The cultural narratives they are a-changin’?

An unpleasant incident with a fellow cinema-goer notwithstanding, Chrissy D left a screening of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo in high spirits and hopeful for a change of the tide in Hollywood's take on female leads in action movies

, 19 January 2012

Instigating a debate about the latest portrayal of Lisbeth Salander, in David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, makes me a little nervous. When I saw the film in the cinema, though, I was not feeling nervous: having the guy in front of me telling me (aggressively; how else can you say it?) to “suck it”, for knocking the back of his chair, was a weird, disturbing, poignant, tone-setting start. It made me feel irritated, angry, verbally violated, and wanting to kick the backs of every seat in his vicinity throughout most of the movie.

Putting this movie in the context of the director’s filmography (which includes Seven, Zodiac and Alien 3 ) would be a 2,000 word essay itself; I must then take another angle and look at it as a stand-alone narrative and assess the character of Lisbeth Salander only as it is portrayed by 26-year-old relative newcomer Rooney Mara.


To compare the 2011 Hollywood version with the 2009 Swedish adaptation by Niels Arden Oplev, or the book trilogy, would be the obvious approach to take, but just as the actors themselves were apparently encouraged not to make comparisons, so I shall also refrain.

Inevitably, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (based on the book originally titled in Swedish Män som hatar kvinnor, which translates as “Men who hate women”), will spawn heavy debates about representations of female protagonists in cinema, the thriving-not-dying male gaze, sexuality and cinema, and other gender-political hot potatoes.

Perhaps the most bandied-about phrase in discourse about the Hollywood version of the first novel in Stieg Larsson’s trilogy is ‘feminist hero’. But what makes a feminist lead? Surely there is more than one prescribed role. And, to that end, does Mara’s Salander really get there?

The movie – a visually strong, tensely engaging crime-thriller – follows the story of Lisbeth Salander, a young woman classed as vulnerable and dangerous. She remains under the watchful eye of the state. Although she is an adult, she is required to have a legal guardian, following an incident when she tried to kill her father when she was a child. She is the victim of sexual violence at the hands of said guardian. She exists on the periphery of mainstream society, until her expert computer hacking skills get her involved in an investigation to solve the enigma of the disappearance of a young girl 40 years earlier. Harriet, the girl, was the niece of a wealthy industrialist, Henrik Vanger, based in the north of Sweden, and was last seen at a parade in the town centre before disappearing entirely.

In parallel, we are also introduced to the other protagonist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a shamed journalist who is struggling to save his reputation after losing a libel trial when he is hired to lead the investigation. Vanger tempts him with a carrot of some unspecified but invaluable insider information which can help him redeem his public image if only he can uncover the whereabouts of the lost girl.

Blomkvist is presented as a charismatic persona, a man in a no-strings-attached romantic relationship with his magazine boss, Erica, as well as being an intriguing colleague and partner for Salander.

Does an on-screen feminist have to suffer a traumatic experience in order to deserve the label?

The movie’s title credits, accompanied by Karen O’s vocals in the cover of Led Zeppelin’s ‘The Immigrant Song’, resemble a visual mash-up between oily James Bond opening credits and a suave car commercial. The imagery of dark liquid, body close-ups and what looks like machinery, while alluding to some of the events in the movie, set the audience up for something sexier and less-brutal than what follows. But that’s Hollywood for you.


So why is Lisbeth Salander globally regarded as a feminist, in the opinion of critics and reviewers? In analysing her levels of kicking ass, it’s helpful to start by considering whether a feminist hero must – as is suggested by the movie’s worldwide reception – be kick-ass to be considered feminist. And, more importantly, does an on-screen feminist have to suffer a traumatic experience in order to ‘deserve’ the label?

Overcoming some detrimental situation in their origin story is expected not only of a strong female character, but of screen (super) heroes in general. Superman, an orphan whose mother planet has been annihilated, in some versions of the story also loses his adoptive parents on graduating from high school, while Batman sees his parents murdered by a street robber and uses this as a fuel for sorting out the justice system in his city.

However, just like Thelma & Louise and The Bride in Kill Bill, Lisbeth must suffer violent attacks of sexual nature before seeing red and then turning it into fuel for her own success. The gendered difference between male and female characters is that the latter’s traumatic experiences usually drive them to vengeful violence, arguably justifiable and mostly in self-defence, rather than propelling them to global superheroism (reserved, it seems, largely for men). Is that to say that a feminist narrative can only be a localised victim one?

