Men Who Hate Women

Men Who Hate Women (Män som hatar kvinnor) is the original, Swedish title of Stieg Larsson’s phenomenal bestseller, published in English as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – the first volume of “The Millennium Trilogy.” All three books in the trilogy have been incredibly successful. Unfortunately, Larsson never got to enjoy this success – he died before the books were published. Posthumously, though, he was the second biggest selling author in the world in 2008.

A lot of the interest in the books has centered on the titular “girl with the dragon tattoo,” Lisbeth Salander. And a major element of the hype that has grown up around them has concerned their depiction of violence against women. A review in The Observer described Larsson’s theme as “misogyny and the harm done to women by corrupt, evil men,” while The New York Times said of the the first book in the trilogy that “[the] novel offers a thoroughly ugly view of human nature, especially when it comes to the way Swedish men treat Swedish women.” Even when focusing on the power and appeal of Salander’s character, commentators have tended to situate her within the framework of abused women: “Salander is … a victim turned avenger, who, rather than taking her traumatic past out on herself in classic female style, say, by cutting, externalizes her rage” (here).

The Swedish film version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (an American remake is expected) premiered in late February and finally arrived in my local cinema at the beginning of April. Coincidentally, April is officially Sexual Assault Awareness Month in the United States. With that coincidence in mind, I wanted to raise, tentatively, some issues regarding the depiction of women in “The Millennium Trilogy” – The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest – and interrogate this notion of the books as particularly concerned with a damning critique/exposé of violence against women.

This notion of the books’ intent or aim gets its clearest expression near the end of the final book in the trilogy, Hornet’s Nest, when the journalist Mikael Blomkvist – besides Salander the main character in the trilogy – says, “When it comes down to it, this story is not primarily about spies and secret government agencies; it’s about violence against women, and the men who enable it.” This view of the books was clearly a major part of the hype around them, at least in my community. I was told that Larsson was a journalist with a particularly interest in the topic of violence against women, and it was suggested that he had worked on it extensively as part of his journalistic activity. In fact, Larsson’s career was much more focused on neo-Nazi and right-wing activities, and on exposing corruption in corporate and government activities – all of which also feature extensively in the books.

And when you look at the trilogy as a whole, these interests are central to their stories, and as the trilogy progresses, more important than the issue of violence against women. Some of the focus, in discussions and reviews, on violence against women clearly reflects the appeal of “the girl with the dragon tattoo,” Lisbeth Salander, and the violence to which she is subjected. Attesting to that appeal, the website that bills itself as “the greatest fan site about Stieg Larsson,” describes Larsson in its heading not as the author of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or “The Millennium Trilogy,” but simply as “the man behind Lisbeth Salander.”

The Millennium Trilogy

[Warning: plot spoilers ahead]

In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Mikael Blomkvist is a journalist who has been convicted of libel for a story in his magazine, Millennium, about a prominent Swedish businessman. During the two months before his prison sentence is to begin, he accepts a job working for an elderly industrialist on the remote island owned by his family. Ostensibly, the job is to write a biography of the industrialist, Henrik Vanger, but the true purpose is to solve a mystery. Many years earlier, during a family gathering on the island, the industrialist’s favorite niece disappeared. At the time, the island was cut off from the mainland, so someone in the family must have been involved. She was the only member of his family for whom Vanger cared, and he wants to find out what happened to her before he dies. Blomkvist enlists the aid of a young female computer expert, Lisbeth Salander, to help him with his investigation.

Salander is a strange and striking woman in her twenties, brilliant but obsessive and antisocial, punk in style with piercings and tattoos, who works as a freelance researcher for a private investigation firm. She’s deeply private, and disturbed — haunted by mysteries of her own. Between them, Salander and Blomkvist solve the mystery of the girl’s disappearance, and uncover a father and son team of serial killers who have been preying on women for decades. Salander also saves Blomkvist’s life from one of the killers. Along the way, we learn more about Salander, who is a world-class computer hacker with a powerful hatred of “men who hate women” that clearly reflects her own experience, though much of her past remains a mystery. After they have located the missing girl and dealt with the serial killers, Salander turns her talents to Blomkvist’s libel conviction. She uncovers the truth about the businessman and vindicates Blomkvist – and uses her hacking skills to steal a fortune in ill-gotten gains from the businessman by way of revenge.

