(Or: the Female Batman)
In honor of March being Women’s History Month—coming up in only a few days—I’ve decided to talk about one of the more kick-ass heroines in literary history: Lisbeth Salander. Known in the States as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (who also enjoys Playing With Fire and Kicking Hornets’ Nests), the star of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series refuses to let stories of mistreated women get swept under the rug.
Salander is the socially remote hacker who can memorize pages of information instantly and has a seething hatred of the injustices, especially those against women. Larsson himself shared many of Salander’s sympathies; he had witnessed a gang rape of a young girl when he was 15 years old. He allegedly couldn’t forgive himself for not saving the girl, whose name was also Lisbeth. (Larsson’s original title for the first book was Män som hatar kvinnor, translated as “Men Who Hate Women”). According to Larsson’s website, he had written synopses for ten books prior to beginning writing the series in 1997, and he signed a three-book contract with Swedish publisher Nordstedts in 2003. At that point, he had finished the first two books and was writing the third. Soon after, rights were sold to German and Norwegian publishing houses, and Larsson made changes to the first two books and finished the third. However, tragedy struck as, a few months before the series debut in 2004, Larsson suffered a heart attack and died. He hadn’t had a chance to see what an instant success his Millennium series was in Europe, and later, in the States. After its US release in 2009, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has been on the NY Times Bestseller list for a whopping 26 weeks. Talk of a US film version was immediately underway, based on the success of the Swedish adaptation starring Noomi Rapace in 2008.
For those who have seen Rapace in action, I’m sure we can agree that her perfectly piqued eyebrows and steely glare convey Salander’s utter distrust of society at large, as well as the fortified walls of anger she’s built up.
In the American version, Rooney Mara (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Social Network) has nabbed an Oscar nomination for her role as Salander, alongside a dashing Daniel Craig as the hard-hitting journalist Mikhail Blomqvist. As far as Salander’s character goes, Mara seems to have the rail-thin aspect down cold, which Larsson repeatedly stresses in the books. In a flare of her own bold style, Mara expresses Salander’s social alienation with all-but-invisible bleached eyebrows. But I’m not quite sure yet if she embodies the fury. And that may be a crippling mistake, because Salander herself is female fury incarnate.
WARNING, if you haven’t read the books, stop reading NOW to avoid spoilers!
Long story short: Lisbeth is pissed, and reasonably so. She had the misfortune of being the product of a negligent, callous, and cruel father who regularly beat her mother to the point of giving her permanent brain damage. And if that wasn’t enough, Lisbeth’s pleas to save her mother were completely ignored by every authority figure she reached out to. So Lisbeth reasoned that the only way to protect her family was to do so herself. But after she tries to prevent her father from coming back, she’s locked in a mental institution and declared legally incompetent. The injustices spiral out of control from there, and Lisbeth has to fight society to prove herself competent, a struggle not uncommon in women trying to break into a “boys’ club” workplace.
In a world reliant on technology, Salander’s hacking prowess affords her enormous power—although she only uses it for good. (Note: “Good,” in Salander’s terms does not in any way rely on society’s definition, but rather her own sense that unfair acts of cruelty cannot go unpunished.) In Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Lisbeth calls herself and her hacker friends “information junkies.” But as she makes more powerful enemies in her dealings with Blomqvist, she’ll need all her talents to protect herself from a lifetime of unfair imprisonment.
Larsson filled all three books with accounts of women abused or ridiculed by men who felt the need to assert their dominance. Like a larger and European Gotham City, Sweden seemed to be home to the most corrupt villains, plagued (like Batman’s nemeses) with a fixation of sorts. But unlike the Riddler or the Penguin, Larsson’s villains were consumed with some form of misogyny. I couldn’t help but picture an invisible Bat signal go off in Salander’s head as she sits in a hotel room listening to a couple’s argument turn physical in the next room. After that, it’s nothing but BANG! KERPOW! KABLOOEY! (or however those sound effects would sound coming from a hacker. CLICK! CLACK! HIT ENTER!)
So here’s to the unsung hero of Sweden’s Gotham, and to the writer whose inspired work was cut so tragically short.