Wednesday, 2 May 2012

The Problem with Lisbeth Salander

After all the hype that’s been surrounding Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy, spawning a Swedish film adaptation of all 3 books and an American adaptation of the first instalment (with two others on the way I presume), I figured I might as well check it out and see what all the hype was about and sat down to David Fincher’s rendition of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. What I found was a very competent and largely enjoyable thriller, greatly crafted in almost every aspect except for one - Lisbeth Salander (played by Rooney Mara).

This isn’t a review; you pretty much know how I feel about the film from the last paragraph. But what I want to talk about is not only why Lisbeth lets down the film, but also how her portrayal can be seen as worrying considering that she is the biggest draw of the story and has been the main selling point for many people that have invested in the series. Also, I would like to point out that I have not read the books, so please call me on something if it’s wrong, but the point I am looking to make in all likelihood stem from the source material on which the film was based.

The problem is the presentation of Lisbeth as some sort of feminist role model. She’s a rebellious, bisexual and independent woman; free to do whatever she wants and is a freelance hacker who gathers personal information for an anonymous company. Sounds like quite the strong female character. Yet this really couldn’t be further from the truth, in a character arc that seems to jump forward in logic and motivation before finally placing her in a position in which she is briefly emotionally saved from herself by Mikael Blomkvist (played by Daniel Craig) before being let down and ending on the generic male perspective of feminists - that they believe “all men are bastards”.

So to begin at the start of the film, she has a narrative that is completely separate from Mikael’s and they don’t actually meet for a good thirty minutes. This narrative takes us down a very dark route; her legal guardian - the man responsible for providing her with a decent living allowance (in which I assume is a Swedish government funded system) - has had a stroke and as a result becomes mentally incapacitated. This basically means that she now has no money and is referred onto another guardian, who turns out to be a rapist and wants sex in return for the money he is supposed to provide her.

The first time this happens, it’s oral, and is more of a psychological than physical affair. Lisbeth reluctantly submits to what is happening to her in order to get the money and in effect, is relying on satisfying a man in order to get money. The second time she plans to secretly record the events, thinking she was just going to be doing the same thing again. However, things get a lot nastier and more physical than the previous time. Eventually, she goes back for a third time, but she’s back for revenge and sets him up a treat in one of the best retorts for such an atrocity (I won’t spoil it too much for those of you that haven’t seen it).

So she comes out a champion and she has been set up as a tough individual, with smarts and a twisted imagination and eventually turns the rapist’s mind games back around in order to get the money she wants. So far so good, she’s a strong woman in the end - supposedly.

But then in swoops Mikael with this case that he needs her help with. She is interested and takes it on, helping him out and eventually getting rather intimate with him, seemingly coming from nowhere. She lets her emotional barriers down and grows to like him. They fuck a few times (again, any motivation for this seems to come from out of the blue) and by the time the case is solved, she’s saved him from being tied up and the usual thriller lark - she’s the real action hero of the piece. But then comes the coda, where Mikael sets off with Lisbeth’s help to address the reason he has been disgraced, which is seen at the start of the film (a narrative that takes place alongside Lisbeth’s until they meet).

In this part, we see Lisbeth go above and beyond to ensure that everything is OK for Mikael in the end, and she even buys him a gift and goes to meet him all doe eyed and one might push to say ‘loved up’ to an extent…OK not ‘loved up’ but she’s definitely happier than before she met him. BUT she sees him with another woman - a married woman he was involved with at the start of the film. She dumps his present and rides her motorcycle off into the night and we are left with an empty frame, suggesting her isolation and loneliness.

This final 15 minutes or so of the film has completely undone her entire character set up as feminist anti-hero because in the end, everything she’s done was for a man and it seems to be the only emotional solace that she is able to find. The image of a strong woman is broken down by her own romantic ambitions and it’s only in her rejection that she gets angry and becomes herself again. What it boils down to is this: if a woman is independent, she can’t have a man, and without a man, she will remain unhappy. So they have to choose one or the other.

The worrying thing about this is that as people are praising Lisbeth as this feminist role model for standing up for yourself - which for the large part she is - they aren’t realising that her character is in fact a pseudo feminist role model. One who has the traits of the powerful and strong woman but at the cost of her own happiness, destined forever to be a loner. So despite having some original flair to it, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is at it’s core, has the same representation of women as every other male centric crime thriller ever written.

This is just something to think about as you watch the film though. Please don’t let it hamper your enjoyment of it because it is a great film that’s worth the time it takes to watch it, and in all likelihood I will probably watch parts 2 and 3 of the trilogy - providing it has the same calibre team that was behind this part.

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