Why I hate the Millenium Trilogy
Objectification of women in the Millenium Trilogy: was the creation of Lisbeth Salander a total fluke?
Having seen Stieg Larsson’s hugely successful Millennium Trilogy used as a conversation-starter several times on the London Underground, I decided I had to read it myself to see what the fuss was about. If you’re familiar with the notoriously antisocial London Underground, you’ll understand why this was very necessary.
Larsson builds suspense well and writes eye-watering action scenes and plot twists that had me trying to work out the truth even whilst in the supermarket. Nevertheless, I HATED the books. Even during my frantic page-turning, I wanted to throw the trilogy out of the nearest window…
From the first chapter, I was hooked. The first book (originally titled Men Who Hate Women and later released as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) tells the story of Millennium magazine journalist Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander, the antisocial, leather-clad, tattooed computer-genius Girl of the titles. Working together, they use their combined skills to solve a disappearance. The second and third books tell Salander’s backstory and reveal her to be at the centre of a conspiracy that could be the most politically charged secret in Sweden.
The books have been criticised for their graphic violence (including a description of a sadist’s underground torture chamber, violence against sex workers and a forced violation and aftermath that continues for four pages) but to me, this seemed perfectly okay for a crime novel featuring violence against women. Unpleasant to read? Yes. A desperate attempt to shock people (as in the case of the Saw films)? Not in my opinion.
What made me seethe was the treatment of every leading female character in the trilogy.
There’s a reason why he’s dubbed ‘Bonkvist’
All appear to be strong capable women with sexual confidence and good careers but they become unlikeable and unrealistic in their reactions to Mikael Blomkvist – possibly the most unappealing fictional hero I have encountered in a long time. Forget the evil Zalachenko and a psychopathic rapist; Mikael Blomkvist seems as much of a chauvinist, just a little more refined. He doesn’t murder sex workers and takes “no” for an answer, but makes no effort to maintain a relationship with his daughter, cheated on his wife and continues sleeping around with all the moral decency of Tiger Woods – and with no apology for any of it. Describing this man to a friend, I’d tell her to run a mile – he appears to objectify women just as much as the nastier characters do.
Case in point: Cecilia Vanger, a separated school headmistress who practically flings herself on top of Blomkvist, dribbling, on their second encounter. She insists they only meet in secret and then throws him out of her house. When [readers, suspend your disbelief here] she approaches him later, telling him she’s in love, feels like a teenager and has no idea how to deal with it, Blomkvist is completely indifferent to her unless she is willing to have sex.
Another Vanger family member to bed Blomkvist is an abuse survivor who ran away and rebuilt her life. Described as a formidable businesswoman, she becomes Blomkvist’s occasional lover within a few days of meeting him. By the second book, this expression has become a kind of cringe-inducing catchphrase. One of many that ruin an otherwise well-written book.
The only occasional lover to come unscathed through the Blomkvist experience is his business partner Erika Berger. She’s married, having a long-term affair with Blomkvist and reinforces the stereotype that women working in masculine environments become hard, calculating and unfriendly to other women. The only people Berger shows emotion toward are the two men in her life, neither of whom she makes any attempt to commit to. Her husband doesn’t mind the affair but she admits to breaking up Blomkvist’s marriage. Lovely!
Sadly, the female characters get more embarrassing as the trilogy progresses and when policewoman Monica Figuerola sashays in halfway through the third book, I can see what’s coming about half a line into the page-long description of her workout routine. Larsson seems to have long given up the pretence that this glorified Bond girl is anything other than another doll to undress.
So why has the trilogy become so successful? Why have three books full of unlikeable characters and sexual violence appealed to women just as much as men?
Lisbeth Salander saves the day – and the books
I think that the answer is in the lead character Lisbeth Salander. Not only is she hyper-intelligent (a computer hacker who reads scientific journals and solves “impossible” maths problems for fun), but she is able to defend herself against men three times her size and is a forced violation survivor too. Finally, here is a character that most women are not jealous of, do not want to be and yet still respect. She is the ultimate modern strong woman – and she is not conventionally attractive.
Demonised by tabloids and heavily psychoanalysed through her sexual behaviour and dislike of communicating with most people, it was suggested that Lisbeth Salander could have Asperger Syndrome. However, along with most other aspects of her character, no conclusions are ever drawn – it is up to the reader to decide, while Salander remains a mystery quite capable of taking care of herself.
Realistically, most of Salander’s deeds would be virtually impossible and she is very obviously more Larsson fantasy-fodder… But I like her. Even though I feel that the stroke of inspiration creating her was some sort of fluke (but what a fluke!!!) rather than genius on Larsson’s part, judging by his other creations.
Salander is definitely interesting, although even she is not immune to a Blomkvist-induced lobotomy.
“I have no condoms,” he says.
”Screw it,” she replies.
LGBT could have been explored further
Another thing that appealed to me was Larsson’s “yes, and so what?” approach to bi and kink. Such traits are not treated as character flaws or even as clues towards anyone’s mental state, and I liked that a lot. On that note, a character I would have liked to see more of is Miriam Wu – an LGBT alternative performer who is Salander’s friend with benefits. Despite being attacked, nearly murdered and ripped apart by tabloids as a result of Salander’s actions, she never blames the victim – only the perpetrators. It is a shame, then, that this feminist outlook is not explored further.
Another character kept to the sidelines is Annika Giannini, a defence lawyer specialising in representing abused women. Her home life is rarely mentioned and her sole purpose in the trilogy is to provide legal advice when necessary. She only comes to life near the end of the third book when representing Salander in court, making me wonder why her character was not more central… and then realising it’s probably because, being Blomkvist’s sister, there’s no chance of her having sex with him.
Less feminist, more Bond
I had hoped for Blomkvist to get some kind of karmic retribution – perhaps to be cheated on, or to have his heart broken… or a trip to the STI clinic… But no, he begins a tentative relationship with someone he quite likes, while Berger magnanimously agrees to “try and stay away”. A few lines later, the word ”until” followed by three dots appears. I had hoped that the mighty Salander would try something (her revenge on a rapist made me cheer out loud), but the ambiguous and unsatisfying last line left me cold – and wondering what exactly it is that the insipid Blomkvist has to offer.
Bond films have been criticised many times for sexism (despite the fact that many Bond girls are competent pilots, assassins and scientists) and the Millennium trilogy is essentially 007 with kinkier sex and less charisma.
So what on earth gives the impression that this work is in any way feminist? Throwing a power suit and some muscles on a woman does not automatically make her an admirable character, and this strategy did not fool me. While I can’t fault Larsson’s writing ability, the objectification of his “powerful women” and their bizarre reaction to Bonkvist, as some reviewers have dubbed him, suggests to me that this began as the record of one man’s private fantasy and somewhere along the line, it took on a life of its own and accidentally hit the shelves. As Stieg Larsson sadly died suddenly before his work gained fame (and before I could ask him) I’m afraid we’ll never know.
Tagged in: sexism in media