Analysis of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

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In Stieg Larsson’s novel, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, his first novel in the Millennium series, and a number one national best seller, danger and suspense lurk around every corner as Larsson portrays a dark and mysterious crime thriller that differs from most. Mikael Blomkvist, a recently discredited journalist, is enlisted to the aid of Henrik Vanger, an influential business mogul, to find his long missing niece. Through the investigation Blomkvist works with the enigmatic Lisbeth Salander, ward of the state and expert computer hacker with a damaged past, present, and future, to uncover the truth.

While the main plot of Larsson’s first installment is the mystery surrounding Vanger’s family, his novel and series has a bigger message to it. Stieg Larsson’s character perceptions challenge traditional Western gender roles and shatter the disillusionment of a traditional female heroine. Larsson’s unique novel shows a twisted look into the world of sexual abuse and molestation towards women on the streets of Sweden, and emphasizes on the role of women in his work.

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The separate cinematic adaptations, the original Swedish version directed by Swedish Niels Arden Oplev and the American version directed by David Fincher, stays true to Larsson’s illustration of Lisbeth Salander while highlighting the struggles of female abuse. Traditional Western cinema has cast gorgeous, stunning women to play their damsel in distress or leading romantic interest. Many women in cinema are merely eye candy for the viewers. When we think of a traditional femme fatale the likes of Ursula Andress or Sophie Marceau come to mind.

This is not the case in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009). Lisbeth Salander is different by many standards as a traditional female heroine. In the novel she is described quite unlike most females: Armansky’s star researcher was a pale, anorexic young woman who had hair as short as a fuse and a pierced nose and eyebrows….. she looked as though she had just emerged from a week-long orgy with a gang of hard rockers….. she had simply been born thin, with slender bones that made her look girlish… she was twenty four, but she sometimes looked fourteen. Larsson 41) Hardly what we would imagine as the main protagonist, especially in Western society and in box office smashes. Salander’s personality is also not what is traditional of a female heroine. She is extremely introverted, described as anti-social and because of her status as ward of the state, is assumed to just be mentally handicapped. Despite these abnormalities Lisbeth becomes the object of allure and sexual lust several times throughout the series. Lisbeth’s enigmatic persona is one of the primary factors of her allure.

Her independent attitude and asocial behavior is very foreign to Western views of females as gregarious bimbos. Her foreign nature is analyzed by her boss in the novel as he muses over her attraction, “It was not a sexual attraction, at least he didn’t think so…. Salander was a foreign creature to him. He might as well have fallen in love with a Greek amphora”(Larsson 46). Lisbeth has an image of natural, pure beauty within this damaged shell. If she’s not stunningly beautiful she is almost a revert back to original beauty.

In reality, Lisbeth is a product of the society the objectified her and abused her mentally and physically. The first encounter of Lisbeth’s allure is during a meeting with her legal guardian through the State. Her guardian, a clear representation of male chauvinism, forces her into performing oral sex in order to be allowed more of her own money. Oplev’s adaptation of the scene is very vivid as it offers no mistake into what Lisbeth is being forced to do. In a later scene Lisbeth is brutally raped and molested by the same man.

The graphic blunt impact of the scenes are also not common in many Western movies in its perceptibility that acts like this happen; commonly. What makes it worse to watch is her willingness to comply with her aggressor’s demands. A sad truth for many abused women, and at this moment Lisbeth seems weak and defenseless and at her guardians mercy. In the American adaptation of the film Lisbeth’s personae is slightly altered. While she still resembles the anti-social alien Larsson creates, her vulnerability is not as evident and it takes away from her fragility described in the novel.

The Swedish adaptation show’s Lisbeth as more erratic, fighting back wildly at her aggressors, while in the American, she uses her environment to escape, resembling more of an urban free runner than a tormented soul, and gives her a little female empowerment. On our other end of the gender spectrum we have Mikael Blomkvist. Journalist and author, Blomkvist is portrayed as savvy individual; methodical in his research, wise with his words, except for the most recent event, knows when to pick his battles and has a slight spartan like discipline.

He is somewhat of an enigma with women and is frequently in effervescent tryst’s, which could be seen as his tragic flaw seeing as it was the reason his marriage ended. In the novel he has fairly typical qualities of a standard male action hero in Western society. He has the virtuous characteristics of a hero, however, the events that transpire give a deeper look into Blomkvist’s moral character. As the investigation in the novel draws to an end, the parties involved are at an impasse on how to handle the truth that has unearthed.

