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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Feminist Heroism

Not since Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett have I met a literary heroine that has struck me with love and reverence the way Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has. While Elizabeth Bennett contradicted the marital and societal norms that the Victorian Era prescribed for young women, limiting them of volition and choice, her contemporary, Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander, is a modern marvel of human frailty compounded with the desire for revenge.

Lisbeth is a brilliant hacker who experiences flashbacks of angrily walking toward her father’s car, tossing a canister of gas in his face, lighting a match, and watching him burn to death. This one flashback doesn’t tell us what he did to her to make her so vengeful and murderous at such a young age, but it defines the girl we get to know for the duration of the story. She is not a victim. She wasn’t a victim when she was little, and she is not a victim as a young woman. A femme fatale, she is the most empowered heroine I have yet to come across, and I find her refreshing and a hope for a new kind of femininity that does not focus on the superfluous collection of bags, shoes, and breast implants which define the common practices of females today.

The first time we meet Lisbeth, it is at work where she is described by her boss as a bit of an odd girl. Clad in a black turtle neck, dark skinny jeans and sneakers, her equally coal-black-colored hair cut short on one side with loose strands hanging longer on the other side, her dark eyes and dark lipstick, in stark contrast to the pasty white hues of her features, she is an aberration to the conservative suit-and-tie appearance dictated by the corporation for which she works. Looking past her wardrobe, nose piercings, and the dragon tattoo down the length of her back is indicative of how good she is at her job as a researcher; her bosses don’t care what she looks like — they value her for her work. A prodigy with photographic memory, she is the only one who discovers that the famous reporter whose life she has been paid to hack into is innocent of the libel suit against him. But I don’t want to focus on the storyline as much as I want to paint a portrait of this young woman’s strength — a strength that does not make her superhuman or infallible, but real, honest, and how most women wish we behaved — minus the tattoos and piercings, at least on my part.

With the flashback of Lisbeth’s younger version of herself burning her father to death, and watching, we find her in a train station in Sweden, smoking heavily, and being marauded by a group of drunken men.  They curse her, kick her, punch her, and douse her with alcohol when she accidentally bumps into them, but the bruises and the mass force of masculine fists and boots connecting to her flesh and bones do not stop her from getting a bunch of punches in herself, giving them some bruises to take home with them. She is a fighter with instinctive defense mechanisms that make you feel proud of her for defending her self. When women are attacked, they fall to their knees in feminine weakness, their hands covering their faces lest they are punched and bruised. Women are not generally taught to fight back, or to fight to win. Lisbeth is different. She does not crouch or succumb to fear. She falls, she gets right back up, and she wails upon the drunkards that violate her space and her person because they think they can.  If more women acted like this, they would not be victims to male oppression and violence. And we are — we have always been, because society has always told us that we are the weaker sex, the softer and more frail of the two sexes.

Only twenty-four, Lisbeth is an orphaned ward of the state and at the mercy of a loathsome lawyer who holds her inheritance hostage unless she plays the part of “a good girl.” When she needs money for a new computer that the drunken men broke during their attack of her, this lawyer forces her face to his penis for a blow job, and then later on, when she needs more money, he ties her up and savagely rapes her, gagging her mouth to stifle her screams. I was irritated with her the same way I have always been irritated and impatient and intolerant of literary heroines that act against better judgement or in weakness. I turned the pages of her story with rushed angst and derision, my heart pounding with the injustice of her situation, until I realized that she had taped the rape and was going to use it as leverage.  She bursts into his apartment, tazers him, strips him of his clothes, ties his legs and hands, gags him, sodomizes him, and then forces him to watch the two-hour video she had taped the day he had raped her. When she returns, she tattoos him with words like “rapist” and “sadist,” marking him for life. Although she is victimized for her station in life by someone who is superior to her and in control of her money, Lisbeth usurps the power of her oppressor and gives him a full taste of what he had given her — she takes control of her situation and her body, and she turns the table around and pursues the sweet fruits that come with vengeance for such sexual assaults.