The second book in the trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire, unravels the mystery of Salander’s origins, which involves a long-running criminal conspiracy by a cabal within the Swedish secret police. Salander’s father was a Soviet spy who defected to Sweden, and this cabal has been protecting him ever since. To keep this defector a secret, they regularly covered up criminal activities in which he was involved – including violent assaults on Salander’s mother, the last of which left her brain damaged. In response, Salander doused her father in gasoline and set him on fire. The whole incident was covered up, in part by having Salander institutionalized as insane. The cabal has continued to keep an eye on Salander, and when there is a new threat to expose them and the secret of their Soviet defector, they move to silence her. Meanwhile, Salander and her father begin hunting each other, leading to a violent encounter at the end of the second book that leaves them both severely injured.

The final volume in the trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, focuses on efforts by Blomkvist to expose this corrupt group of secret police and government officials and prevent them from having Salander recommitted to a mental institution.

Obviously, this is a severely truncated summary of the plot of these books, which leaves out a number of subplots and incidents, but their overall character and trajectory should be reasonably clear. Stripped of its subplots, particularly the one concerning the corrupt businessman who Blomkvist is supposed to have libeled, Dragon Tattoo is in most respects a fairly straightforward thriller/mystery about the hunt for a serial killer. The other two are thrillers focusing on conspiracies and cover-ups.

As the trilogy progresses, Salander is increasingly marginalized and rendered inactive compared to Blomkvist, in what is still, at least ostensibly, her story – in that she remains the title character and the mysteries and investigations (in the second and third books) concern her directly. She spends most of the last book confined, first in a locked hospital room as she recovers from the wounds sustained at the end of Fire, and then in prison, awaiting trial. Even though she is able to do some hacking from her hospital bed, and contributes some crucial breakthroughs in this way, she is largely absent from much of the story. This progressive sidelining of Salander over the course of the trilogy is a problem for its appeal, since so much of that appeal is based on her character – it’s going to be interesting to see how the films handle this – but it is also a problem for the readings of these books as feminist and focused on the treatment of women in a violent and patriarchal society. While the books may continue to be about Salander in many respects, she is less and less the protagonist, more and more the object rather than the subject.

Furthermore, while there is a fair amount in the books having to do with violence against women and the sexual exploitation of women, it is for the most part incidental to the plot and the central issues of the trilogy. Salander’s victimization by the cabal of secret policeman has nothing to do with gender, with the fact of her as a woman, but rather reflects their desire to keep the secret of their Soviet defector, and to cover up the crimes they have committed to keep that secret. Trafficking and the sexual exploitation of women for prostitution is the subject of an expose that is to be published in Blomkvist’s magazine, Millennium, in the second book. But this serves only as a pretext to set in motion the action of the plot. And the damaged man who stalks Blomkvist’s partner Erika in the third volume is only a sideline to the main story; similarly, most of the accounts of prostitution and pornography are secondary to the plot.

It’s certainly true that, as the New York Times reviewer said of the first book, the trilogy “offers a thoroughly ugly view of human nature, especially when it comes to the way Swedish men treat Swedish women.” Much of this comes up, as I said, in ways incidental to the main plot. Salander regularly hacks into computers through the course of the trilogy, and on the computers of many of the bad guys in the books she finds disturbing pornographic images of children or of women being beaten and abused. In the course of the investigations that comprise the second book, Blomkvist talks to a number of men about their involvement in prostitution – again, it often involves minors and/or violence. While the plots of the books, and of the trilogy as a whole, don’t really depend on or center on this sexual violence, its persistent appearance through the books does build up that “ugly view” in a pretty persuasive way. We meet a lot of “men who hate women” over the course of the trilogy.

And of course there are the serial killers of Dragon Tattoo, who sexually abused and murdered women for decades. They are central to the plot of the first volume of the trilogy, and there are some graphic scenes, but that is true of pretty much all “serial killer” books. At the end of the day, there isn’t anything in Dragon Tattoo that goes beyond the standard treatment of serial killers. It doesn’t really broaden our understanding of serial killers and what the phenomenon of serial killers, who mostly prey on women, has to do with the general attitude toward women in contemporary society. It doesn’t help us understand “men who hate women,” or show this hatred and violence as an endemic problem tied to other aspects of a fundamentally patriarchal society.

