I’ve already written about the conservative leanings of the detective genre, supporting the status quo and largely making uncritical assumptions about what “justice” means for society in the aftermath of violence and crime. Other genres have dealt with these issues better perhaps (even science fiction), but it’s curious/upsetting that the genre with justice as its core subject matter hasn’t done better.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series of books and film adaptations has been widely criticized as misogynist. And, I agree with some of those criticisms. But at the same time I think that one of the not-so-examined reasons that Lisbeth Salander is an interesting character from a feminist perspective is that she, unusually, is a detective on the outside, with no faith in the system to produce a just result.
Plenty of detective characters are PIs, amateur sleuths, or disenchanted police officers, who meet resistance and corruption in their departments. But, by and large, the end-point of the story remains that justice is served; the guilty party is identified and popped into prison by the end of the episode/novel. Or, they might end up dead.
Children and young people detective characters, and conversely older female characters, are also outside the system, ignored and discounted by those “in charge,” but generally speaking these stories also end up with a criminal in prison and the status quo restored. Meanwhile, in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, the protagonist, Mikael Blomkvist, seeks this type of justice, but the other detective character, Lisbeth Salander, does not.
(Spoilers to follow.)
Lisbeth, far from believing in “the system,” is a victim of the system; she sees it as unsafe and unjust based on her own experiences. Because of the James Bond-y over-the-top style of these books, these experiences are hyped up to a ludicrous degree, but at the same time are a reflection and amalgamation of real-life injustices.
Lisbeth has been systematically disenfranchised by the authorities, trapped in mental health institutions, born into a family with a violent father who beat her mother, and survived rape and abuse at the hands of authority figures meant to look out for her interests. Her ability to manage her own affairs is removed when she’s put under a state guardianship, meaning that as an adult she does not have control over her own life. Her reasonable response to violence and abuse is pathologized in a further attempt to control her.
Her sexuality and choices about her body (who to sleep with, to get tattoos, how to dress) are described by the psychologist who locked her up as symptoms.
Consequently, when Lisbeth works as an investigator—either in her day job working for Milton Security, or assisting Blomkvist—her idea of what justice is is radically different. And the risks she takes are large.
You could argue that this is just more evidence that Steig Larrson liked to put his female characters through the wringer: hero Mikhael is still the protagonist, and still the center of the story. Moreover, Larrson gave his Lisbeth character a bunch of privileges having to do with race, able-bodied privilege, etc., and he’s also drawn her as a sort of superwoman sexy ubersurvivor. In the final book of the trilogy, the one most directly about “justice for Lisbeth,” she is literally stripped of all agency, remaining immobilized in a hospital bed for most of the book.
It’s a bit heavy-handed at times, but still the book shows a more complex relationship between victims of violence and the state than many other examples:
“Rapes should be reported to the police,” Modgid said.
“I’m with you on that. But this rape took place two years ago, and Lisbeth still hasn’t talked to the police about it. Which means that she doesn’t intend to. It doesn’t matter how much I disagree with her about the matter; it’s her decision. Anyway…”
“She had no good reason to trust the police. The last time she tried explaining what a pig Zalachenko was, she was locked up in a mental hospital.”
At the end of the book, justice is served in a courtroom, the web of conspiracy and corruption that plagued Lisbeth is dismantled from within, and the integrity of the Swedish criminal justice system is seen to be restored, in the typical fashion. And also Lisbeth has managed to steal a vast fortune. Added to this, the writing is of—ahem—variable quality, with some truly unnecessary digressions into the résumés of side characters. (Although all three novels are page-turners, obviously).
And yet, along the way, these bestselling books do open up a rare conversation in the detective genre about how the system itself can be violent, particularly to less enfranchised, less privileged people—in a world where women may face prison time for reporting sexual assault, just for starters.
Overall, the series itself is messy and flawed when it comes to its gender politics. But the creation of a character like Lisbeth does actually deserve some props, even if accompanied by multiple caveats.