Must a feminist hero exist out of sight of the stubborn and relentless male gaze?

It’s helpful to look not just at Salander’s portrayal, but how she compares to the other women in the film. Although Lisbeth is not juxtaposed with young Harriet visually (they look very different), intellectually, emotionally and in terms of their experiences with men they exist in parallel. Both have, undeniably, been victims of others’ evil, but then both utilise their own skills and circumstances – quite separate from the anger and hurt caused by their abusers – to detach themselves from their pasts.

Both are the victims of abuse and both attempt to appease their demons using the only desperate means available at the time. We get the feeling Lisbeth empathises with Harriet and that solving the mystery of the latter’s disappearance offers her release. She is shown eating more often, as well as nourishing Blomkvist, once the investigation is underway, as if with a renewed sense of purpose she sees her own value and a reason for nourishment.


Also, like the other aforementioned ‘feminist’ movie leads, Lisbeth – though she dominates the investigation – is still forced to exist outside the wider social narrative, for example when she finds herself on a snowy street, solemnly watching Mikael stroll arm in arm with his long-time lover Erica. Rather than reclaiming her place in the society that deemed her worthless, she remains an outsider, after a lifetime of existing on the periphery, kept under state supervision but unprotected by the society that tries to label her unfit to exist as an autonomous being. This certainly elicits the sympathy of the audience – also watching from the outside – but does this portrayal of Salander’s story make her any more advanced in feminist terms than her predecessors? I’m not so sure.

Does to kick-ass mean to be on the outside? And are we to celebrate the alleged kick-ass heroine merely looking in from the outside as a ‘feminist’ narrative? Thelma and Louise, for example, existed so much on the outside that they were hunted, to their eventual deaths, by the law. But yeah, they were pretty kick-ass. Or is Lisbeth Salander’s kick-ass-ness just another small step toward making feminist representations fundamental, rather than the alternative? Are we really there yet in achieving the archetypal feminist lead?

One (female) blogger, reviewer and Lisbeth Salander fan celebrates the fact that Lisbeth does not present herself as a victim, that she doesn’t “play the girl game”, as proof of her worth as a feminist icon. The “girl game”?! Is that what feeling like a victim when you have been one is called now? Such comments make me wonder whether we really have come any further in our celebration of the strong female lead, if it is suggested that to be strong is the opposite of being a victim.

Even Rooney Mara applauds Lisbeth’s decision (if we are to presume it is a decision) not to “see herself as a victim; she doesn’t ever play that card”. As if being a victim is something that survivors exploit.

This leads me to consider another issue prevalent in discussions of women and cinema: must a feminist hero exist out of sight of the stubborn and relentless male gaze?


Let me say that Lisbeth Salander is no lipstick lesbian, and her relationship with another woman is only briefly shown in a few short scenes. And though the girl-on-girl scene in this movie is presented as a casual encounter, it is by far the most loving one. While it may be considered titillating to the male gaze, and certainly somewhat scopophilic (when Mikael meets Salander with her girlfriend when he first visits her to ask for her aid in the investigation), the one sexual scene between Lisbeth and another girl is passionate, honest and mutual, in contrast with the brutal rapes she suffers at the hands of her parole officer, lawyer Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen, above).

This certainly sets up an interesting contrast between the violence of an abusive heterosexual narrative and the pleasure and comfort Lisbeth gets from her female lover. However, the label that seems to describe her best might be “bisexual”: what comes next in the plot is her relationship with Blomkvist, somewhat unconventionally initiated by her and showing her seemingly falling in love with her colleague.

Lisbeth’s androgynous appearance has also been addressed by Mara, who said about her decision to ‘starve’ herself to look the part: “David didn’t want me to lose any weight; that was something that I wanted to do that he was, kind of, opposed to.”

Fincher’s Lisbeth challenges the most popular representations of a female crime-fighter, but citing her androgyny as a check in the ‘strong female character’ box is accusing most other female central figures of being weaker because of their physiques and gender presentation

Lisbeth has short hair. She wears baggy clothes, has small breasts and has relationships with both men and women. She carries her stuff in a backpack. As the title suggests, she has tattoos. Does this make her androgynous or just relatable? Does a gender unspecific appearance help to make a female hero a feminist? Or does it make her difficult for the audience – so used to the typical voluptuous, faux-badass female leads – to understand, and therefore change the conversation?