As I said, sexual violence and the abuse of women do appear frequently in the novels, but are not exactly central to the plots. And Salander is increasingly marginalized as the trilogy progresses in favor of Blomkvist. And Blomkvist’s character presents real problems for any easy reading of “The Millennium Trilogy” as feminist. Blomkvist’s sexual success with women is so pronounced in the trilogy that one wag has referred to him as BONKvist – “bonking” being slang for sex in some English-speaking countries. He ends up sleeping with almost every woman who appears with any prominence in the books. In Dragon Tattoo, he is in a long term relationship with his married business partner, Erika Berger. He has a relationship with Salander, which she initiates, and a briefer one with a neighbor on the Vanger island.

In the second book, he is having an affair with Harriet Vanger, whose mysterious disappearance was at the heart of the first book, as well as with Berger. And in the third book, he has an affair with one of the Swedish security officers looking into the activities of the cabal. Most of the time, it is the women who initiate the sex, and the books are full of references to Blomkvist’s appeal for women, and to his qualities as a lover. Perhaps the most significant aspect of Blomkvist’s conquests is the fact that every powerful or successful female character in the book falls for him: Berger, editor-in chief at Millennium; Vanger, the very wealthy and successful businesswoman; Monika the bodybuilding officer with the Constitutional Protection unit; and of course Salander.

I’m not sure what to think about the books’ depiction of Salander’s sex life. On the one hand – punk chick coming on to middle class guy, sexy young woman seducing a businessman in a hotel elevator, girl-on-girl action with a hot asian chick, experienced woman ushering a teenage boy into manhood – aren’t these the stuff of male fantasy, of porn and the letters to Penthouse magazine? On the other hand, shouldn’t women be as free as men – in fiction and in real life – to be promiscuous, horny, sexual subjects rather than sexual objects, picking up strangers, just wanting to fuck? I don’t think the scenes of Salander’s sex life were put in just for titillation – they do round out our understanding of her character – but they are an odd contrast to the equally frequent scenes of Blomkvist’s sex life, much less porny and cliché-ridden.  And they are, inescapably, clichés of male fantasy.

The marketing of the novels is also problematic, particularly in relation to the other issues I’ve raised about their depiction of women. Many of the covers for the English-language editions of the books feature a bare expense of a woman’s body, with a prominent tattoo. The images don’t depict Salander’s character or the action or intent of the book – they are simply attractive, slightly eroticized and exoticized images of a woman’s body.

The English titles are troubling as well. Reportedly, the English publishers felt that the literal translation of the Swedish title, “Men Who Hate Women,” was equivalent to “Books that Don’t Sell” (which ought to tell us something), and so came up with “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” as an alternative. Salander does have a dragon tattoo, and we are told in the third book that it is very artistic, exquisitely done. But it is a minor feature, of less consequence to Salander and to the narrative than another of her tattoos, this one of a wasp. But “the girl with the wasp tattoo” is just not as mellifluous. However, even if it seems somewhat inaccurate, the title of the first volume in the trilogy is at least relatively inoffensive.

I have more problems with the titles of the second and third volumes. Both titles continue the basic structure set up by the first – “The Girl…” – but they follow this with clichés that are suggestively similar in their meaning, and disturbing in light of the other issues I’ve raised. “Kicking a hornet’s nest” and “playing with fire” are both clichéd phrases that imply reckless and risky behavior – behavior that is likely to result in harm to one’s self. They thus seem to construct a suggestion that Salander is in part responsible for, complicit in, the physical, psychological and sexual abuse, the slander, imprisonment, assault, attempted murder, and rape to which she is subjective over the course of the narrative.

Obviously, Larsson had nothing to do with any of this – the marketing all took place after his death. But if we are to think about the books in relation to their depiction of women, and to consider to what extent they really do construct a critique of violence against women in Western society, then the way this marketing plays in to patriarchal and sexist notions is clearly relevant.

Don’t get me wrong – “The Millennium Trilogy” is a good read. There are some weak spots, actually many – contrived moments and implausible coincidences, unnecessary side plots, uneven writing – but these are made up for by the verve of the story and the powerful appeal of the central characters, Blomkvist and Salander. And they are appealing. Central to this appeal is, I think, the way in which they emerge as complex and fully-developed characters, though I feel this is more the case with Blomkvist – clearly a fictional counterpart of the author, Larsson – than Salander.

