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Monday, July 5, 2010

The girl with the strong opinions about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I just finished reading Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and... well... I had quite a few reactions to it. It took awhile for the pace of the book to pick up (at least a couple hundred pages in), and the author's constant fawning over Apple products (ipods, macbooks, etc) was fairly distracting, but the story was compelling. I L O V E D Lisbeth Salander's character, aka Wasp, who was truly a refreshing heroine: strong, intelligent, feisty, and definitely not a typical beauty. Not to spoil too much, but she manages to save the day more than once throughout the novel. But... I gotta say that's basically where the adoration ends.

The other characters are horribly predictable, to the point of being utter stereotypes. The rich, scandalous family and the working-class (ha! hardly) journalist with a strong case of Personal Ethics. Especially heinous is the middle-aged Mikael's absolutely astounding ability with the ladies, which I believe reflects more on the author himself than it does on the character. Much of the focus on economics and technology I assume are either too boring for the average person or too basic for those who actually know economics and technology.

My real issue with the book, which extends to a lot of literature I guess, is the way in which sexual assault is portrayed. The author actually does an incredibly decent job of acknowledging rape culture, even citing statistics on violence against women in Sweden at the beginning of every new chapter. He makes an effort to put shit in context. But then... he decides to include incredibly graphic (read: triggering) sexual assaults against the protagonist which are perpetrated by a sadist (major BDSM fail). I mean, really?? The level of violence in the assaults is actually pretty UNcharacteristic of reality, and the average rapist is NOT actually a BDSM practioner; just a regular ol' Joe (Johann?). But, you say, this is fiction! It's interesting and stuff! Well, it just seems to me that all of his grounding-sexual-violence-against-women-in-reality is completely undone when Larsson creates one of the more outlandish rapists I've read in fiction. Why? Why would he go to such great lengths to create a fictional world that mirrors our own only to basically delegitimize the experiences of most rape survivors out there?

Also, it must be mentioned that I, a human being who actually works with rape survivors for a living, did cringe while reading the assault scenes. They're not pretty, or the least bit entertaining. In fact, I question the need to have those scenes in there at all. Who is Larsson catering to?? Besides, if sexual assault is as common as he says it is (it is) shouldn't he expect a good portion of his audience to actually be triggered by those parts of the book? What is the author's responsibility there, if any?

Finally, I take issue with the way Lisbeth Salander is written to respond to her being assaulted by 1) eschewing any and all options to take care of herself and 2) exacting violent revenge on her assailant. Again, what is the responsibility of the author in this case? He's creating a character who is horribly assaulted, traumatized, but he writes her in such a way that she just happens to not want any sort of counseling, hell she doesn't even need help at all. She's independent, dammit! Not once, anywhere in the narrative, does she express a need to actually deal with her heinous assault. While I'm sure that there are individuals out there who may identify with Salander, they are most likely in the minority. While this unrealistic portrayal of trauma is bad, worse is how Salander's response (attacking and literally marking her rapist) is supposed to be applauded by the reader. It's supposed to be justice in the purest form. I hate to say it, but it's so typical that a man would write such a ridiculous and completely awful revenge scene through the perspective of a female character.

I just don't get what Larsson is trying to accomplish here; was he merely using rape culture as a plot device? Was he actually trying to create some very flawed commentary on the experience of being a survivor in the modern world? Why create a fictional world based on facts only to have your characters go through something so statistically inaccurate that their only choice is to behave like vengeful robots? Why Larsson, why?! *Sigh* Still, I really do like Lisbeth Salander, and I think, for better or worse, I'm probably going to have to read the rest of the series to see if Larsson sees the light in the end.

UPDATE: Melissa Silverstein's take on Lisbeth Salander as "The Girl Who Started a Feminist Franchise."

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