Lisbeth Salander: A Feminist Hero?

August 11, 2017

With the surges in popularity of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, fans all around the world have been captivated by the riveting and unique anti-heroine, Lisbeth Salander. The novels are a story inside a story. Outwardly, the plot is an ingoing crime drama with various mobster fellows and sexual encounters and cops. Inwardly, though, it is all about Lisbeth: how she came to be, why she is who she, and what will happen to her. Every piece of the plot is connected to Lisbeth in some way. She shoves her way into every single nuance of the book, never far from the minds of readers or other characters. She longs to be left alone and in peace and, yet, refuses to be ignored or pushed aside. She is, actually, quite a bit like a dragon, a huge, formidable beast that breathes fire before talking rationally.

I first read these books a long time ago, before the movies even began making headway. The first thing that stood out to me about these novels was how poorly they were written. Like, almost to the point of making them unreadable. However, this is pretty much common knowledge in the Larsson fandom by now. It’s like: Yeah, the writing sucks, but the story is good.

I daresay that a female author would most likely never get away with such poor writing, no matter how great the story is, but I digress…That’s a rant for another time.

The issue on the table right now is this: Is it fair and accurate to refer to Lisbeth Salander as a feminist icon?

Whether you believe she is a feminist or not, I think we can all agree that she is one thing for sure: Stieg Larsson’s saving grace. If he hadn’t written her to be so captivating, making readers unable to look away, I believe these novels would have been a major flop. The writing, as already discussed, is sub-par. And, in my personal opinion, no other character in these series is interesting enough to make it without Lisbeth carrying the whole thing. So, the entire success of these novels rests on her more-than-capable shoulders.

However, does she live up to the feminist label that so many have plastered on her?  Let’s take a closer look.

Gender Stereotypes

I think we can pretty much agree, right off the bat, that Lisbeth blows gender stereotypes out of the water. She is highly androgynous and doesn’t seem to have any interest at all in being what one may call a “traditional woman.” She doesn’t even know, really, what that means. She can watch other women in fancy skirts and perfectly coifed hair as they give their husband a peck on the cheek and then quietly return to their corner, but she doesn’t understand what it is to be that. She could never even fake it. She pulls of playing the feminine Irene Nesser for a short time while stealing large sums of money, but it is an obvious struggle for her, one that she could not maintain for very long at a time. If you thought you had an idea of what a woman is and should be, Lisbeth will stick her middle finger up and teach you a thing or two.

That being said, there is one snag on this particular issue. It’s the one part of the series that hard-core feminists try their best to ignore and pretend it never happened.

Yes, in the second novel, Lisbeth gives in and gets breast implants. Eek.

Now, before we all groan and shake our heads, I think it’s fair to look at her motivation, as well as the author’s motivation, behind this choice.

First, Lisbeth is never pressured by a man to get this done. All of her sexual encounters seem quite satisfied with her body. The issue with her breasts comes strictly from Lisbeth and her own insecurities.

And while we would love to say that feminists are all proud of their bodies because the female form is perfect as it is, etc., I want us to tell the truth. Is there nothing you would change about your body if you could?

I’m not arguing. The female form is perfect as it is. But this isn’t a question about that. It’s a question about individual bodies. Lisbeth, as it turns out, is not very happy with her breasts, so she changes them. Not because anyone else wants her to, but because she wants to. That is, I think, a very feminist thing to do. Outside pressure, male or otherwise, pushing you to change something about yourself is when it becomes a problem. But changing something simply because you want to? That’s perfectly fine.

Women in the Media

As much as the rest of us may be annoyed by that bikini-clad woman eating a juicy cheeseburger commercial (seriously, who eats like that?), Lisbeth doesn’t really care.

While she may be wholly intolerant of any sort of mistreatment or abuse for women, she stands for no cause or movement. She only does what she personally believes is right and, if it’s not hurting or offending her personally, she’s not interested in fixing it.

It looks like Lisbeth is on a mission to save the women of the world from all the nasty men but, actually, she’s on a mission to save her mother.

Her mother cannot be saved. She was beaten to death by Lisbeth’s father, and Lisbeth’s attempts to help and repair did nothing but bring more heartache. It is the most painful part of her life, one that she constantly seeks to rectify again and again. It’s like the wound that never heals. You go searching and searching, trying every different ointment and Band-Aid you will find, praying that one will work and the pain will finally begin to subside.

This is why everything that Lisbeth does, particularly when it comes to women or helping those who are victimized, is so personal to her. In every pair of eyes she looks into, every woman who is beaten and killed or every person who is used and degraded, she only sees her mother’s eyes. She sees her mother in all of those dead women lying there, beaten and assaulted and murdered by her father.

Her mission is not to save the women of the world from the rampart sexism. Hell, she doesn’t even care as long as it doesn’t affect her. Her mission, in fact, is to kill her own pain and, maybe somehow, go back and save the mother that she couldn’t save.

Responses to Male Abuse

It’s pretty clear that Lisbeth doesn’t stand for any type of abuse, not even a little bit. However, after she is raped, for example, does she go to the police? Join a support group for rape survivors? Tell a friend?

No. She attacks him, tattoos him, and rapes him back. Yikes.

With Lisbeth, we see a constant warning in her eyes, one that dares people to challenge her. She responds to the violence and brutality that is heaped on her with more violence and brutality.

As we watch or read the revenge-rape scene play out, we aren’t quite sure how we feel about Lisbeth. It’s all so confusing.

Do we cheer her on as her pathetic rapist is now the one begging for mercy? Do we hope that she stops, thinking she has gone too far even though this man deserves it? Are we for her or against her in this moment?

The beauty, of course, is that none of those questions matter. It doesn’t matter if we support Lisbeth’s sometimes questionable decisions or not. What matters is that she has made them, and she will continue to make decisions as she sees fit.

Lisbeth lives in her own little bubble of rules and morals and consequences, and she doesn’t give a damn what anybody else has to say about that.

How many times have we seen a rape play out in movies? How many times have we had to watch a helpless, crying woman stumble into a police station or at the door of a friend, begging for help?

This is, bar none, the only instance I can think of where a rape victim bucks herself up with the help of no one and goes back to rape her rapist. In the next scene where we seem them both together, in an elevator no less, the male rapist is trembling with fear in the presence of his rape victim. It’s all at once comical and horrific.

In that moment, I think, we have to cheer Lisbeth. She may not be working for a cause or whatever, but she sure as hell knows what it means to give someone a taste of their own medicine.

Conclusion

There are other questions about feminism that could be brought up, ones of equality and advocacy and such, but none of those would apply to Lisbeth.

Basically, though, a feminist is someone who supports economic, political, and social equality for all. Does that describe Lisbeth? Maybe so.

Even we already established that Lisbeth doesn’t care about any of that, if she were asked direct questions about those things, I believe she would respond positively. She wouldn’t really care, nor would she do anything to advance the causes, but her loyalty to her mother would propel her into that camp of support, even if only verbally.

Is it fair to call Lisbeth a feminist, then? The answer is a complicated one.

I’m going to say yes, if only because her path made her so. Now, if she hadn’t had the abusive father and had a completely normal childhood, would she have been a dutiful, obedient little girl? Uh, no, I don’t think so. She would still be Lisbeth, just maybe a little less angry.

Her feminism lies, not in her participations in marches or social movements, but in her unyielding ability to be absolutely and fully who she is at all times. She does not change for anyone, does not bend, and certainly does not break. She unapologetically is who she is, and she takes that and runs with it from the very first page.

Is Lisbeth a feminist? Yes. Just don’t tell her that.

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