Later on, when she solves the case she and Mikael have been hired to solve, she saves his life from a rapist and murderer. Lisbeth rushes upon the evil-minded assassin of women and bashes his head in with a club. She chases him on her motorcycle, and she watches him burn in the flames of his upturned car, smiling at his pleas that she help him. She watches him burn to death the way she had watched her father burn, and she did it with calm, with a sense of reserved coolness and loathing, handing them a cruel punishment equal to the suffering they enforced upon the women they assaulted. She has no pity for them, and offers no remorse for her part in their deaths. She is not a victim. She is an arbiter of justice, claiming the right with which we are all endowed to protect our selves and our bodies from the onslaught of masculine force.

And as cool and brilliant as she is — as vengeful and emotionally detached as she appears to be — she does have soft places inside her. She falls in love even though she has learned that no good comes from it. She uses that love not to wed, not to settle down with the man who has warmed the secret yearnings of her insides, but by utilizing her skills as a researcher and hacker and providing the man she loves with the story that will bring down his nemesis and the man who framed him. She is a modern woman, a powerhouse, a strong and virile archetype of femaleness that uses her brawn and intelligence to take possession of her circumstances, beating her fists upon the heads of those who try to bring her down and force her into sexual and gendered submission. They try to victimize her, but she will not surrender to being a victim. She fights back even when the odds are against her, and this is what makes her such a phenomenal female character worth remembering, worth claiming.


Marina DelVecchio
Marina DelVecchio is the author of The Prostitute's Daughter, a memoir in which she shows how she has used literature to combat a life of abuse and poverty. She blogs about female agency and the necessary empowerment of our daughters at http://marinagraphy.com. Her work can be found at the Huffington Post, The New Agenda, the WM Parenting Connection, and BlogHer. She teaches writing and literature on the college level.
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  • Mary KT

    She was not a feminist heroic character at all. A strong female would have punched the man in the nuts when he requested the blowjob – not given the blowjob willingly (albeit begrudgingly) and then went again willing to give it a second time. The revenge she got, did not make up for her bad choices.

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  • Damaged & not Ashamed

    Why must Lisbeth’s “damage” and ” strength” be mutually exclusive? Her damage is a core of her strength. Embracing her damage and wearing it like a pair of red bottom’s but far far more
    valuable to the feminine psyche is defiant to all those (men) who are the source of that damage! Why hide behind smiles?

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  • L.George Alexander

    Well, we all read books and get a different take from what we read. I did not see Lisbeth Salander as a feminist heroine but the unfortunate victim of a society and culture that continues to take advantage of women. In this case, Salander who does not kill her father by burning him to death but seemingly thinks she does, is smarter and more talented than the average woman and can take vengeance while most women cannot. The law is suppose to make all of us equal and help the weak achieve justice and protection but it doesn’t. Many rapists and domestic abusers walk away from their crimes penalty-free. The reason Salnder is such an outstanding story is that her rapists don’t and pay a price, one that she designs herself. In a civilized society, it should not operate that way, but in these books it does and we applaud. Something is wrong here.

  • Kate Robinson

    I, too, read this book, and yet I was not taken with Lisbeth as a representative of female power. Rather, I found her meeting violence with violence and example of the metaphorical pendulum swinging in the opposite direction. For all of her strength, she is a damaged person. For all the good her violent acts might provide, they are still violent acts. If we want to solve violence in our society as it is perpetuated largely against women, then I do not see it solved through women being the perpetrators of reciprocal violence.

    I love your article, Marina. It is well-written and makes a strong argument. I appreciate your concern for Lisbeth as you read the book and your appreciation of how she defends herself when many women would not even do that. It is the vengefulness that stops me from fully embracing her, however, as a role model for women. I sincerely appreciate your perspective and I just might read “book 2” to see how I feel about Lisbeth in a subsequent part of the story with your article and viewpoint in mind as I read.

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