Will she still be aspirational in feminist terms to a mainstream audience?

Fincher’s Lisbeth certainly challenges the most popular representations of a female crime-fighter, but citing her apparent androgyny as a check in the ‘strong female character’ box is accusing most other female central figures of being weaker because of their physiques and gender presentation. So although her atypical (in mainstream cinema) appearance is refreshing, whether it can be added to her resumé under ‘feminist hero’ is questionable.

Another interesting aspect is the interdependence between a feminist hero and the the central male character. Does she have to rescue him, or do they inevitably rescue each other?

In the final confrontation with the movie’s villain, Salander asks Blomkvist’s permission to finish the bad guy off. We may ask: is this out of the learned subservience of her female condition, or the heroine’s need for the approval of the hero, or just out of formality since she is, after all, in his employ? In fact, remembering that she is the employee, hired by the investigator to help him with a job, puts this a little into perspective. It may even be argued that the socialisation the state demanded of her she has now achieved herself – she has learned the norms of employment through sticking it out in a rewarding job. stitches.jpg

Or is it an attempt to soften Salander for a global audience used to male dominance? Not likely. I don’t think it makes her any weaker in the eyes of an audience in want of that ‘strong female lead’. If anything, it shows her humanity and stops her being interpreted as a damaged, vengeful, robotic killing machine. Does that moment, in the light of her affair with Blomkvist (her current employer), show her vulnerability? Perhaps, but this is neither detrimental nor specific to her character: indeed, most of the people portrayed in the movie are vulnerable in one way or another.

Did I leave the cinema with a new feminist screen icon to cherish? Not as much as I left still wanting to throw my remaining Diet Coke over the guy who so profanely insulted me before the movie began, but I wasn’t disappointed by what I saw. And, for the first time in a long time, I felt the tiny little spark of hope that for women in Hollywood the narrative may in the not-too-distant future be a-changing.

Chrissy D lives in Canterbury and her main area of interest is the cultural narrative of self-improvement and body obsession and how it is used for patriarchal ends. She believes society’s fear of the human body is a persistent social problem

Comments From You

Dramatika // Posted 20 January 2012 at 7:46 pm

Thank you for the great analysis! I haven’t seen the movie yet, but read the book a while ago. I remember having very mixed feelings about the book. On the one hand, this is a great portrayal of a strong women. But on another, it is still somewhat of a male fantasy. Vulnerable but strong and quite attractive! I decided that a book was not about a feminist hero. Rather about man’s idea of the superwoman: attractive, strong and damaged enough to be in want of a rescue.

Dunja // Posted 21 January 2012 at 12:52 pm

I really enjoyed reading this. I’ve been pondering myself whether Lisbeth is a feminist, but what I ultimately realised is that it’s not so important. What’s important is that she is different to the mainstream female action heroes, as you say, and that it’s adding to the currently limited pool of representations of females in the media. Having more varied characters is definitely a step in the right direction.

Feminist or not, I think she’s a fantastic character, and Rooney Mara did a wonderful job.

Kim Redgrave // Posted 21 January 2012 at 1:05 pm

I’d be interested to know what you thought of Hanna as well. She was a kind of androgynous killing machine fighting a female baddie. I wonder how it compares having not seen this film discussed above

Witwe Wadman // Posted 22 January 2012 at 9:35 am

Even looking at the promotional poster, Salander is in the back ground with a shiny huge Craig in the foreground, giving him all prominence.

Having not read the book, but only seen the film to me Salander seemed a cliché box ticked lesbian/bisexual, for we all know all that gothy type women are all bi. It didn’t add to her character or the story line, but was titillation. That she ends up shagging (and, of course, yawn, unrequitedly falling in love with) Craig’s Marie-Su character is not unconventional but quite the opposite, very predictable.

I really really don’t get why some people think she’s strong, or interesting, or even feminist or in any way new or different. It’s almost like I’ve seen a different film to everyone else.

