Parlor Discourse on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

For myself, I’ve decided that Thelma and Louise started out to be a tale of the female hero’s journey but ended up a road marker of the dissolving, cornered place for women attempting to travel inside the painful territories of the Male Narrative.  All Thelma and Louise could do for release from the control exerted by men was to kill themselves. IMDB production still from Thelma and Louise
Is Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on a hero’s journey?  I’d have to say no.  But I am claiming her story as an emergent path of the Narrative Otherways.  And she’s definitely on a quest. 

How our tattooed girl opens the conversation on a Narrative Otherways

This tale of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a pushpin stuck in our cultural map, a “you are here” where Lisbeth Salander finds release into who she is by her pursuit of the story’s central mystery, the serial murder of women

It’s clear Lisbeth treks a world of dangers.  Abandoned, marked with criminality, she’s been cast into the pool of the weak, the ones without protection and therefore, from the predatory way of thinking, inviting attack.  This ward relationship with her society, her fate by birth, is the injurious, life stealing ground she must confront and shift.   

This pierced and tattooed girl’s fierce visage doesn’t translate as familiar female.  Her vibrational “bring it on” is a challenge, both exciting and confusing to male identity.  In our being, with male and female linked, if we women shift men must too, set up by their habitual attraction to excitement.  But a girl’s got to be careful when men get confused.  Mixed with desire, confusion can trigger a violent response to re-assert control.

And sure enough men big and small act to overpower Lisbeth, to put her in her place, teach her a lesson for daring to refuse what a woman should be.  Which is to say, to be for men. Lisbeth’s refusal is a recognition that she’s in an ugly fight for control over her person, just because she is a woman, against men who would take that control from her.

“Are you a good girl?” her “guardian,” the sadist says as he tortures Lisbeth for his sexual pleasure.  A sexual pleasure all to do with having control over her.  To survive such an assault, Lisbeth calls on her knowledge of the tools of surveillance and does what any cornered fierceness would, traverses her extraordinary ability to tamp down fear and go toward danger.  What other choice does she have, really?  Submit?  So she documents and watches again afterwards, out of body, his attack on her.  (Don’t know how.  I could barely watch from my privileged darkness, even with the violence done to her body contained inside a curtained frame.)

In her past, Lisbeth’s flamethrowing exchange of destructive roles with her father was her child’s desperate response to terrorization that turned her into a terrorist.  Now, in the female twist, we watch her calculations to become more of a “transformational terrorist,” committing acts that leave open a sliver of slide through space where men can learn, if they have a will to.  Her calculated plot to re-balance power with the guardian marks Lisbeth’s evolution. She figures out how, this time, not to become a sadist, not to become like her tormentor.

How to just get even?  Find the safe? Without becoming, partaking in the vicious, and when pushed to the endgame, homicidal energy? That’s the trick. Cause it’s sticky. Violence can become who you are, seep in, grow inside you.  Like love.  Only not.

Lisbeth isn’t sexsick.  An essential difference.  Sexual energy is absent in her infliction of pain on her guardian as she makes him experience the victimization of his own acts.  She seeks release from him, not control or capture as he was of her.  When she tattoos his crime on his body it’s about the permanent assurance of that release.  And for this assurance we must endure, even if Lisbeth welcomes, that flash of pure hatred on his face.  He would kill her for forcing the shift in the power between them, for switching roles on him and making him the woman.

How different from her relationship with Mikael Blomkvist.

Lisbeth’s distanced coming to know Mikael is from behind her digital shield and before he has any idea of her existence.  This reversal of the accustomed flow of man-notices/approaches-woman gives Lisbeth the angle she must have.  A public, controversial, disgraced man viewed and tracked by a private, subterranean, disgraced woman.

She’s picked the right man.  Mikael has next to no need for control.  His blinking stance of continual receptivity feels almost recklessly open. He allows energy, things good and harmful, and women to come to him.  All this can leave him battered.  Perhaps he’s found it’s worth the risk for what he discovers in return.

So, once Lisbeth reveals herself, Mikael does not let her defensive elements her appearance, her untranslatable femaleness, her obsessive need for privacy – get in the way.  The skills she brings to the hunt and who she is in essence, which he is able to perceive, are more important to him.  By saying, “I need your help….you’ve provided the most important clue so far,” he calls her out into the open, acknowledging her desire, which is a desire of any human, to be recognized as useful and be included.  They become a duo caught up in the eros of shared investigation.

Lisbeth begins riding on her 21st century finesse with the digital but ends up adapting those flashforward skills to travel back into the 20th century as she searches for an other, earlier womanhood, Harriet.  Trolling through hard copy in libraries and lonely newspaper archives, she’s on passage through a dusty and yellowing oldworld to discover there more of the same, murdered women.

Harriet the silent, simmering void in the middle of it all, is the object of the hunt.  In this film’s predatory world even a treasured woman’s protection isn’t, really.  In contrast to Lisbeth, Harriet was the loved one that we all want to beShe floats forever a pure, young woman in memory, both for her uncle Henrik, haunted and obsessed with her disappearance, and for Mikael hired to track the mystery of her fate and remembering her as his boyhood babysitter and crush.  Idealization is a luxury of containment the men can afford and which provides them emotional safety, encasing their feelings high on that pedestal, churning untouched by the real in numb, eternal repeat.

Lisbeth and Harriet exist outside such luxury in the real all too real world of womanhood.  But Harriet’s response to danger, back before the rise of the Lisbeths, was to do what women with resources did when threatened – run and hide, ceding the field to the killers. (Isn’t this running some the same as Thelma and Louise driving off that cliff and out of the narrative?  Or in an alternate route, Lisbeth’s mother into insanity?)

