It Was a Dark and Snowy NightHow heroes became heroines in Nordic noir fiction

Illustration by Zejian Shen.

Film noir used to be personified by the lone detective in a trench coat, chain smoking in rain-dotted lamplight. But 70 years after The Maltese Falcon flew into Tinseltown, that hero has been replaced. Now, standing in that same lamplight, smacking gum in the same misty glow, is a lone detective in a Faroese sweater. And she's a woman.

Nordic noir illo

In 1941, film noir became more than a new movement: It became a gender-defining moment in American cinema. For the first time, women onscreen claimed positions of power as sexually aggressive femmes fatales—the yin to the noir detective's yang. And in the past few years, noir has once again taken a progressive look at womankind. Scandinavian crime dramas, collectively known as “Nordic noir,” have begun popularizing the hard-boiled woman heroine, imbuing her with characteristics commonly associated with male noir heroes. Starting in 2005 with Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy (adapted for the big screen starting in 2009) and followed by Forbrydelsen (known in the U.S. as The Killing) in 2007, Borgen (“The Castle”) in 2010, and Bron/Broen (“The Bridge”) in 2011, the traditional rain-soaked sleuth has morphed into a heroine who is as alienated and obsessed as her forefathers.

Though French critic Nino Frank coined the term “film noir” in 1946, it was Paul Schrader's 1972 essay “Notes on Film Noir” that best described the narrative trend of the 1940s and '50s. In it, he wrote that noir is not so much genre based as it is defined “by the more subtle qualities of tone and mood.” That mood is an all-encompassing darkness reflected in the literal gloom of the dreary weather that forms its backdrop, the embodiment of the corruption and hopelessness dominating its cynical storylines. According to Schrader, the movement was a direct product of post–World War II disillusionment, the desire for realism (after the synthetic glitter that Hollywood used to paint over the dirty '30s), German-expatriate film directors (“masters of chiaroscuro”), and flinty crime writers like Raymond Chandler penning antiheroes with sangfroid.

Though not limited to the crime genre, noir's quintessential figures are the detectives, for whom, according to Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward's Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, “alienation is perhaps the more intrinsic motif of the character and the second key emotion is obsession,” and the femmes fatales, described by Schrader as women whose agency is “predicated rather narrowly on their sexual prowess.” In The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir, Foster Hirsch wrote that noir reflected the changing status of women postwar: “Passed through the noir filter, the 'new woman,' forced by social circumstance and economic necessity to assert herself in ways that her culture had not previously encouraged, emerged on screen as a wicked, scheming creature, sexually potent and deadly to the male.”

It took several decades of noir evolution for women to leave the comfort of their bedrooms and strap on guns. The female leads of 1980s neonoir films like Black Widow still operated as femmes fatales, and continued to do so into the '90s with Basic Instinct, The Last Seduction, and To Die For. But then came Fargo.

In that 1996 film, Joel and Ethan Coen turned Frances McDormand into a female noir heroine even though her character, the pregnant, genial townie Marge Gunderson, was the polar opposite of a hard-living night owl. Two years later, in Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight, U.S. Marshal Karen Sisco looked a little more like Philip Marlowe (she even engaged in her own version of Bogie-Bacall banter with crook Jack Foley). But despite the obsessive temperament of a noir character, she had none of the self-imposed isolation. Neither did Veronica Mars's eponymous teen sleuth, who turned up in 2004.

It wasn't until a year later, with the publication of the first book in Stieg Larsson's posthumously published Millennium trilogy, Men Who Hate Women, a.k.a. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, that the noir hero experienced a gender recasting.

In the only interview he gave about the series before his premature death in 2004, Larsson told Swedish magazine Svensk Bokhandel that he wrote Lisbeth Salander as a grown-up version of children's-book heroine Pippi Longstocking, a fictional 9-year-old redhead with superhuman strength and a penchant for taunting adults. “What would she have been like as an adult? What would she be called? A sociopath?” he said. “I created her as Lisbeth Salander, 25 years old and extremely isolated. She doesn't know anyone, has no social competence.”

