Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of the three-volume Dragon Tattoo series, is a remarkable person by any standard: with no formal training she is a brilliant chess player, one of the top international hackers, a genius mathematician, and a cunning and effective hand-to-hand fighter. Many commentators have debated whether the descriptions of barbaric violence against women in the books are misogynistic or a welcome examination of a real threat facing women. But reviewers seem to agree that Salander is a feminist role model. By my reading, however, the books’ depiction of Salander is the most sexist thing about them.
In the two books available in English so far, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire, Salander has a complicated relationship with femininity. It is as though no normal woman could achieve Salander’s feats of intellectual and combat prowess, precluding Salander from being a normal woman – and perhaps even a normal human. This smacks of the misogynistic bromide that women are not as good as men at [insert any activity here]. On the other hand, Salander may embody the feminist theory that society rejects extraordinary women like her, forcing them beyond traditional gender roles and perhaps even normal social roles into an ambiguous outsider status.
Stieg Larsson, the author of the series, constantly refers to Salander, a 24-year-old woman, as “the girl” (witness the titles of the books), which is temptation enough to conclude that he did not intend to champion feminist theory. Further, the two books together offer evidence both that Salander is not a normal human, and not a normal woman. Perhaps she chose her outsider status in reaction to male violence against women that she witnessed from childhood on, which explains why she risks all to avenge women wronged by men. Or maybe the trauma of her upbringing and its aftermath rob her of femininity against her will. After all, the only things she yearns for are bigger breasts and the love of a good man.
Salander is unsocialized, like a wild animal (her boss thinks of her as a stray cat). Her boss considers her “an outsider” and “weird. She’s really weird.” Salander’s colleagues consider her “a hopeless case.” When she was a child “[h]er classmates thought she was crazy”; when she left one middle school for another, she did not have “a single friend to say goodbye to. An unloved girl with odd behavior.” She appears “to have no sense of humor at all. Or the ability to carry on a normal conversation.” Her boss describes her as making progress in her “socialization process,” classifying her as a child – or possibly an alien – who is not fully socialized into normal adult society. Other indications that Salander is something other than human include the observation that she is “not like any normal person” (emphasis added), and a description of her eyes as “raven black” – the color of a monster’s eyes, not a human’s. Salander herself doesn’t feel human, wearing a t-shirt that reads “I AM ALSO AN ALIEN” and describing herself more than once as a freak.
Salander’s confused gender identity sets her strikingly apart from other people. Larsson leaves no doubt that Salander is not feminine, even in her girlhood: “Much stronger boys in her class soon learned that it could be quite unpleasant to fight with that skinny girl. Unlike the other girls in the class, she never backed down.” She isn’t like other girls when she is a girl, but once she grows into womanhood, she finally becomes “girlish,” “with slender bones[,] small hands, narrow wrists, and childlike breasts.” Others perceive her as a fifteen-year-old girl when she is twenty-four. But at the same time she is still boyish, a “flat-chested girl who might be mistaken for [a] skinny boy at a distance.” At every age Salander does not fit into the socially accepted parameters of femininity.
Just to look like a woman, the adult Salander must don elaborate “camouflage,” including a multi-layered outfit and make-up, while removing the usual jewelry from her facial piercings. Only once she is costumed does she look “like any other woman.”
Salander believes that she is not womanly. She is “convinced that her skinny body was repulsive. Her breasts were pathetic. She had no hips to speak of. She did not have much to offer,” discounting entirely her remarkable intellect and courage and valuing only female sexual characteristics. When she looks in the mirror to see the bustline she creates with fake latex breasts, this jaded, violent, unemotional woman “catch[es] her breath”; later she enthusiastically gets breast implant surgery, trying to artificially capture some of the femininity she lacks. Salander’s womanhood is a mere technicality; practically speaking, she is without feminine attributes other than the false ones she buys to stuff her bra.
But Salander does have some traditionally masculine attributes. Her surprisingly (given her small stature) effective violence is one of the attributes that sets Salander apart from other girls and women. Salander is notably “violent, without a doubt.” She tasers men, beats them with golf clubs, ties them up, rapes them, firebombs them, chops at them with an axe. But she is violent only towards men who are violent towards women.
However just, her violence is condemned. Violence is masculine, celebrated or at least expected in men whether justified or not, while Salander, a violent female, is ostracized and even institutionalized. Her friend and former guardian calls her violence, even though it is limited to those who have earned it, “appalling” – this in a series brimming with descriptions of men sexually attacking and murdering women in much more gruesome, disturbing, and pathological ways. But when men are violent they are just being men. When one male character can’t wait to beat up a wrong-doing man, he considers it just being “pissed off.” Others might consider him “a macho cowboy” – violence makes him all the more masculine.
Larsson’s leading female character is too impressive for her to be feminine or even female. A male character with her abilities would be uber-masculine, an action hero. But as a “girl” Salander is entirely abnormal. As a child she acts like a boy, then as an adult she looks like a boy and acts like a lunatic. Whether or not these books are feminist in some ways, their heroine is a warning to women not to over-achieve.