As friends of mine know, I have been teaching myself the Swedish language for the last few years. I have been aided in this venture by some friends of mine in Sweden, who apprise me of good shows to watch online on Swedish Television and who event sent me a paperback copy of Män som hatar kvinnor by Stieg Larsson a while back. The proper translation of that title is Men Who Hate Women, not The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a title that is ultimately demeaning not only to the main female character, who is no “girl” but rather a woman, but also to the main male character, who does have a rather significant role in the story. (The titular “girl” does have a place in the second volume, Flickan som lekte med elden, which is indeed translated as The Girl Who Played with Fire, but as that particular book does hearken back to the childhood of Lisbeth Salander, no harm done.)
I started trying to read Män som hatar kvinnor over a year ago, but at that point, I was determined to look up every word I did not know and make myself a notecard for said word. This, as one can predict, rather slowed down the pace of my reading, so that it could take days for me to progress through one page, though I did learn many words pertaining to violent crime. I eventually gave it up for a spell. However, recently, my wife and I were listening to a librivox.org audiobook of The Wonderful Adventures of Nils by Selma Lagerlöf, and as I have a copy of the original Swedish book, I started reading along afterwards without a concern for words I did not know, just letting myself figure them out through context or pushing through until I got to something I did understand. It was a pretty great experience, and this past weekend, after I finished Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige, I thought to go back to the Stieg Larsson book and read it in the same way. Since listening to the English translation before reading the Swedish helped me to push through it, I decided it might be fun to watch the Swedish movie adaptation before cracking open the book again.
When I first saw the movie, I found myself awed by a storyline that tackled themes of racism and sexism in modern Swedish society. (This is rather a staple of Swedish crime fiction—the first Wallander novel by Henning Mankell, Mördare utan ansikte, was largely written in response to that author’s experience of returning to Sweden and being shocked by the rise of right-wing fascist groups.) Many feminist writers have found inspiration in the figure of Lisbeth Salander, hacker extraordinaire, who refuses to be a victim but instead strikes back against those who have done her wrong. However, upon re-viewing the film, I found myself dissatisfied on a few points, found the characters less models of independence or justice than I had remembered, and found the means by which the movie’s theme is conveyed to be simplistic.
The following is not a review of the film per se, but rather a bulleted list of criticisms, and it most definitely contains spoilers.
* First, why does Henrik Vanger necessarily assume that Harriet was murdered? His receipt of a framed, dried flower every year speaks more to continuity than it does a break in her life, and he could have perhaps cross-referenced the movements of his family members, whom he suspects of murdering Harriet, with the places from which he is receiving these packages did he want to investigate them as possible perpetrators. But perhaps his natural assumption, that his niece must necessarily be a victim and could not have taken control of her own fate, is meant to demonstrate that even those men who don’t hate women still have a long way to go in recognizing their full humanity.
* Second, many writers have hailed Lisbeth’s actions against the rapist swine Bjurman, but while this revenge is satisfying on a gut level, what does it do to protect other innocents whom Bjurman might be abusing? Sure, Lisbeth has ensured her own safety in this particular situation, but if he is abusing her, he is most certainly abusing other people; at the very least, she was not his first victim. Bjurman certainly deserved what was coming to him, but the other victims of his abuse deserve that he be exposed for what he is.
* Likewise, Harriet’s escape from the clutches of her father and brother is not the end of the murder spree carried out by that family. Since 1966, Martin Vanger has apparently been torturing and slaughtering women in his cellar. I do understand that Harriet had to flee and that, being sixteen years old, she may not have been thinking about the future, just anxious to get away for her own safety. However, during the intervening years, might she not have recalled what she knew about her father’s and brother’s murder victims to date and sought to share that information with someone? If nothing else, the uncle whom she loved and trusted would have been in a position to confirm her story using company files, as Lisbeth ends up doing in the end.
* Finally, is it not ridiculous that we cannot recognize the evils of capitalism unless its practitioners are made into literal Nazis who have cellars in which they torture women? After all, it is capitalism that has provided Martin Vanger with so many victims, the nameless women escaping countries in financial crisis to sell their bodies in Sweden. It is capitalism and the concentration of wealth that has put so much of the Vanger family out of the reach of the law. It is capitalism and its fraudulent nature that sees Mikael Blomkvist framed and put behind bars. More than that, though, it is capitalism that murders, be it the Coca-Cola-funded paramilitaries operating in Columbia or Pepsi’s involvement in the plot against rightfully elected Argentine president Salvador Allende in the 1970s. Rockefeller and the Ludlow Massacre, cotton planters and lynchings in the American South. Genocide in the Belgian Congo, just so that companies could get at that valuable rubber. World history is replete with the murderous activities of capitalists, down to the present day, but Män som hatar kvinnor, instead of showing the true evil produced by greed and the concentration of wealth, gives us Nazis and a bit of torture porn.
On the other hand, the movie does ably link modern misogyny with ancient, biblical codes of law which essentially called for the ritual murder of independent women (c.f. Gerda Lerner), so that’s a point in its favor.
I am just now starting to read the book, so perhaps my disappointment in the movie will be ameliorated by a storyline more thoroughly fleshed out in prose, but I’m a little doubtful. There is this tendency of male writers who want to sell themselves as feminists to write stories that endow their female characters with those powers traditionally reserved for men, or have good-hearted and understanding male leads who certainly appreciate the women in their lives, all without asking the harder questions about the nature of power itself and how power is used to characterize someone as important or not. Call it the Joss Whedon school of pseudo-feminism, with stories told through the usual eyes—the victims of Gottfried and Martin Vanger, their stories are never given to us, and they remain in the background, just victims.
But if we instead told stories from the perspective of the powerless, might we not recognize a far wider array of abuses perpetrated by those with wealth and influence? Might we not be able to recognize evil even when it does not strut about in a Nazi costume in its own home?