In the end, the knowledge of the violence towards women is covered up, and not reported. While the reason for this is justified in the story, Anna Stenport asserts that Blomkvist is morally flawed, “Yet his decisions not to bring the crimes against women into public light shows him as morally and financially corrupt although the novel appears to excuse his lack of action by deemphasizing his contribution in the cover-up” (Stenport 173). While both cinematic adaptations downplay the significance of the cover up, it does not factor into the role substantially.

His essential characteristics held true to character in Oplev’s adaptation, he is rather dismissive and void of any rash decision. He has an air of equality as he gives everyone the respect they deserve, refraining from being judgmental. His action are more personable between his peers and family, seemingly humbled since his court ruling. In the American adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) by director David Fincher, Blomkvist follows the previous adaptations closely as well, yet he seems overly objective in his everyday conversation, showing more of his journalistic side.

In one dramatic scene, Blomkvist is on a morning run when suddenly a bullet nearly takes his head off. Following the role of the male action hero he recalls past training and uses his wit to evade his pursuer, “He pulled his head back down and ran to the next battery. It doesn’t matter how good the enemy’s weapons are. If he can’t see you, he can’t hit you. Cover, cover, cover. Make sure you’re never exposed” (Larsson 413). Yet, in a contrasting scene near the end, Blomkvist is the one who needs saving by Salander from certain death.

Many action heroes have needed saving from their female counterpart, yet there is a feeling of total helplessness for Blomkvist, his death seeming all but imminent. These different portrayals of gender roles seems foreign to Western audiences because of what many call the theory on the Male Gaze in cinema. The basic idea is that white males have a premeditated standard of how the perfect female should look and act. This goes back to the image of a traditional female role that American society has painted; a buxom beauty, always a sign of eroticism, who inadvertently gets caught up in meddling with affairs and plays a part in saving the day.

Despite that, the male gaze has evolved and progressed as women’s own role in society has advanced. In more recent contemporary films, females have begun to have just as equal a set of skills as men. This is not to say that it makes up for the stereotyping of women, as British feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey discusses in her theory on the male gaze. Her depiction of the male gaze is twofold and implicates that men in society are the bearers of the gaze, women merely considered “others”, and to enhance the perspective, objectifies and establishes women as objects in effect.

This perspective breeds ignorance to the issue of female degradation, as Laura Mulvey discusses the perspective French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir calls “otherness”: As de Beauvoir explains, women, unlike men, do not learn to describe the world from their own point of view. As the “other,” woman learns to submerge or renounce her subjectivity. She finds her identity in the subjectivity of the men to whom she is attached (father, husband, lover). In the eyes of men, she finds her identity as the object of men’s desire. Devereaux 340) While Lisbeth is an exception to what is considered a traditional heroine, she still falls prey to otherness by the male gaze. This is hinted to in the novel of when she has a sudden realization of her changing attitude towards Blomkvist and as she begins to give into the wanting him; for all of her bravado of not needing anyone she is easily frustrated from Blomkvist’s apparent lack on interest, “Normally seven minutes of another person’s company was enough to give her a headache, so she set things up to live as a recluse…. he did not have much to offer.

Apart from that she was a quite normal person, with the same desires and sex drive as every other woman” (Larsson 396). She continues to fulfill the idea of the male gaze by approaching Blomkvist and propositions him for un-committed sex. Her confidence about her self image is shown here as she looks for acceptance from Blomkvist, somehow fulfilling a part of her identity. As Lisbeth began spending more and more time with Blomkvist, her attitude changes and she starts to think about thoughts and motions she has suppressed for so long. She begins to think about what it is that makes her comfortable around him; treating her with respect, compassion and as a human being, innate rights that she has rarely known. She begins to establish what it is like to be respected as a person and feel normal when, true to the cold-hearted bond of the male gaze, Lisbeth is ultimately left anomic when she is again left vulnerable, her hope halted as Blomkvist returns to his promiscuous ways.

