Feminist or misogynist?

This may be triggering to some readers

Stieg Larsson should be a feminist hero. A Swedish journalist, he founded the magazine Expo, which is dedicated to fighting racism, and campaigned for years against extreme right-wing organisations.

The Swedish title of his first novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is Men Who Hate Women. As Joan Smith says in her Sunday Times review, the title reflects the author’s other “great preoccupation”: violence against women.

Larsson’s second novel The Girl Who Played With Fire, set around the world of sex trafficking, received a rapturous reception from Smith this year.

But I have difficulty squaring Larsson’s proclaimed distress at misogyny with his explicit descriptions of sexual violence, his breast-obsessed heroine and babe-magnet hero.

James Patterson’s 1996 bestseller Kiss the Girls features two male serial killers who keep beautiful, intelligent young women in a basement and sexually abuse, torture and kill them. In one never-to-be-forgotten scene, a girl is tied up and a live snake fed into her anus by her captor. In another, a beautiful corpse dangles at the end of a rope, naked except for stockings and one high-heeled shoe. One tough (and beautiful) woman manages to escape however and helps catch the killers. The 1997 film of Kiss the Girls was advertised, as one feminist puts it “as this really empowering kick-boxing woman-take-no-crap movie” on the back of that escape (the writer concludes “I’ve seen it, and it wasn’t.”) In James Patterson: A Critical Companion, Joan G Kotker notes his “indictment of sexism” in his 2002 novel, First to Die, in which women are murdered and sexually violated after death.

Before Patterson there was Dean Koontz, another immensely popular US thriller writer, whose 1986 book Night Chills features a string of graphic rape scenes alongside a female lead character who outsmarts a male military officer at every turn.

In short, male novelists have for decades been selling graphic capture-rape-torture-kill novels by chucking in ‘strong’ female characters for balance, and have even gained plaudits for highlighting violence against women in the process.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which in the words of The Times’ Christina Koning, “combines a contemporary feminist polemic with a good old-fashioned thriller” promised something different.

Sections of the book are prefaced by statistics on assaults on women in Sweden. The female characters in the book are successful in their jobs and the novel subverts the usual order of the trapped-in-a-room-with-madman scene by having the heroine rescue the hero. But these nods to feminism are not enough to compensate for the book’s graphic and gratuitous violence against women, which is just as gross as anything in Patterson’s novels. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo also boasts two serial killers who get their kicks from torturing young women to death. We’re told how one girl was tied up and left to die with her face in smouldering embers. Another victim is stoned to death, another choked with a sanitary towel, one has her hands held over fire until they are charred and then has her head sawn off, yet another is raped, murdered and left with a parakeet shoved up her vagina. A torture basement is uncovered, complete with cage and video equipment for recording the women’s last moments.

The book finishes with a teaser for the second novel, The Girl who Played with Fire, which describes a woman who has been kept strapped to a bed for many days by a man. We don’t know who he is but we know he has an erection.

She takes violent revenge on her rapist in the first book and turns into a kind of international super-hero-crime-fighter-cum-maths genius

Then there is the scene in which the hero’s side-kick, Lisbeth Salander, the eponymous Girl, is handcuffed, spreadeagled and anally raped by her legal guardian. Salander is a 24-year old, violent, punkish misfit and a brilliant computer hacker, diagnosed as having such severe mental problems that she is not legally competent. She is also bisexual, very thin and “with the right make-up, her face could have put her on any billboard”. The character has garnered much praise. Jonathan Gibbs in The Independent called her “a vision of female empowerment – a kind of goth-geek Pippi Longstocking”.

This ’empowered’ woman, for whom the rape is the latest incident in a lifetime of sexual abuse, is convinced that her ‘skinny body’ is ‘repulsive’ and that her small breasts are ‘pathetic’.

At the start of the second book, we discover that Salander has had breast implants put in and that “six months later she could not walk past a mirror without stopping and feeling glad that she had improved the quality of her life”. Why a young woman who has been repeatedly violated by men would want to draw more attention to her breasts is not explained. Neither is the basis on which her quality of life is improved.

Salander does not go to a crisis centre after the rape: “crisis centres existed in her eyes for victims and she had never regarded herself as a victim”. Instead she takes violent revenge on her rapist in the first book and turns into a kind of international super-hero-crime-fighter-cum-maths genius in the second, beating up bikers twice her size. She is, of course, totally unrealistic, as Joan Smith acknowledges, describing her as “not so much a character as a revenge fantasy come to life, powering her way through the novel like the heroine of a computer game”.

So many male visions of female potency resemble cartoons; the kick-boxing girl has become a 21st century literary cliché. In James Lee Burke’s The Tin Roof Blowdow, another thriller with pretensions to social commentary, a young woman is harassed by a sleazy man while out with her father. She later arranges to meet the pervert alone, and in an absurd scene karate-kicks him to the floor.

