaks her way into the devil’s lair to beat him senseless with of all things a golf club. The bad guy gets away in his car, bleeding profusely from the head, and our Lisbeth turns to Bond to ask permission, “Can I kill him?” Of course she doesn’t need to do that. It’s almost a sarcastic tip of the hat to dumb-ass gender roles of the past. She gets on her motorcycle and catches the bastard to insure his demise.
And of course, when she wants to have her way with the eye candy, Mr. Bond, she does that too in a way that doesn’t give him much of a chance to catch his breath. She really isn’t about to take “no” for an answer.
The fact that she is attractive because she is powerful in a totally non-conformist way, sick and bent on revenge, makes her fascinating. She breaks the mold that has gotten way too old and oppressive. And we love her for it. Or at least I did.
Then there is the issue of sexual violence. At its core that’s what Dragon Tattoo is really about. If the debate in our pages is about rape culture, here we have it in the flesh. As my prior piece points out, the books and now the film are fundamentally about the appropriate response to violent rape.
Lisbeth’s character, and her being declared insane by the state, is born out of burning her father—“over 80% of his body”—in response to his predation. The mystery at the core of the plot involves the sadistic rape and murder of women.
We see Lisbeth violated by her legal guardian in awful detail. But rather than have the trauma immobilize her, the core of what makes Lisbeth so compelling is that she uses her powers to inflict merciless revenge. Her perpetrator is reduced to a quivering mass of flesh.
The New Yorker review of the film implies that the ultimate test of Mara’s Lisbeth is that her revenge and the original rape equally horrify us. I emphatically do not agree. I fucking loved watching her tattoo “I am a sadistic pig, a pervert, and a rapist” on the perpetrator and explain to him how she is blackmailing him with the video she has taped of him raping her.
For all my talk of pacifism, visits to prison, and adamant belief that the death penalty is wrong, this kind of vigilante revenge is not horrific in my view. It’s a kind of justice that reminds me of the wild west when a trial by your peers was just not practical, when a posse would chase after a bad guy and hand out justice in whatever way they deemed appropriate.
Again, the film flips gender roles from John Wayne to Lisbeth Salander. And I loved it.
Finally there is the issue of sexuality itself. Blomkvist is divorced with a teenaged daughter. He has a long-term affair with his married co-worker, apparently with the approval of her husband. Lisbeth, despite her profound anti-social behavior, is irresistible to either gender. She sleeps with a woman early in the film and then commands Bromkvist into bed.
One could view the revealing scenes of Mara (and Craig) as exploitation, but really I think they are creating a new model for what counts as sexual in film: realism.
Watching Mara’s Lisbeth I was reminded of another one of my favorite female performers, Lady Gaga. Both are of unclear sexuality, both wear elaborate and shocking gear that contrasts sharply with the expectations of what it means to be “lady-like.” And through it all, through the insanity, the non-conformity of body and piercings and facial features, we arrive at something far more attractive than anything that we see in the dumbed-down women of our pornified world.
Lisbeth kicks ass, has sex, and gets even. She’s brilliant and really doesn’t give a shit what anyone else thinks. She is insane, and she knows it. But her insanity allows us to see the very insanity of our own expectations of her. And I loved her character for doing just that.