TRIGGER WARNING FOR DISCUSSION OF VIOLENCE AND SEXUAL ASSAULT
Just to get it out of the way: I have a great big crush on the character Lisbeth Salander. I really enjoy the original Swedish film trilogy (or the first two movies, anyway) and I liked the American remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I have not yet read any of the books.
When I first conceived the idea for this blog, I knew that I had to write a post about Lisbeth Salander. For the most part, any discussion of queer autistic sexuality in fiction must focus on lack, on the absence of representations, but Stieg Larsson’s lurid Millenium novels and the films based on them feature an antiheroine who is both queer and (probably) autistic.
When I was about ten years old, I read (let me just don my hipster glasses for a moment) a rather obscure young adult novel called Snake Dreamer, by Priscilla Galloway. The book revisits the myth of Medusa, one of the most recognizable and enduring monsters in the Western canon. In it, Medusa herself repeats the phrase “In me, victim and killer come together.” She is referring to her mistreatment at the hands of the gods—the book only obliquely refers to Poseidon’s rape of Medusa—and to the murderous rage she feels as a result of their injustice. Snake Dreamer portrays Medusa as both a powerful and dangerous monster, and as a wise and loving guardian. She is a source of strength for fellow victims because she resists her destructive impulses and re-directs her monstrous power in order to nurture and protect.
In the larger cultural context, however, Medusa is still very much associated with the petrifying, “castrating” power of female rage. Ovid’s retelling of the Gorgon myth introduced the idea that Medusa was originally a human woman who was raped by the sea god Poseidon in Athena’s temple, and in an act of egregious victim-blame was subsequently transformed into a deadly, snake-haired monster. Given the tremendous influence of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the dual motif of rape and rage has stuck firmly with Medusa, from her mention in John Milton’s Comus as a guardian of chastity (the central argument of Comus is that women should not be blamed or considered “unclean” as a result of sexual assault) to the present day.
Now, again, I have not read Stieg Larsson’s books. From some comments I have seen made about them, I suspect that the movies may actually be better, at least in the sense that they seem to have toned-down Blomkvist’s possible Mary-Sue qualities and, more importantly, preserved Lisbeth’s penchant for brutal vengeance while excising certain qualities and actions that might sully the viewer’s enjoyment of that brutality. In a recent Slate piece defending Lisbeth’s status as a kind of “feminist heroine,” explicit reference is made to Lisbeth’s “blend of victim and killer.” Indeed, Lisbeth is something of a contemporary incarnation of Medusa and, unlike the Medusa of Snake Dreamer, she does not resist or sublimate her rage. She is actively and extravagantly murderous, making full use of her Gorgon-like power to terrorize the men who have assaulted and abused her.
To me, this constitutes the films’ most interesting quality: they subject the viewer to the cognitive dissonance of both condemning and cheering on sexual violence. Although Lisbeth’s victims arguably “deserve it”—she reacts to and seeks revenge for truly hideous abuses—she is still brutal and sadistic. She returns murder for murder, and rape for rape. I know that when I watch the films, I do cheer Lisbeth on. For me, at least, she embodies a deep-seated and viscerally satisfying fantasy. She’s like a feminist version of The Punisher. But, no matter how I do feel about Lisbeth Salander, how should I feel about her? It’s an age-old conundrum: What does it mean to punish violence with violence? Is there something to be said for women reclaiming the capacity for violence, rather than hewing to the tired association of femininity with peace and nurturing verus “masculine” violence and destruction? After all, we do have to contend with rape culture and we live under a state that is regularly violent to its own citizens. Then again, does appropriating the tactics of the patriarchy constitute “stooping” to its level? Does it perpetuate an endless cycle of violence?
I have similar difficulty with pinning-down the significance of both Lisbeth’s sexuality and her apparent autism. Does Lisbeth’s bisexuality make her strong queer protagonist, or is it a device meant to titillate straight male viewers? As for her autism, whether or not the character is “actually” autistic is a matter of heated debate. It gets no mention in the films, though in addition to the symptoms of trauma she exhibits fundamental social deficits and appears to be a savant—the trademark quality of autists in fiction. In the books, the possibility of Asperger syndrome is briefly discussed by characters who know and care about her. (Her “official” diagnosis, according to records compiled by abusive doctors paid off to confine her, is as a paranoid psychopath.) It is difficult to separate the effects of lifelong abuse from “inherent” attributes, but to me it seems as though Lisbeth has pre-existing social and cognitive traits that suggest she might be on the spectrum. She is very literal and appears to think very concretely, she seems to have an affinity for sameness and routine (manifested prominently in her eating habits), and she has narrow areas of strong interest and skill. Psychological trauma doesn’t cause autism but it certainly doesn’t preclude autism, and to me Lisbeth looks, talks, and acts like an autist. It comes down to interpretation.
If Lisbeth is autistic, what does that mean? She’s a very visible and well-known queer autistic character, then, but what comes of that? Her role as an avenging Fury is that much more magnified, since disabled people are far more likely than non-disabled people to be victims of violence and sexual assault. Lisbeth is not just acting against the violent force of misogyny, but against ableism and homophobia. Her interactions with her odious financial guardian demonstrate the intersection of those two forces: he makes it clear that her same-sex relationships are part of her overall inability to function like a “normal” person. For a woman who is disabled or otherwise deemed “unsound,” non-heterosexual and/or non gender-normative behavior is considered part of her pathology. The very fact that she is considered mentally unfit and is therefore a ward of the state goes from being a plot device (it’s part of a conspiracy to control and silence her, connected to her father, a former Soviet spy under the protection of the Swedish government) to being “too real.” It becomes a commentary on the systemic denial of disabled people’s agency and autonomy.
As critics and writers have pointed out again and again, it is Lisbeth’s contradictory and mythic nature that makes her so compelling. Ambivalence endures. We love our towering heroes and monsters, and we can’t resist a character who is both. Like Medusa or the Furies—or, since she’s Scandanavian, the Valkyries—Lisbeth can be read as either a patriarchal construct (certainly it should not be forgotten that she was created by a straight, white cis man) or as a symbol of feminist resistance. I believe she is both.