The Necessity of Lisbeth Salander

Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara

Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara

Lisbeth Salander has multiple piercings across her face. Her eyebrows are bleached and her skin is whiter than Ramona Singer’s attempts at belly dancing. Like the majority of her wardrobe, her hair is jet black. It’s purposefully jagged and sharply frames her thin face. The makeup that circles her eyes is dark enough to make Taylor Momsen and Johnny Depp cry Lauren Conrad-esque mascara tears of jealousy. She wears ripped t-shirts that read “Fuck you, you fucking fuck” (a quote from David Lynch‘s 1986 classic Blue Velvet) and she literally kicks ass with the lace-up combat boots she tucks her baggy cargo pants into. She travels by motorcycle and, despite her gaunt figure, lives off a diet consisting primarily of McDonald’s Happy Meals. Her body is a canvas that she tattoos as a physical manifestation of the incredible amounts of pain she’s experienced. She is the girl with the dragon tattoo.

So how did such a seemingly anti-mainstream punk chick steal the interests and hearts of millions of readers and film audiences across the globe?

It’s quite simple, really. Because Lisbeth is not the ingénue of the stories she stars in. She’s the hero. The hero who is so ruthless in her actions that she makes a femme fatale like Lara Croft look more like the damsel-in-distress Princess Zelda.

In the American adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which hit theaters last week (there was a Swedish version back in 2009), Lisbeth (Rooney Mara) is an expert cyber-hacker who finds herself assisting Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), an investigative reporter hired as a personal detective by an elderly man (Christopher Plummer) looking to discover the truth behind his grand niece’s disappearance forty years earlier.

With this film, director David Fincher has crafted a piece of art that will play a central role in the continuing evolution of Hollywood’s portrayals of women. At the core of this movie’s significance is the character of Lisbeth, who propels The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo to the forefront of feminist cinema. After all, this is a woman whose SIDEKICK is literally James Bond.

Much like a honey badger, Lisbeth is fearless. When she is brutally raped by her state appointed guardian, she has no problem tazering him, shoving a metal dildo in his ass and tattooing “I’m a rapist pig” on his chest. When she thinks she’s found a serial killer, she doesn’t blink twice before entering his home. In fact, she doesn’t even come armed and instead relies on finding a random object in his house to protect herself with. And when she wants to take down one of Sweden’s most powerful and corrupt businessmen, she has no trepidations about putting on a Lady Gaga-esque wig for the cameras while she drains all of his bank accounts.

In the bedroom, Lisbeth does not limit herself to the parameters set by a particular label. Instead, she makes emotional connections with people regardless of their sex. In one scene, she wakes up naked next to a woman named Miriam (who fans of the books know plays a much larger part in the next two installments of the story). In another, she strips for Blomkvist and proposes that they sleep together. And what middle-aged single, heterosexual man would turn down a sexy and dangerous 23-year-old woman already half way done unbuttoning his pants? Exactly. And obviously, Lisbeth is always on top.

Part of what makes Lisbeth so captivating is that she refuses to be a victim. When someone wrongs her, she doesn’t sulk. She takes matters into her own hands and regains the power that was stolen from her in the moments when she was wronged. For instance, she could have easily reported her guardian for raping her. But instead, the prey becomes the predator as Lisbeth exacts a degree of revenge and punishment that no amount of time behind bars could. Her actions ensure that not only will her guardian never rape someone again, but also that he’ll be forced to live for the rest of his life with a constant reminder of how disgusting a person he is.

It’s women like Lisbeth that Hollywood needs more of. Women who refuse to be subservient and are unafraid to be completely self-sufficient. Too often, movies employ Sex and the City-like clones that “just want to find Mr. Right.” And sadly, many of the films that pride themselves on their “progressive feminist stance” in fact still adhere to patriarchal values.

In 2010, the movie Salt was released and was marketed as a female counterpart to The Bourne Identity. Originally written as a starring vehicle for Tom Cruise, it was ultimately Angelina Jolie who stepped into the lead role. But as Scott Mendelson of pointed out, an Entertainment Weekly article by Chris Nashawaty about the film’s alleged “pro-feminism” actually confirmed how flawed it really was.

“‘In the original script, there was a huge sequence where Edwin Salt (the original male protagonist) saves his wife, who’s in danger,’ says Noyce. ‘And what we found in the new script, it seemed to castrate his character a little. So we had to change the nature of that relationship.’ In the end, Salt’s husband, played by German actor August Diehl (Inglourious Basterds), was made tough enough that he didn’t need saving, thank you much,” the article read.

In other words, if Tom Cruise is playing the main character, it’s okay for him to save his helpless wife. But if Angelina Jolie is playing that same character, the spouse no longer needs saving due to a fear of emasculation. Oh.

It’s comments like these that make it easy to picture industry people like Noyce and Nashawaty lighting up cigars with the boys as they congratulate themselves on their “liberalism.”  It’s also comments like these that really hit home the idea that the art we subject ourselves to is still skewed towards preserving the idea that men are on a higher level than women.

Thus, films like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo are far more necessary than one may even initially realize. We’re in dire need of female characters like Lisbeth Salander who are defined by their actions and not by their genitalia.

When the novel was first published in Sweden, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo had a different title – one that translates to Men Who Hate Women. While it’s actually quite infuriating that author Stieg Larsson’s original title wasn’t kept for the English translation (most likely due to a fear of a lack of commercial appeal), the film remains a powerful tale about that theme—and, of course, about the woman who retaliates against the men who hate women.

The success of the franchise proves that audiences want to read about and see women like Lisbeth. In fact, she’s become such a cultural icon that people are even willing to physically emulate her by purchasing the Lisbeth-inspired collection at H&M (which – as a side note – I find hysterical and completely ironic because the idea of a fashion line designed after her is something that Lisbeth would absolutely detest).

But the point is that The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a story that is exposing a huge void in our pop culture psyche. And audiences are beginning to take notice.

Lisbeth Salander, I salute you.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Alex has been writing for PopBytes since 2011. As the Theater Editor, he focuses on all aspects of Broadway, Off-Broadway, Regional Theater, and beyond. Alex lives in Western Massachusetts and can be found on Twitter at @AlexKNagorski.