These unlikely – and therefore unthreatening – ass-kicking babes may be employed to lend a veneer of legitimacy to work such as Koontz’s which is fundamentally violently misogynistic. Or they may reflect the authors’ belief that if only females would stop acting as ‘victims’ and discover their own capacity for violence, the aggression visited on them by men would disappear. Kotker concluded that the message of Patterson’s First to Die, was that “the abuse of women can be defeated by brave women acting in concert to do so.” The solution thus lies in women’s hands, relieving men of the responsibility.

Or is it that, in a one-dimensional world where women are sex objects and men are action heroes, the only route to female agency is to lend women some of the action while preserving – or enhancing in Salander’s case – their conventional feminity? There’s no way Larsson would have ’empowered’ Salander by bulking her up. He couldn’t even let her keep her small breasts.

Male novelists have for decades been selling graphic capture-rape-torture-kill novels by chucking in ‘strong’ female characters for balance

Larsson’s hero, Mikael Blomkvist, a financial journalist in his 40s, is only slightly more believable. While something of a moral crusader, constantly railing against other reporters who fail to dig deep into corporate corruption, Blomkvist – or “Bonkvist” as he has been dubbed by some Amazon.com reviewers – is far from an old-fashioned sexual moralist. He’s “a big hit with women” who has had several love affairs and “a great many casual flings”. “An obscure journalist,” we’re later told, “once even urged him to seek help for his sex addiction.” Blomkvist is no sexual predator, however: it’s the women that make the moves. Larssson’s Swedish liberalism only takes him so far though: while two of the three women who sleep with Blomkvist in the book are bisexual, Blomkvist himself has “zero interest in men”. He’s “so straight”, apparently, that a girlfriend “liked to tease him about being a homophobe”.

In the first book, we’re told that Blomkvist has a daughter who he doesn’t see much. His marriage broke down because he couldn’t stop having sex with his long-term mistress and boss, Erica, who has her husband’s permission to sleep with her lover. When Blomkvist moves to a small town to investigate the disappearance of a young woman, he’s only been in his new home five minutes when a woman is stripping off for him. Erica isn’t at all bothered when she walks in on them both – she’s happy to share. Later Salander persuades Blomkvist to sleep with her and, naturally, falls in love with him. We’re repeatedly told that the age gap doesn’t matter for her. The book ends with Salanda heartbroken as she watches Blomkvist laughing with Erica.

For The Times’ Christina Koning, Blomkvist’s numerous affairs “only serve to underline what a decent chap he is. For Mikael – unlike several other key male characters in the novel – actually likes women”. To sleep with that is…

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo propelled Larsson to post-humous international fame. He was the second bestselling novelist in the world in 2008; to date the novel has sold around 12 million copies and at the 2009 Galaxy Book Awards it won the award for Crime Thriller of The Year.

What is it about it that has made it so popular?

For Amazon reviewers, the key attractions of the book are Salander and Blomkvist. “The main protagonists are so real and inspire such sympathy,” says one reader. “Salander is a character that sizzles on the page: dangerous, brilliant, and oddly believable”… “great, rounded characters with complicated lives” … “the characters, both male and female, are not stereotypes of any sort”.

Will Heinrich in the New York Observer, is less certain: “The book is terrible, but there’s certainly something to it … I raced through it, even while I disliked it, and myself for reading it.”

Asking himself: “What was it that compelled me?” he muses on the book’s poor dialogue and sketchy characterisation before wondering “maybe this book appealed to a part of me, but just not a part I like.”

The part that is entertained, or even titillated, by rape and torture perhaps?

The Spectator’s Gary Dexter is in no doubt about the reason for Patterson’s appeal: “Patterson likes rape, torture, mutilation and death. So do his readers. Who doesn’t? It has been estimated that Patterson’s lifetime sales of thrillers have now topped 150 million, and that one in every 15 hardbacks bought in the world in 2007 was a Patterson novel, which means that we must all like rape, torture, mutilation and death, perhaps with extra rape on the side, and then some child rape, child torture, child mutilation and child death, then some more rape, more death and more rape, and finally some rape, death, rape and death.”

As another real-life woman emerges from decades of captivity and sex slavery, it’s time to call the authors of rape novels to account. Kick-arse babes don’t change the facts and neither do stats on violence against women. Face it, Stieg Larsson, James Patterson, Dean Koontz: only misogynists make money from rape.

  • There’s an interesting postscript to Larsson’s story. After his death in 2004, his will, which bequeathed his property to a Communist group, was declared invalid as it had not been properly witnessed when it was drawn up in 1977. Under Swedish law all the rights and royalties from his books passed to his brother and father. His partner, Eva Gabrielsson, who lived with him for 30 years and supported him during the writing of his novels and his anti-racism campaigns, received nothing.
  • Melanie Newman is a reporter who lives in London