Men who hate women (aka The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)Posted: 1 January 2012
Few people will have been able to miss the hype around the Stieg Larsson trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels. The books have been made into films in Sweden, and now the US remake of the first film has just been released in cinemas. In this post I’ll be talking about the the US version of the film, but using this film to talk about the ideas in the book generally.
I’d had several conversations with people before reading the books about how much violence against women they contained, so I’d decided not to read them – my general standpoint is that there’s enough horrific violence in life already without adding gratuitous violence to fiction. But I have the kind of brain that mops up the printed word – I will automatically read everything in sight, even the cereal box if there’s nothing else – so that’s my excuse for one day picking up the first of the trilogy and starting to read it.
The prose isn’t actually very good, but I was astonished to find that these books are a radical feminist text. The meta-message of the trilogy, as I see it, is how the state colludes in violence against women. They also do a convincing job of portraying both the nature and the extent of violence against women – hence the horrific scenes of violence that I had been warned about (one in particular). These feminist messages were, of course, totally absent from the marketing of both the books and the films, and as The Feminist Gaze points out, the marketing for the recent film gives the usual message of the sexualising the female protagonist, in the protective arms of the strong male protagonist.
This image is, amazingly, the opposite of the message of the film (mostly). Seeing I don’t want to put any spoilers in, I won’t describe in detail the climactic scene of the film. But suffice to say it is a perfect gender-reversal of the stereotypical boy-rescues-girl-from-imminent-danger. I’ve replayed the scene many times in my mind since watching it, just to get used to the feeling of it. There’s an especial irony in that the male lead is played by Daniel Craig, of James Bond fame – but in this film he is put in the ‘female’ position of vulnerability, fear and silence. I’ve often thought about how our cinema and TV habituates us to seeing frightened women – our fear is sexualised, even – but here we see this position inhabited by the male protagonist.
All this leads me to talking about the main character, Lisbeth Salander, played brilliantly by Rooney Mara. There are a lot of things I want to write about her, but I’m going to stick to discussing one in particular: her failure to observe the usual codes of polite human interaction – codes which tend to be exaggerated in their feminine version, such as apologising, putting others first, and generally being other-oriented in social interaction. It struck me forcibly that she has this in common with the other inspirational feminist heroine of the last year, Sarah Lund in Danish thriller The Killing.
To take Lund first – she who popularised the woolly jumper. I’ll only talk about Season Two as I haven’t yet seen Season One. (If anyone has it on DVD I’d love to borrow it). What I loved about her character was her body language – it is uncompromising and unfeminine. She stands in strong poses with her feet apart and her weight evenly spread, rather than leaning to one side as women often do in an unconscious posture of submission (look around you both in real life and on tv/films – you’ll see this everywhere). I had already been thinking about issues of body language and assertiveness following on from the Boastful Women workshop that Feminist Action Cambridge ran in November where I saw what a big change it made for women to adopt different postures. Now here’s a heroine we can emulate. As for her personality – she never asks for permission, only rarely apologises, and hardly ever explains herself, often leaving her sidekick Strange muddling along bemused in her wake. Yes, this could be called rudeness – and I will talk about why this is important below.
But first back to Salander (and they are both called by their surnames; when Salander’s first name is used, it is by one of the abusers in the plot and used in order to sexualise her). She is not so much socially awkward as downright hostile, oozing distrust for people she meets. One of the abusers uses this as his ‘excuse’ to abuse her, saying to her, ‘you need to learn to get along with people’ in a striking, brilliantly constructed scene where the viewer experiences an abusive situation with Salander. This scene is important because it seems to subvert the ideas of the male gaze in cinema that Laura Mulvey wrote about in her seminal article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. Instead of seeing Salander as the object of both the male gaze and the audience’s gaze, the camera positions her abuser as the object – an object of horror and disgust – and our experience and our perspective follow hers, until towards the end of the scene where there is a camera shot from above. This camera move indicates to me Salander dissociating from the scene, an interpretation that is confirmed by the abrupt cut to the end of the scene.
But I’m getting off track and geeking about camera shots. What I loved about this film was how it made explicit the link between ‘appropriate’ feminine behaviour of being polite and accommodating (of which Salander, similarly to Lund, embodies the opposite); and how this is used by abusers as a tool to aid their sexual exploitation of women. This theme was crystal clear to me from the US version of the film, more so than the book and the Swedish film (and I’d be interested to hear in the comments if other people thought so too). The main baddie/abuser spells this out explicitly, saying to Daniel Craig’s character Mikael Blomkvist (in the same gender-twisting scene I described above): ‘Why did you come back inside when you knew something wasn’t right? All I had to do was offer you a drink. Is fear of offending stronger than your sense of self-preservation?’. This is, of course, some egregious victim-blaming, telling Blomkvist that it’s his fault that he is in danger because he didn’t protect himself, rather than the baddie’s fault for being an abuser and murderer. But then contrast Blomkvist’s ‘feminine’ demeanour of politeness and following all the social rules of behaviour with Salander’s rudeness; at times it even seems like the film is celebrating this quality of hers. Certainly both the book and both version of the film celebrate her physical and mental toughness – her ability to defend herself when mugged, and the astounding scene where she takes perfect revenge on her abuser.
There’s a lot more I’d like to write about in this film, including the uncompromising portrayal of sexual violence within the family; and the way I walked home after the film with a slightly different feeling, physically, having seen a woman use her body with such confidence and strength – I felt like some of this had rubbed off on me. Also the tensions or questions that the film brought up around what Salander’s encounter with heterosexuality did to her. There’s a great post at polytical about the non-monogamy in the film. Also Feminist Fatale (writing about the Swedish version of the film) brings up an important point: ‘What is really gnawing at me about this film is whether or not it is okay to portray a supposedly feminist character and tell a feminist story through the vein of violence against women”. I think, on balance, since violence against women exists in these horrific forms then our feminist versions have to tell stories of how women respond to this. But I’m not sure.
But I’ll just end with two points about the genesis of the book which I think seal its credentials as a classic feminist text. First, as many people know, the original Swedish title of the book was Men who hate Women. Such a pity that this was changed to the anodyne English version The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Secondly, apparently the author, Stieg Larsson, who died in a car crash before either of the films were made, wrote these books to assuage his guilt at doing nothing for a friend of his youth who was raped (and I can’t remember where I heard/read this) . His partner Eva Gabrielsson insists that ‘Larsson would have… used the buzz around his work to call attention to the central issues of discrimination and violence against women’. Since Larsson can’t do this, I guess it’s up to us.