Indeed, Salander was one of the first female noir heroines to share all the qualities of a male noir hero, complete with antisocial personality and an obsession with her job. Mikael Blomkvist, the investigative journalist at the center of the Millennium trilogy, speculates that she has Asperger's syndrome, but whether the diagnosis fits is somewhat beside the point. Salander rejects society after repeatedly being abused by a corrupt justice system, and has few friends besides a reclusive hacker and the lesbian lover she only occasionally sees. When she isn't defending her sanity against the doctors who are intent on keeping her institutionalized for maiming her abusive father, she spends her time sleuthing online, keeping herself alive with a steady stream of cigarettes and junk food. Her obsession? Men who hate women.

Where femmes fatales use their sex appeal to manipulate their male counterparts, Salander rejects hers. In the film adaptations of the trilogy, actress Noomi Rapace embodied Salander by camouflaging her “female softness,” as she called it in an interview with the Telegraph in 2010: “I wanted to be more like a boy in my body,” she said, and embarked on a regime of Thai and kick boxing to attain a sinewy physique.

In a way, Salander transforms into the very men she is fighting against, going so far as to rape her abusive guardian Nils Bjurman with a dildo, mirroring his assault on her, and climbing atop Blomqvist in the middle of the night without his permission. In the end, she fully embraces a traditionally masculine role by saving Blomkvist's life.

Considering Sweden's history, it's little wonder that one of its authors kicked off the Nordic noir heroine movement. In the 1960s, Sweden was generally considered to be the forerunner of the sexual revolution and was particularly concerned with gender equality. Barry Forshaw, the author of Death in a Cold Climate: A Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction, told the UK Huffington Post in April that heroines like Salander reflect the strong women who have come to dominate Swedish society in the aftermath of this revolution.

Larsson, who was born in 1954, wore his interest in sexual liberation on his sleeve. Kurdo Baksi, who wrote Stieg Larsson, My Friend, revealed that the Millennium trilogy's author was particularly concerned with the oppression of women. “[T]he women in his novels have minds of their own and go their own ways,” Baksi wrote in the Daily Mail. “They fight. They resist. Just as he wished all women would do in the real world.”

Danish producer Søren Sveistrup was more concerned with women fighting and resisting in the fictional world. When he created Forbrydelsen in 2007, he claimed he was surrounded (onscreen) by “disappointing” female detectives who did little more than flirt with their colleagues. With no women on which to build his heroine Sarah Lund, he turned to a man: Clint Eastwood. “If you watch Dirty Harry, he's not especially likable, and I like that paradox about a character,” Sveistrup told the U.K.'s Independent on Sunday in November 2012.

Indeed, Lund's messy-haired, Nicorette-chewing single mother launched a thousand knitwear fan sites with her handmade Faroese sweater paired with jeans, flats, and makeup-free face. Danish actress Sofie Gråbøl worked with Sveistrup to create her character, who inevitably gets obsessed with each season-long crime. Gråbøl was the one who suggested the now-famous Gudrun & Gudrun sweater that Lund rarely sheds, a 280-euro top that reportedly flew off the shelves when the show premiered. “It tells of a woman who has so much confidence in herself that she doesn't have to use her sex to get what she wants,” she told the Guardian in 2011.

Lund's odd relationships sometimes land her in a familiar noir trap. In Film Noir, Silver and Ward note that the noir hero is often unable to “distinguish between benign and malign as he moves through the complex noir underworld.” Lund experiences this blindness numerous times, and even occasionally vacillates between wanting to kiss and to arrest the men in front of her. She also falls prey to what Schrader describes as the noir hero's traditional “loss of honor,” when her obsession with the Nanna Birk Larsen case in season one has her ignoring her superiors to embark on a one-woman crusade. At the end of the season, Lund is demoted to the role of passport officer in a small town, though she does return to her old post in season two.

Where Lund was inspired by Clint Eastwood, the rest of Scandinavia was likely inspired by Helen Mirren. According to Nikolaj Arcel (cowriter of the 2009 film adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), the U.K. series Prime Suspect, which aired from 1991 to 2006, is largely responsible for the rise in Nordic noir heroines. In the ITV show, Mirren plays Jane Tennison, a whip-smart detective chief inspector in a mostly male London police department who works incessantly, has no social life, loves her booze, and beds who she wants, when she wants. “That was the mother of all crime series,” Arcel told the Radio Times this year. “There was an inspired character, sexually aggressive and with problems of her own.”

