The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’s Blend of Victim and Killer Speaks to Us

A column about life, culture, and politics.
Dec. 22 2011 7:05 AM

We Are All Lisbeth Salander

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’s blend of victim and killer speaks to us.

'The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.'
Rooney Mara in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Photograph by Merrick Morton/© 2011 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The great, strange heroine of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is again beguiling popular imagination. The fantasy being stylishly peddled in David Fincher’s new movie is of a skinny, damaged, victimized girl who rides a motorcycle and beats up dangerous and elaborately evil men. With chopped black hair and slouchy cargo pants, Rooney Mara’s version of Lisbeth Salander is anti-social, gangly, violent, childish, prickly, awkward, and smart. As in Stieg Larsson’s books, the mesmerizing paradox is that she is both the consummate victim and infinitely powerful, both battered woman and superhero.

Katie Roiphe Katie Roiphe

Katie Roiphe, professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, is the author of Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages and In Praise of Messy Lives.

One could argue that Larsson’s world of rapists, murderers, sadists, conspirators, and assorted sickos is not an entirely balanced portrayal of reality circa now, but there is something about Lisbeth Salander that rings true. In the extremes and luridness of her experience, she somehow embodies the modern woman’s most intimate contradictions, her more ordinary straddling of power and weakness, her irrational internal admixture of fierce warrior and abused waif.

To find elaborations of this Dragon Tattoo-ish contradiction we have only to spend a few minutes reading Slate’s own DoubleX, or The Nation, or Salon or Jezebel, or any other popular organ of right-thinking feminist-leaning mainstream prose.

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There you will hear both the assumption of victimization, the story of women bullied at work, the preoccupation with sexual vulnerability, the lurking male threat, and the simultaneous assertion of power, the confident, sometimes even aggressive or condescending tone. Take for instance feminist blogger Jessica Valenti writing about the legacy of Anita Hill, 20 years later: “I knew what sexual harassment was—after all, I took the New York City subway to school every day—but Hill’s testimony and the ensuing media madness made me realize this wasn’t something that happened only on trains; it was an issue that affected women throughout their lives. The idea that the nastiness I faced every day on the street could follow me as I got older—that this wasn’t a fleeting problem, and worse, it was something I might not be believed about should it continue to happen to me—was too much to bear.”

At the same time we can read on the cover of the Atlantic persuasive arguments about the “The End of Men,” that women are the majority in college campuses, that they are rising to managerial positions in the workplace and otherwise outdoing their male counterparts, and yet the habit or feeling of being victimized lingers. There is a certain disconnect, an incoherence to our current public conversation about women’s issues, which assumes that women are both equal to or surpassing men and terribly oppressed by them, a sublime transcendence that coexists with textbook victimization.

Lisbeth’s motivation for hunting down and punishing violent men and serial killers is not exactly subtle or obscure. (Even Larsson’s admirers, among whom I definitely count myself, have to admit that the plots of his stories are constructed with the sleek, appealing cheapness of Ikea furniture.) The reason Lisbeth has such a strong interest in powerful abusive men is that she has been hurt and mistreated and violated by men her whole life, in ways that Larsson chronicles in more graphic, disturbing detail than does the movie, which briefly and politely telegraphs her history of abuse. In any event she emerges from all this unspeakable maltreatment rageful, avenging, all scowl and blankness with flashes of vulnerability, and the special immortality of thriller heroes and cartoon characters. And even though most of us haven’t experienced anything like her abused past or her subversive power, Larsson’s unusual achievement is that we still somehow identify with her.

The slightly sunnier prototype for Lisbeth Salander, whom Larsson himself refers to in the trilogy, is Pippi Longstocking, who is shabbily dressed, in mismatched socks, living alone, abandoned by her pirate father, but can lift a horse above her head; she festively, exuberantly combines fantastical physical strength with the solitude and powerlessness of a girl child adrift. Lisbeth, then, is Pippi grown up and with piercings. Her version of lifting a horse above her head is being able to hack into people’s email and Internet searches and obtain secret codes for bank transfers of offshore accounts, a girl techno geek with unusual prowess; she gets inside the computers, and therefore the heads, of both her friends and enemies.

In her violent, clashing extremes, Lisbeth belongs to a growing tribe of recent popular heroines: Katniss Everdeen, in the much adored Hunger Games trilogy, is small, angry, bossy, explosive, murderous, abused, not exactly likeable, and also somehow evocative of female strength and female vulnerability, dangerously, ambiguously welded together into an oddly compelling and singular crusading girl heroine. We like these wounded, angry girls, in other words, and can’t get enough of them.

That same spirit of avenging victimhood makes its way into more informal conversations we have about the news. When, for instance, prosecutors distanced themselves from Dominique Strauss Kahn’s accuser as the inaccuracies and complexities of her story emerged, feminist writers and protesters were outraged about how women victims are silenced and discredited and blamed, even though in this particular instance, the woman had compromised her own testimony and there was no shadowy conspiracy or systematic patriarchal effort to discredit her, simply some lawyers making a boring, pragmatic calculation that her testimony wouldn’t hold up in court.

Our Dragon Tattoo psychology is schizophrenic, theatrical, vivid, in both directions; we can see in our current self-image the wounded superhero, the brilliant Goth paradox, the dynamic, interesting play between power and its opposite. Larsson’s inspiration was to create a weird, singular character out of all this, and she is, in a certain way, the truest, most realistic, down-to-earth heroine to emerge from a novel or movie in a long time.