Now comes Lisbeth of the Narrative Otherways.  An evolution from Harriet’s time and choices, she walks a new ground created as she goes along by her refusal to hide, by her movement toward danger, by her recognition of our fate as shared.  If I merely escape what about the next gal?  And her action allows, at end, an older woman to come out from hiding, and bringing back with her all she, too, has to contribute.

When Mikael, with his blinking openness, stumbles into the killer’s lair and asks, “why?” the killer tells his truth. “I’m doing what every man dreams of.  I take what I want…It’s mainly for the sex.  When I put them down, it’s only a logical consequence of the rape.”  But he loves that look, “when (the women) realize they will die…It’s a fantastic moment.”  To have control of life and death.  It makes a man like, well, God, an aspiration and ancient bicker of the Male Narrative.

But playing god has nothing to do with what Lisbeth aspires to.  She’s not out to control men, only to break the bondage of a balance so heavily weighted to serve their needs;  never seeks to practice power of life and death over men, even when they deserve to die.  She acts to make them face themselves, to make them drop their delusional shields.

To our great relief, in the nick of time, Lisbeth rescues Mikael from certain death.  Afterward, she could just stay put and be safe with Mikael.  But she doesn’t.  She jumps on that motorcycle to chase evil, to make the villain face the truth of who he is.  A murderer of women.  He drives faster. The adrenaline of his fear at this reversal of the “right” order of things, being the hunted one and hunted by a woman, causes him to lose control.  His crash is not from any direct action on Lisbeth’s part.  She sets in motion but makes no attempt at control, letting the energy of things take their course.  She does not interfere, does not pull him from his fire.  She lets him burn.

How much of this male will to control that leads so inexorably to violence is given permission by the larger social excuses rooted in religion and sustained by convention, the “oh it’s not that bad”?  This story draws the direct line from the search for control and power, to abuse, to sadism all wrapped up in sex, and ultimately to homicidal obsession.  These murders of women are spun out from the demented end of us, yes.  But the soil where they thrust down their roots is the veiled social will to keep womanhood contained for the uses of men.  This murdering builds from lesser acts of aggression, bit by bit until the unimaginable becomes actual.

All those bagged heads, all in a row on the villain’s computer, like the pictures of the pressed flowers, hung in rows on Henrik’s wall.  Harriet, turns out, is the source of the flowers.  Again the image flips.  Now it seems more like a trail of crumbs she’s left for the time when the Lisbeth Salanders of this world come to surface and cut loose her bonds.  A kind of faith.

At end, the will to power and control, its hold on us so masterfully fleshed out for so long in the Male Narrative, is our human all too human response to the lack of control any of us have.  Life comes to us, and then leaves.  How to, well, live with it?  How to go toward it, allowing and deeply being, too? The precious task at hand.

 Written with the editorial and creative collaboration of Kathleen Gyurkey.

    • Helen Szablya
    • October 6th, 2010

    I loved this film. I didn’t see it in the theaters because I was put off by its violent trailers, however, by the time it was out in Netflix I’d read several reviews, including your decision to post it here, so I gave it a try. Lisbeth is an extraordinary woman with characteristics not commonly attributed to a leading lady in a film role. In the beginning she seemed very foreign to me, but I grew closer to her as the film evolved. By the end, I could completely identify with her. Can’t wait for the Girl Who Played With Fire!

    • Vanessa
    • October 6th, 2010

    I also really liked this film & the character of Lisbeth. It was utterly unlike what I expected it to be.

    Lisbeth is unique as an almost completely unemotional female lead who, while I rooted for her, didn’t create strong emotion in me as I watched her. Despite her traumatic past, she didn’t elicit (or seem to have any use for) sympathy. And as she grew closer to Mikael, no measurable warmth was generated, though her action at the end proves she does in fact care for him.

    I also found the use of makeup & wardrobe interesting in relation to her development. When you first see her, at her hardest, she is completely made up & completely dressed up, all in black leather w/a giant spike choker acting as a physical barrier between her & anyone who’d want to get close to her. She doesn’t appear in that choker or in that much makeup in any other scene & as she gets closer to Mikael & closer to her own past, she frequently appears disheveled & completely clean-faced.

    After this movie, I’m looking forward to where her character goes in this trilogy.

  1. I loved this piece, especially in it’s original Swedish. Lisbeth is one woman who, I suspect, is drawing in women who would otherwise be turned off/afraid of her appearance and sense of isolation. Are we afraid of looking different or of being alone? I like your conclusions, Annie, and I’ll pose this question: How will Hollywood change the core of this film? Can’t answer yet but I’m wondering if Lisbeth will, in fact, become a hero. The book included more of her physical relationship with Mikael. If Hollywood chooses to amplify this then Lisbeth may appear to be a weaker persona. We will see! This original film is near perfect.

    • Ah Susan, you’ve hit the nail on the head with your question “how will Hollywood change the core of this film?” Even the second Swedish film in this series, The Girl Who Played with Fire, although an engrossing crime tale, did not catch lightening in a bottle for me the way Dragon did. Some thing to do with that elusive creative chemistry blessed by the goddesses of production that so seldom seem to collaborate. And that combustible substance, interestingly enough, is mostly beyond the capture of packaging despite all the skills of those highly paid corporate calculators. Requires a different measure of value, perhaps. And a whole lot of serendipity.

      And why do we need our American stamp on Lisbeth? Again my debt to you Susan for culling it out so nicely, the default need in Stateside us that will no doubt risk that amplification, nice term, of Lisbeth’s physical relationship with Mikael. I, too, fear the story results of this will push her character over into a gaming caricature of female hero-ness which is of course not about being, woman or man, but about the men, again, and their need for fantasies of stimulation.

      Perhaps we’ll engage in a Salon&Parlor revisit once the Hollywood version comes out, compare and contrast.

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