Sofia Helin, who plays Saga Norén in the Swedish/Danish series Bron/Broen, admitted to the Times that Tennison was the only tv detective she ever “got into,” though her character ostensibly owes little to her. In the first place, Norén is clearly on the autism spectrum. Though the show never states that she has Asperger's syndrome, Helin told the Guardian in 2011 that she had read books by people with the disorder in order to understand the homicide detective with zero social graces who discovers a body on the border between Sweden and Denmark. “My brain moves in circles, but Saga thinks squarely,” Helin explained in reference to Norén's unsmiling face and her stiff way of walking. She added to the Daily Mail in April, “She is obsessed with order and logic.”

Like Salander, Norén wears leather as her uniform—in her case, brown leather pants that she seems to have chosen for practical purposes (“They're warm and they can take almost everything. I mean rain and snow, you know?” Helin told the Telegraph). No doubt, Norén also chooses to drive a Porsche because of its size, speed, and efficiency. She is similarly practical when it comes to food and sex. Living alone, she eats packaged meals so that she has more time to spend on the job. As for sex, she simply shops for it at clubs when she feels the urge. Sated, she goes right back to work, sometimes even breaking out crime-scene photos in bed while her lover is still in a postcoital slumber.

Norén's male partner, Danish homicide detective Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia), takes on the traditionally female role of the pair. His symbolic castration is literalized when he gets a vasectomy in season one, all the better for him to serve an almost maternal role for Norén. He explains the social graces she must embrace to function in society, such as praising her staff for good work and not sleeping with his own 20-year-old son. At the end of the first season, Norén maintains her position of dominance by taking a bullet for and saving Rohde. (The duo is set to return in the second season, which airs in late 2013.)

One of the only Nordic noir series not to focus on a detective, the Danish show Borgen is still a member of this Scandi family thanks to its somber tone. The nickname of Christiansborg Palace, which houses the Danish prime minister's office, Borgen revolves around the country's fictional first female PM, Birgitte Nyborg Christensen, and the compromises she must make to run the country while raising her family. It is unsurprising that the first overtly political female noir hero came out of Denmark in 2010, when Helle Thorning-Schmidt was climbing the political ladder, eventually becoming the country's first female PM in 2011.

The leader of the Moderates who finds herself in charge of the country after both Liberal and Labour parties make political missteps, Christensen starts out a staunch idealist but finds herself engaging in manipulation and compromise to realize her goals. She often finds herself in hypocritical situations, firing her unethical spin doctor, Kasper Juul, only to rehire him when she realizes that he is the reason she is in power. She starts finding it harder to attend to her family as well as the country. Her chief characteristic is what James Naremore described in More than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts as “psychological and moral disorientation.” In a rare moment of candor in season one, Christensen admits that she has “lost her bearings.”

In an unfamiliar role reversal, Christensen's husband takes on the role of dissatisfied homemaker, even resorting to having an affair when he tires of the scheduled sex dates and public facades necessitated by his wife's position. Ahead of the second season's U.K. premiere (the third season is set to air in spring 2013), star Sidse Babett Knudsen told the Telegraph that she fought against the largely male writers' wish to write Birgitte as a guilt-ridden woman: “I don't want her to feel sorry for herself or suddenly become a soppy mess in her private life, because you wouldn't believe her as a prime minister if she did that.” Nor would you believe her as a noir hero.

Though Borgen was the only Nordic noir show to appear in the original in the United States (on Link TV), it is set for an American remake, according to the Daily Beast, like the rest of the aforementioned series. The first U.S. adaptation of the Millennium trilogy appeared in 2011 to mixed reviews, with the next two already in the works. Meanwhile, after only two (admittedly overly convoluted) seasons, AMC's The Killing was canceled, but in early 2013 announced it would be revived for a third season. A U.S. version of Bron/Broen, set on the U.S./Mexico border, is currently being produced by FX.