Nor do I think the books are dishonest in their concern for the issue of violence against women. But I think that concern gets sidetracked. Consider Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves. The filmmakers were very vocal and explicit about their desire to make a movie that would have a positive and above all accurate portrayal of Native American life and culture. And to a certain extent the movie bears this out. But as I have written elsewhere, at a number of key points, the accuracy of that portrayal is betrayed, subordinated to generic imperatives, the safety of clichés, the demands of producing a traditional Hollywood blockbuster, and the feeding of a major star’s ego.

Similarly, it seems to me that in “The Millennium Trilogy,” the analysis and critique of violence against women gets subordinated to the generic imperatives of the thriller, to the influences and interests of the author, and – perhaps – to the depiction of the author’s alter-ego. Certainly, the depiction of Blomkvist has to be considered semi-autobiographical, and so it is hardly surprising that he becomes more and more the focus as the trilogy progresses, that his interests and the interests of the book closely mirror those of Larsson and his career, that Blomkvist is depicted as so sexy and appealing, etc.

At the end of the day, “The Millennium Trilogy” does not construct any real indictment of violence against women. It is a serial killer thriller, a murder mystery thriller and a political thriller that feature frequent scenes of violence against women. The violence against women is not really central to the plots. And the fact that this violence is often quite extreme – domestic violence that leaves a woman hospitalized for life, a particularly brutal rape, child pornography, etc. – if anything reduces the force of any critique the books establish – allowing us to see these as extreme cases, aberrant, the work of particularly sick or evil men.

Which leads me to the final point I want to make in this admittedly sketchy discussion. Like most popular fiction books and movies, “The Millennium Trilogy” has difficulty depicting conflict and issues – good and evil, right and wrong – other than through specific individual characters: Blomkvist and Salander are good, Zala and the cabal of secret policeman are bad. But that allows the problems that are raised to be safely contained – not systemic problems, not problems with society as a whole, but simply the bad acts of bad people, operating outside of and against the system. And thus the solution to these problems is not fundamental changes in society, but rather the actions of – to quote the title of a movie in which this problem also occurs – “a few good men.” The cabal of bad secret police is defeated by the good secret police. The “men who hate women” are brought to justice by Blomkvist, the man who loves (all the) women. That is what we see at the end of the trilogy – the bad men being brought to account by the system, by Blomkvist and his allies, in the name of Swedish democracy. Not a sober reflection on the way in which the violence against women depicted in the books – the pornography, rape, domestic battering, and forced prostitution – is deeply connected to more general attitudes towards women in the society.

………..

As I noted earlier, April is officially Sexual Assault Awareness Month in the United States. It was so established in a bill passed by Congress, with the assistance of the US Department of Justice’s Office of Violence Against Women. The same bill also established January as Stalking Awareness Month, February as Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month and October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month. October 26-30 is Domestic Violence Awareness Week. November 25th is International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

That’s more than a third of the year given over to official events raising awareness of violence against women. And yet despite all that attention, three women are murdered by an intimate partner every day in America – even, presumably, on International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women – and 4.8 million American women are physically assaulted every year. Clearly, there is a powerful need for a critique of the structures and forces in our society that contribute to this extraordinary, outrageous level of violence and abuse. “The Millennium Trilogy” may not be exactly the critique I would have liked, but any contribution is welcome – and clearly desperately needed.

………..

It’s sadly symptomatic that while in the course of preparing this story I went to the Facebook page for the White Ribbon campaign (here) – and along the side were a series of ads promising single, available women. And later, when I looked at the page for Domestic Violence Awareness Week, I got more of the same – two singles ads offering to introduce me to young women in my area, and an ad for cosmetic surgery. The irony is, frankly, sickening.

To be clear: singles ads like the ones displayed on Facebook, and the way women’s bodies are viewed that lead to the emphasis on the prominently featured breasts and to cosmetic surgery – these things are complicit in the larger structures that lead to the violence against women to which those Facebook pages are opposed. There was no planning or conspiracy behind this, of course – it was just (bad) luck of the draw that it was those ads and not others that appeared (though given the proportion of Facebook ads that are of this nature the odds were fairly good that some would be singles ads). But even so… given all the work that goes into contextual advertising, maybe they can program in some mechanisms to avoid epic fails such as these.

For more…

Sexual Assault Prevention Month and Violence Against Women

Reviews, Commentary, etc. on “The Millennium Trilogy”

Fan(ish) Sites

The Books

The Film

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