The cultural narratives they are a-changin’?

Instigating a debate about the latest portrayal of Lisbeth Salander, in David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, makes me a little nervous. When I saw the film in the cinema, though, I was not feeling nervous: having the guy in front of me telling me (aggressively; how else can you say it?) to “suck it”, for knocking the back of his chair, was a weird, disturbing, poignant, tone-setting start. It made me feel irritated, angry, verbally violated, and wanting to kick the backs of every seat in his vicinity throughout most of the movie.

Putting this movie in the context of the director’s filmography (which includes Seven, Zodiac and Alien 3 ) would be a 2,000 word essay itself; I must then take another angle and look at it as a stand-alone narrative and assess the character of Lisbeth Salander only as it is portrayed by 26-year-old relative newcomer Rooney Mara.

To compare the 2011 Hollywood version with the 2009 Swedish adaptation by Niels Arden Oplev, or the book trilogy, would be the obvious approach to take, but just as the actors themselves were apparently encouraged not to make comparisons, so I shall also refrain.

Inevitably, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (based on the book originally titled in Swedish Män som hatar kvinnor, which translates as “Men who hate women”), will spawn heavy debates about representations of female protagonists in cinema, the thriving-not-dying male gaze, sexuality and cinema, and other gender-political hot potatoes.

Perhaps the most bandied-about phrase in discourse about the Hollywood version of the first novel in Stieg Larsson’s trilogy is ‘feminist hero’. But what makes a feminist lead? Surely there is more than one prescribed role. And, to that end, does Mara’s Salander really get there?

The movie – a visually strong, tensely engaging crime-thriller – follows the story of Lisbeth Salander, a young woman classed as vulnerable and dangerous. She remains under the watchful eye of the state. Although she is an adult, she is required to have a legal guardian, following an incident when she tried to kill her father when she was a child. She is the victim of sexual violence at the hands of said guardian. She exists on the periphery of mainstream society, until her expert computer hacking skills get her involved in an investigation to solve the enigma of the disappearance of a young girl 40 years earlier. Harriet, the girl, was the niece of a wealthy industrialist, Henrik Vanger, based in the north of Sweden, and was last seen at a parade in the town centre before disappearing entirely.

In parallel, we are also introduced to the other protagonist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a shamed journalist who is struggling to save his reputation after losing a libel trial when he is hired to lead the investigation. Vanger tempts him with a carrot of some unspecified but invaluable insider information which can help him redeem his public image if only he can uncover the whereabouts of the lost girl.

Blomkvist is presented as a charismatic persona, a man in a no-strings-attached romantic relationship with his magazine boss, Erica, as well as being an intriguing colleague and partner for Salander.

Does an on-screen feminist have to suffer a traumatic experience in order to deserve the label?

The movie’s title credits, accompanied by Karen O’s vocals in the cover of Led Zeppelin’s ‘The Immigrant Song’, resemble a visual mash-up between oily James Bond opening credits and a suave car commercial. The imagery of dark liquid, body close-ups and what looks like machinery, while alluding to some of the events in the movie, set the audience up for something sexier and less-brutal than what follows. But that’s Hollywood for you.

So why is Lisbeth Salander globally regarded as a feminist, in the opinion of critics and reviewers? In analysing her levels of kicking ass, it’s helpful to start by considering whether a feminist hero must – as is suggested by the movie’s worldwide reception – be kick-ass to be considered feminist. And, more importantly, does an on-screen feminist have to suffer a traumatic experience in order to ‘deserve’ the label?

Overcoming some detrimental situation in their origin story is expected not only of a strong female character, but of screen (super) heroes in general. Superman, an orphan whose mother planet has been annihilated, in some versions of the story also loses his adoptive parents on graduating from high school, while Batman sees his parents murdered by a street robber and uses this as a fuel for sorting out the justice system in his city.

However, just like Thelma & Louise and The Bride in Kill Bill, Lisbeth must suffer violent attacks of sexual nature before seeing red and then turning it into fuel for her own success. The gendered difference between male and female characters is that the latter’s traumatic experiences usually drive them to vengeful violence, arguably justifiable and mostly in self-defence, rather than propelling them to global superheroism (reserved, it seems, largely for men). Is that to say that a feminist narrative can only be a localised victim one?

Must a feminist hero exist out of sight of the stubborn and relentless male gaze?

It’s helpful to look not just at Salander’s portrayal, but how she compares to the other women in the film. Although Lisbeth is not juxtaposed with young Harriet visually (they look very different), intellectually, emotionally and in terms of their experiences with men they exist in parallel. Both have, undeniably, been victims of others’ evil, but then both utilise their own skills and circumstances – quite separate from the anger and hurt caused by their abusers – to detach themselves from their pasts.

Both are the victims of abuse and both attempt to appease their demons using the only desperate means available at the time. We get the feeling Lisbeth empathises with Harriet and that solving the mystery of the latter’s disappearance offers her release. She is shown eating more often, as well as nourishing Blomkvist, once the investigation is underway, as if with a renewed sense of purpose she sees her own value and a reason for nourishment.