Lisbeth suffers the backlashes of human disappointment once again, this time when it seemed the only thing that felt right to her. This shows the influence of the control men have over women and the male gaze. Her disappointment is crushing as she longs for intimacy, “She wanted Mikael Blomkvist to ring the doorbell and… what then? Lift her off the ground, hold her in his arms?… No, she really just wanted his company… She wanted him to give her some gesture of love… ” (Larsson 588). She is constantly let down by the men around her and this only reinforces her distrust.

Her disappointment is not shown in the Swedish adaptation. In Oplev’s adaptation the movie ends with Lisbeth, off on an exotic island as she engages in her own private espionage, and ends with her gazing off into a setting sun. A good ending, but not the one that shows Lisbeth for who she really is. Interestingly enough, David Fincher’s adaptation includes the specific scene Lisbeth finds herself in, even if slightly altered. Her sense of loss is portrayed well as the movie ends on the same parallel as the book.

This goes to show that re-makes can improve on an already successful installment, I feel that the American version, which was received with trepidation by various audiences, succeeded in portraying Lisbeth in ways the Swedish version did not. The converse is also true of the two adaptations. Despite Lisbeth’s early appearance of being fragile and weak, her brutal and ruthless nature comes out in various parts of the story. Lisbeth portrays a strong and independent femme fatale in one distinct way; she takes care of her own revenge.

A majority of female characters generally rely on their male counterpart to dispatch the bad guy or go beat up the man that hurt her in some way, but in Lisbeth’s case, she rarely tells anyone a single word. Her moral paradigm prevents her from trusting any and all forms of authority figures; doctors, police, lawyers, and most men in general. In one of many raw moments in the story, we see Lisbeth methodically exact her revenge on her tormentor and rapist: I’m going to speak plainly, she said. This video shows you raping a mentally handicapped twenty four year old girl whom you were appointed guardian.

And you have no idea how mentally handicapped I can be if push comes to shove. Anyone who sees this video will discover that you’re not merely a pervert but an insane sadist. This is the second and I hope the last time I’ll ever have to watch this video. It is quit instructive, do not you think? My guess is that you’re the one who’s going to be institutionalised, not me. Are you following me so far? (Larsson 284) Quite sadistic in itself as she goes to tattoo, raw, on her tormentors skin, an immutable message of his deeds. What Lisbeth seems to have in her arsenal is a sense of control.

Cornell University graduate Anna Stenport touches on this in her essay, Corporations, Crime, and Gender Construction in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Exploring Twenty-first Century Neoliberalism in Swedish Culture, as she calls on Swedish literary critic Nina Bjork’s view of Lisbeth Salander; “If we tease out the implications of Bjork’s point, we notice that Larsson’s use of gender roles is predicated on a well-established paradigm by which men’s actions are the norm and women’s the exceptions” (Stenport 171).

Bjork’s interpretation is that there is a standard of the victimization of women. Men’s brutality to women is an average occurrence yet the only way society becomes aware of the problem and is gained recognition is through individual action, in this case Lisbeth Salander taking action. Larsson also conveys the common nature of female abuse by adding a statistic of violence at the beginning of various sections of his novels. Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series is a look into how the role of a hero/heroine comes in many forms.

This portrayal deviates from the traditional, male dominated view of female and male virtues and shows the vulnerability of each gender. The male gaze is seen from a different perspective, Lisbeth Salander being just as capable as any man can be, but is still considered an inferior being by the society around her, while Blomkvist is not held to the same standard. There is a double standard that the male gaze propagates a cycle of judging women based on their appearances, however subtle the notion is in our subconscious. Western cinema is an evolving process as the role of hollywood actors changes and as societies view of gender changes to accept the vastness of human emotion and function.

Works Cited

Devereaux, Mary. “Oppressive Texts, Resisting Readers And The Gendered Spectator: The New Aesthetics. ” Journal Of Aesthetics & Art Criticism 48. 4 (1990): 337-347. Academic Search Premier. Web. 9 May 2012. Larsson, Stieg. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. New York: Vintage Books, 2008. Print. Stenport, Anna Westerstahl, and Cecilia Ovesdotter Alm. “Corporations, Crime, And Gender Construction In Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. ” Scandinavian Studies 81. 2 (2009): 157-178. Academic Search Premier. Web. 9 May 2012. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Dir. Neils Arden Oplev. Perf. Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Ewa Froling. Yellow Bird, 2009. DVD. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Dir. David Fincher. Perf. Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer. Columbia Pictures, 2009. DVD.

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