So what makes Nordic noir so attractive to American audiences? According to a 2010 article in the Economist, “Three factors underpin the success of Nordic crime fiction: language, heroes, and setting.” Not only is the language simple, the Swedish society is “soft,” writer Jo Nesbø told the magazine, a progressive welfare system hiding its dark underbelly. As for the setting, it is cold and unadorned, qualities Nesbø said are not unlike its population, which is “brought up to hide their feelings.” In the Daily Beast, Radio Times editor Alison Graham said U.K. viewers have fallen hard for Nordic noir because the complex storylines do not speak down to them. “Major characters are killed off, and there is never any kind of 'redemptive' aspect to the story,” she said. “The latter is pretty much a requirement of British tv drama and, I would suggest, American dramas too.” Forshaw added in the aforementioned Huffington Post interview that Nordic noir also benefits from not being just about crime but about social issues as well. While Borgen is set in the world of politics, Forbrydelsen also has a parallel political storyline each season; thus, offers Forshaw, “Those crime writers have more to say about society, you get more value.”

Not only that, American television has become more open in the past few years to more powerful heroines in cop shows. Women have been headlining series like The Closer (which was also inspired by Prime Suspect, according to Kyra Sedgwick in a 2010 interview with NPR), Rizzoli and Isles, CSI, Prime Suspect, and Bones, whose titular character, though she is a forensic anthropologist, is as socially awkward as Nordic noir's finest.

Homeland's bipolar CIA officer, Carrie Mathison, has made such a show of social awkwardness that Sofia Helin was told the character “could be a friend of Saga Norén.” Though series developer Howard Gordon told Newsweek that they “exploited the sexism” in the CIA by turning Carrie into a woman (the original Israeli drama on which Homeland is based had a male hero), the L.A. Times posited in a 2011 piece that, in general, women were starting to dominate cop series because they were the ones writing and producing them. CSI showrunner Carol Mendelsohn added to the Times story that women these days feel they can protect themselves—after growing up watching men solve crimes, they are now the ones who have jobs as detectives and forensic investigators.

The importance of noir heroines like Lisbeth Salander, Sarah Lund, Saga Norén, and Birgitte Nyborg Christensen is not only to put women on an equal footing with men—we can be just as work obsessed and as socially inept as you—but, more important, to change the traditional view of women as victims. By updating the women in noir from sex objects and victims to protectors—of both women and men—Nordic noir series are setting a precedent for other genres to accept. If the trench coat fits, a hero is a hero regardless of gender.

This article was published in Pulp Issue #58 | Spring 2013
by Soraya Roberts
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6 Comments Have Been Posted

Annika Bengtzon

Wonderful! Just finished six episodes of Annika Bengtzon: Crime Reporter on Netflix and was wondering what to watch next. It's so nice to see strong (and flawed) female characters who face their fears and navigate dangerous circumstances (although male characters do often swoop in to save her at the end). Thanks for some ideas on what to put on my list next!

noir and women

Brilliant piece. Exactly right in every detail!

Women heroines

The type of the resourceful hard-boiled female protagonist may be a novelty in mainstream film-making, but in the realm of Science-Fiction novels it has a rich history. John Varley's "Titan", Joanna Russ's "Picnic on Paradise", Cecelia Holland's "Floating Worlds" are just a few I can think of right away.

What do these series have in common besides language?

It seems strange to me that you've lumped in Borgen with a group of crime series and called them all "Nordic noir". Borgen is a political drama. Why do you think this is the same thing as crime/detective series? Is "its somber tone" (which I presume refers to the scenes shot at night) all you could find?

Nordic Noir

I love the dark intrigue of Nordic Noir both in film and book form. I really liked the Killing and after watching it I was hooked and am now constantly on the look out for more

The flawed strong women of modern noir

This is a terrific integrative piece that stretches from classical film noir, to current nordic noir, to America's fascinating development of strong female cops. I would add two points. First, the author's coverage of US television should include Holly Hunter's incredible role in Saving Grace. Second, it needs to be said that US television has so far erred by doing only remakes of nordic noir programs; American television needs to broadcast the Swedish and Danish originals -- subtitles and all. They are breathtakingly better than their American progeny such as The Killing and The Bridge.

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