Shayne // Posted 23 January 2012 at 9:45 pm

One thing folks should keep in mind is that Stieg Larsson’s lifetime partner was cut out of royalties from these books after the man passed on. The couple had lived in Sweden as a non-married couple but unfortunately under Swedish law, de facto couplings are not recognized for automatic will rights, and Mr Larsson did not leave a will when he passed. As a result, his family managed to strong-arm the rights to the books (which had not become famous until after he died) off her, and the house and everything leaving her destitute despite spending a lifetime supporting the man in his writing and his anti-fascist organizing. As a writer, he cant have been earning much during his life, and as an anti-fascist organizer, he would (and thus by extension her) been a constant target of harassment by very scary racist types. I think this is outrageous, and as his lifetime partner she deserves every cent of the fantastic wealth his books have earned. I know there have been some groups who have sought to support her in her legal battles and financial issues, because if you appreciate the man’s writings, then the best way to show respect is to assist the woman he loved get the outcome they would have wanted had the man lived. Great blog by the way, the anti-transphobia stuff is fantastic.

Squid // Posted 23 January 2012 at 11:40 pm

i also agree with dramatika.

great article! thank you.

Jennifer C Krase // Posted 24 January 2012 at 1:24 pm

I don’t know if an on-screen feminist “has” to suffer a traumatic experience beyond that of being a woman in a patriachal and abusive society.

But in terms of suffering a specific form of abuse… well, I suppose that for the non-feminist audiences who will be watching this, and the non-feminist filmmakers who will continue to tell stories about women and feminists (whether they are feminist stories or not), it is certainly the kind of clear, black and white, stark method of forcing them to sympathise with the character that being a bog standard oppressed woman apparently is insufficient to accomplish.

Ania Ostrowska // Posted 24 January 2012 at 5:27 pm

You can also check out Jess McCabe’s take on “What makes a ‘feminist character’?” in this blog post from March 2011:

Laurel // Posted 25 January 2012 at 7:39 am

i tend to have a theory that if a woman is both strong and well written she has to lose her power at some time in the film in order for people to sympathise because they think there has to be something wrong with a woman who is like that otherwise and people are intimidated by a powerful woman. so long as she loses her power as a woman and is put in her place at some point she can carry on as she likes through the rest of the film. maybe im a cynic

Claudia // Posted 26 January 2012 at 1:11 pm

I really don’t like to say that about such a thorough analysis, but I totally disagree: While I think it’s true that the lovemaking scene between Miriam (does she even have a name in the film?) and Lisbeth is a big step forward by Hollywood standards as far as the representation of ‘lesbian’ sex is concerned, the rest of the depiction of the encounter is troublingly hetero-normative: When Lisbeth and Miriam are still in bed on the ‘morning after’, Mikael practically hijacks Lisbeth’s apartment, tells her to “throw out her girl-friend”, an assault against which Lisbeth appropriately arms herself with a taser, and when she leads Miriam to the door, the two of them giggle like naughty teenager clichés. So, what happens in terms of the ‘romantic’ narrative between Mikael and Lisbeth is that the heterosexual love interest arrives and ends the ‘illegitimate’ dabbling in same-sex affairs.

This tendency is given more stability by said scene in which Lisbeth asks (I couldn’t believe it) Mikael whether she may kill Martin Vanger. The moral dilemma which the Swedish film and the novel present to the reader for her to solve is whether we find it justified that Lisbeth might have saved Martin Vanger from his (self-inflicted) life-threatening situation, but lets him die in the end. What happens in Fincher’s film is that Lisbeth transfers responsibility to Mikael and is then even saved from pulling the trigger, because the car explodes before she gets to carry out the killing itself.

To me, that takes away almost everything which was good about “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. It certainly takes away a huge chunk of agency from the character Lisbeth. What it does, however, is solving the problem the hetero-normative narrative has when the male part of the romance plot plays no part in the show down. In the cinema I saw the film, some of the viewers giggled about the scene in which Lisbeth asks permission to kill, and I found that quite appropriate, unintentionally funny as the scene was.

R-Magz // Posted 3 February 2012 at 4:36 pm

Agree completely with Shaype and Claudia’s comments, haven’t seen the film but from reading the books I feel they are quite flawed….I’m no feminist scholar but I feel that, even though Larsson was exceptional for even addressing the issue of sexual and state violence against women, I think he still had a tendency to try and ‘sex up’ his writing so that a male audience would be interested. Salander is such a collection of titillating bad-girl clichés she is hard to take sometimes. Tough women have existed in cinema for years, and have been more believable by far.

However, in terms of calling out on state abuse and taking control, Larsson’s creation is great progress, but reality is sadly far behind – the fate of his partner highlights how things really are in the real world. Strong women are those who stand up and fight for their rights and those of their fellow women. And they don’t have to be tattooed, motorbike riding, bisexual computer hackers to do it.

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