Also, like the other aforementioned ‘feminist’ movie leads, Lisbeth – though she dominates the investigation – is still forced to exist outside the wider social narrative, for example when she finds herself on a snowy street, solemnly watching Mikael stroll arm in arm with his long-time lover Erica. Rather than reclaiming her place in the society that deemed her worthless, she remains an outsider, after a lifetime of existing on the periphery, kept under state supervision but unprotected by the society that tries to label her unfit to exist as an autonomous being. This certainly elicits the sympathy of the audience – also watching from the outside – but does this portrayal of Salander’s story make her any more advanced in feminist terms than her predecessors? I’m not so sure.

Does to kick-ass mean to be on the outside? And are we to celebrate the alleged kick-ass heroine merely looking in from the outside as a ‘feminist’ narrative? Thelma and Louise, for example, existed so much on the outside that they were hunted, to their eventual deaths, by the law. But yeah, they were pretty kick-ass. Or is Lisbeth Salander’s kick-ass-ness just another small step toward making feminist representations fundamental, rather than the alternative? Are we really there yet in achieving the archetypal feminist lead?

One (female) blogger, reviewer and Lisbeth Salander fan celebrates the fact that Lisbeth does not present herself as a victim, that she doesn’t “play the girl game”, as proof of her worth as a feminist icon. The “girl game”?! Is that what feeling like a victim when you have been one is called now? Such comments make me wonder whether we really have come any further in our celebration of the strong female lead, if it is suggested that to be strong is the opposite of being a victim.

Even Rooney Mara applauds Lisbeth’s decision (if we are to presume it is a decision) not to “see herself as a victim; she doesn’t ever play that card”. As if being a victim is something that survivors exploit.

This leads me to consider another issue prevalent in discussions of women and cinema: must a feminist hero exist out of sight of the stubborn and relentless male gaze?

Let me say that Lisbeth Salander is no lipstick lesbian, and her relationship with another woman is only briefly shown in a few short scenes. And though the girl-on-girl scene in this movie is presented as a casual encounter, it is by far the most loving one. While it may be considered titillating to the male gaze, and certainly somewhat scopophilic (when Mikael meets Salander with her girlfriend when he first visits her to ask for her aid in the investigation), the one sexual scene between Lisbeth and another girl is passionate, honest and mutual, in contrast with the brutal rapes she suffers at the hands of her parole officer, lawyer Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen, above).

This certainly sets up an interesting contrast between the violence of an abusive heterosexual narrative and the pleasure and comfort Lisbeth gets from her female lover. However, the label that seems to describe her best might be “bisexual”: what comes next in the plot is her relationship with Blomkvist, somewhat unconventionally initiated by her and showing her seemingly falling in love with her colleague.

Lisbeth’s androgynous appearance has also been addressed by Mara, who said about her decision to ‘starve’ herself to look the part: “David didn’t want me to lose any weight; that was something that I wanted to do that he was, kind of, opposed to.”

Fincher’s Lisbeth challenges the most popular representations of a female crime-fighter, but citing her androgyny as a check in the ‘strong female character’ box is accusing most other female central figures of being weaker because of their physiques and gender presentation

Lisbeth has short hair. She wears baggy clothes, has small breasts and has relationships with both men and women. She carries her stuff in a backpack. As the title suggests, she has tattoos. Does this make her androgynous or just relatable? Does a gender unspecific appearance help to make a female hero a feminist? Or does it make her difficult for the audience – so used to the typical voluptuous, faux-badass female leads – to understand, and therefore change the conversation?

Will she still be aspirational in feminist terms to a mainstream audience?

Fincher’s Lisbeth certainly challenges the most popular representations of a female crime-fighter, but citing her apparent androgyny as a check in the ‘strong female character’ box is accusing most other female central figures of being weaker because of their physiques and gender presentation. So although her atypical (in mainstream cinema) appearance is refreshing, whether it can be added to her resumé under ‘feminist hero’ is questionable.

Another interesting aspect is the interdependence between a feminist hero and the the central male character. Does she have to rescue him, or do they inevitably rescue each other?

In the final confrontation with the movie’s villain, Salander asks Blomkvist’s permission to finish the bad guy off. We may ask: is this out of the learned subservience of her female condition, or the heroine’s need for the approval of the hero, or just out of formality since she is, after all, in his employ? In fact, remembering that she is the employee, hired by the investigator to help him with a job, puts this a little into perspective. It may even be argued that the socialisation the state demanded of her she has now achieved herself – she has learned the norms of employment through sticking it out in a rewarding job.

Or is it an attempt to soften Salander for a global audience used to male dominance? Not likely. I don’t think it makes her any weaker in the eyes of an audience in want of that ‘strong female lead’. If anything, it shows her humanity and stops her being interpreted as a damaged, vengeful, robotic killing machine. Does that moment, in the light of her affair with Blomkvist (her current employer), show her vulnerability? Perhaps, but this is neither detrimental nor specific to her character: indeed, most of the people portrayed in the movie are vulnerable in one way or another.

Did I leave the cinema with a new feminist screen icon to cherish? Not as much as I left still wanting to throw my remaining Diet Coke over the guy who so profanely insulted me before the movie began, but I wasn’t disappointed by what I saw. And, for the first time in a long time, I felt the tiny little spark of hope that for women in Hollywood the narrative may in the not-too-distant future be a-changing.

Chrissy D lives in Canterbury and her main area of interest is the cultural narrative of self-improvement and body obsession and how it is used for patriarchal ends. She believes society’s fear of the human body is a persistent social problem